Comeback Kids

On Election Night, Tucson's Democrats bounce back with a sweep

Democrats swept the City Council races Tuesday, knocking out two Republican incumbents and destroying Mayor Bob Walkup's ruling coalition.

Democrat Nina Trasoff crushed two-term Republican Fred Ronstadt, capturing more than 65 percent of the vote as of press time, with all precincts reporting and only the provisional ballots remaining to be tallied. Trasoff will represent midtown Ward 6.

Democrat Karin Uhlich defeated one-term Republican Kathleen Dunbar with more than 61 percent of the vote. Uhlich will represent northside Ward 3.

When the first election results were unveiled at Hotel Congress, the rowdy crowd of Democrats cheered, danced and exchanged high-fives.

"We have a new Democratic majority," announced Ward 5 Councilman Steve Leal, who cruised unopposed to a fifth term. "You took the town back."

Trasoff was equally ebullient. "This is the most amazing night," she told the crowd. "This is the dawn of a new day in Tucson. We're going to get our priorities straight."

Karin Uhlich thanked her supporters, saying, "You have reclaimed your city. It's a new day here now."

The mood was considerably less celebratory across downtown at the Manning House, where the Republican Party witnessed the end of a winning streak in city elections that began when Ronstadt took an upset victory in 1997. Both GOP incumbents were turned out of office, leaving just one Republican at City Hall: Mayor Bob Walkup.

As the first results were announced, the crowd went silent. Ronstadt stepped out of the ballroom with his campaign consultant, George Gobble, and later said he wasn't sure if he'd miss being on the City Council.

"It will be nice having a life back," said Ronstadt.

The Democrats' wins mark the first time since 1989 that elected City Council incumbents were turned out of office.

The Democrats won the race by employing the same tactics that have been successfully used against them in recent election cycles. They pushed a strong early ballot effort--both Democrats had leads of more than 5,000 votes before voters went to the polls on Election Day--and used independent campaign committees to hit the Republicans with negative TV ads and mailers.

Democrats used every opportunity they could--from public appearances to push polls--to pound home their message that the Republicans had sold out to wealthy special interests and abandoned Tucson's values, with an underlying strategy of tapping into the anger that Democrats feel toward the Bush White House.

Caught off guard by the ferocity of the Democratic attacks, Republicans were slow to respond. When they finally did try to get out their message that they had boosted spending on public safety, streets and sidewalks, the Democrats had already effectively framed the debate.

Voter turnout was low, with only about 23 percent of registered voters casting a ballot.

The Democrats' victory shattered Mayor Bob Walkup's ruling coalition of Ronstadt, Dunbar and Carol West, an independent who left the Democratic Party earlier this year. The Democrats will hold a 5-1-1 majority on the council.

"There are a few things I want to put on the agenda," said Leal.

But Walkup remained confident that he would be able to work with the Democrats.

"I know Nina to be a reasonable person," said Walkup.

Prop 400, a home-rule proposition that will allow the city to spend more money over the next four years, passed easily, with almost 63 percent of the vote. Prop 100, which would have raised the salaries of the mayor and council members, lost 51-49 percent, by just more than 1,000 votes.

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