Battle Royale

Which Democrat will joust with Fred Ronstadt this November?

Midtown Democrats can be forgiven if they're still trying to decide between candidates Nina Trasoff and Steve Farley.

When it comes to the rhetoric, there's not a lot of difference between the two Democrats, who face off next month in the Ward 6 primary to determine who will carry the party's banner against Republican Fred Ronstadt in the Nov. 8 general election. Both want to protect the desert, stop sprawl and build a better tomorrow. Both complain about Tucson's disturbing crime rate and gripe about Wal-Mart's negative impact on the community.

Both are political veterans, having worked behind the scenes as well as front and center in political campaigns. Both know what it's like to lose: Trasoff failed in her debut as a candidate for the Arizona Corporation Commission last year; Farley spearheaded a 2003 transit initiative that was rejected by roughly two out of every three voters citywide.

They both have a background in the arts. Farley is a successful public artist who does work in cities across the country, where, he says, he sees all sorts of new approaches to problem-solving he'd like to bring to Tucson. Trasoff fondly recalls her days as a professional dancer in New York City, Los Angeles and Las Vegas before she moved to Tucson in the 1970s to launch a six-year stint as a television journalist before moving into public relations.

The two candidates even agree on many issues. Both have adopted the standard Democrat line that the council majority erred when it established $50-a-semester fee for KIDCO, Park and Recreation's after-school program. Both are leery of Tucson Water's proposal to serve treated effluent in customer taps. Both want to try to persuade Davis-Monthan Air Force Base officials to change flight patterns over midtown.

They sorta disagree on whether annexation of the Catalina foothills is a good idea. Trasoff says she believes it could bring more state money to Tucson, but that each annexation needs to be measured on its own merits.

Farley says he'd rather see the city allow foothills residents to form their own municipality. (A referendum to do just that failed in 1997, but Farley blames that partly on opposition from the city of Tucson.)

"Why don't we encourage people to do it themselves and solve their own problems?" he asks, before hatching another of his farfetched ideas. "In theory, I don't see a problem with de-annexing, if we want to cut off the city of Tucson at Wilmot (Road) and form a town called Rincon on the eastside. If you talk to voters, you talk to people in the central city who feel they're getting screwed by all the money going to the eastside, and when you talk on the eastside, they feel like they're getting screwed by all the money going to the central city."

But no matter what the candidates' positions are, there are two fundamental reasons the annexation issue isn't very important to the race. The first is that the ultimate power lies not with the City Council, but with foothills residents, who have resisted annexation for decades. The second is that annexation is the kind of boring procedural issue that doesn't resonate with voters in a midtown primary.

There's one kitchen-table issue where the two candidates stand in stark contrast to each other: the city's new $14-a-month trash fee.

The fee was approved as part of a plan to make Environmental Services an enterprise department, meaning, like Tucson Water, it has to collect enough money through monthly fees to support its services. Ronstadt pushed for the change, which was made on a 4-3 vote last year, with Democrats Steve Leal, José Ibarra and Shirley Scott opposing the proposal.

Although city staff hasn't finished final calculations for the fiscal year that finished June 30, the fee brought in an estimated $23 million, according to Mitch Basefsky, spokesman for Tucson Water, which is overseeing Environmental Services.

The city waives the trash fee--along with water and sewer bills--for households that can show they're at less than 150 percent of the federal poverty line, meaning that a family of four that earns less than roughly $29,000 a year doesn't have to pay the bill, according to Basefsky. Thanks to additional publicity the program has received in the wake of establishing the garbage fee, Basefsky estimates about 1,800 households have taken advantage of the program in the last year, up from roughly 500 the previous year.

Supporters--including Ronstadt--say the fee freed up money in the general fund that covered the cost of additional police officers, firefighters and Park and Rec staffers.

But Trasoff and other opponents say the fee is regressive and unfair. At her campaign announcement in front of the Democrats of Greater Tucson earlier this year, Trasoff said she supported repealing the garbage fee.

"I morally object to putting on a tax that had such a dramatic impact on working families and the elderly," she says.

When pressed on how she would balance the budget without the additional $23 million, Trasoff has few answers, although she insists she would not cut police, fire or children's programs.

Over the last four months, Trasoff has dialed back her opposition to the fee, suggesting now that she'd try to reduce it over time rather than repeal it outright.

"We have to do it with intelligence," Trasoff says. "We don't just go in by fiat and say, 'It's gone.'"

Farley supports the fee, although in public forums, he downplays his position, suggesting it wouldn't have been necessary had he been in office rather than Ronstadt.

In interviews, he calls the fee necessary, provided there's a program to help low-income Tucsonans get a break. He says the current threshold of 150 percent of the poverty line sounds reasonable.

