Southside Smackdown

Can Jesse Lugo knock off Councilman Steve Leal?

Jesse Lugo is eyeing the dog that's charging toward him, barking like he's a bad-ass rottweiler instead of a wiry little terrier mix.

An experienced door-to-door campaigner, Lugo has seen plenty of dogs with bad attitudes. He grabs a Milkbone from the basket on his bike and tosses it in the mutt's direction. The hound skids to a halt in a cloud of dust, then retreats into the yard, too suspicious to grab the treat. Behind him, bigger dogs behind a fence carry on their boisterous barking.

Lugo is tossing out a lot of bones as he campaigns to unseat Ward 5 Councilman Steve Leal in the September 11 Democratic primary. But it remains to be seen if voters will bite.

Lugo wants to increase the police force by 50 percent, which would add about 450 officers to the force. He wants to fix all the decaying residential streets and provide extras like speed bumps. He wants to hand out bigger raises to all city employees so they won't leave their jobs.

Where will the money come from? For all his talk about being set to make tough decisions, Lugo can't answer that question. He promises to find budget cuts once he's elected because he's also opposed to raising taxes. He even imagines that he'll be able to peel off Back-to-Basics dollars earmarked for other wards. "I plan to ask my fellow council elected officials and see if they're willing to invest maybe 20 percent of their money to help Ward 5," he says.

Lugo complains that Leal hasn't done enough in his 12 years on the council. "I'm a man of action," Lugo says. "My opponent is all talk and no action. I'm a person who don't like to waste people's time."

As you might expect, the 54-year-old Leal begs to differ with Lugo's assessment. Under his watch, the incumbent says four neighborhood centers have been built or expanded. New libraries and pocket parks are springing up. The transportation department has done makeovers on South Sixth and Park avenues. Stormwater projects have improved the ward's infrastructure.

Leal also boasts about his work in economic development. He's endeavored to push efforts to lure new businesses to Tucson away from low-paying, dead-end jobs. He's supported job-training programs such as JobPath and provided Pima County's adult education program with a permanent home at El Pueblo Neighborhood Center.

"If that's nothing, I'll take more of it," Leal says.

Born in San Leandro, Calif., and raised in nearby Oakland, Leal was 20 years old when he signed up for a three-year stint with the U.S. Navy that included a tour of Vietnam. After leaving the service, he attended college in California, earning a degree in political science. He came to Tucson in 1977 to pursue a master's in poli-sci at the UA. He never got the degree, but while working various construction and mechanical jobs, he began building his political career through the nascent neighborhood movement. In 1989, Leal launched his first campaign and knocked off incumbent Republican Roy Laos.

In the ensuing dozen years, Leal has remained true to his roots in the neighborhood movement, pushing for inner-city reinvestment over spending on the city's fringe. He's built the number of neighborhood associations in Ward 5 from six to 26. Earlier this month, he won the endorsement of the Neighborhood Coalition of Greater Tucson.

Lugo comes from a different wing of the Democratic Party. Born December 18, 1943, Lugo grew up in Tucson. While still a student at Cholla High (Class of '73), Lugo started working as an attendant at a Chevron service station at Sixth Avenue and Speedway Boulevard. He would eventually buy the station, which he owned until 1997.

In the early '90s, Lugo signed on with the Tucson Business Coalition, a group of small-business owners who tried to flex political muscle. Although the group didn't last long, Lugo made important political alliances. He continued to build his network by serving on boards and committees around town, including the Greater Tucson Economic Council, the Better Business Bureau, the city's Citizens Transportation Advisory Committee and the UA Business Advisory Committee. He's also volunteered time and donated equipment to automotive training programs at Cholla and Pima Community College and helped the effort to renovate El Casino Ballroom.

Lugo's relationship with Chevron ended in 1997 with an acrimonious legal fight. His settlement allowed him to evolve into his next role: a lobbyist for the Arizona Automotive Trade Organization. Lugo enjoyed playing politics at the state Capitol so much that last year, he took a shot at a House seat in District 10. He came in third in a six-way race, losing to Vic Sotero and Linda Lopez.

In the months following his loss, Lugo says, he started getting phone calls urging him to challenge Leal. "Certainly, going against a 12-year incumbent is no easy task," Lugo says. "But at the same time, people who know Jesse know he's not accustomed to failure."

