The Iconoclast

Steve Kozachik has gone from a virtual unknown to one of Tucson's most popular pols

When Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild stepped to the microphone at City Councilman Steve Kozachik's campaign-kickoff party at Borderlands Brewing last month, he called the Ward 6 Democrat "an iconoclast."

"An iconoclast is a person who is a destroyer of idols and someone who questions old customs and old ways," Rothschild said. "And that is something that is needed, particularly in times when we need change."

Love him or hate him (and there are plenty of folks who feel both ways), Kozachik is most certainly iconoclastic. He eschews many of the familiar trappings of politicians. He doesn't appear concerned about his image; his hair sometimes looks as if he hasn't tried to comb it in days and he has no qualms about showing up for town halls in a track suit instead of a coat and tie. He's blunt about saying where he stands on an issue, even if it means upsetting the status quo.

As Adam Kinsey, a former executive director of the Pima County Democratic Party who is now working as a consultant on Councilwoman Karin Uhlich's re-election campaign, put it: "There's absolutely no pretense. He's not ideologically driven. He's driven by what the right result for Tucson is going to be."

In his first term on the Tucson City Council, Kozachik has been remarkably effective. He was barely in office when he led the charge to cancel the plans for a major downtown convention hotel. He was a key figure behind the ousting of former city manager Mike Letcher. His push to prohibit racing greyhounds from being injected with steroids has Tucson Greyhound Park teetering on the edge of collapse. He has upended the Regional Transportation Authority's plans to widen Broadway to eight lanes between downtown and Country Club Road.

Kozachik was narrowly elected as a Republican four years ago, but the party label didn't stop him from endorsing Democrats such as U.S. Rep. Ron Barber, U.S. Senate candidate Richard Carmona and Pima County Board of Supervisors candidate Nancy Young Wright, to name just a few. He openly feuded with members of the local GOP legislative delegation over women's rights, gay rights and the tendency of state lawmakers to sponsor legislation that restricted the powers of city government.

And when he took on the issue of gun control by sponsoring a gun buyback in January, the backlash within the GOP was so great that he ended up quitting the party and registering a Democrat.

After his party switch, Kozachik said—in his typically blunt fashion—that the decision was "nothing at all against the rank-and-file Republicans in this state who are embarrassed by this Republican Party and where they're going. It's my sense that this party is going to have to start hemorrhaging some centrist members before they start to understand how detached they are from the values of this community."

Kozachik has been warmly welcomed by his new party—which isn't terribly surprising, given his high-profile criticism of Republicans while he was still a member of the GOP.

"I don't think you see one Democrat who has a problem embracing Steve," said Jeff Rogers, former chairman of the Pima County Democratic Party. "He's a thoughtful guy. And this is not to suggest that other people aren't, but he's really big on transparency and being careful with the taxpayer dollars."

At the same time, Rogers admitted some disappointment in Kozachik's party's switch: "It was refreshing to have a sane Republican, but I can see why he couldn't last any longer there."

Rogers said he admires how Kozachik has adapted to the local political scene: "For somebody who was a complete rookie when he started this off, he's come a long way."

Kozachik arrived in Tucson in 1968, when he was in the eighth grade. His mother, a divorced nurse who was raising him and his brother as a single mom, had had enough of Michigan winters. As Kozachik remembers it, they got on a train in the middle of the night and moved to Tucson, sight unseen.

Kozachik has a lot of praise for his mother, Marian Kozachik, who is now in her late 80s and turns up at council meetings from time to time.

"She fought like hell to keep custody, despite the fact that my dad kept coming back," he said. "He had remarried, had seven kids by his new wife, so he figured he needed to take me and my brother away from my mom, too."

Kozachik graduated from Catalina High and earned a bachelor's degree in public administration at the UA, where he met his wife of 34 years, Ann. The couple have a daughter, Kimberly, who graduated with a business management degree from the UA's Eller College of Management.

Kozachik's first job out of college was managing a Long John Silver's franchise, where he learned about the challenges of running a small business, from hiring and firing to making payroll. But the fast-food business was a "meat grinder," so he found a job at Asarco in industrial relations.

