Rash of Cash

Tucson's council campaigns are turning into a money pit.

The special interests are more special than ever in this year's city election, with two independent campaigns raising more than $90,000 to influence the outcome of the race.

Since 1987, candidates for mayor and council have had the option of participating in the city's public financing program, which provides a dollar-for-dollar match for candidates who qualify by raising a minimum of 200 contributions of at least $10 each from city residents. In exchange for public dollars, candidates have to agree to a preset spending limit based on inflation and the number of registered voters.

The program has proven popular among candidates and voters. No one has won a council seat without participating in the program since voters created it.

All five candidates in next week's election have qualified for matching funds. In Ward 6, both incumbent Republican Fred Ronstadt and Democrat Gayle Hartmann have raised more than the roughly $80,000 they can spend; in Ward 3, Republican Kathleen Dunbar has hit the magic $80,000 number, while Democrat Paula Aboud's most recent report shows that she had raised about $62,000 through October 17. (Libertarian Jonathan Hoffman had raised $5,386 and qualified for matching funds, although he has not yet requested them.)

Ronstadt had no trouble raising funds, with more than $44,000 in the bank by May 31. (Matching funds essentially doubled his bankroll). Ronstadt has more than 170 contributors from a wide spectrum. His biggest backers include El Con lawyer Bob Gugino ($340), Eller Media Co. President Paul Meyer ($320) and restaurateur Bob McMahon ($300). At least three high-ranking executives with legendary land speculator Don Diamond's development company have given $320 or more, as have at least two members of Diamond's family. Developer David Mehl and wife Bonnie gave a combined $640.

Hartmann has gotten money from more than 280 contributors, most of whom gave less than $50. The largest have come from archaeologists, educators and writers. Some notable names on the list include Sierra Club activist Rich Genser ($300), fellow Democrat Paula Aboud ($20), retired city attorney Tom Berning ($50) and former Ward 6 Councilwoman Molly McKasson ($25).

Like fellow Republican Ronstadt, Dunbar has a wide array of backers, but her largest contributions come from special interests. Don and Joan Diamond gave a combined $680, while their son-in-law, Yoram Levy, gave $320. Karl Eller and his VP Don Dybus gave $320 each. Jim Click Jr. and his wife Vicki gave a combined $340. Four members of the Kivel family, who own El Con Mall, kicked in $320 each.

Aboud, a political novice making her first run at public office, has struggled to keep up through the campaign. Her biggest contributors include congressional candidate Mary Judge Ryan ($340) and anti-billboard activist Mark Mayer (at least $250). Her fellow candidates have also chipped in: Steve Leal gave $250 and Gayle Hartmann, along with husband William, gave a combined $480. Incumbent Ward 3 Councilman Jerry Anderson gave Aboud $200. Former state Sen. George Cunningham and his wife Marjorie gave a combined $200. Green Party activist Carolyn Campbell wrote a check for $40.

The amounts flowing to candidates seem like paltry sums. But there's another game afoot: the Republican Party and the Growth Lobby are weighing in on the side of the Republican slate, spending more than $90,000 on independent efforts outside the candidates' campaigns.

How has the money made a difference? For starters, take a look at the early ballot numbers. By the time city officials stopped accepting vote-by-mail applications last Friday, October 26, Republicans were way out ahead, with 15,677 requests. Only 7,943 Democrats had requested early ballots, while another 1,408 voters who aren't registered with the Big Two had asked to vote by mail, bringing the total to 25,208.

The return rate as of last Friday suggests some of those voters haven't yet made up their minds. About one-third of the Republicans who requested early ballots--5,136 voters--have mailed 'em in; another 94 had voted at one of the city's satellite voting locations. That's still well ahead of the Democrats; only 2,212 had returned their ballots and another 180 have voted at an early polling place.

The Republicans grabbed the early lead through a sophisticated campaign effort that targeted early voters. Because there are only two Republicans on the ballot, state law prohibits the Republican Party from directly working with candidates. But the county party was allowed to send out a mailer asking voters to request early ballots, provided the mailer didn't mention candidates by name or include their picture. Voters sent completed requests back to GOP headquarters, where barcodes on the cards were efficiently scanned to track returns. Those voters who didn't respond to the first request were mailed a second one.

