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What the Devil won't tell you

Talking back at the 'Year of the Shrug,' from Tucson to D.C.

In a lot of ways, 2021 was the year of the shrug.

Apathy is beginning to reign, because what are you going to do about things and people you can't do anything about?

Well, I've got some juice left in my fingers and I have some S!@# to say about things that didn’t become columns this past year for one reason or another.

Sometimes rants just run out of steam after a half a page and — oohh! — something shiny! Other times the story is still unfolding and I'm not sure what to think about the whole of it, but parts of it ... yeah, I got ideas about parts of it.

And occasionally ... there are only so many ways can I say "these people are crazy."

Vaccine refuseniks are a case in point.

They just don’t care how many people they might kill or what kind of damage the prolonged pandemic does to the economy. Since losing the election, the white Right has seemed eager for more of both to prevent Joe Biden from having a successful presidency.

In fact, the Arizona state Legislature and Gov. Doug Ducey have egged on the pandemic passing and signing laws that curtail things like mask requirements. Can you imagine a governor of Florida trying to get a hurricane to blow harder? I’m trying to picture an Oklahoma mayoral candidate running on disabling tornado sirens during a tornado warning. How about a full slate of California lawmakers pledging to bring about the the Big One to split the state in half?

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Now imagine them winning.

You don’t have to. It’s happening.

The generic congressional polls from Real Clear Politics and 538 show it’s a strategy that’s succeeding.

I know I don't want to hear anything from them about crime: People committing anti-social behavior that costs lives and money.

America has shown an alarming capacity to shrug off white men behaving badly.

We have one party that’s predominantly white and another party that is largely people of color.

Imagine if the party made up of African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans and First Peoples were punching out flight attendents, threatening the lives of election workers, insisted on fanning a lethal pandemic and violently attacked the transition of power all in the same year.

That party would struggle to break 30 percent. I know this because that party had three people say “defund the police,” and it probably cost them 20 seats in Congress and a functioning majority in the U.S. Senate. It damned near cost them the White House after the party of a certain complexion and gender failed to respond to a pandemic that killed about 400,000 people on their watch.

The white party can set the country on fire and be met with a collective “meh.”

I’m not suggesting it's racist. I’m typing it plain.

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The U.S., since 9/11, has shown to be able to focus long-term on just four things: "The Sopranos," "Mad Men," "Game of Thrones" and "Succession." So I guess democracy and the pandemic require a scripted HBO series?

Yawning through red lights

One of the realizations that hit me in 2016, was that voters don’t vote against something horrible that might happen. They can vote to fix it once it happens.

Problem is, we have two major warning lights flashing red at us. Democracy itself is under threat and climate change threatens to radically alter life on Earth.

Neither of them are fixable after the fact.

We can’t vote the party out that kills democracy. Get it? No? That's the problem. The only issue in play for 2022 should be protecting your right to vote out either party for the rest of your life. Unfortunately, voters seem not to be thinking about it.

We also can't scrub COfrom the atmosphere. Human civilization is about to reach a point of no return where fixing the problem will take thousands of years.

How's this: The GOP plans to ban Americans from sharing pictures of their lunch. I bet that would get their attention (they actually aren't, and I feel the need to point that out, which is how you know I'm not fake news).

So I’ve been watching a lot of Aussie vet shows …

Turning locally, the Left did find a cause worth crusading for … saving an artificial duck pond and the back-ho-built clump of earth called “Barnum Hill.”

Well thank God they were on the case.

There is a genuine concern about a lack of green space in Tucson. As I wrote in a column at the time, if folks want to cannibalize Randolph Golf Course, they’ll get no gripes from me.

But there was a ballot proposition to improve the zoo. It passed (barely) when the funding plan to get it done narrowly slid by with voter approval.

I’m not going to rehash it because Councilman Steve Kozachik managed to work out a compromise. Fine. Yeah. Whatever.

But in 2021 to have this be the cause du jour of Tucson activists is sort of akin to being on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, and deciding the real crisis was saving a hermit crab colony from sea birds.

I checked. Yes, hermit crabs live in colonies.

Happy place, happy place, happy place

Here’s some good news if you disagree that science is a lie straight from the pit of Hell.

When he was hired and subsequently given a big honking raise, I pointed out that University of Arizona President Robert Robbins might prove he’s worth the money but hadn't then.

