Alt vs. Indie

A solar-powered Democrat is facing an independent firefighter in Ward 3

The race to replace Ward 3 Democrat Karin Uhlich on the Tucson City Council pits a Democrat against an independent candidate.

Democrat Paul Durham, an attorney and passionate solar-power advocate, is facing Gary Watson, a firefighter who recently quit the Republican Party to seek office as an independent.

Durham, who's lived in Tucson since 2004, canvassed neighborhoods on his bicycle and said he knocked on over 4,700 doors during his campaign. He made a rule for himself that he would only stop to rest where he found shade.

"In low income neighborhoods, I couldn't find any," he said at a Tucson City Council candidates forum, on Oct. 11, at the YWCA. "It turns out temperatures in neighborhoods are inversely related to the wealth in those neighborhoods—no secret."

He supports programs like Trees for Tucson, as well as rain-water harvesting and storm-water management, to increase vegetation in neighborhoods to cool them and "decrease the urban heat-island effect," he said.

Durham's also pushing for 100 percent solar by 2025, and (in case you hadn't yet realized he's a staunch liberal) he's been very vocal about opposing Donald Trump's agenda.

"We need to have the strongest possible city council to stand up for people and groups in Tucson that Donald Trump is attacking," he said at the forum. "Heading the list are immigrants, including DACA participants and women, but it includes young people in need of education, seniors and low-income families in need of medical care and many others."

Durham has pulled together the expected Democratic Party support since coming out on top in a three-way primary in August. He's been endorsed by Uhlich, who is giving up the Ward 3 seat after three terms. Congressman Raul Grijalva is in his corner. He's got all the current members of the Tucson City Council except for Ward 2's Paul Cunningham and all three Democrats on the Pima County Board of Supervisors; Supervisor Richard Elías and Councilwoman Regina Romero both spoke at a fundraiser earlier this month.

Durham's opponent is Gary Watson, a firefighter who is running as an independent after being a Republican for many years. He even voted for Donald Trump (over Hillary Clinton, not in the primary), so it may come as a surprise to know that Watson has the support of some who usually vote pretty liberal, including Felicia Chew, who lost to Durham in the Ward 3 primary.

Watson said he switched to independent because he met with local Republican Party officials, and they concluded he wasn't in sync in with their values.

"The Republicans told me I'm not Republican anymore," Watson told the Weekly earlier this year. "We sat down with the Pima County Republican Party, and they just started grilling us with questions. 'What do you think about that? Where do you stand on this?' I was telling them what I thought.... When we got done talking, they said, 'We can't support you. You're not Republican.... Yeah, you're registered, but we don't stand for this; we're against that, and you don't stand for these things.' And it was pretty obvious at that time that I don't fit the Republican Party. I registered as a Republican when I was 18 years old. It was obviously a very different time in politics."

Pima County Republican Party Chair David Eppihimer confirmed that Watson appeared out of step with the GOP, particularly when it came to Prop 101, the temporary half-cent sales tax for public safety and street improvements that Tucson voters overwhelmingly passed earlier this year.

"He used to be a Republican," Eppihimer told the Weekly, "But he was on the wrong side of our (Prop 101) sales-tax issue. And so we couldn't back him."

Watson said the independent label suited him better because he's unhappy with the partisan nature of today's politics.

"I'm tired of the hate and the negativity and the division we have between Democrats and Republicans in our city," he said. "We need somebody who can bond people."

Watson has been a Northwest Fire District firefighter for more than two decades, climbing to the rank of captain and serving as a union president, as well as an educator with Joint Technological Education District, or JTED, for nine years. He and his wife launched the EMT program.

While Watson commends the City Council for getting Tucson through the recession, he thinks the city needs to prioritize core services. Both he and Durham would like to see more money go toward retaining police officers and maintaining roads and parks.

Watson told the Tucson Weekly that although Tucson crime rates continue to fall, the numbers aren't accurate. He said the numbers are down because Tucson has lost some of its police force to higher-paying jobs elsewhere in the state, and thus police have a harder time responding to and recording crimes.

"There's no way you lose officers and have less crime," he said.

The city budgeted $3.3 million this year for police recruitment. Watson suggests the city try to get back some of the trained officers who recently left, rather than waste money training new people and having less-experienced officers.

When it comes to roads, he'd like to see those surrounding schools prioritized for repairs with Prop 101 money, as well as making sure schools have proper sidewalks and safety zones. Following schools, he'd like to prioritize residential streets.

To address job growth and poverty, he wants the city to partner with entities like JTED, Pima Community College and the small business community to create apprenticeship programs and prepare people for higher-skilled and better-paying jobs.

JTED provides high school students with free career training across a variety of disciplines, including health care, cosmology, culinary arts, construction and more.

"The average age of our skilled workers in Tucson is 54 years old," Watson said. "In 10 years, who's gonna be there to repair our crumbling infrastructure? Where are we going to find electricians and plumbers and carpenters and mechanics if we don't focus our job training back on those blue-collar, skilled-labor jobs?"

His plan is for the city to offer property-tax breaks to business owners to take on apprentices. These apprentices could start training through JTED or PCC, and once they've acquired basic skills could work with a business while continuing to study with the schools, which would also oversee their progress in the apprenticeship.

"That's what's going to give us the ability to get people out of poverty," Watson said. "You can't throw money at poverty. You have to have jobs."

Another plan he has to save the city money is to change the way the city purchases health insurance for its personnel. Employee health insurance costs are $44.8 million this fiscal year. He said by self-insuring rather than using an insurance broker, the city could save 10 to 20 percent a year.

He'd also like to see the city partner with banks as well as look into federal funding opportunities to help lower-income families buy homes.

Watson's ideas don't fall on one side of the party line. He said he voted for Trump because we had two horrible candidates. He voted for Barack Obama the previous election.

"Obama treated people with respect," he said. "How do we come back from the hate and distance and grow independent thinking?"

Durham has an MBA in finance from the University of Colorado and a law degree from Stanford Law School. He spent about two decades in corporate law before moving to Tucson in 2004. He jumped into city politics, first managing Nina Trasoff's successful 2005 council campaign and then serving as her chief of staff for her first year in the Ward 6 office.

Durham puts the blame for his return to politics squarely on Donald Trump. While he'd been thinking about running, it was Trump's election in November that sealed the deal for him. Durham and his allies cite Watson's vote for Trump as evidence that he's unfit for office.

Durham's plan for 100 percent solar includes improving energy efficiency of city buildings by putting solar installations on city-owned parking lots and infrastructure. He would also like to create a solar farm in Avra Valley. The solar would keep energy costs down, pay for itself over time and, in the long-run, drastically reduce energy costs, he said.

Along with funding parks, roads and beautifying underserved neighborhoods, Durham said the city needs to work on expanding and enhancing public transportation. And he hopes to free up money for these programs by cutting energy costs through solar.

Like many other council candidates before him, he also is calling for the city to expand its boundaries and bring in more residents to increase state tax dollars that are divvied up according to population within city and town limits. While Maricopa County has relatively few people living outside municipal boundaries, Pima County has heavily-populated unincorporated areas such as the Catalina Foothills and Vail.

Durham said city staff informed him they've identified land for annexation. He'd like to see the city hire more employees, who will "pay for themselves many times over," with the explicit purpose of expediting that process.

"For a very small amount of money, we can double the rate of annexation," he said. "We are leaving millions of dollars on the table. And the unfortunate thing is, that table is located in Phoenix."

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