The Swing District

Republican Tanner Bell hopes to unseat Democrat Sharon Bronson and change the balance of power in county government

The only thing standing between Democrat Sharon Bronson and a fifth term on the Pima County Board of Supervisors is Republican Tanner Bell.

Bell, a former offensive tackle on the UA football team, hopes to bring an end to Bronson's 16-year career representing District 3.

The District 3 race is the key battleground for those who want to flip control of the Board of Supervisors into GOP hands. At the moment, Democrats have a 3-2 edge. It's unlikely that either Richard Elías (who is facing Republican Fernando Gonzales) or Ramón Valadez (who is facing Republican Jim Kelley) will lose in their heavily Democratic districts.

That leaves Bell to take out Bronson so that the county's critics can move forward with plans to fire County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry and create a business environment with fewer regulations on developers and other businesses.

Bell has an uphill battle. Democrats make up 40 percent of the voters in the sprawling District 3, which stretches from central Tucson and Marana west across the Tohono O'odham Nation to Ajo. Republicans make up just 28 percent of the voters, less than the 32 percent who are independents.

Bronson also has a financial advantage. As of Sept. 17, she had raised more than $83,700 for her campaign and had nearly $67,000 going into the post-primary stretch, while Bell had raised just $22,500, with $7,700 on hand heading into the final weeks of the campaign.

But Bell is getting some help on the financial front. An independent-expenditure committee called Restoring Pride in Pima County has been buying ads on TV, radio and the Internet (including to hammer away at Bronson. The group's financial backers remain unknown. It is funded with so-called "dark money" raised by Arizonans for a Brighter Future, a nonprofit "business league" headed by developer Mike Farley, who has declined to reveal his contributors. Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, he is not legally obligated to do so.

Farley has been upset by a county plan to improve the intersection at Valencia and Kolb roads. Farley owns property there and wants a different design for the intersection, because the county's current plan will limit his ability to build a shopping center. Huckelberry says Farley's preferred plan would cost taxpayers more money and result in a less-efficient roadway. (See "The Bright Stuff," Aug. 2.)

Bell is making his first run for public office. After he graduated from the UA with a degree in regional development, he got involved in conservative politics. He was part of an effort to launch the Arizona Policy Institute, which organizers hoped would be a Southern Arizona version of the Libertarian-oriented, anti-tax, anti-regulation Goldwater Institute.

With Bell as president, the nonprofit institute ran up and down the field a few times, but didn't score any touchdowns. Although Bell boasts that the group sued the city of Tucson over issues related to Rio Nuevo, it filed only one lawsuit, alleging that the city improperly gave a lease to Maynards Market and Kitchen in the downtown train depot. The lawsuit didn't go far; it was tossed out of court in December 2010, four months after it was filed.

Bell's group issued only two press releases, according to its website. The "latest news" section of the website has not been updated since February 2010.

After the depot lawsuit fizzled, Bell left the Arizona Policy Institute and took a job in the UA Athletic Department, helping athletes keep their studies on track.

Bell relocated to District 3 shortly before announcing his plans to run against Bronson. He says he got into the race because Pima County "is going to be my community for the next 40 years, and I want to take it in a positive direction."

On the campaign trail, Bell has come out swinging against Bronson. He frequently talks about poverty in Pima County. He complains that there are few opportunities for young people, and that many of his friends have had to leave town.

He's also unhappy with the condition of Pima County's roads.

"I'd like to see the county get more involved in re-prioritizing and fixing our roads," he says. "It's something that we need to seriously, seriously address."

While he has identified problems in Pima County, Bell doesn't offer much in the way of solutions. To develop policies to lure new companies to Tucson, he'd "want to see what other communities are doing, and find out how we become more productive and more competitive." He wants to have a citizens' committee look over the budget to advise him where he could cut in order to find more money to improve roads. However, he doesn't want to cut spending on amenities such as parks or libraries.

His one concrete idea for spending less money is reducing what the county spends on open space. Bell said he'd rather see environmental groups purchase open space than have county taxpayers pick up the tab.

"As much as I love our Sonoran Desert, I don't necessarily agree with buying open space," Bell says. "That's something that I know the voters approved, but that was only a small portion of what they were approving."

