The Party's Over?

A new law eliminates partisan city elections—but a court fight may loom

State Sen. Jonathan Paton was delighted to hear on Monday, July 13, that Gov. Jan Brewer had signed a bill eliminating partisan elections in the city of Tucson.

"I am very happy, because I feel like in 2011, candidates, for the first time, are going to have to appeal to everyone in their wards instead of just a narrow minority," Paton says.

Paton, a Republican lawmaker, may have succeeded in eliminating one of the barriers that GOP candidates have in winning in the city of Tucson, where Democrats hold a commanding voter-registration advantage.

But Ward 3 City Councilwoman Karin Uhlich, a Democrat who may harbor 2011 mayoral ambitions, says she believes the city should challenge the new law in court if it has solid legal footing.

"Local control is an important issue in Tucson, and one that I think the people will expect us to fight to hold on to," Uhlich says. "I think the whole thing is a Republican Party-driven grab for Tucson's autonomy."

Uhlich believes partisan elections work better for Tucson, because nonpartisan elections tend to have lower turnout, and party identification gives voters an idea of the political philosophies of the candidates.

"Nonpartisan elections provide that much less information to voters on each candidate," Uhlich says. "While I wouldn't say that the party affiliation is the defining characteristic of any particular candidate, it is an indication of their orientation." (See "Who Gives a Crap?" June 25.)

Paton says he's surprised to learn that members of the City Council object to the new law, given that no city representatives fought it in the Legislature.

"I find it amusing, because they never even opposed the bill when it was in the Legislature," Paton says. "Where were they for the last six months? The silence from the city was deafening."

City Attorney Mike Rankin says he believes the city may have grounds for a legal fight. Back in 1951, the Arizona Supreme Court faced what was the flip side of Tucson's case in Strode v. Sullivan. The Legislature had tried to prevent the city of Phoenix from adopting nonpartisan elections, but the court said the state had no authority over the city's elections.

The justices ruled that "the method and manner of conducting elections in the city of Phoenix is peculiarly the subject of local interest and is not a matter of statewide concern. We further hold that the provisions of the charter of the city (of Phoenix) relating to elections to be conducted by the city are controlling."

The court emphasized the point by noting, "(W)e can conceive of no essentials more inherently of local interest or concern to the electors of a city than who shall be its governing officers and how they shall be selected."

Asked if she would support putting the question of nonpartisan elections before Tucson voters, Uhlich suggested the city should have a public process to consider a number of charter changes, including a strong-mayor form of government, which would essentially transfer the powers of the city manager to an elected mayor.

"It has been some time since we've had charter changes referred to the voters," Uhlich says.

Paton's legislation also requires candidates to run within their own wards. Under the current system, candidates now run within their wards for the primary election and then citywide in the general election.

We'll have a full roundup of the legislative session next week, but for those who can't wait until then, here's a sampling of the bills that Brewer signed:

• Pima County voters will be able to decide whether to hike a range of sales taxes to build a baseball stadium for spring training teams. (For details, see "Batter Up?" on Page 14.)

• People with concealed-weapon permits will be able to carry guns into bars and restaurants that serve alcohol.

• Women—and particularly minors—will face a host of new restrictions before they will be allowed to have abortions.

• The Department of Environmental Quality will remain in business.

• Emergency-room doctors have new protections against malpractice suits.

• Arizona has a new Homeland Security Council.

Brewer vetoed a total of 22 bills, most of which were budget-related. Brewer also rejected legislation that would have created new solar-energy tax credits and a bill that would have legalized sparklers.