B y J i m N i n t z e l
LET'S GET ONE thing straight: Mayor George Miller and Councilman Bruce Wheeler truly despise each other. They've been openly sparring for years at televised council meetings and, off camera, both delight in leaking stories about each other to the press.
Their long-running feud comes to a head later this month in the September 19 primary, when Tucson Democrats will choose one of them to be the the party's nominee for mayor.
"I decided to run for mayor because there are some important issues that require leadership, and Mayor Miller is a weak mayor who has not provided leadership," says Wheeler, sitting at a table in the westside Ward 1 office that has been his headquarters for the past eight years.
"That's so much bullshit...," says Miller, who is finishing his 18th year on the council, the last four as mayor. Up in his office on the top floor of City Hall, he ticks off examples of his leadership: pushing for funding for youth summer programs, traveling to Washington, D.C., to fight for Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, setting up trade missions in Mexico, working with the school districts to create wellness centers in schools.
"Wheeler's perception of leadership is firing people," says Miller. "He thought he was a big leader when he fired the city manager and the fire chief."
That 1992 dispute centered on former City Manager Tom Wilson and Fire Chief Richard Moreno, who came under fire over leaking fuel tanks beneath the city's Price Service Center. The controversy brought the Miller-Wheeler feud into the open when Wheeler pushed the majority of the council to oust Wilson, a move which infuriated Miller.
"Since that time, there hasn't been an important decision that affects the City of Tucson and its people that he has been on the winning side of unless he decided in the end that he better vote that way," Miller says. "He hasn't led anything in the last two years."
Wheeler says that's simply untrue--he led the way on one of the biggest issues facing the city.
"I was the one who led the effort to shut the CAP off a year and a half ago," he says. "I was the first and only elected official to advocate shutting down the CAP until we could identify and solve the problems. Miller attacked me, said I was wrong."
"When he wanted to shut it off, he couldn't get enough people to shut it off," Miller retorts. "When I wanted to shut it off, in conjunction with other people--that's what this job is all about, persuasion--then we shut it off. He didn't shut it off. When he talked about it, it was premature, because we didn't know what the hell we were doing at that time."
To Wheeler, the CAP flap aptly illustrates what's wrong with Miller. The mayor listened to city staffers who told him there was no reason to shut off the CAP. In spite of complaints, the city continued to deliver the water for another year before realizing the problem wasn't going away.
"The main philosophical difference between us is that George Miller is an apologist for the bureaucracy," Wheeler says. "Whatever staff tells him to do, he does."
Both candidates now oppose direct delivery of CAP water. Both support finding a way to remove the salts from the water so it can be recharged without permanently altering the underground aquifer.
Both also support the city's annexation efforts, although they differ sharply when it comes to making legendary land speculator Don Diamond's proposed Rocking K development part of the city. Wheeler opposes the plan and accuses Miller of silently supporting it.
"There's no doubt that Don Diamond and George Miller and (City Manager) Mike Brown and (city annexation czar) John Jones are trying to find a way for city taxpayers today to annex Rocking K, and if they had the votes, they'd do it right now," Wheeler says. "They are working in collusion with each other."
Miller says Wheeler is flat-out wrong. He's neither supporting nor opposing the Rocking K annexation.
"I don't see any reason for us to lay out great sums of money if and when that comes to us," Miller says. "Again, my opponent keeps saying he's opposed to it. I don't know what the hell he's opposed to. Nobody has said anything to us specifically about what they want. I can't be for, I can't be against it, because I don't know what they're talking about."
Miller insists he will not vote for a Rocking K plan that forces the city to lay out millions of dollars in infrastructure costs. But last June, when Wheeler put a discussion of the Rocking K annexation on the council's agenda, Miller voted with the majority to remove the item and continue the negotiations in secret with the developer.
"There wasn't anything to talk about," Miller now says. "It was all being brought up as a political thing so he (Wheeler) could make a long speech against it without having any information about why you should be against it or for it. It was a ploy."
If so, it was successful. Ward 5 Councilman Steve Leal put the plan on his financial subcommittee agenda and forced Project Foresight to come clean about the numbers they had cooked up. Many of the numbers were suspect; Project Foresight, for example, suggested that a hotel that isn't even under construction yet could yield nearly a quarter million dollars in tax revenue for the current fiscal year.
Wheeler, who sits on the financial subcommittee, said many of the figures seemed to come from "fantasyland," a quote that was prominently displayed in the morning daily.
Miller's apparent disinterest in Project Foresight's work reinforces Wheeler's point that the mayor doesn't question city staff. Miller tells The Weekly that he hasn't even looked at the preliminary numbers and isn't clear on the sort of infrastructure projects needed if Rocking K were annexed into the city.
Wheeler's opposition to Rocking K is one of the reasons he's been endorsed by the Sierra Club and the Neighborhood Coalition of Greater Tucson.
Neighborhood Coalition member Anne Graham-Bergin says Wheeler got the group's approval because he fought to turn off the CAP and questions the Rocking K development. Miller, she says, "lacks the vision and leadership needed to bring the City of Tucson into the 21st century."
Miller does have his share of supporters he's been endorsed by the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association and he has a campaign warchest of more than $40,000, including big donations from homebuilders and car dealers. Wheeler has managed to raise only about $22,000, much of it recently.
Without dollars to campaign, Wheeler has had to try to attract the media to cover his campaign, a tactic that has had little success. Wheeler admits to being frustrated by the lack of coverage and complains that Miller is ducking out on his opportunities to debate him.
Miller says he's appeared with Wheeler a half-dozen times on panels over the last several months.
"I've been debating him every Monday for four years," Miller says. "And the only reason he wants more is that he doesn't have the support of the community like I do. He does not have the money to do the sort of publicity that he'd like to do. And that's why he's screaming for debates."
With less than two weeks remaining before the primary, both candidates are optimistic they'll win the race. Whatever happens on September 19, one man will be bowing out of city politics, perhaps forever.
This town, as the cliché goes, just isn't big enough for the two of 'em.
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