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He may be in the process of proving himself right now, because the University of Arizona is on the rise.

It’s ranked in the Top 100 of global universities for the second year in a row, according to U.S. News and World Report. That’s cool.

Just this week, the National Science Foundation ranked the UA's $761 million in grants received No. 35 among 900 research colleges and universities across the country and No. 20 among public universities.

The UA also ranked No. 1 in Astronomy, No. 2 in research among universities with high Hispanic enrollment, No. 5 in NASA funding and No. 5 in Physical Sciences.

How Tucson can't turn this into higher wages remains a mystery.

The chase for research dollars also means higher upfront costs to chase the best researchers and provide them with top-notch facilities.

The school is also involved in some of the biggest scientific research in the world right now. Researchers on campus have been pumping out some key findings on climate change and is taking a leading role in the James Webb Space Telescope’s investigations of the cosmos.

The Webb telescope, for the uninitiated, is a big bloody deal. It’s a major advancement over the famed Hubbell telescope because it can search in the infrared and see more clearly into the distance, if not much further. 

The last time science was this much aflutter, physicists were just starting to smash hadrons together under Geneva, Switzerland, looking for the God Particle

Astronomers and astrophysicists know not whether to spit or go sightless now that Webb is on it’s way to it’s post in space. The UA has more scope time than any other astronomical center on Earth.

How much of this is Robbins and how much just coincides with his tenure? Hard to say, but good things are happening and the boss will get his share of the credit.

In addition to vet shows, I've been watching my share of science videos.

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Wither the Age of Chuck?

I haven’t done a column about County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry’s totally nasty bike crash because I don’t know what to say about it.

We’re not sure if he’s laid up temporarily or the Era of Chuck is over.

I've taken some pokes at Chuck along the way, but boy will we miss him when he’s gone.

He is probably the most powerful local political force in Arizona and Tucson hasn’t seen anything like him since Mayor Lew Murphy in the 1970s and 1980s.

I get on Huckelberry about stuff where I have to throw a flag and say “OK, 15 yards for the 'space balloon' deal….” But man is he effective.

Take his deal on WorldView, the high-altitude balloon company for whom the county built a headquarters and launchpad to keep it from moving to Florida. This doesn’t appear to be panning out as advertised. I’ve had issues with it.

Here’s the thing. Huckelberry saw possibilities in the region competing in a brave new tech field and looked for ways to get a deal done. 

Governing is often a list of excuses not to do something, even if action is required.

Huckelberry rarely does that. He tends to be the guy to say “Let’s get 20 people in a room and figure it out.” He then knows which 20 people to get.

Acting County Administrator Jan Lesher may be great, but unlike CHH, she hasn’t been on top of the county government since the Antebellum Era.

When the Chuck Era ends, the Tucson region is going to feel it. 

The only other person in the region with that kind of sway is Tucson City Attorney Mike Rankin. He’s got Huckleberry’s super-inflated sense of mission walking around with a giant dose of “Pffft, whatever. I do what I want.”

I'm not sure he's got the schmoozy skills needed to get the right 20 people in a room and know how to work them.

Huckelberry is like the government itself. Everyone bitches about him until they need him.

To the dogs

One area that might be improved without Huckelberry (or perhaps with him) is the whole city-county relationship. It’s on the rocks again after the City Council voted to add an extra charge to Tucson Water customers outside the city limits.

The county is now suing the city.

Here we go again. Mom and dad are making it impossible to live in this house. Just plug in the death metal, gangsta rap or plug into Word of Warcraft. Turn it up to 11.

However Pima County may soon be offering a bit of goodwill. Pima County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Sharon Bronson has asked the staff to figure out how the county might offer free animal control services to municipalities.

It currently charges the cities and towns in Pima County for the cost of handling strays, lost pets and critters from the wilds messing with our civilized lifestyle.

I say “Good on Sharon.”

It’s a total take-from-your-left-pocket-to-save-from-your-right proposition. Every resident of Oro Valley and Tucson is also a Pima County taxpayer. So if the county eats it, municipal residents are still in the hood because they live here, too. It’s not like Colorado is taking over.

Still, it’s a nice gesture.

Maybe it won’t end the feud with the city of Tucson but it’s better to have at least one carrot to go with the stick.