Bronson points out that the 2004 open-space bond package was a stand-alone question that was supported by two-thirds of Pima County voters.

"I think we have an obligation to honor the wishes of the voters," Bronson says. "If you look at the land in Pima County, a good portion of it is state trust land that will be sold, so we're not going to run out of land to develop any time soon."

Bronson adds that open space "is an amenity that attracts tourists and adds to our economic base, because this is wealth that stays in our community."

Some of the set-asides are a key element of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, which helps both large and small developers avoid trouble with the federal government over the Endangered Species Act.

"It was the get-out-of-jail job for developers (that) brings certainty to the county," Bronson says.

Bell says he's also a supporter of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, calling the planning document "something that needed to be done in terms of curbing the sprawl. ... Obviously, we had a problem with sprawl."

On the budget front, Bell complains that the Board of Supervisors has been raising property taxes. On his website, he complains that in May 2011, "through a manipulation of the numbers, the board approved yet another property-tax increase. Taxes increase while our property values simultaneously decrease. Not only was this newest tax increase unnecessary; the existing property taxes should and could have been lowered. Had the property taxes been lowered, the net result to the taxpayer would have been less of a tax burden and a boost to the community."

But those taxes have actually gone down for a property that Bell owns with his parents and brother on Tucson's southside. The county tax bill for the property in 2009 was $597; in 2012, it had dropped to $446—a decrease of about 25 percent.

The bills have dropped for some of Bell's key supporters as well. For example, morning-radio host Joe Higgins, a frequent county critic who is advising Bell, saw county property taxes on his Catalina foothills home drop from $1,466 in 2010 to $1,269 this year.

Bronson counters Bell's concerns about runaway spending at the county with a variety of facts and figures: The county has lowered general-fund spending by 17 percent since 2007. Over the last five years, the county's workforce has been cut by 12 percent. Kino Hospital has been spun off, and the county's long-term care facility has been handed off to the private sector.

Bronson says the county's economic-development focus is on "jobs for the 21st century in biotech, aerospace and defense, IT and solar." She points to the recent deal to bring the health-care research group Acceler8 to Tucson from Denver. The county lured the company here by using a loan from the Arizona Commerce Authority to build a wet lab on the campus of Kino Hospital. The rent for Acceler8 will be below the market rate for three years. After that, the firm will pay the market rate if it remains at the Kino campus. If it moves to new headquarters, the county will have a wet lab that it can offer to another biotech firm.

Bell shrugs off the deal, saying it's just "10 initial jobs. I think it has the opportunity to grow from 10 to 30. I'll believe it when it I see it. But it's 10 jobs."

Bronson argues it's 10 jobs to begin with—at salaries well above the median wage in Tucson—but it should grow to 55 jobs by the middle of 2013, and could have as many as 200 in a few years.

"This is an investment in the future," Bronson says. "It's not just 10 jobs now. It's 1,000 jobs in 10 years."

The candidates also are split over the proposed Rosemont copper mine in the Santa Rita Mountains. Bronson has joined with the other four members of the current Board of Supervisors to oppose the mine, because she's concerned about the impact on water and air quality, as well as potential damage to the tourist industry in the Sonoita area.

Bell says he's "neither for nor against the whole Rosemont (project)," but he doesn't like the way the Board of Supervisors has opposed it.

"I don't agree with them using our taxpayers to fight a project," Bell says. "It paints a poor picture to businesses looking to relocate."

With her connections to various interest groups (along with the expectation that she'll win the race), Bronson has been reeling in endorsements. She has the support of business groups (the Tucson Association of Realtors and the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association), law-enforcement groups (the Fraternal Order of Police and the Deputy Sheriff's Organization) and the media (the Arizona Daily Star and the Tucson Weekly).

The list of endorsements is so lopsided that Bell considered it a win when the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce didn't endorse him, because the organization also didn't endorse Bronson.

"I was ecstatic by the chamber nonendorsement," Bell says. "They chose not to endorse a 16-year incumbent. I took that as a huge victory for my campaign."

Bronson took the chamber's decision in stride, pointing out that it has never endorsed her.

"I have a long list of endorsements," she says. "That certainly speaks to my support in the community."

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