Off and Running

Meet the City Council candidates most Tucsonans won't give a crap about

As we note in "Who Gives a Crap?" most Tucsonans aren't going to show much interest in this year's City Council races.

But if you're among those rare political junkies who have an interest in the management of this baked burg, here are a few points to keep in mind.

Tucson remains a Democratic stronghold. The roughly 106,000 Democrats hold a formidable registration advantage over the roughly 59,000 Republicans. In fact, GOP voters in Tucson are actually outnumbered by 69,000 voters who have no party preference or who identify with a third party.

But the Republican slate has plenty of material they can use to hammer the Democratic candidates. Look for the Republicans to sharply criticize spending on Rio Nuevo and complain about the council's decision to raise utility taxes and water rates. They'll also embrace a proposed initiative to spend more on cops and firefighters.

The GOP's best hope for victory: Hammer the incumbent Democrats as incompetent, in an effort to discourage Democrats in the central city from going to the polls; meanwhile, push Republicans on the city's eastside to get out on Election Day.

Republicans have successfully used that strategy in the past, but it's only worked with open seats and candidates who had the benefit of big name ID or a Democratic Party splintered by a fractious primary. And while Republicans can tap a growing mood of anti-incumbent sentiment, they still have serious problems with their own brand.

Here's how the races are shaping up.

In Ward 3, Karin Uhlich was swept into office in 2005 on a blue wave of Democratic resentment toward Republican Councilwoman Kathleen Dunbar. On the campaign trail four years ago, Uhlich complained that Dunbar had raised too many fees without enough public input—but as the economic slowdown has squeezed Tucson's budget, Uhlich herself has had to embrace higher fees for trash collection, water service, utilities, and parks and recreation programs.

Uhlich's biggest impact on the city came earlier this year, when she joined with three of her fellow council members to dismiss the city manager, Mike Hein, because she had lost "trust and confidence" in him.

Uhlich has a progressive background, having spent nine years as the executive director of the Primavera Foundation, an organization that provides shelter, job-training and other support for the homeless. In addition to her council job, she also serves as the executive director of the Southwest Center for Economic Integrity, an organization that helps people find firm financial footing and combats the payday-loan industry.

While she has downplayed rumors that she's considering a mayoral run two years from now, she also won't pledge to serve all four years of her term if she wins in November.

Uhlich has drawn a challenge from Republican Ben Buehler-Garcia, who came to Tucson from Springerville, Ariz., to study criminal justice at the University of Arizona. After he started working on his degree, Buehler-Garcia decided he didn't want to be a police officer and found himself drawn to the intersection between business and politics. He landed a job at the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, where he worked for more than a decade before becoming a consultant.

As a community activist, Buehler-Garcia has been involved in local efforts to keep the Pentagon from closing Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, preserve spring-training baseball and mentor youth.

Buehler-Garcia complains that Tucson's crime problems are growing, that small businesses are struggling with too much government interference, and that the City Council is raising taxes instead of cutting spending. He says the city needs to develop a new push for international trade.

"Tucson reminds me of a child who should be getting A's in school, but keeps bringing home C's and D's," says Buehler-Garcia. "That is the frustration. Tucson is an amazing city with great potential that remains unfulfilled."

In Ward 6, incumbent Councilwoman Nina Trasoff, a former television reporter and public-relations guru, also tapped into Democratic anger when she defeated Republican Fred Ronstadt four years ago.

After taking office, Trasoff faced many of the same problems that she criticized Ronstadt for failing to correct. Rio Nuevo redevelopment moved slowly, and a major deal with developers apparently fell apart just last week. Trasoff, who once promised to reduce the city's trash-collection fee, voted instead to increase it this year. And she's had to backtrack on promises to reduce other city fees as the city's budget woes have increased.

Trasoff has drawn an aggressive challenge from Republican Steve Kozachik, who is making his first bid for public office. As an associate director for facilities and project management with the University of Arizona Athletics Department, Kozachik spearheaded the recent development of the Richard Jefferson Gymnasium and the expansion of the aquatics facilities.