Bronson’s move may quiet the county’s municipal partners on the Regional Transportation Authority as they prepare for another 20-year-program to put before voters.

Class, how many times do we have to do this?

So Arizona ranks 48th in per-student K-12 spending still. 

This has been going on for a while. Voters have twice approved more state funding for primary and secondary education in the past six years and this last time they really thought they had it.

Turns out, the Arizona Supreme Court doesn't think so. The court basically scuttled the $800 million infusion of cash for schools as unconstitutional because it violates the state's spending limits on schools.

The Legislature can fix this with a 2/3 vote. Lawmakers don't wanna. They ain't gonna.

A trial court will likely deliver the final blow to Prop 208.

I told them a long time ago to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot so the Leg couldn't mess with the will of the voters. An amendment would have required 50 percent more signatures (356,000 in 2022) than a ballot initiative that just creates a law. I'm sure that seemed daunting once.

Now likely they have to go back to voters to get signatures for a third time. The first in 2018, got tossed because the Arizona Supreme Court ruled the language on the initiative was faulty. Yes, there is a difference between a percentage point and a percent. Apparently, the math departments were left out of the drafting process.

There are no shortcuts to more spending for public schools. The powers that be here are hostile toward book learnin'. Don't blame the Supreme Court for knowing that a law can't supersede a constitutional provision.

Prop 208 backers tried to get around it by calling a permanent $800 million infusion of dedicated cash "a grant."  Try writing a grant application that reads: "Dear sir or madam: I would like at least $800 million dollars every year forever to spend on school-y stuff at my discretion. Make the check payable to...."

Boys and girls, I don't care how many times you have to do this assignment to get it right, but I'm going to keep handing it out until you learn how it's done.

Redistricting went alright

I take heat for this from inside the building but I work with some ex-chefs, and one of them is a New Yorker. I'm never going to out-cynical the back of house staff.

However, I have to end with a nod to Republicans, which in the age of what’s his name the orange guy, is hard to do. They played redistricting right and almost fair.

I’m operating on the notion that democracy fares better in Arizona than it will nationally because I trust the Arizona Supreme Court a hell of a lot more than I trust the SCOTUS in D.C.

But the Arizona Independent Redistricting Committee did a good job, I think, overall. Republicans Douglas York and David Mehl seemed normal. I dealt with Mehl a lot back in the day and this wasn’t shocking to me. He was a developer who took a nuanced approach to life.

Democrats aren’t happy. I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding about what is meant by “ending partisan gerrymandering.” It does not mean “Democrats always win.” It means the composition of a body elected by districts should fairly reflect the wishes of the whole.

Well, the GOP has a 35 percent to 32 percent edge over Democrats in voter registration. There’s a 13-12 Republican edge in safe seats in the Legislature. I don’t like that many safe districts in a state that has 30.

That’s hardly outrageous. 

Republicans will maybe gain a 5-4 (perhaps 6-3 in big a Red Wave) edge in congressional representation, reversing a 5-4 edge for Democrats after the Dems wildly outplayed the Republicans during the 2011 redistricting. If the Legislature had a say, the result would likely be a permanent 6-3 edge and maybe 7-2. 

But with growth and demographic changes, the Democrats could find themselves right back at 5-4 soon enough.

If Democrats lose in 2022, the blame will almost certainly fall on the party's leaders who can’t seem to pull off a cranial-rectal extraction.

There are states where Democrats represent a plurality of voters but have no chance at most congressional and legislative districts because of how Republicans elected in a 2010 Red Wave drew their own districts. They gave themselves perpetual minority rule.

The danger with partisan gerrymandering lies in how the full community doesn’t even figure in the political calculus. The only voters that matter are the most extreme wings. In the modern Republican Party that wing is bonkers.

In Arizona, lawmakers have to at least consider swing voters if they have just a 3 percent cushion after redistricting. With just a 1-seat edge in the House and Senate, the heat makes them less likely to throw out a presidential election result, altogether.

Although, it didn’t keep them from holding a "fraudit" of the 2020 election by a firm called CyberNinjas, who only made a mess of things.

Will they really pay for such affronts?

At least it’s up to voters. They just need to do more than shrug.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years, and as a communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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Hopefully apathy will be left in the trash can as 2021 ends, but this columnist isn't thinking so.


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