Guest Commentary

Were Mike Varney's comments a sign of his real issues with Tucson?

Lee Sonnichsen called his history of the Old Pueblo Tucson: Life and Times of an American City. The title was meant to be a little ironic, as Tucson's strange and colorful history is hardly typical. Tucsonans generally take great pride in what we regard as the specialness of our city, even when it frustrates us.

Of course, residents of most cities regard their town as special, and every community has civic boosters who try to sell tourists and investors on the local charms. What makes Tucson different is that the folks who have positioned themselves as our civic boosters seem to genuinely dislike our city. They may say that they do not, perhaps they even believe that they do not but their words and actions say otherwise.

The latest example comes from Mike Varney, who recently parachuted into our fair city from the famously soulless conurbation of Las Vegas to lead the Tucson Metro Chamber. Last week, Varney started a bit of a chingazo by proposing that Tucson dump the nickname "Old Pueblo."

This has been tried before without effect. The silly names "Sunshine Factory" and "Optics Valley" are remembered only because they never caught on. Nicknames happen organically. When I was in basic training, folks called me "Pretzel." One of the drill sergeants called me "Ice Cream" after a character from Sgt. Rock. I would have preferred it if the latter caught on, but that is not the way these things work. Perhaps this is why Chuck Huckleberry was quoted being dismissive of the whole thing in the Star.

What matters is the attitude behind this. My Uncle Kiko might have put it best when he said "Their real problem isn't with 'Old.' Its with 'Pueblo.'" He is not the only Tucsonan who recognizes that this debate harkens back to the same sentiments that drove the Chamber of Commerce and its allies in the Sunshine Climate Club to point to the Mexican-American community as the chief obstacle to Tucson's progress as a city, a notion that culminated in the destruction of the greater part of Barrio Viejo in the 1960s and 70s.

But it might not be fair to say this is about race. The truth is that the current leadership at the Chamber regards Tucsonans in general with sneering contempt. Those of us who have had the dubious privilege of being party to their candid conversations are aware that our friends and neighbors are considered ignorant bumpkins who need to get out of the way. Former State Senator Frank Antenori may well have been criticized for his scornful comments about Tucsonans, but he was actually saying in public what many leaders of the organized business community say in private.

Varney's own contempt manifested himself a few weeks ago after the City Council rejected the El Rio location for a Grand Canyon University campus. Varney responded by firing off an insulting press release which impugned the motives of the Council and showed a remarkable level of ignorance of the city's history and role of our elected leadership. He seemed annoyed that community concerns about controversial economic development initiatives were at all indulged in a public discussion.

Tucson needs a vigorous public debate about its economic development future, but it is only going to happen if the organized business community starts treating Tucsonans, and by extension, our elected leaders, with respect. Part of this respect is acknowledging that Tucson is a unique place with special problems and values that we hold dear as a community. A productive discussion without such respect is impossible. Attacking our city's nickname smacks of dismissing Tucsonans themselves as our chief problem as a community, and this is not the way to get to where we want to go.

Little or nothing has been heard from Varney since he came out with his rebranding proposal. Perhaps someone had a chat with him and told him to quiet down. This could be a good sign, as it may be an indication that he is listening to someone in the community. If it is, this is certainly something he should be doing more often.

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