Lugo is tight with biz-friendly Dems like Ward 4 Councilwoman Shirley Scott (who wrote him a check) and Steve Emerine, the former county assessor and journalist who now works as a public relations consultant. Emerine, who counts the Southern Arizona Homebuilders Association among his current clients, played a key role in city politics two years ago, when he co-chaired Tucsonans for Responsible Leadership, an independent campaign committee that ran a series of negative ads targeting mayoral Democratic nominee Molly McKasson.

"If Jesse tells you he'll do something, he'll do it," says Emerine. "If Jesse tells you he's in favor of something, you can bet that's how he's going to come down when the vote has to be counted. I don't find that with Steve. Steve is a great orator, but I've had too many experiences and seen too many incidents of him saying one thing and then either voting another way, or else when it's time for a vote, introducing some concern that has suddenly occurred to him that makes it necessary to postpone action."

Asked for an example, Emerine reaches back half a decade to the mid-'90s, when he was lobbying Leal to support a downtown baseball stadium. The Pima County Board of Supervisors eventually agreed to build the stadium, which came in 40 percent over budget at nearly $40 million, on Ajo Way east of Kino Boulevard. Backers of the stadium had estimated that costs could be covered by revenue from the stadium, but it has required a subsidy from taxpayers since it was built.

THE CANDIDATES DISAGREE on nearly every contentious issue the council has faced in recent years. Leal voted in favor of challenging state law so the city could force background checks on all firearm sales at Tucson Convention Center gun shows; Lugo thinks the state should be the final authority. Leal defends the city's living-wage ordinance, which forces most companies contracting with the city to pay employees at least $8 an hour; Lugo opposes it. Leal supported the city's new policy blocking public funding of organizations that discriminate, inspired by the Boy Scouts' ban on gay troops and leaders; Lugo, who's active with the local BSA chapter, would have continued funding the organization. Leal was a proponent of the city's ban on smoking in restaurants; Lugo would leave the establishments alone. "I believe the people can vote by either patronizing the restaurant or not," Lugo says.

When it comes to Tucson's transportation problems, the candidates split as well. Leal says he would support a half-cent hike in the city sales tax dedicated to transportation projects, as long as half the revenue went to boosting mass transit and the rest was split between residential streets, alternative modes like bike lanes, and major arterials.

Lugo doesn't like the idea of a sales-tax hike. He dodges questions of how he would like to see the money spent, falling back on one of his favorite topics: getting a larger share of state Highway User Revenue Funds, or HURF dollars, which are generated primarily by gas taxes and vehicle license fees. Lugo argues that the City of Tucson has been shortchanged when it comes to HURF distribution.

It's a magic solution that carries little weight these days among local transportation pros. "In general, the Tucson region does get its fair share," says Albert Elias, deputy director of the city's transportation department. And, given that the region's political clout will decline with the loss of a legislative district in the ongoing legislation process, Elias is wary of lobbying for more. "If we went today and tried to tinker with that formula, we would lose out," he says. "The reason I say that is that Pima County's influence has not increased in the legislature. I think the distribution formula is as fair today as it's ever going to get."

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry says the county hasn't been shortchanged since the legislature changed the funding formula in 1996. "With HURF equity legislation, we're basically getting our fair share of the county HURF revenues," says Huckelberry. "There is no grand scheme to defraud the citizens of Pima County."

Both men say Maricopa County could afford an elaborate freeway system because residents voted in favor of a half-cent sales tax dedicated to transportation in 1985.

BUT ALL THE bad math might not add up to much on election day. The outcome will come down to a basic campaign strategy: Get Out The Vote.

Ward 5 is home to roughly 14,000 Democrats. (Another 4,593 Independents can vote in the primary, but it remains to be seen if they'll take an interest in the race.) Leal has never faced a Democratic opponent, so primary turnout in his races has been virtually non-existent; in 1997, only 160 Democrats came out to vote. The most contentious Ward 5 Democratic primary was the 1999 four-way mayoral contest, which brought out about 2,400 Democrats. They favored Molly McKasson by 47 percent, with second-placed finisher Betsy Bolding picking up 29 percent. (The other two candidates, Janet Marcus and Pat Darcy, split the remainder.)

But this year, Ward 5 voters have a reason to vote: a real choice between candidates. Turnout is sure to break all previous records, perhaps surpassing 4,000 voters.

