Electoral Autopsy

Picking at the carcass of the city canvass.

So why did Republican Bob Walkup win a second term as mayor over Democrat Tom Volgy in a town where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 3-2 margin?

Walkup's narrow win--less than 1,400 votes out of total of roughly 77,850 cast--was the result of several elements coming together. First off, Bob's sunshine shtick has made him a popular politician, according to most opinion polls--including the most important one, taken last Tuesday, Nov. 4. That popularity led some Democrats to cross party lines. Had Volgy held onto 700 of the Democrats who switched sides, he would have won the race.

Secondly, turn-out followed the trend of the last several election cycles. On the eastside, where Republicans live, voters did their civic duty, while the vaunted tide of Democrats on the southside and westside never materialized. In eastside Ward 2, more than 46 percent of the voters went to the polls; in southside Ward 5, less than 27 percent voted. The Democratic advantage doesn't count for much if the voters don't get off the couch on Election Day.

Third, there was the light rail proposal, which we'll get to in a minute.

And finally, there's the power of incumbency. In city politics, it's almost impossible to knock someone out of office.

Is that why the Democratic council candidates ran so much stronger than Volgy?

Prezactly--plus, they were up against rookie candidates with little name ID.

Both Democratic council candidates ran ahead of Volgy, with Shirley Scott grabbing 62 percent of the vote against Republican Mike Jenkins, while José Ibarra grabbed about 53 percent against Republican Armando Rios.

Something else to keep in mind: Since the council candidates essentially ran on the same message as Volgy--"The Republicans are slashing programs for seniors and kids!"--it's hard to consider their win to be an endorsement of their platform, assuming the voters even heard what they were saying. That probably means most voters didn't pay much attention to the council races and simply voted along party lines.

What about early voting?

Republicans have dominated early voting in past city elections, but Democrats boosted those numbers this year. They beat the Republicans by about 3,500 early ballot requests and matched Republicans on the returns at about 84 percent.

But so what? It's just another example of the Democrats fighting the last election while the GOP has moved to the next one. More early voters aren't much good when they're the same old voters who usually go to the polls. The Republicans reportedly worked hard at getting their worst voters to vote early and then counted on their hardcore voters to show up on Election Day.

Ultimately, despite the Democratic effort, Volgy failed to win in early voting, even though 14,659 Democrats and only 11,754 Republicans cast ballots before Election Day. Walkup came out of early ballots with an 807-vote lead and never looked back.

What role did independent campaign committees play?

While final numbers from the independent campaign committees won't be in for a while, it's a pretty good bet the political committee Independent People Like You--funded mostly by car dealers, homebuilders and other members of the local power structure--spent somewhere in the neighborhood of six figures on a campaign beating up on Volgy and boosting Walkup. Since the candidates themselves were limited to spending about $140,000 on their entire campaigns, the independent campaign was able to frame much of the debate.

The frame job, in this case, mostly linked Volgy to the light rail proposition, which was rejected by more than 62 percent of the voters. Did that bring down Volgy? Well, it couldn't have helped to be linked to an unpopular proposal.

Given that only 40 percent of the voters cast a ballot, the independent campaign seems to have done its job--which is depressing support for the target.

What's the impact of independent campaign committees on the city's program of publicly financed campaigns?

The city's campaign laws have become the plaything of the Growth Lobby.

Basically, participating candidates get a dollar-for-dollar match if they agree to limit their spending. The spending limit is supposed to force the candidates to do more grassroots campaigning rather than just raising a ton of cash to spend on TV ads, phone banks and whatnot.

But since independent campaigns can spend as much, if not more, than the candidates, the system has turned into a trap that lets special interests drown out the messages from the candidates themselves.

When Volgy created the city's current campaign finance laws back in the mid-'80s, he never dreamed of the cruel irony of those same laws hobbling him and empowering his opponents. Volgy, left with the city's miserly $140,000 spending limit, struggled to get his message out to a bored electorate. Walkup had the same limits, but the Growth Lobby was able to pump plenty of money into the independent campaigns on his behalf.

The Volgy campaign has done the best job yet of making an issue of these shadowy independent groups, but aside from some hyperventilating from the Tucson Citizen, it didn't quite grab the public's attention, perhaps because the gnat-sized attention span of the electorate is not quite equipped to understand the arcane details of city campaign finance law.

The low spending limit has another unintended effect: It makes it harder to let the voters know there's an election coming up, as does the city's recently enacted restrictions on political signs. And when voters don't get their cues to vote, turnout suffers.

But reform of the program is unlikely. Raising the spending limits or amending the program to allow matching funds for independent campaigns would take an amendment to the city charter, which the majority of council members are unlikely to support. And the idea of giving more money to political campaign might not prove so popular with the voters even if it did make it onto the ballot.

What does all this mean for the 2005 election cycle?

It means that the incumbents who are up for re-election--Democrat Steve Leal and Republicans Fred Ronstadt and Kathleen Dunbar--can sleep pretty soundly, provided they don't utterly screw up between now and then. A competent Democratic candidate would likely lose interest in running after a look at the difficulty of unseating an incumbent, while a second-stringer will lack the political muscle needed for an upset. And Republicans, while they have grabbed and held open seats, have yet to unseat an incumbent. If any of the council members were vulnerable, Ibarra was, and he still won handily against Armando Rios, even though Rios ran a well-funded and well-organized campaign.

What about the light-rail train wreck?

Although the prop's conductor, Steve Farley, has done his best to spin the defeat as a win, supporters of light rail ended up with less than 38 percent of the vote on election day. That's a pretty resounding rejection.

The group's political naivete was evident in the assumption that the ability to knock down Walkup's 2002 transportation plan was a mandate for light rail and better transit. And in crafting their plan, the ragtag band created a funding mechanism for the opposition by including a construction tax.

The light-rail guys would have been better off if City Clerk Kathy Detrick had knocked them off the ballot in July. If that had happened, Walkup would have looked like a tyrant who was thwarting democracy and the focus would have been on his failure to pass a transportation plan last year.

Instead, light rail dominated the transportation debate and Walkup was able to ride the winning side on Election Day.

The Growth Lobby has never been known to show a deft hand in politics, but they played the game well in this election. If he'd had his druthers, Volgy would never have willingly supported light rail in this election, but Farley and his posse forced him into it like frat brothers punking a pledge to do a dozen Jell-O shots at the Sigma Psi Epsilon trailer-park theme party.

A well-executed campaign by the anti-light rail ballot measure committee beat the issue with merciless precision and Independent People Like You shackled Volgy to the issue in the public's mind.

The transit crew is promising to cook up new ideas and get back to us. But unless they have the stomach for another petition drive and a fat wallet, voters aren't likely to buy what they're selling.

So where does that leave transportation planning?

Walkup has promised to push the Arizona Legislature to let us create a regional transportation authority, essentially giving more muscle--and taxing power--to the Pima Association of Governments or a similar organization. Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce is cooking up a bigger deal that would link Pima, Santa Cruz and Pinal counties in a Canamex corridor organization that could try to leverage federal funding.

Until they end up on the same page, state lawmakers will probably just end up confused by Tucson's lobbying efforts.

And if they're confused, think how befuddled the ordinary voter will be when it comes time to approve the whole thing at the ballot box.

If the history of transportation propositions has proved anything, it's that it's easier to destroy than to create--a cautionary note for anyone who wants to tackle the issue again.

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