"I'm tired of seeing our taxpayer money get wasted with nothing to show for it," Kozachik says. "I do this kind of stuff for a living. ... They're just not getting it done."

Kozachik promises to spur downtown redevelopment, spend more city dollars on police, and support "accountability and transparency—things that at other times might sound like empty political rhetoric, but in this case, it's not. There have been too many behind-closed-doors deals."

Kozachik is showing little mercy in his campaign. He pounced last week after the morning daily reported that the city had spent $820,000 on a 12-minute video touting Tucson's history. The film was supposed to be shown at the historical museum built downtown as part of Rio Nuevo, but that project is now on hold.

"That thing should have cost, maximum, $30,000," Kozachik says. "Maximum. And it should have used local talent. We have a ton of guys here in Tucson who could have done that job in a heartbeat. Absolutely, that was a waste of money."

Trasoff caught a break last week when Green Party candidate Dave Croteau withdrew from the race. Croteau, who got 28 percent of the vote in a mayoral race against Republican Bob Walkup (who faced no Democratic opponent in his third bid for mayor) two years ago, could have drained some of Trasoff's support on the left had he remained in the race.

Croteau quit the race after Jeff Rogers, a local attorney and chairman of the Pima County Democratic Party, filed a lawsuit to knock the Green candidate off the ballot.

Rogers says that Croteau failed to turn in the seven valid signatures he needed to make the ballot. Of the nine signatures that Croteau submitted, five of them were from Green Party members who live outside of Ward 6, Rogers claims.

"If you can't get seven valid signatures, you're probably not somebody we want on the City Council," Rogers says.

In Ward 5, City Councilman Steve Leal is stepping down after 20 years on the Tucson City Council. The open southside seat has attracted only one Democrat, Richard Fimbres, 54, who has a long political history in Ward 5.

In 2002, he was tapped by Democrat Janet Napolitano to head up the Governor's Office of Highway Safety. Before that, he spent two decades working in an administrative position for Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik.

On the side, Fimbres has served on the Pima Community College governing board since 1997, although he plans to resign if elected.

He's gathered a long list of awards, including being named Man of the Year by the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce in 2002, and National Man of the Year by the League of United Latin American Citizens in 2001.

Fimbres scared off potential Democratic challengers with a team of supporters that includes Dan Eckstrom, the former Pima County supervisor; Ramón Valadez, Eckstrom's successor on the Pima County Board of Supes; Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik; former Tucson Mayor George Miller; and Leal himself.

He'll face the winner of a rare GOP primary in Ward 5 that puts Shaun McClusky against Judith Gomez.

A Chicago native, McClusky, 37, worked for Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago Country Club before joining the Air Force. In 1999, he was stationed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. He served four years as an A-10 crew chief and then, after some knee trouble, worked in combat communications.

Following an honorable discharge, he stayed in Tucson and sold cars for Jim Click before going into real estate. He's now the owner of Rincon Ventures, a property-management and real-estate firm.

McClusky says he got into the race because "there's an opportunity for a little bit of diversity on the City Council at this time, and the seat became available, and it's one that needs to be filled so we can get a little bit of a different look going forward so we can change the path that the city's been traveling on."

Like the other Republicans, McClusky is stressing the need for better police funding, improving downtown redevelopment and reducing the regulatory burdens on local businesses.

Gomez, 27, took a break from her fledgling career in banking and bookkeeping to raise her three children, work as a portrait photographer and pursue a dream of writing novels. About six months ago, she went back to work for Chase Bank.

She says she got into the Ward 5 race because she "was tired of waiting for somebody else to do it. You wait so long for someone to stand up and be the voice for you and for your family. Like my grandmother always says, if you want something done, you do it yourself."

Gomez says she's struggled with her political identity until recently concluding that she feels most at home with the Republican Party.

"I believe in smaller government," Gomez says. "I believe that people who work should be the ones who prosper. I don't believe the government should ever have the right to step in and tell me the best way for my money to be spent."

Ward 5 Republicans will have to look hard to find differences between Gomez and McClusky on the issues. She also supports more spending on police, faults the current council for the slow progress of Rio Nuevo, wants to help small businesses prosper, and says that "getting the budget under control is imperative."