Hard Times

Less than great expectations for this year's city elections

When it came to politics, 2004 was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way ...

What the Dickens are we talking about? Pima County voters were an enthusiastic bunch last year, at least during the November general election, when a record 82 percent turned out to cast a vote in the presidential race. (The September primary was another story--only 32 percent of eligible voters bothered to cast a ballot.)

While a polarizing presidential race captured the public's imagination, those of us who play political parlor games found little sport in the local contests. All the incumbents who wanted to keep their seats breezed to re-election, many without a challenge. (OK, so a constable was knocked out of office. Big deal.)

In this year's city elections, Democrats will try to overcome that power of incumbency. Sitting council members enjoy tremendous security in city elections; no elected incumbent has lost since 1989, when Ward 5 Democrat Steve Leal--who has yet to draw a Republican opponent for his re-election race this year--bumped off Republican Roy Laos.

This November, Democrats hope to mimic that victory by knocking out Republicans Fred Ronstadt and Kathleen Dunbar, the other two council members up for re-election.

Several Democrats are considering a challenge to Ronstadt, who is expected to seek a third term representing midtown Ward 6. The list includes local graphic artist and transportation gadfly Steve Farley, who says he's "seriously leaning" toward a run, and Janet Hare, a local hotel marketing executive who has landed environmental doyenne Carolyn Campbell as chair of her exploratory committee.

Dunbar, who will be finishing her first term in north-central Ward 3, looks likely to face Democrat Karin Uhlich, the former director of the homeless advocacy group Primavera, who has most recently headed up the Southwest Center for Economic Integrity.

Despite the fact that there are roughly three Democrats for every two Republicans within the city limits, Democratic candidates have seen hard times since Ronstadt broke a 12-year drought of Republican wins with his 1997 victory.

That's because municipal elections are a tale of two cities: The Republican eastside, where voter turnout approaches 50 percent, and the Democratic south and west sides, where only 1 in 4 voters tends to head to the polls. As a result, Republicans now hold the mayor's office, two council seats and, for the most part, control of the agenda at City Hall. One reason for the lousy Democratic turnout: A lot of people just don't pay attention when there's no sexy race at the top of the ballot.

Will the trend hold this year? Well, that's what we're going to find out. But if you want a gauge of voter enthusiasm in an election that doesn't feature George W. Bush on the ballot, take a look at last September's primary: In Pima County, 43 percent of Republicans cast a ballot, compared to 26 percent of Democrats.

Another city election that many voters will ignore is a $142 million water-bond schedule for May. The bonds will pay for new and repaired pipelines and other infastructure, a larger reclaimed water system and expansion of the Avra Valley recharge facilities in connection with the future use of treated effluent in Tucson's taps.

Water promises to be a major city issue in the months to come, with Tucson Water now revising its long-term water delivery plan. Also yet to be resolved: the controversial question of delivery of water to new development outside the city limits.

You'll also be hearing a lot about transportation, with the Pima Association of Governments beginning to develop a new transportation plan. The regional transportation authority hopes to ask voters to fund the plan with a sales tax in the spring of '06.

On the county's political front, Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry is expected to deliver a final version of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan to the board of supervisors. Huckelberry will also get his hands dirty cleaning up his troubled wastewater department.

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