After eight years of that, he went back to the UA to earn a degree in higher education management. He'd always liked college sports, so one day in 1988, while still a student, he walked into then-UA Athletic Director Cedric Dempsey's office with an offer: He'd work for free, doing what Dempsey needed done. Dempsey put him to work in event management and the gig worked out. Kozachik now manages capital projects, such as the current work on the new grandstand behind the north end zone at Arizona Stadium.

Kozachik has long had an interest in both politics and public service; he's traveled in Zambia to build an orphanage, to Sri Lanka to help after the 2004 tsunami and to Louisiana to deliver relief supplies in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. But it was watching the city struggle with building a new arena and other Rio Nuevo projects downtown that got him interested in running for the City Council.

"It was happening at the exact same time as I was building the Richard Jefferson gymnasium," Kozachik said. "When you look at a place that you've lived in and raised a family in and you see it struggling to do just what I've done on campus ... out of frustration, I got my oar in the water."

Kozachik didn't have any particular loyalty to the Republican Party. He likes to say that he's never voted a straight ticket in an election and was registered as an independent before he got into the race. His decision to run as a Republican was by default, more than anything else, since the incumbent, Nina Trasoff, was a Democrat.

The odds were steep against a political rookie. It had been more than three decades since a Republican had unseated an incumbent Democrat in the heavily Democratic city of Tucson—and the Republicans who had won open seats typically had a famous name (Fred Ronstadt), political experience (Kathleen Dunbar) or the benefit of a Democratic primary that had fractured support for a nominee (Bob Walkup).

But Kozachik took the fight to Trasoff, who had alienated some of her core supporters with missteps on the council. In particular, Kozachik zeroed in on the city's failure to make visible progress with downtown revitalization through the Rio Nuevo project.

"Seriously, folks, you're spending other people's money," Kozachik said. "So much money was being wasted."

Kozachik pulled off a narrow upset, winning the seat by fewer than 1,800 of the 71,391 votes cast.

Kozachik had no idea how complicated the job would be when he was sworn into the Ward 6 office.

"I was naively surprised by the complexity of the issues and the amount of study that they take if you're going to do the job right," he said. "Everybody that I meet has their issue and they know it well and they expect you to be able to take a position on it."

That means he has to do a lot of homework each week. It's a time-consuming process, especially on top of a full-time job at the university, Tuesday council meetings and the time he has to put in with constituents and stakeholders at the Ward 6 office. He's busy seven days a week and often doesn't get home before 11:30 on weeknights.

"I won't do this job without being all in because there are too many important things that we are talking about," Kozachik said. "It's about the community we're living in. For far too long, we've been poorly managed."

Rothschild is among those who praise Kozachik's work ethic. "I can tell you, from my experience, that he reads everything that is put before council and that, in itself, is a monumental task," Rothschild said. "Steve is dedicated to that task."

Kozachik said he wants a second term because there are projects he wants to get finished, including downtown revitalization. He's happy to see more restaurants opening downtown and he has high hopes for a planned boutique hotel across from Hotel Congress.

"There's a lot of good energy going into the downtown area right now," he said.

Kozachik sees the city facing some "really critical issues," including a $15 million budget shortfall this year, the future of Broadway Boulevard and other dealings with the Regional Transportation Authority, and ongoing battles with the Arizona Legislature.

He's also eager to work out the challenges ahead on more technical but vital issues such as city water policy and land-use policy.

He said Ward 6 faces unique challenges as the University of Arizona seeks to continue to grow and nearby neighborhoods seek to preserve their historic character.

He said one of the biggest mistakes of his first term was not being on the ball when the District, a 750-bed student-housing complex, was approved near Fourth Avenue and Sixth Street. The students at the complex have had numerous run-ins with neighbors over parties and traffic in the neighborhood. While Kozachik worked out a deal with the original developer to mitigate some of the problems, the District was flipped to a new owner who is not following through on those promises.

"I feel as though the city got rolled on the District property," he said. "I'm not going to get rolled again."

Listen to Kozachik discuss neighborhoods and you might think that he got his talking points from former Ward 6 councilwoman Molly McKasson. He told the Weekly that when he considers the impact of a new development in the ward, he now thinks: "Would I want that right across the street from my house? And if the answer is no, then that needs to frame the conversation, because somebody is going to have that right across the street from their house."

