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Congressional District 7: It's a Jungle Out There

Despite what you see on C-SPAN, being a congressman is a sexy job. You're treated with deference, awe and occasionally even worship. You can reward your friends and punish your enemies. You have power and perks, a comfy office and big staff. You can travel the world. You get $150,000 a year, a superb healthcare plan and a pension that can't be beat.

Compared to Congress, the local elected offices in these parts are strictly little league.

So it's no surprise that the new Congressional District 7, which includes west-central Tucson, Nogales, Ajo, Yuma, Gila Bend and even a corner of Maricopa County, has attracted a dozen candidates. Eight of them--Raúl Grijalva, Elaine Richardson, Jesus Romo, Jaime Gutierrez, Luis Gonzales, Mark Fleisher, Lisa Otondo and Sherry Smith--are facing off in the September 10 Democratic primary that will essentially decide the race.

With a few exceptions here and there, the eight Democrats don't differ much on most core party issues. They're all pro-choice. They want to see more federal healthcare funding and a program to bring down the cost of prescription drugs. They oppose privatization of Social Security. They're suspicious of new laws restricting civil liberties.

So what's the ultimate result of having so many candidates so close on so many issues? Voter confusion. That means the race will likely be decided not on ideological grounds, but on the strength of the campaign that gets the most voters to the polls. Let's assume a generous primary turn-out of one-third of the roughly 122,000 Democrats in the new district. Given the large field, that mean anyone who can grab 10,000 votes--or about 25 percent--could win by a landslide.

There's one candidate who excels at that kind of grassroots activity: Raúl Grijalva. In this race, even most of his opponents concede that Raúl's the man to beat.


BUT GRIJALVA MAY STILL GET BEATEN. Cash has been tight; as of June 30, the former county supervisor had raised only $191,815 (with $166,703 of the total pouring in since April). Although Richardson is the only candidate in the race who had raised more money, it's still peanuts in a congressional race, where spending by the average winner topped $636,000 in 2000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The low-budget campaign means Grijalva can't afford much TV airtime, so he's falling back on his old strategy of sending the troops out walking and talking on his behalf. With his unruly hair, lively mustache and frequently rumpled wardrobe, Grijalva is not what you'd call a slick politician. But as a county supervisor, he's enjoyed tremendous support from the voters in District 5, which he represented from 1988 until stepping down for the congressional run earlier this year. Two years ago, in his last re-election effort, he won nearly three out every four voters in both the primary, beating biz-friendly Democrat Dan Medina, and the general, where he clobbered Republican Rosalie Lopez. He did even better in his 1996 primary win.

Of course, Congressional District 7 has about four times as many Democrats as District 5, which means Grijalva's working a far larger playing field. But there's no denying his core following. His environmental ethos has locked in the loyalty of local greens. He's got the gears of the Pima County Interfaith Council, an increasingly powerful political machine that works through local churches, turning on his behalf. County Supervisor Dan Eckstrom has thrown his considerable political weight behind his erstwhile colleague. He has endorsements from a long list of labor organizations. City and county employees are writing checks and walking neighborhoods.

The congressional race is the cap to 54-year-old Grijalva's long political career. He got his start as a young radical in the Chicano civil rights movement more than three decades ago. His first public office was on the Tucson Unified School District Governing Board, where he served three terms beginning in 1974. In 1988, he won his first term on the Board of Supervisors.

In his 13 years on the board, Grijalva pushed to the left. He fought for stronger environmental regulations, opposed rezonings, supported impact fees and led the charge for the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan. He says his green agenda was driven by both a sense that sprawl was draining resources from older neighborhoods and that the desert needed protection. "It made sense that we plan well, that we conserve, that we preserve, and that we reinvest in these older neighborhoods," he says.

In recent years, Grijalva has successfully implemented much of his social agenda. He sponsored a "living wage" provision requiring that companies that contract with the county pay at least $9 an hour, pushed restrictions limiting construction of Big-Box stores and led the effort for a paid county holiday honoring farm union organizer Cesar Chavez. Earlier this year, he came out against the city's proposal to increase the sales tax by a half-cent to fund transportation improvements; the prop lost by a two-to-one margin.

Grijalva's moves have built a loyal ground force, but they've also earned him his share of enemies, particularly in the development community, which came to view him as the local anti-Christ. Grijalva calls the opposition "a mark of effectiveness."

