Kromko's Comeback?

In Arizona's most crowded legislative primary, a local political gadfly hopes to end a losing streak

Former state lawmaker John Kromko is trying to end a political losing streak that started when he left the Arizona Legislature back in 1992 to run for the Pima County Board of Supervisors.

He was banned from running for office in Pima County for five years for improperly filing campaign-finance reports after a failed justice of the peace bid in 1996. He came up short in an effort to repeal the city of Tucson's trash fee. He briefly considered and then abandoned a mayoral campaign on the Green ticket in 2007. He lost a Legislative District 27 House primary in 2008. And most recently, he fought Proposition 100, a sales-tax increase that Arizona's voters approved nearly two-to-one in May.

Kromko's biggest successes in recent years have involved helping to defeat efforts to provide additional funding for Tucson Unified School District schools through bonds and budget overrides.

Paul Eckerstrom, a former Democratic Party chair, says Kromko has changed from a "rabble-rouser Democrat" to an "anti-tax crusader" since his time in office.

Though the two used to be friends, Eckerstrom says he will not be voting for Kromko this year.

"I don't want to send a Democrat up to the Legislature who's going to take the Republican side on all this," he says.

Kromko says the state needs him now more than ever. He is running against seven other Democrats for two open House seats in Legislative District 27, which stretches from the UA to Three Points.

"I did such a great job in the Legislature that they still have legends about me," he says. "I think in these times, our problems are so serious that they really need creativity and, boy, I did some creative stuff in my life."

Back when Kromko struggled to pass his agenda at the Capitol, he often took to the streets with citizen initiatives. As a result, lawmakers would be forced into action.

Kromko takes credit for helping create the Clean Elections program, and for repealing the state's sales tax on groceries and medicine.

But local conservative political pundit (and longtime Weekly contributor) Emil Franzi says that although Kromko was a fierce independent who shook up the Legislature, he sometimes takes too much credit.

"The iconoclastic John is the good part; the failure to follow through is the bad part," Franzi says. "A couple of times, someone came along behind him because they wanted (a petition) for their own reason, or they had done the hard work on it. But as a solo player, he never seemed to get enough signatures."

However, Franzi thinks Kromko has a strong chance of winning this primary, given his name recognition and the fact that he's facing many political newcomers.

"If he can't win this one, he ought to move to Idaho and live under an assumed name," Franzi says.

Kromko is the only Democrat in the race who supports SB1070, because it will force the federal government to deal with immigration.

"(SB) 1070 is not only a wise, but a necessary thing," he says, "and it will work ... because now the courts and the Congress will have to deal with (immigration)."

Most of the other candidates are relatively unknown outside of party circles, with the exception of Sally Ann Gonzales, who served in the Legislature from 1996 to 2000. Gonzales, a former Pascua Yaqui Tribal Council member and teacher, says she got into the race to fight for her 19 grandchildren.

Gonzales boasts that during her years in the House, the Legislature passed KidsCare, a program that leverages federal dollars to provide health insurance to children. Gonzales says her first order of business would be tax reform.

"We cannot do what I'd like to do without looking at what money is coming in, and bringing some of those revenues back and making everyone pay their fair share," she says.

John Bernal is a 24-year-old teacher at a local charter school who's running his first campaign. He holds a degree in economics and wants to put his skills to work on the state budget.

As a teacher, he sees education as the real solution to our economic mess.

"That's why our economy is faltering," he says. "That's why crime is up; that's why our streets aren't as pretty as they could be; that's why our politicians aren't as good as they could be."

Dustin Cox, 24, is the former executive director of nonprofits Anytown Arizona and Anytown America. He describes himself as a "budget wonk" and says he helped turn the enterprises into successes.

"The whole point (of Anytown) is to build bridges among communities who traditionally don't work together well, who may not like each other," he says. "And I can't think of a more valuable skill in the Legislature."

Eric Carbajal Bustamante is a behavioral health associate who ran his first campaign for the Legislature in 2008, about a year after being charged with reckless and intentional assault for punching the host of a late-night party in Oracle. (See "Punches and Politics," July 15.)

Bustamante calls himself a "political fighter."

"I've been fighting for children and working families, and I want to fight for jobs, and that's the whole reason I'm running for state representative," he says.

Macario Saldate says the district deserves a full-time representative—and as a retired teacher, he has time. He helped establish UA Mexican American Studies and Research Center.

"What I can do in District 27 is provide the leadership needed to create a positive process for a dialogue promoting a very strong sense of community," Saldate says.

Bob Gilby is a math teacher at Marana High School and a lobbyist for the Arizona Education Association. He has spent a lot of time walking the district and talking about education—and his campaign chair, retiring Rep. Phil Lopes.

"Everyone in this district loves Phil Lopes," he says. "That's part of what gives me access at the door: (I say), 'I'm a teacher; I'm a Democrat, and Phil Lopes is my campaign chair,' and people go 'cool.'"

Sami Hamed also has the blessing of termed-out Rep. Lopes, as well as Congressman Raúl Grijalva. Hamed, who is legally blind, worked in Grijalva's office as an aide for eight years and says assisting constituents helped him learn the issues.

"Being a man who has lack of vision, I have more vision than the Legislature does," says Hamed. "I want to bring that lack of vision to get Arizona moving forward again."

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