The state party used a different strategy. Nathan Sproul, director of the Arizona Republican Party, set up an independent campaign committee that dropped a mailer and called voters who requested early ballots to urge them to vote for Ronstadt and Dunbar so the GOP slate could support Mayor Bob Walkup's agenda. The independent campaign committee, Good Government for Tucson/AZ Republican Party, reported spending $14,842 of its $30,000 through October 17.

Earlier this week, attorney Bill Risner filed a complaint with City Clerk Kathleen Detrick alleging that Good Government for Tucson "is not a legitimate independent campaign and the sole purpose of its existence is a transparent attempt to evade otherwise applicable restrictions on campaign contributions and expenditures." Risner asked Detrick to investigate and "take appropriate action, which under state law, could include substantial financial penalties and under city regulations a denial of the right to hold office if elected."

Sproul could not be reached for comment on the complaint.

The Democratic Party, by contrast, isn't doing much beyond providing desks, telephones and volunteers at campaign headquarters. Aboud and Hartmann, along with Councilman Steve Leal (who faces no opponent in the general election, having defeated Jesse Lugo in the September primary), pooled some of their campaign dollars for a joint early-ballot campaign, but it clearly lacked the effectiveness of the GOP effort.

Republicans, including GOP county chair John Munger, have complained that the combined campaign has not equally shared expenses, but the City Attorney's Office has so far found no wrongdoing.

THE GOP COMPLAINTS about campaign finance skullduggery are just a sideshow compared to the independent campaign committees. Besides Good Government for Tucson, a second committee, Citizens for a Better Tomorrow, has raised more than $60,000 for campaign efforts that will include mailers and television ads supporting Republicans and opposing Democrats.

The biggest contributors include billboard baron Karl Eller's El Pac, which kicked in $10,000; the Southern Arizona Homebuilders Association, which anted up $9,000; legendary land speculator Don Diamond and his family members, who wrote checks for $4,500; and auto dealer Jim Click and his family, who provided $4,000.

"The people who are contributing to our campaign are by and large both economic leaders and small business people who are concerned about the economy," says Jonathan Paton, chairman of Citizens for a Better Tomorrow. "Our basic feeling is that everything is pretty tough in Tucson and across America and we've got a good leader in Bob Walkup and he needs a good team behind him. We know that Kathleen Dunbar and Fred Ronstadt will be a part of that team."

Paton, who ran unsuccessfully for the state House of Representatives in 1998 and 2000, also worked as a strategist for the now-defunct Tucsonans for Alert Government, which spent $27,550 backing Democrat Jesse Lugo in an unsuccessful effort to knock off Councilman Steve Leal in September's Ward 5 primary.

Tucsonans for Alert Government enjoyed financial support from many of the contributors to Citizens for a Better Tomorrow. The two largest contributors were the Southern Arizona Homebuilders Association, which wrote a check for $3,000, and El Pac, which contributed $2,200. (Coincidentally, Eller's Clear Channel Communications was paid $2,295 for billboard rental in the campaign.)

Former Tucson Mayor Tom Volgy, a UA political science professor who spearheaded the 1985 ballot effort that created the public financing program, says the independent campaign committees are making a mockery of the city's campaign finance program.

"The whole idea behind partial public funding of elections is that you make a commitment that campaigns will be fought on the basis of a restricted amount of money," says Volgy. "And when there are independent campaigns, they destroy that process."

Volgy calls upon candidates to tell their supporters to curtail independent campaigns that run on their behalf.

"It's incredibly dishonest for candidates to say, 'I will take public money, I will restrict my campaign spending,' and then allow campaigns to spend whatever they want to on top of that," Volgy says.

Volgy, who sits on a blue-ribbon commission examining potential city charter changes, says the solution is a charter amendment that provides candidates with an additional 50 cents for every dollar raised by independent campaign committees that oppose them.

"For every dollar you're out there raising on these independent campaigns, you're giving 50 cents to your opponent," Volgy says. "It cuts it quick. Once this kind of mechanism is in place, you won't see independent campaigns again."

Paton remains unconcerned about the impact of independent campaigns.

"Perhaps Professor Volgy should have thought of that back when they wrote the law in the first place," Paton says.