Other critics complain that he grandstands on environmental issues while steadily increasing property taxes to fund a county budget that has swelled from $606 million in 1993 to about $940 million last year. Grijalva blames population growth for inflating the budget, as well as the approval of bonds by voters. But he adds that he's not embarrassed that part of budget increase has come because of "some responsibilities that the county needs to take on, in terms of training, education and youth programs. The criticism has always at the social service/human development part of the agenda, but the criminal justice system grew by 60 percent as well."

Grijalva has also been hammered by accusations of patronage. In December 2000, just a few weeks after Grijalva had won his fourth county term, he and fellow Supervisor Dan Eckstrom were criticized by county transportation department head Brooks Keenan, who alleged that the supervisors, along with County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, improperly steered four transportation engineering contracts to political contributors. (Keenan would later quit and now works for the Tucson's transportation department.) Later news reports showed the county's messy procurement practices allowed some contracts, particularly those with campaign contributors, to balloon with little oversight.

Grijalva maintains he simply tried to expedite the planning process for South 12th Avenue because the project had stalled while being done in-house.

"There was not, nor did anybody participate in anything illegal or unethical in that process," Grijalva says. "The accusation gets made and it hangs there and it's just not true. If anything, it was within the bureaucracy--the inability to control and the inability to monitor and the inability to have checks and balances in the system."

The patronage issues continued to dog Grijalva even after he resigned from the board to run for Congress. Former aide Ruben Reyes landed on the county payroll, earning more than $22 an hour to shoot a documentary about county youth programs. After the press caught Reyes campaigning for Grijalva in Yuma at the same time he'd called in sick to his county job, Reyes resigned from the job and returned $1,590 in county pay. The affair prompted Republican Supervisor Ray Carroll to file a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging that the county had made an illegal contribution to the Grijalva campaign. The FEC has yet to issue any sanctions.


GIVEN HIS CONTROVERSIAL REPUTATION, Grijalva's challenge is building support outside his core following. Even he concedes that he has plenty of enemies that will be working to bring him down. But how will the anti-Grijalva vote split?

If money is an indicator--and about 94 percent of the House races two years ago were won by the candidate who spent the most money--State Sen. Elaine Richardson can count on a big piece of it.

Richardson, 62, has had a lot of ups and downs in her life, but she's made good over the last quarter-century. After a string of failed marriages left her a single mom raising two kids in Tucson, she finally found her path to success when she got into the real-estate game. Next came a political career, with a successful run for the Arizona House of Representatives in 1992. She served two terms in the House before winning a Senate seat in 1996. For the last decade, Richardson championed legislation to fight domestic violence issues, helped find funds for environmental clean-up, and pushed for more healthcare and education funding. In the most recent session, she was one of the Democratic leaders who made a deal with Republican Randall Gnant in a Senate that was evenly split 15-15. Richardson ended up with a plum assignment heading up the Senate Judiciary Committee.

But she says it's her ability to work with others that makes her the best person for the job.

"I have a proven record over 10 years in the Legislature of doing good work," Richardson says. "I'm in a minority county, I've been in a minority party, and I have proven that I have an ability to build consensus and bring people together from the right and left and end up with legislation somewhere in the middle."

The emphasis on consensus is clearly meant to contrast with Grijalva's thumb-in-the-eye style. She frequently draws the comparison; last week, at a forum featuring the candidates, Richardson said she was equally proud of her high legislative rating from the Sierra Club and her endorsement from the Southern Arizona Homebuilders Association, a collection of Grijalva enemies that sees Richardson as the most likely to upset him. (The Sierra Club has endorsed Grijalva in the congressional race.)

Richardson's legislative district overlaps a big chunk of the congressional playing field, giving her some solid political connections. She's won plenty of endorsements, including both local dailies, the Tohono O'odham nation, the International Association of Firefighters, the Central Arizona Homebuilders Association, the Arizona Association of Realtors, the Arizona Highway Patrolman's Association and the Arizona Women's Political Caucus.

Richardson has been particularly determined to capture female votes, stressing her work on domestic violence issues. With the help of Emily's List, a Washington PAC that raises money for women running for Congress, she had raised $384,559, with $252,802 coming in between April and June. That money has allowed her to bring up her name ID with a barrage of television advertising.

