Back to the Future?

Democrat Tom Volgy wants to grab his old job from Mayor Bob Walkup.

The weekly meeting of the Democrats of Greater Tucson typically draws only a handful of party faithful. They fill maybe a fourth of the cavernous room at a midtown Chinese restaurant.

On the occasional week that a speaker draws a crowd, the restaurant staff can quickly dismantle a wall in the back of the room to fit a larger audience.

But when Democrat Tom Volgy formally announced his challenge to Republican Mayor Bob on Feb. 3, so many people swung by to hear his speech that waiters had to tear down all the walls to accommodate the overflowing audience.

Judging from the 200 or so supporters who turned out for the announcement, Volgy may prove equally adept at bringing down the walls that have often divided local Democrats.

If nothing else, the former mayor had a lot of friends in the room. The City Council's four Democrats--Steve Leal, José Ibarra, Shirley Scott and Carol West--turned up, as did all three Democratic Pima County supervisors--Dan Eckstrom, Sharon Bronson and Richard Elias. Former council members Jerry Anderson and Molly McKasson were in the crowd. Jan Lesher, an old political compatriot now heading up Gov. Janet Napolitano's Tucson office, was there. The state party even sent down a representative to let Volgy know they were behind him.

Although he offered few specifics on his agenda, Volgy came out swinging.

"Look at us now," he said. "With our streets clogged, our economy in the dumps, a third of our Tucsonans unable to get by on the wages they earn, our public education system groaning under enormous stress, our healthcare system coming apart, our parks and recreation programs diminishing, our city's finances the bleakest in recent memory, the mayor started his reelection campaign by saying, and I quote, 'This is our time and our city. Let's build on the progress we've made so far.' I say this is not progress. This is the path to self-destruction."

Volgy's challenge to Walkup came just three days after the Republican incumbent delivered his annual State of the City speech, calling for a local constitutional convention to find a way to merge city and county governments and a study of the region's transportation values.

Volgy suggested the focus on metro government was meant to cover up the failure of Walkup's efforts to annex residents north of the Rillito River.

"If in my third State of the City, I'm still talking about getting good ideas instead of being well into implementing them, you should put me out to pasture," Volgy said.

The upcoming campaign will put Walkup's famed popularity to the test as he attempts to balance a serious budget shortfall without alienating voters.

Because there are roughly three Democrats for every two Republicans within the city limits, Walkup needs to persuade voters to cross party lines to support him. That strategy worked four years ago, but that year's ballot also carried a controversial CAP water initiative that helped sink Walkup's Democratic opponent, Molly McKasson.

Still, the GOP has demonstrated a sophisticated touch when it comes to getting out the vote, particularly on Tucson's east side. The party has been making gains ever since Republican Fred Ronstadt won the Ward 6 seat in 1997. Walkup's 1999 win was followed by Ronstadt's reelection and Republican Kathleen Dunbar's victory in Ward 3 two years ago.

Volgy, a professor in the UA's political science department who represented Ward 6 on the City Council for a decade before winning the mayor's office in 1987, stepped down after one term to run for the U.S. Congress, but lost a 1991 Democratic primary to Ed Pastor. In 1998, he challenged Congressman Jim Kolbe, giving the 10-term congressman his closest race since he first won office.

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