"We need a trash fee," Farley says. "Communities all over the country do it. ... I don't think we deserve to have our trash carried away for free."

Farley says he's wary of making solid waste an enterprise department, because it could be a step for privatization, but he does think the department should be entirely self-supporting--including the subsidy program, even though that would drive the monthly fee higher to make up the difference. So what's the highest fee he thinks the city should charge?

"Anything I say would be arbitrary," Farley says. "We'd have to see where the figures come from and what they represent."

Democrats are hungry for a win in Tucson. Even though there are five registered Democrats for every three registered Republicans within the city limits, these have been lean years for the majority party. Since 1997, when Democrats controlled the mayor's office and all six council wards, Republicans have grabbed every empty seat that's come up for grabs. The seven-member body is now split between three Republicans and three Democrats. (Carol West left the Democratic Party earlier this year to register as an independent).

GOP candidates have won with effective get-out-the-vote efforts on the eastside, where their voters live. Meanwhile, in heavily Democratic wards on the south and west sides, fewer than three out of every 10 voters turn out to vote in the low-interest city elections.

Democratic activists believe they can turn that around this year by tapping into the seething rage that many Democrats feel toward the White House (and, to a lesser degree, the Arizona Legislature) to get voters to the polls.

In their eagerness to win, many are flocking to Trasoff, because they believe that she'd make a stronger candidate against Ronstadt in the November general election.

"Both would make strong council members," says Ted Prezelski, a longtime Democratic Party activist who's thrown his support to Trasoff. "I think Nina's instincts are better for a general election candidate. She can beat Fred Ronstadt."

It's an argument that Trasoff frequently makes herself. "Steve's a good progressive, but he can't win outside the ward," says Trasoff, who boasts that she won all six Tucson wards in her unsuccessful Corporation Commission race last year.

Farley has recently countered with the suggestion that he's the only candidate to have beaten Ronstadt in a citywide contest, because he opposed an unsuccessful road-heavy 2002 city transportation proposition that Ronstadt championed.

"I'm looking forward to kicking Fred's ass again this November," he says.

But by that measure, Ronstadt subsequently kicked Farley's ass over the 2003 light-rail initiative, which Farley was far more closely identified with.

However you read the tea leaves, the endorsements and money are flowing Trasoff's direction. The Sierra Club split the difference by endorsing both candidates, but Trasoff has recently scooped up support from labor unions, including the Southern Arizona Building Trades union and the United Food and Commercial Workers union. Last week, she got the nod from the Arizona Daily Star editorial page.

Trasoff has proven a more effective fundraiser as well. She had raised $28,367 as of May 31, according to campaign finance reports with the city. Last week, she said she had collected somewhere in the neighborhood of $40,000. Once she receives matching funds from the city, she'll have almost reached the new $84,000 limit set under the city's publicly financed campaign program.

Farley had raised just $11,278 and had only $2,330 remaining on May 31, although has since received $11,278 in matching funds.

Among Trasoff's contributors: $150 from county Democrat Party Chair Paul Eckerstrom and $370 from former state chair Jim Pederson, who stepped down last month to mull a challenge next year against U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl.

Eckerstrom last month denied that the contribution to Trasoff was an indication that he supported her over Farley. The assistant attorney general said he intended to give money to Farley as soon as he could afford to.

Endorsements and money help win elections (and give some idea of how the candidates are being received by various political players). But winning the primary will also be a matter of retail politics, which is why both candidates are walking door to door with lists of high-propensity voters. Both campaigns are charting which voters are leaning their direction, which ones want to cast an early ballot and which ones are willing to put up a yard sign.

There are currently about 20,000 registered Democrats and 12,000 independents who are eligible to vote in the Sept. 13 primary. The last time Ward 6 voters had a contentious primary--in 1997, when five candidates battled it out to replace the retiring Molly McKasson--about one in four Democrats cast a ballot. If that percentage holds, that means about 8,000 voters will decide the race. And the number could be considerably lower, because independents tend to sit out primaries, even though they now have the power to vote in them. Case in point: Of the 300 early ballots already requested for the race, none have come from independents.

With early voting set to formally begin next Thursday, Aug. 11, both candidates remain confident of victory on Sept. 13. Farley believes the strength of his ideas will carry him to the primary victory. Trasoff suggests that some of those ideas, such as the 2003 transportation proposition, are so far out that he can't build the support needed to beat Ronstadt.

Both have so far avoided taking serious shots at one another. That's partly to avoid alienating troops that they'll need in November, and partly because they agree on one more thing: They both want to see Fred Ronstadt lose in November.

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