THESE ARE GOOD days for Tucson Mayor George Miller.
Last month, in the Democratic mayoral primary, he whipped Councilman Bruce Wheeler, long a thorn in his side. Now, with the general election less than two weeks away, he's the odds-on favorite to defeat Republican Sharon Collins and Libertarian Ed Kahn.
Still, Miller isn't over-confident. He continues raising money and campaigning hard, walking neighborhoods and introducing himself to voters around the city. It's the same way he's campaigned since he first won the northwestern Ward 3 office in 1977. He's never lost a race since, capturing the mayor's office four years ago.
GOP candidate Collins hopes to be the person who'll hand him his first defeat.
"We're going to surprise people," says Collins, a 50-year-old co-owner and manager of a retirement community. "We're going to pull it out. I'm enthusiastic. I can win this."
If there's one clear difference between Miller and Collins, it's on the water issue. From the start of her candidacy, Collins has tried to pick up popular support by aligning herself with the water initiative on the November 7 ballot, which would effectively force Tucson to recharge its CAP water in basins around the valley.
Miller is working to sink the initiative, because he believes it to be too restrictive. Earlier this week, the council once again pushed the issue of dealing with CAP water down the road, rejecting a water-use plan that would study ways both to blend and recharge CAP water, as well as provide nearly $90 million to replace old water mains, $13 million for new wells and more than $11 million for recharge projects.
Collins has tried to use the city's disastrous direct delivery of CAP water to demonstrate the City Council is out of touch with its citizens. She says the council's opposition to the initiative exemplifies what's wrong with city government.
"I feel strongly about it (the initiative), because it's about public policy," says Collins, who wants to see CAP water recharged and sold to mines and farms. "I really resent this elitist attitude that the people don't know what to do."
A newcomer to politics, Collins was spurred into action after Bill Clinton was elected to the oval office in 1992. A bright, charismatic woman who once worked as an elementary school teacher, Collins landed a precinct committeeman post and worked on Sen. Jon Kyl's campaign in 1994 before deciding to make a run for the mayor's seat.
That a political neophyte can land the Republican nomination for the mayor's job aptly illustrates a basic truth of Tucson politics: Republicans don't believe they can win a city election.
With roughly 133,000 Democrats and 89,000 Republicans, the Demos have a commanding registration advantage, which explains why there hasn't been a Republican on the City Council since 1989. Republicans don't even want to open their checkbook, unless it's for a Democrat. By October 9, Collins had raised just under $37,000, while Miller has picked up more than $114,641, including many donations from GOP stalwarts such as PCC board member John Even ($100) and Amphi School Board member Vicki Cox-Golder ($100), both of whom are considering a run at the Pima County Board of Supervisors on the GOP ticket. Miller even picked up $100 from Ward 1 Republican candidate Ray Fontaine, who also wrote a check to Collins for $20.
Miller enjoys the financial support of developers and car dealers. Among his many contributors: Joe Cesare ($200), William and Shirley Estes ($200), David and Bonnie Mehl ($400), Dan Breck ($200), Buck O'Rielly ($200), Thomas Quebedeaux ($200), Frank McClure and his wife Mary ($200) and the Click family ($200 each from Jim Sr., Jim Jr., Vicki and Margaret).
While Collins has gotten $540 from Jim and Vicki Click, her support for the initiative has dried up many other fundraising opportunities. Sen. Kyl, whom she worked to elect, hasn't even sent a $10 check.
"None of the politicians are supporting me, because of the water initiative," she says. "It doesn't bother me because I'm finding support from the people. I have a really broad and interesting spectrum of supporters."
Among the organizations backing Collins is the Neighborhood Coalition of Greater Tucson, a generally left-of-center outfit that rarely gives the nod to GOP candidates. Anne Graham-Bergin, an attorney who chaired the neighborhood coalition's endorsement committee, says she was impressed with Collins' support for the initiative and her desire to slow city growth.
While Miller stresses the importance of seeing the city grow through annexation, Collins would like to see a less aggressive approach.
