B y J i m N i n t z e l
COUNCILMAN BRUCE WHEELER'S decision to give up his seat to challenge Mayor George Miller in the Democratic primary has opened up a five-way free-for-all for the westside Ward 1 office.
Climbing into the ring: Wheeler's former aide, Irma Yepez-Perez; two former Ward 1 councilmen, Ruben Romero and Rudy Bejarano; former state Sen. Luis Gonzales; and Democratic campaign whiz kid Jose Ibarra, who is taking his first shot at public office.
The crowded ballot will no doubt leave many of the 23,000 Ward 1 Democrats confused. If 25 percent show up at the polls--and that's an optimistic scenario--then the five candidates will split fewer than 6,000 votes. The winning margin could be slim, perhaps even in the double digits. The savvy campaigners in the ward know every vote is going to count.
The conventional wisdom says Irma Yepez-Perez has the advantage as a woman; local political handicappers give her somewhere in the neighborhood of a five-point advantage in the crowded field on the basis of gender alone.
The 33-year-old Yepez-Perez has been hooked on politics since she was a teenager, when she worked on a Yuma mayoral campaign. For the last seven years, she's worked as an aide in Wheeler's office, learning her way around the ward.
Yepez-Perez says the city should find a way to strip salts from CAP water before we begin large-scale recharge programs. She'd also work out a deal to market some to nearby mines and farms.
Yepez-Perez says the city's once-a-week trash pickup pilot programs have been working well and she supports expanding that schedule. She'd like to encourage more participation in the city's recycling program and expand it to include businesses.
Mindful of the fact that more citizens mean more dollars shared from the state government, Yepez-Perez supports some of the efforts of Project Foresight, the annexation team charged with the task of expanding the city's borders. She's particularly keen on bringing in resorts on the edge of town, because it would bring in additional tax revenue.
"I support a stronger marketing effort as far as annexation is concerned," she says. "We need to have the right people on board who will go out and sell the city because we're losing out on tax dollars that are going into the Phoenix metropolitan area."
Yepez-Perez is skeptical of Project Foresight's investigation into the annexation of legendary land speculator Don Diamond's proposed Rocking K development.
"I'm not a supporter of Rocking K, because of all the tax dollars that have to be put in there," she says. "The bridge (across the Pantano River at Valencia Road) alone is $5 million, and when are we going to recoup that?"
She's won endorsements from the Arizona Women's Political Caucus, the Sierra Club, the Neighborhood Coalition of Greater Tucson and the Southern Arizona Homebuilders Association. The last two are interesting match, since the interests of those organizations are often at odds.
But while she may have endorsements and a slight edge from her gender, the Yepez-Perez campaign may be suffering from disorganization. Her last campaign finance statement, which included contributions through May 31, noted she'd raised only $2,686. Although she's surely raised more by now, she still hasn't applied for city matching funds, which requires at least 200 donations of $10 or more from city residents.
IN FACT, JOSE Ibarra is the only candidate in Ward 1 who has applied for matching funds. His last campaign finance report showed he'd raised $8,811, which most likely puts him ahead of his rivals. That money already has paid for street-corner signs, campaign literature, mailers and radio time on Spanish language stations. He's working overtime to establish name recognition.
Although only 25 years old, Ibarra is an experienced campaigner. He began in politics as a teenager, working with Pima County Supervisor Raul Grijalva. While working as an aide to Grijalva, he also managed Mayor George Miller's 1991 campaign and has worked on several other races, including the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday initiative. He also was the southern Arizona campaign coordinator for the Clinton-Gore ticket in 1992. That extensive recent experience may make a big difference in a tight race.
The energetic Ibarra developed a strong grasp of the issues facing the community while working in Grijalva's office. As a councilman, he pledges to meet frequently with Ward 1 residents. He also supports programs that bring social service agencies into the schools to help people get access to assistance.
When it comes to the CAP, Ibarra opposes direct delivery and blending, but he's ready to try almost anything else. He wants a mix of pilot recharge and treatment programs and supports selling the water to mines and farms.
Like Yepez-Perez, he supports careful annexation.
"Let's look at it on a case-by-case basis, on what's viable and what's not," Ibarra says. "Annexation causes a disparity. You have annexation that's taking away money from Ward 1--dollars our taxpayers have been paying for years--that are going to build infrastructure and bringing up to par annexed areas in the outlying areas of the city. You're establishing a core that's rotting away."
Ibarra thinks the city should steer clear of Rocking K. He questions Diamond's ability to get that development off the ground, given the tough times in the resort-building industry. He points out that Diamond recently abandoned plans to build a resort in Pima Canyon, even though that area already has infrastructure and a community in place around it.
"For the City of Tucson to subsidize Don Diamond and annex Rocking K is simply ridiculous," he says.
When it comes to the economy, Ibarra wants to see the city lure firms like Microsoft not with tax breaks but with the local environment.
"We need to start investing in our own city," he says. "A good educational system, good infrastructure, good transportation system, because that's what companies are investing in now. If we're going to create jobs, we need to start building up the city as the pristine, beautiful place it was and it will be and really invest in the city, so the companies will be knocking at our door."