But the Richardson campaign has been plagued by sloppy organization. She's gone through several campaign managers; one left after an 80-plus-page opposition research report on Grijalva leaked out of the campaign and appeared on the azcorruption.com, a local political web site.

The subsequent public sparring between Richardson and Grijalva has been child's play, as when Grijalva complained that Richardson had been endorsed by former U.S. Sen. Dennis DeConcini, who lobbies for the drug companies that Richardson criticizes. The Richardson camp wasted little time in revealing that Grijalva himself had sought DeConcini's endorsement earlier this year.


RICHARDSON'S BIGGEST PROBLEM IS THE splintering of the anti-Grijalva vote. Here in Tucson, voters who don't like Grijalva can pick Richardson--or they can pick civil-rights attorney Jesus Romo or one of two former state senators, Jaime Gutierrez or Luis Gonzales. All three men have decades of political experience.

The 54-year-old Romo, who is making his first run for public office, first met Grijalva back when they attended college together. He even helped get the supervisor re-elected just two years ago. But these days he calls Grijalva's support overrated.

"Raúl has a lot of baggage that starting to come out," Romo says. "In my gatherings with people, I've been told that they don't want him in Congress. They liked him, they elected him, but they never looked into his background too deeply."

Romo's own background shows a man who worked hard to get to where he is today. Born across the border in the Mexican state of Sonora, Romo moved with his family to Casa Grande when he was 16 years old. He joined the U.S. Army after graduating from high school and served in the Panama Canal Zone. In the summer of '69, he got out of the service and entered the University of Arizona, where he first met Grijalva.

Romo earned a political science degree in '72. Over the next 10 years, he split his time between attending the UA law school and working to improve "simply subhuman" conditions for farmworkers. Besides the work in the fields, Romo lobbied in both Washington, D.C., and Mexico City.

Since earning his law degree, Romo has focused his practice on civil-rights cases, representing clients in lawsuits against abusive police officers and federal agents. In one high-profile case, Romo won $750,000 for a illegal immigrant who was raped by a Border Patrol agent.

Romo says he's in the race because he's "been working on issues of public concern for the last 30 years."

"This represents a great opportunity to really do a lot of good for a great number of people in area I've been working with," he says. "I didn't see anyone else who was qualified to do the kind of job that I believe needs to be done in Congress."

Jaime Gutierrez, meanwhile, is an experienced campaigner. A native Tucsonan, the 51-year-old Gutierrez graduated from the UA with a political science degree in 1971 and went to work for the county as a juvenile probation officer. He moved swiftly up the ranks, ending up deputy director of Juvenile Court Services before winning an Arizona Senate seat in 1978.

Gutierrez served 14 years in the Senate, including stints in leadership positions like minority whip and assistant minority leader. When he talks about his accomplishments at the Capitol, he doesn't focus on legislation; instead, he says, he's proud that he "left with a good reputation." It's a clear attempt to distinguish himself from Grijalva and the procurement scandals that have hung around his neck.

After leaving the Legislature in 1992, Gutierrez landed an administrative post at the University of Arizona, where he now works as an assistant vice-president for community affairs. He's also stayed active in the community, working for the Community Food Bank and on the city's Industrial Development Authority--laudable contributions, but not the kind of high-profile gigs that keep a name out in front of the public. Having been out of the political spotlight for a decade, his political machine is undeniably rusty. Nor has he had much oil to grease the skids; as of the end of June, he had raised just $85,343.

Gutierrez knows Grijalva has a powerful base on his home court, but he's hoping to win in other areas around the district, where the candidates aren't well known. He says the election will be decided "by who wins the hearts and minds outside of Pima County."

Luis Gonzales has a history with Grijalva; he filed to run against him for the county board seat in 1992, but Grijalva got a court to toss him off the ballot because his nominating petitions contained too many forged signatures.

Gonzales, 59, got his start in politics with a run for the governing board of Pima Community College in the mid-'70s. He lost by fewer than than a dozen votes, but by then he had the bug; he jumped into a state Senate race in 1976 and again lost, by fewer than 50 votes. The third time proved to be the charm; he took another shot at the state Senate in 1978 and won this time.

Gonzales served four terms in the Legislature, but his hubris did him in. He left the statehouse to challenge Congressman Mo Udall in 1986. Two years after losing that race, he took a shot at southside titan Dan Eckstrom in a primary for the Pima County Board of Supervisors. Four years later, his name was tossed off the ballot when he challenged Grijalva. Three years after that, he lost a run for the Tucson City Council to José Ibarra.

