Grandma vs. the Coach

City Councilman Paul Cunningham faces challenger Jennifer Rawson in eastside Ward 2

City Councilman Paul Cunningham grew up in Tucson politics.

His father, George Cunningham, is a former state senator, UA administrator and budget adviser in Gov. Janet Napolitano's administration. His grandmother, Lillian Fisher, was a Pima County Superior Court judge.

"There's some politics in the bloodline," Cunningham says.

But he hasn't always been a loyal Democrat. After his dad took a beating in a congressional campaign against then-Congressman Jim Kolbe in 2000, Cunningham says he grew disenchanted with politics.

"My dad got blitzed," says Cunningham, who changed his registration from Democrat to independent and left politics, focusing on his family, his job as a juvenile probation officer, and one of his passions, sports.

He didn't stay out of politics for very long. He opened Barack Obama's presidential campaign headquarters in Tucson in 2007 (disappointing his parents, who were big supporters of Hillary Clinton). In 2009, he got involved in Tucson City Council elections. And, in 2010, when City Councilman Rodney Glassman stepped down to launch an improbable bid against U.S. Sen. John McCain, Cunningham got appointed to the Ward 2 seat.

Since taking office, Cunningham has sometimes raised the ire of his fellow Democrats on the council by occasionally zigging when they zag.

"Really, when it comes down to getting things done in government, it comes down to compromise," Cunningham says. "It comes down to consensus-building. It comes down to stuff that's actually rather boring and doesn't make a good story, but it's what is effective and good for a community."

Cunningham has earned some crossover support in his bid for a full term: This week, Fred Ronstadt, a former Republican on the City Council, cut a radio ad supporting Cunningham.

Cunningham has also received unlikely support from Shaun McClusky, a Republican who ran for the City Council two years ago and took a stab at running for mayor this year, only to get knocked off the ballot when he failed to file enough signatures.

McClusky says that Cunningham has made some smart moves, such as helping bring major-league soccer and a college-football all-star game to Tucson. Cunningham has also helped McClusky when he's run into trouble with the city on various projects.

"I like Paul," McClusky says. "I like his staff."

But Republican Jennifer Rawson doesn't feel the same way. Rawson, a Republican tea-party activist who is making her first jump into politics, promises to bring "common sense and experience" to the City Council.

As the city struggles to balance the budget in the face of dwindling sales-tax revenue, Rawson says the council is failing to take care of small businesses, fix the roads and protect first-responders.

Rawson says that if her four grandsons are going to have jobs in the future, "they need their grandma to stand up now and make the necessary change in direction in Tucson, so that there is prosperity here."

Rawson has been attending Tucson City Council meetings since she announced her bid. At the lengthy meetings, she's learned that "we're spending our money incorrectly, that (Republican Ward 6 Councilman) Steve Kozachik can seldom get a second to motions that make perfect sense, and Tucson is headed in the wrong direction."

Cunningham came to the council after most of the Rio Nuevo money had been spent, so Rawson can't fault him for that. Her biggest complaint about his spending priorities revolves around the city's bus service. Spending from the city general fund on the service rose from an estimated $25.5 million last year to a projected $27.4 million in the current budget year.

Earlier this year, the City Council boosted standard fares from $1.25 to $1.50 and increased low-income fares by a dime, from 40 cents a ride to 50 cents. That was 10 cents less than the Citizen Transportation Advisory Committee recommended for low-income riders.

Rawson says that the council should have boosted the low-income fare higher—and should look for other efficiencies to bring down the cost of public transit.

Cunningham says the general-fund subsidy for the buses needed to be increased to make up for cuts in state and federal funding.

While he would have liked to spend less on buses, Cunningham adds that he's "not going to hold up the entire budget process when we're laying off no police; we're laying off no fire; we're giving workers back half their furloughs; we are putting $880,000 into residential road repair that was totally needed; and we're looking at opening four or five pools next summer. I'm not going to hold that budget package up to argue over $1 million. That's less than .1 percent of the entire budget. It was a good package."

More than anything, Rawson is counting on an electorate that wants to see change from the Democrats who are now running the city. At a candidate forum last week, Rawson raised her hand up to her nose.

"If voters are not fed up to here with everything, then maybe I'm not their candidate," Rawson said.

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