He doesn't much care for the term NIMBY (Not In My Backyard): "NIMBY is used as a pejorative. Everybody who is a homeowner is a NIMBY when it comes to some issue, whether it's a liquor store or a drive-in theater in your backyard or a mini-dorm. Pick your issue. Everybody who is a homeowner at some point has that label attached to them. It is offensive when somebody uses that as a criticism."

But he's equally dismissive of complaints that the city isn't friendly to business: "I'm tired of hearing that. We've put in place a plan review process, we have an ombudsman at Planning and Development Services, we've got economic development people in the City Manager's Office, we've got incentive packages in place now. ... You need to strike a balance and I think we're doing that."

One of his biggest gripes is regarding some of the people who supported him in his 2009 race.

"If there's anything that's frustrating as hell, it's hearing the talk radio guys get on and be nothing but critical, knowing how hard some people are working to make good things happen," Kozachik said. "And good things are going to happen. We are right on the cusp of it."

As he looks to a second term, Kozachik has found himself in an interesting situation: For the most part, the people who supported him last time want him to lose, while the people who opposed him last time want him to stay.

Kozachik's initial moves—such as torpedoing the proposal for a downtown convention hotel—won him praise from the conservative Republicans who had helped win office.

But he also soon found himself in conflict with other local Republicans, particularly those serving in the Arizona Legislature. As they pushed laws to restrict abortion, limit the powers of cities and crack down on illegal immigration, Kozachik started openly feuding with them.

"We were just destined to have this falling out if they were going to continue to go after these key issues," Kozachik said.

His most visible clashes have been with former state lawmaker Frank Antenori, who claimed that Kozachik presented a different persona to him when he was running for the council seat.

"Everything that he says he doesn't agree with now, he said he supported," Antenori said. "The guy's a liar. His liberal buddies will probably appreciate that—'Oh, good, he lied to the Republicans.'"

Kozachik denied that he deceived Antenori.

"While I was running, I knew in my gut that there were positions I wasn't comfortable with that they were taking," Kozachik said. "There has always been a rub between the far right and who I am, but they knew that. ... They were digging it during the campaign: 'Here's a guy who can get crossover votes. Here's a guy who can get independent votes, and we just want to win.'"

Antenori, who has been fishing around for months to find a candidate to run against Kozachik, said it hasn't been easy to find someone who wants to get into the race.

"I don't know if he'll have an opponent," Antenori said.

Kozachik is working to discourage any challengers. At his re-election kickoff two weeks ago, he boasted that his team had already gathered the maximum 800 signatures on his nominating petitions and landed the endorsement of police, fire and public-sector unions.

"The goal was to slam the gas pedal down and don't let up," Kozachik said. "My purpose in coming out really hard and really aggressively is to say: Bring it on if you want to. It's going to be a waste of your time and your money."

Kozachik's re-election campaign has three co-chairs, representing Democrats, Republicans and independents: former U.S. surgeon general Richard Carmona, who narrowly lost a U.S. Senate race on the Democratic ticket last year; former Tucson City Councilwoman Carol West, who left office as an independent after clashing with Democratic Party leaders in her final term because she worked too often across the aisle; and Republican Bob Walkup, who stepped down as mayor in 2011 after three terms.

Walkup isn't the only former mayor supporting Kozachik. He also has Democrats George Miller and Tom Volgy in his corner.

Volgy, who had Kozachik as a student in one of his international relations classes at the University of Arizona, said he didn't support him in 2009.

"I wasn't sure what the policies were going to be and I didn't know what the 'R' next to his name meant," Volgy said. "But even before he switched, I discovered he was a man of incredible integrity and enormous bravery, and I liked the policies that he pushed. ... He took on a lot of bad guys, and he did it publicly."

But Kozachik has also picked up support from Republicans. He captured a key endorsement last week from former congressman Jim Kolbe.

"Steve Kozachik has demonstrated an ability as a Tucson city councilman to build bridges across party and ideology gaps to find practical solutions for our community," Kolbe said in a prepared statement. "He studies the issues, asks tough questions, and listens to all sides before making a decision that is in the best interest of the entire community. For too long, Tucson has been divided along meaningless partisan lines."

Rogers, the former county Democratic Party chairman, said he doubted that the GOP will find a tough candidate to run against Kozachik.

"I don't think they'll run anybody serious against him," Rogers said. "They might find someone who is not serious, but I don't think anybody who is real serious about this will take him on."