Democratic City Council candidate Joe Flores stood in front of Pima County Democratic Party headquarters on a warm morning last week and demanded the resignation of county party chairman Jeff Rogers.
"Jeff Rogers and executive committee members, who have become dictators, need to let the Democratic voters decide who to vote for," said Flores, who hopes to unseat City Councilwoman Regina Romero in the Aug. 30 primary. "This is not Mr. Rogers' neighborhood. Stay out of Ward 1."
Flores was on his soapbox following a report by the Tucson Weekly that the Pima County Democratic Party was spending more than $8,700 on an independent campaign highlighting Flores' ownership of Casa de Cambio, a check-cashing business that offered payday loans while they were legal in Arizona. The business continues to offer auto-title loans, which allow the company to seize the cars of people who don't pay back the money they borrow.
Rogers rejected the call to step down and stood by the party's decision to fund the committee that has, among other things, dubbed Flores as "Payday Joe" on billboards.
"We have someone here who we've never believed was a bona fide Democrat," Rogers said. "He really engaged in an activity that we fought against for a long time, and that the Republicans tried to protect, namely the predatory payday-loan industry."
While Flores said he thinks it's wrong for the party to campaign against him, he also said that he wasn't bothered by the "Payday Joe" message.
"They can throw that as much as they want to, because the people who really know me know that it's misleading," said Flores, who explained that he opened the business for his children. He said his daughter made the decision to offer payday loans when they were legal, and to continue to offer auto-title loans.
"Indirectly, I'm the owner of the business, so I'm the fall guy, but I'm not the decision-maker," Flores said.
Despite his efforts to sidestep responsibility, the payday-loan story has overshadowed Flores' campaign to unseat Romero and put Tucson on a different path.
"Tucson can revert back to what it used to be," said Flores, a Tucson native whose downtown family pharmacy was relocated to South 12th Avenue during the 1960s urban-renewal push. "All it needs is positive direction."
Flores has focused his campaign on Rio Nuevo, the downtown-redevelopment project that has had several false starts, cost hundreds of millions of dollars and led to an ongoing investigation by Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne and the FBI.
Romero conceded that there were plenty of mistakes made in the Rio Nuevo process, but she argued that most of those errors, including money spent on the planning of a never-to-be-built rainbow bridge over Interstate 10, were made before she was elected to the council four years ago.
She said she started asking questions after she took office in December 2007.
"We voted unanimously for monthly updates on Rio Nuevo," Romero said. "I asked for financial plans, for construction schedules. ... We started getting involved in the process and cleaning it up. But what I've always maintained is that the role of city government is to invest in infrastructure that will leverage private investment and make sure that we're taking care of the cultural and historic plans that we voted for in 1999."
Romero said things are looking up in Tucson's downtown. She points to the new UniSource building that will house Tucson Electric Power's new headquarters; Providence Corporation moving its offices downtown; plans for student housing on the east end of downtown near the Fourth Avenue underpass; and a host of new businesses and restaurants that have opened over the last year.
"The private investment that you're seeing now is because of the public investment that has been made," Romero said.
The candidates have a clear difference of opinion over Tucson's modern streetcar, which is now under construction thanks to a $63 million federal grant and $87 million from the Regional Transportation Authority. Romero said she sees the streetcar as a boon to downtown, in part because the streetcar will connect downtown to the University of Arizona, allowing the university to expand into downtown. She said it's already paying off with the plans for student housing and a move by the UA to have some classes downtown.
Flores said the modern streetcar plan—or, as he calls it, the "choo-choo train"—is a "waste of money."
"I don't foresee that in the future, that's going to be beneficial," said Flores, who has an alternative proposal that would "create more of an enterprise."
"If you want to move people around, get people," he said. "Maybe little golf carts or whatever. ... You're downtown, and you want to go over here, and you see this little guy on a golf cart or whatever, and you say, 'Hey,' and you get on there, and they take you."
Flores said he has a list of things he'd like to spend more money on—repaving roads, more streetlights, more sidewalks, more park programs, lower rents at the Tucson Convention Center, reducing business fees—but conceded that he has "no idea" how'd he pay for it, other than a promise to root out waste in the budget.
Romero, who grew up in a Yuma-area farming community and came to Tucson to attend college, has marshaled more support than Flores.
She not only has the Democratic Party leadership in her corner; she's been a fundraising machine, collecting more than $82,000 for her campaign, including more than $38,000 in public matching funds, according to a July campaign-finance report.
Flores's most recent campaign-finance report revealed that he had raised less than $5,000 as of May 31, including $2,624 he loaned the campaign.
"She has $70,000 to my peanuts," Flores conceded last week.
While he's getting hammered, Flores doesn't see himself as the underdog in the race.
"I feel that the voters out there are pulling for me 100 percent," Flores said. "They need a change in Tucson."