Ibarra supports continuing the current twice-a-week garbage pickups and would like to slowly increase the recycling program. He opposes trash pickup fees.
Like Yepez-Perez, Ibarra has picked up endorsements from the Sierra Club and Neighborhood Coalition of Greater Tucson.
IBARRA ISN'T THE only savvy campaigner in the race--former state Sen. Luis Gonzales has a reputation for knowing his numbers. The 52-year-old Gonzales was first elected to the Arizona Senate in 1978 and served until 1986, when he stepped down to take on the unbeatable U.S. Rep Morris Udall in the Democratic primary.
"That was the ultimate political stupidity," he now admits.
Unfortunately for him, things weren't looking up the next time he surfaced on the political landscape, to take a stab at Grijalva's supervisor's seat in 1992. He was thrown off the ballot when a judge ruled most of the signatures on his nominating petitions were invalid. Gonzales blames the mess on overzealous campaign workers, but the judge still hit him with a $17,000 judgment, which he has yet to pay off to attorney Bill Risner--a debt he failed to list as required when he filed his campaign papers. He told The Weekly in July he wasn't aware of the debt, which was news to Risner, who's been in frequent contact with Gonzales' attorney.
His legal troubles aside, Gonzales can be a friendly man and a sharp campaigner who has experience in city elections; he helped one of his fellow Ward 1 candidates, Rudy Bejarano, win the Democratic primary back in 1983. He estimates he's raised about $6,000 and is studying voting patterns and precinct maps in anticipation of election day. His campaign signs also have begun sprouting at street corners and his campaign literature is landing in mailboxes.
Like Yepez-Perez and Ibarra, Gonzales thinks the city should approach annexation on a case-by-case basis.
He made a splash in the morning daily last week with his unique plan for treating CAP water, a plan no one else has suggested: a vacuum-compression plant that would boil the salts and minerals out of the water.
Gonzales, who now works as executive director of the Pascua Yaqui Gaming Office, hasn't picked up any endorsements. In fact, he failed to return a questionnaire to the Greater Tucson Neighborhood Coalition before the group's deadline.
CURIOUSLY, THE LEAST organized campaigners are the two former councilmen. Fifty-two-year-old Rudy Bejarano held the Ward 1 seat from 1979 to 1987, when he was defeated by Wheeler in a three-way Democratic primary. Since then, he's worked as an accountant.
Bejarano supports a mix of blending and recharge for CAP water, and he'd also like to sell some to the mines and farms.
He'd like to see the city grow through aggressive annexation, although he considers the issue "moot" at this point, despite the city's new emphasis on expanding its borders. His notions of urban growth are so foggy that he figures that once an annexation is up for approval before the council, more than 50 percent of the residents must want to be within city limits, so he ought to vote yes.
It's an approach that doesn't consider the city's infrastructure costs, which would be borne by the taxpayers of his own ward. Nor, in the case the Rocking K annexation, does he deviate from his position. When The Weekly points out that it will be Don Diamond and not the future residents of Rocking K who will be agreeing to annexation, Bejarano shrugs the distinction off with: "What's the difference?"
Bejarano's pledged to spend no more than $12,000 on his campaign, a pledge perhaps in part driven by the fact that he failed to complete a campaign finance contract that would have made him eligible for matching funds before the city's deadline. He also failed to respond to requests to an interview by the Greater Tucson Neighborhood Coalition, although he did return the group's questionnaire. These are signs he's running a dysfunctional campaign, which could prove costly on election day.
Ruben Romero seems to be in the same boat. The 60-year-old Romero, who held the office from 1971 to 1979 before stepping down to launch an ill-fated mayoral run, can't even tell you how many Democrats live in the ward.
"I'm not much of a numbers man," he says, explaining he got into the race because he thought the city needed someone who would "make decisions, instead of postponing them forever and ever."
Unfortunately, Romero himself hasn't made too many decisions as a candidate. He's not sure what the city should do about CAP, he doesn't have any ideas of how the city could lure better-paying jobs and he can't say how he'd shave any money off the budget if the city were to have a shortfall. About the only thing he says he'd like to do is lead an annexation drive that would stretch from mountain to mountain, with little consideration of whether the cost would exceed the revenue such a crusade would bring in. Like Bejarano, Romero would be happy to annex the Rocking K project, because he thinks it would give the city more control the community's growth.
A former homebuilder and past president of the Southern Arizona Homebuilders Association, Romero isn't even finding support among his former colleagues at SAHBA, who endorsed Yepez-Perez in the race.
Romero has stayed in the race despite a heart attack two weeks ago. His doctor ordered him to rest for a week and he told the dailies he didn't think being sidelined would hurt his campaign. No surprise there, since he hasn't seemed to be campaigning at all. Romero didn't bother to return the questionnaire from the Neighborhood Coalition and he hasn't even begun to erect campaign signs in the ward, perhaps because he hasn't raised enough money to buy them.
The winner of the race will face Republican Ray Fontaine and Libertarian Scott Stewart in the November 7 general election.
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