Outside of politics, Gonzales has had a variety of jobs, including a stint as town manager of Guadalupe and an administrator with the Pascua Yaqui gambling operation. He's recently been working for an tribal casino in Alpine, Calif., although he's on leave while he pursues the congressional seat.

Despite his losses, he still has a political machine in parts of the district, particularly in the Pascua Yaqui tribe. As his campaign manager, he's tapped conservative Democrat Jesse Lugo, who is also busy supporting Republican Matt Salmon's gubernatorial run.

Gonzales been hampered by fundraising difficulties; as of June 30, he'd raised just $8,353 and was carrying a campaign debt of $15,000.

But he has unlikely factor boosting his name ID--he shares a name, albeit with a slight spelling variation, with Arizona Diamondback Luis Gonzalez. It's not likely many voters will confuse the two, but in a race like this, hope springs eternal.


THE THREE CANDIDATES ON THE BOTTOM tier don't have much local name ID. Mark Fleisher, who lost his post as state Democratic Party boss to Jim Pedersen two years ago after watching the Democrats take repeated poundings at the polls, has relocated to Tucson to pursue the seat.

Fleisher, who sees the campaign as a two-man race "between Raúl and me," may have done the most to separate himself from the pack, even if it means courting constituencies that don't carry much weight in Democratic primaries. He proudly touts his support of the gun rights on his campaign signs and complains that developers have too rough a time in Pima County.

The 48-year-old Fleisher, arguing that it's unlikely that a congressman from CD7 will ever cast a decisive vote on a national issue, says the real importance of the job is bringing pork back home. He's confident that his national party connections will help him deliver.

Despite his national connections--he likes to drop names of guys like Bill Bradley and Tom Daschle--Fleisher's fundraising efforts have been paltry. As of the end of June, he'd raised only $72,200.

Former flight attendant Lisa Otondo, 41, hails from Yuma, where her family has been involved in farming for decades. Otondo, who boasts that she's fluent in five languages, has worked in a variety of jobs both here and abroad. Her family's political connections in Yuma--there's even an Otondo Elementary School up there--may help her in that end of the district, but she's still a political unknown making her first run for public office. Her biggest impact on the race will probably be drawing female votes away from Richardson.

But Otondo isn't likely to grab too much support among local Democrats, who have plenty of hometown options. She's also struggled to raise money for the run, having raised $11,673 and running up a $27,568 debt as of June 30.

Finally, there's Sherry Smith, 52, who lives on a farm outside of tiny Wellton. Smith has borrowed $30,000 from her father to finance her quixotic congressional quest. Smith touts her complete lack of political experience as her best qualification in ads that sound like the parody you'd write if your goal was to fill 30 seconds with words that mean nothing at all, complete with a line about how politics "shouldn't be about who you know."


PERHAPS THE MOST SURPRISING THING about the campaign is the fact that, at least until now, none of the other candidates have gone on the attack against Grijalva.

Sure, they hold themselves up as better alternatives, but they've avoided taking a killshot at the front-runner. Even Luis Gonzales, who has a history of bad blood with Grijalva, hasn't hammered Raúl yet. In fact, a few weeks ago, Gonzales sent out a press release condemning Elaine Richardson for digging up dirt on Grijalva in the leaked opposition research report, saying that candidates should stick to the issues and not go negative. Of course, that could seen as a tactic to draw attention to the opposition report, which has been largely ignored in the press (as was the Gonzales release).

Grijalva's enemies may just be biding their time, but with the number of voters casting early ballots, last-minute attacks don't have the impact they once did. He certainly remains vulnerable to an attack in the final days; there are whispers that an independent campaign not linked to the any of the candidates could fire some televised salvos or mailers at the end. If that happens, Grijalva will be challenged to respond.

"Our campaign opposition is going to come from a lot of areas," says Grijalva. "I've built some great alliances and great alliances and great base of support. But I also have a litany of people who would like to see me defeated and whatever they can latch onto is what they're going to latch onto. I see it as desperation more than anything else."

In the meantime, Grijalva's army is out walking and talking.

"This will be won or lost on the ground," Grijalva says. "We're grinding it out."

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