"The city is like Pac-man, just going around and eating up around the city," she says. "We're spending millions of dollars fighting these neighborhoods, and I don't think that's right. There are not going to be too many changes until we are the shining star. Right now, people are very unhappy. We're bigger than Denver and Tampa in square miles, and they're saying, 'Why do we have to get any bigger?' "
Collins has picked up on Bruce Wheeler's claim of a vacuum of leadership at City Hall, complaining the city spends too much on consultants.
Miller brushes off the lack-of-leadership attacks, saying he's pushed funding for youth programs, worked to rescue Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, set up trade missions with Mexico, helped form a domestic violence taskforce and worked with school districts to set up one-stop wellness centers.
These kinds of programs have helped Miller build a strong constituency in the community, which Collins will have to overcome to win on election day. Despite her underdog status, she's enjoying her first journey on the campaign trail.
"I'm very enthused," Collins says. "I can win this. And I'm really having fun. I like politics. Every day you get up and it's a different story."
THE WILD CARD in the race is Libertarian Ed Kahn. Many longtime Tucsonans remember Kahn as the right-wing Republican who raised hell with the Tucson Unified School District in the early 1980s. More recently, Kahn lost a couple of races for the state House Of Representatives. His most recent battle with government was with the city, which he sued for offering senior citizen discounts. Kahn argues the discounts discriminate by age, which regulations forbid the city to do. He hopes if he can force the city to eliminate discounts for seniors, irate older citizens will force the council to repeal its anti-discrimination ordinances to restore their benefits.
A Pima County Superior Court judge disagreed with Kahn's motion, ruling the city could continue its practice of allowing seniors a few bucks off a round of golf. Kahn was scheduled to argue the case before the Arizona Court of Appeals this week.
The fight with the city says a lot about the Brooklyn-born Kahn, a fiery attorney who is a self-described specialist in constitutional law. Kahn has little use for government, which he dismisses as a bloated, waste-ridden bureaucracy.
Although he ran in previous races as a GOP candidate, Kahn has since changed his stripes to the emerging Libertarian party, because he says the Libertarians' emphasis on limited government and personal responsibility better suits his political philosophy.
Kahn has embraced the Libertarian line, right down to legalizing marijuana. He supports the water initiative and wants to streamline government, scrapping everything from the arts budget to zoning regs. He'd stop funding for the Copper Bowl and wouldn't contribute a dime to a new ballpark. He'd privatize as many city services as possible, including the sanitation and water departments. He estimates he could cut the city's budget in half.
"I would reduce city government to its basics--mainly, public safety, period," says Kahn. "Police, fire, courts. That's it. That's the essentials of government. Everything else could easily be done by private enterprise."
To fix the transportation problem, Kahn would encourage a private firm to build a toll-funded parkway stretching south from Interstate 10 along the Pantano Wash to the Rillito riverbed and then west to I-10. In the long term, he talks about monorails and spaceports in Casa Grande.
Of course, it would take a miracle for any of this to happen, a fact he himself acknowledged when he entered the race last summer "to stir the pot," as he put it.
Four months later, Kahn now claims he's poised to pull off "the biggest upset in Tucson's political history."
"We've raised substantial sums of money and we're running a visible and viable campaign," he says. "The reaction from the voters I've talked to is very favorable. Democrats and Republicans are fed up with the two major political parties and they're looking eagerly for an alternative, and that's the Libertarians."
Kahn certainly has raised a lot of money--almost $66,000 dollars, including hundreds of donations from Libertarians throughout the United States culled through a savvy fundraising effort. He's already spent most of it, mostly on billboards and a $32,340 Libertarian voter registration drive. He says he plans to unveil a television ad in the last weeks of the campaign.
The voter registration drive put nearly 8,000 new Libertarians on the city voting rolls, but it remains to be seen whether Kahn will pull more support from Collins or Miller.
"I think I'm going to draw more from Collins," says Kahn. "But (Pima County Libertarian Party chairman) Peter Schmerl tells me I'm going to draw more from Miller. Libertarians traditionally have a heavy Democrat civil liberties base, and there's a large group out there who don't like Miller and voted for Wheeler. We're going to get the blue-collar Jeffersonian Democrat vote and the Independent vote. And I'll get the conservative vote. So I see myself drawing votes from a wide spectrum."
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