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MATCH GAME

Ward 5 Councilman Steve Leal announced last week that he was going to forgo city matching funds in his re-election campaign, after previously saying he would use them to define the issues and defend himself against attacks from independent campaigns.

Leal had come under criticism from Republicans after he said he would use up to $42,452.31 in taxpayer funds for his campaign, even though his Republican opponent, Vernon Walker, has dropped out of the race.

Leal told City Clerk Kathy Detrick in a letter last week that various vendors he had contracted with "have been gracious enough not to hold us to commitments," so he won't need all that money after all.

It's a sacrifice for Leal and the other Democratic council candidates, Nina Trasoff (who is facing Republican Fred Ronstadt in midtown Ward 6) and Karin Uhlich (who is facing Republican Kathleen Dunbar in Ward 3), mostly because the money could have been used in a get-out-the-vote push that the Dems need to encourage voters on the west and south sides to cast a vote. In a typical city election, about three out of four of those voters stay home.

But taking the money would have also opened up a constant stream of attacks from Republicans--and since one of the Democrats' themes is that the Republicans have sold out to special interests and abandoned the matching-funds program, taking the money when your re-election is a sure thing doesn't improve public perceptions of the system.


TEAM SPIRIT

One of the reasons Ward 5 Councilman Steve Leal said he needed matching funds was fear that a Growth Lobby independent campaign committee would attack him along with Nina Trasoff and Karin Uhlich.

These independent campaigns have become increasingly active in city politics, which is one reason that participants in the matching-funds program generally find themselves outgunned. The committees can raise money in big chunks from developers, car dealers and other special interests to target candidates they don't like with a barrage of hit pieces. We saw it happen to Democrat Tom Volgy two years ago when he tried to unseat Mayor Bob Walkup, and to Democrat Paula Aboud when she sought the Ward 3 seat in 2001.

Leal noted in his letter to City Clerk Kathy Detrick that he had "received a commitment that the independent campaign will stick to issues."

We're not sure who Leal was talking to when he got his promise, but in a surprise development, it turns out the independent committee isn't attacking Leal--it's supporting him, much to his dismay. Tucsonans for Bipartisan Government, which formally filed last week, has been running radio ads and making phone calls saying the city is headed in the right direction--so voters should keep the current team of Democrat Steve Leal and Republicans Fred Ronstadt and Kathleen Dunbar.

It's a diabolically clever strategy designed to confuse voters. Whoever dreamed up the campaign came up with a masterstroke: Since Leal doesn't have an opponent, why not link him to Ronstadt and Dunbar, even if he and his GOP counterparts are usually at each other's throats?

Leal denounced his new pals in a prepared statement.

"This is an attempt by the special interests entrenched in City Hall to confuse and mislead the public," said Leal. "The Republican candidates this ad endorses do not share my values--Tucson's values."

Leal had attorney Annette Atkins mail a letter to committee chair Roger Karber, of the Arizona Multihousing Association, telling him to cease and desist. But it doesn't appear as though the campaign is illegal--and Leal doesn't strike us as the kind of guy who would want to squash someone for expressing their opinion, no matter how much he might disagree with it.

Karber didn't return phone calls seeking comment.


EARLY LEAD

The early signs of early voting aren't boding well for the Democrats. Check out the numbers: As of Monday, Nov. 10, 11,513 Republicans had requested early ballots, compared to 6,343 Democrats. In addition, vote-by-mail requests had come from 23 Libertarians and 1,839 voters who aren't registered with any of those parties.

The eastside wards where Republicans have traditionally run well--2 and 4--have a combined total of 9,277 early ballot requests. Meanwhile, the heavily Democratic wards on the city's west and south sides, where voters usually stay home--1 and 5--have a total of 3,888.

The news isn't all bad for the Democrats. In midtown Ward 6, 2,261 Democrats have requested early ballots, outdoing the 1,664 Republicans. But that pump was primed by voters requesting early ballots in the Nina Trasoff-Steve Farley Democratic primary.

The Democrats still have several weeks to get the numbers up. But if they don't, they're in trouble on Election Day. For the last six years, Republicans have won city elections by getting out the eastside vote while Democrats didn't bother to cast ballots.

We hear Democrats will be dropping more early ballots this week--although, if you ask us, they should have done it 10 days ago.

To get your early ballot, call 884-VOTE.


HUFFMAN VS. HELLON

We're a long way from the 2006 elections, but there's already quite the fight brewing in District 26 on Tucson's northwest side.

The ever-ambitious state Rep. Steve Huffman, who is up against term limits, has decided he wants to knock out his erstwhile teammate, state Sen. Toni Hellon, in next year's GOP primary. Hellon is serving her third term, which means she'd have to give up the seat in 2008, but Huffman isn't about to wait for that. Instead, he plans to squash her.

Huffman is already corralling big bucks from the Growth Lobby. A recent fundraiser was hosted by heavy hitters that included legendary land speculator Don Diamond and auto huckster Jim Click.

We hear Hellon is spittin' mad, not only about Huffman's betrayal, but about the way the Growth Lobby has evidently decided she's on her way out, while Huffman's on his way up.

The developers might want to be careful about dismissing Hellon. Republican Ann Day, who is in her second term on the Pima County Board of Supervisors, isn't going to want to hang around forever. And when Day calls it quits, Hellon is a natural to take that District 1 seat. Hellon pretty much ran the office when Mike Boyd, the previous District 1 supervisor, was out playing golf all day, so she's no stranger to the 11th floor.

How could Hellon exact some revenge? Well, those impact fees are sure a lot lower than the ones in Maricopa County ...

There's still the question of whether Huffman can take out Hellon, especially since the race will also feature the right-wing stylings of Al Melvin, who considers both Hellon and Huffman to be Republicans in Name Only. Melvin probably can't win the primary, but he may drain support from one of the other candidates. We're guessing, based purely on gender, that Melvin hurts Huffman more than Hellon.

Meanwhile, poor ol' District 12 Rep. Pete Hershberger, who's been pals with both Hellon and Huffman, is stuck in the middle of the fight like one of the kids in Kramer vs. Kramer.

It should be an interesting session for all three of 'em.

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