McKasson's strong showing ought to be good news for Leal, as her constituency is naturally closer to him than Lugo. Leal's also tight with Pima County Supervisor Dan Eckstrom, whose District 2 political machine overlaps much of Ward 5. He's been endorsed by Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, County Attorney Barbara LaWall and state Attorney General Janet Napolitano. And he enjoys union support; Food and Commercial Workers Union leader Paul Rubin is chairing Tucsonans for Excellence in Government, an independent campaign that's running an early ballot program on the incumbent's behalf.

Leal can also take some comfort in recent southside election history. Lugo's it's-time-for-a-change mantra is the same rejected argument launched by opponents of Pima County Supervisor Raúl Grijalva last year. Grijalva easily won the Democratic primary against Dan Medina (who happens to be Lugo's brother-in-law, although Lugo says he was too busy with his District 10 campaign to aid Medina's run) and the general election against Republican Rosalie López.

So what does Leal have to worry about? Plenty. With such a small pool of high-propensity voters, an aggressive get-out-the-vote campaign can swing an upset. And Lugo is relentless when it comes to GOTV.

Lugo's recent legislative loss didn't come from a lack of effort. Lugo campaigned hard door-to-door, trying to introduce himself to as many Democrats as possible. Armed with targeted lists of high-propensity Democratic voters, Lugo is repeating his door-to-door strategy, riding his bike through neighborhoods morning and evening six days a week. "People told me, 'Don't come on Sundays,'" he says. "That's their day."

Lugo rarely declines an opportunity to take a shot at Leal. Should the city build a grade-separated intersection at Grant and Campbell? Sure, and it should have been done long ago. Should the city spend $120 million on the final mile of the Barraza-Aviation Parkway? Absolutely, and his opponent has stalled the project. (Lugo doesn't explain where the money for these projects should have come from, despite his thesis that the city has been shortchanged transportation dollars.)

Last week, Lugo dropped a hit piece hammering Leal for using his city-provided car to travel to campaign events. Leal says he reimburses the city for the personal miles, which he calls a standard practice.

The city attorney's office is on Leal's side, but that hardly matters to Lugo, who understands that building Leal's negative ratings is critical in the next two weeks leading up to election day. Leal can expect more negative attacks before the campaign is over.

Both campaigns are aggressively working the early ballots. As of Monday, August 20, 1,120 voters had requested early ballots for the Democratic primary in Ward 5--more than three times the 331 voters who cast early ballots two years ago in the Democratic mayoral primary.

Lugo is getting a boost from Tucsonans for Alert Government, an independent campaign committee that is fueled by Growth Lobby dollars. The development community is firmly behind Lugo, who has picked up an endorsement from the Southern Arizona Homebuilders Association and received contributions from heavy hitters in the developers and real-estate fields.

Lugo has raised more than $36,000, according to a report filed on August 8. City staffers expect he'll officially qualify for matching funds this week, which will effectively double his money, giving him more than the $60,000 he's allowed to spend on the primary.

Lugo has been particularly adept at tapping many of Leal's political enemies, particularly in the Republican Party. Major GOP contributors include legendary land speculator Don Diamond, developer David Mehl and his wife Bonnie, realtor Bill Arnold and his wife Diane, Jim Click and several of his employees and family members, attorney John Munger, billboard baron Karl Eller and Southern Arizona Homebuilders Association honcho Alan Lurie.

Other Republicans backing Lugo in the Democratic primary are Pima County Courts Clerk Patti Noland and Ward 3 candidate Kathleen Dunbar and her husband Richard.

Leal has raised about the same amount of money. His most recent report, filed on July 24, shows more than $37,000 in contributions. He's already qualified for matching funds, giving him more than he can legally spend on the primary.

Leal has picked up his share of contributions from the development and real-estate communities, too. He's also receiving checks from social workers like Karin Uhlich, executive director of Primavera Services, and Tom Berning, the former city attorney for Tucson who now heads up the Morris Institute, a non-profit legal resource for low-income people.

With no opponent on the November general election ballot, both candidates have the luxury of spending up to $60,000 chasing a small number of voters. The money is vital to running phone banks, taking push polls, sending mailers and airing radio ads. But in the end, the difference in the race may come down to grassroots work.

That's why Lugo continues his door-to-door march. "It gets hot out there, but I don't mind," he says. "It's just what you have to do."