Guest Commentary

The political career of Harvey Milk shows why city elections should be decided by individual wards

Tucson has a rather interesting—some would say odd—method of electing members of the City Council. As it's described on the city of Tucson's website, "Council members are nominated by the ward they wish to represent in the primary election and are elected to the City Council at-large in the general election."

In other words, the primaries are ward-only, and the general election is citywide.

Let's take a moment to look at the politics of this arrangement. Democratic politicians like it because their party has a roughly a 5-to-3 registration advantage over Republicans citywide. If you move the elections from ward-only for the primary to citywide for the general, Democrats have a better chance of winning in wards that tend to vote Republican. Not surprisingly, Republicans really don't like the citywide general election—for the same reason that Democrats like it.

We may assume that is why Republicans at the state level, like former state senator and current congressional candidate Jonathan Paton, have pushed the idea of forcing ward-only elections on Tucson, which really upsets the local Democrats who rant and rave about "local control."

Setting the politics of the matter aside, what really gives citizens the best representation? There is a lesson to be found in the political career of Harvey Milk. Milk was a businessman and member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors—the equivalent of a Tucson City Council member. He and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated on Nov. 27, 1978, by former supervisor Dan White.

Milk moved to San Francisco in 1972 and opened a camera shop in the Castro district. He was part of a nationwide migration of gay men to San Francisco, particularly the Castro neighborhood, during that period.

His first run for supervisor was in 1973. He was wildly popular in the Castro, the residents of which voted for him overwhelmingly, yet he lost the election. He ran again in 1975; he worked tirelessly at building his own grassroots base that extended beyond the gay community to firefighters, construction unions and the Teamsters. He picked up the moniker "The Mayor of Castro Street." Still, he lost again.

At that time, elections for San Francisco districts were held citywide, as the elections are today in Tucson. So, the man who lived and worked in his district, and whose neighbors wanted him to represent them, was denied the chance by a system that allowed the entire city to dictate who would represent the Castro district. It appeared that, with the cards stacked against him, he would never hold elective office.

However, by 1977, the deck had been shuffled: District elections were no longer citywide, but by district. Harvey Milk ran again and won handily. Finally, the residents within each district in San Francisco got to pick their own representative. What a concept!

Those who argue the contrary often point out that a City Council member's vote affects the whole city, not just the ward. This, of course, is true. But it is also beside the point: The issue is representation, not the effects of the representation. If the effects were an overriding concern, we would have nationwide elections for federal senators and representatives—since their votes on federal bills usually affect the country as a whole. We do not, and that is because the duty of those officeholders is to represent their constituents.

Today, our city wards function more as a tool for dividing up the workload of constituent service than as distinct communities of interest. While we all identify as Tucsonans, our city is not quite as homogeneous as our council elections suggest. Does a resident of Ward 6 (midtown) have the same concern for maintaining a semi-rural lifestyle as a resident of Ward 1 (westside)? Does someone living in Ward 4 (southeast) have the same experience of "minidorms" as someone living in Ward 3 (north of the UA)?

Whether one considers the practical notion of wards actually having their own interests, or the ethical notion of representation, residents of a ward should be able to choose their own representatives—and not those of the other wards.

Tucson should change to ward-only elections for both primaries and general elections.