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Why the Republican Party doesn't have many candidates in this year's city election

With less than a week before the nominating petitions are due to the City Clerk's Office by the close of business Wednesday, May 31, Republicans are having a tough time fielding candidates for the three Tucson City Council seats up for grabs this year.

There's only one GOP candidate in the mix. Local architect Mariano Rodriguez wants to take on Democratic incumbent Steve Kozachik in Ward 6. Rodriguez is a naturalized citizen who has been registered to vote since 2008.

We had a brief conversation with Rodriguez earlier this week, but he didn't have time for an interview when we spoke to him. He promised to call us back, but never did, so we weren't able to ask him about his spotty voting record; although he's been registered to vote since 2008, Rodriguez has only voted in two city elections (the 2013 and 2015 general elections) and the primary and general elections in 2014 and 2016, according to county records.

Pima County Republican Party chairman David Eppihimer told The Skinny this week that it's been hard to recruit candidates because Tucson's citywide voting system—which recently survived a legal challenge by a group of local Republicans—gives Democrats a significant advantage since they outnumber Republicans in the city limits. While moderate Republicans have won in the past—Bob Walkup won three terms as mayor from 1999 to 2011, Fred Ronstadt won two terms representing Ward 6 from 1997 to 2005, Kathleen Dunbar represented Ward 3 from 2001 to 2005 and Kozachik managed the near-impossible feat of knocking out a Democrat in Ward 6 in 2009—the deck is undeniably stacked against them. That's especially true in a year when Democrats are fired up to go to the polls to express their unhappiness with the Trump administration and the GOP Congress.

"The city's system has Republicans very discouraged and recent history has not been kind in terms of the citywide election process," Eppihimer said. "It's very hard to find candidates."

Still, the GOP is passing up a shot at an open seat in Ward 3, where three Democrats—Tom Tronsdal, Paul Durham and Felicia Chew—are fighting it out in a Democratic primary to win the seat now held by the retiring Karin Uhlich.

The Republicans could have had a Republican firefighter carrying their banner in Ward 3, but party officials told him he didn't meet their standards.

Gary Watson, 49, who works at Northwest Fire District, is now running in Ward 3 as an independent. Watson says he met with local GOP officials but was told that the party would not be backing him because he didn't align with their views on several issues, including his support for Prop 101, the sales-tax measure to fund public safety and roads that more than six out every 10 Tucson voters supported in last week's election.

"The Republicans told me I'm not Republican anymore," Watson said. "We sat down with the Pima County Republican Party and they just started grilling us with questions. 'What do you think about that? Where do you stand on this?' I was telling them what I thought. ... When we got done talking, they said, 'We can't support you. You're not Republican. ... Yeah, you're registered, but we don't stand for this, we're against that, and you don't stand for these things.' And it was pretty obvious at that time that I don't fit the Republican Party. I registered as a Republican when I was 18 years old. It was obviously a very different time in politics."

Eppihimer confirmed that Watson appeared out of step with the GOP.

"He used to be a Republican," Eppihimer said, "but he was on the wrong side of our (Prop 101) sales-tax issue. And so we couldn't back him."

Watson cited the city's spending on public safety as a major motivation for getting into the race. He'd focus on increasing spending for cops and firefighters by finding small savings across the budget.

"Public safety is expensive," said Watson, who has served as president of his union. "There's no doubt about that. It's one of the most expensive things in any municipal budget. But it's also necessary. Our No. 1 priority is protecting our citizens."

While he's had some political experience as a union president at Northwest Fire District, Watson hasn't been a frequent visitor to the ballot box. Since he registered to vote in 2003, county records show that he has only cast a ballot in the 2010, 2012 and 2016 general elections, the 2012 and 2016 presidential primaries and the May 2016 special election for two propositions, a school-funding prop and a public-safety pension reform measure.

That means Watson has never voted in a city election, skipped key special elections such as the passage of the Regional Transportation Authority in 2006 and has stayed away from primaries for state and local office.

Watson said he didn't really have a good reason for failing to vote, although he said one time he got a vote-by-mail ballot and ended up trying to vote at the polling place, only to later discover his ballot wasn't counted. He said he doesn't like to vote by mail because "I like to go vote."

"There were a few times I didn't vote in certain special elections, smaller elections because of being at work," Watson said. "With our schedule, we don't get to vote all the time. To be honest with you, I never planned on being a politician. I do like to follow politics and I vote whenever I could. It wasn't out of anything like I didn't care about it. I just didn't make it to the polls. I don't like mail-in ballots. I prefer showing up at the polls, where you can actually look at a form and see that it goes right into the box."

The televised edition of Zona Politics with Jim Nintzel airs 6:30 p.m. Fridays on the Creative Tucson network, Cox Channel 20 and Comcast Channel 74. This week's guests are Tucson City Council candidate Paul Durham and Arizona Capitol Times reporter Hank Stephenson. The TV show repeats Sunday mornings at 9 a.m. The radio edition of Zona Politics airs at 5 p.m. Sundays on community radio KXCI, 91.3 FM, and at 1 p.m. Saturdays and 11 a.m. Sundays on KEVT, 1210 AM. Nintzel also talks politics on The John C. Scott show at 4 p.m. Thursdays on KEVT, 1210 AM.

Correction: This column has been updated with the correct year that Councilman Steve Kozachik first won the Ward 6 seat.


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