THEY MAY THINK of it as the brain or heart of the Democratic Party, but in the belly of the party that is the Nucleus Club, no one likes a mystery. Particularly in city ward politics. Just who is this Debra L. Johnson? Who is she to challenge first-term Councilwoman Shirley Scott in the September 7 primary in east and southeast side Ward 4?
"I came out of nowhere it seems to run for City Council," Johnson told the Democratic insiders gathered at a low-key forum for Council candidates.
And though Johnson, 44, explained that she is a Tucson native who grew up in the Dunbar neighborhood and graduated from Tucson High School, is the mother of five and was thrust into civic involvement and eventually politics through some intense grassroots work in the Corbett neighborhood, it wasn't enough to satisfy the curious among the Scott crowd.
Steve Emerine, a former daily newspaper editor and a public relations consultant who is supporting Scott, was not satisfied. Polite but direct, Emerine asked Johnson: "Tell us for the record what role Bob Beaudry, Terry Pollock and John Kromko are playing in your campaign?"
The three names. Dirty, frankly, to establishment politics. Beaudry, a son of the late car dealer Lee Beaudry, and Pollock are central figures in the Tucson water wars as authors and proponents of initiatives to ban direct delivery of Central Arizona Project Water. Kromko, a former 14-year state representative, is an occasionally effective gadfly who has lost his last two attempts to gain political office.
Composed despite the nervousness that comes over even the most assured political rookies, Johnson laid out what had been whispered since nominating petitions were filed June 24.
"Actually, they are not playing any major roles in my campaign. Mr. Beaudry has made a contribution to my campaign (for the maximum $320), and Mr. Pollock has also helped with printing of some materials, literature for my campaign," Johnson replied. "But they are not running my campaign. My campaign is being run by myself and Mr. Gary Bahman, and we make our own choices and our own position statements. And I speak for myself. I am not in the pocket of Mr. Beaudry or anyone else."
But what about Kromko, notable for his clear inability to take Ed Moore off the Board of Supervisors in 1992?
"Mr. Kromko initially approached me about running for City Council," Johnson said. "He was instrumental in helping to gather signatures to get my name on the ballot, but he is not involved with my campaign either."
Those were the petitions that Scott's husband and campaign manager, Joe, and her Council aide, John Macko, examined in the hopes of keeping Johnson from the ballot.
Johnson and Macko had crossed paths before. While she was pressing Corbett Neighborhood issues, including parks and recreation facilities, gang prevention and basic street and light upgrades, she and her group clashed with Macko. The divisive issue was splitting bond money to spread improvements in the ward.
Johnson says she has arrived on the Ward 4 City Council ballot via a journey in civic participation that was born out of personal tragedy.
The very neighborhood problems she worked to combat had inflicted damage to her family. One of her daughters fell victim to drugs. She dropped out of school at age 16. Johnson intervened and sent her daughter to drug rehab at Amity for one year. She returned home for about three months before getting a place of her own. But only a month later, she was murdered. Strangled. Her killer was caught and convicted.
After her family's loss, Johnson says she went to a neighborhood meeting and was "pretty vocal," demanding that drug dealers be swept out and that blocks be returned to normalcy.
Facilitators from the Pima County Interfaith Council turned the tables around and asked her what she intended to do to correct things. She was enlisted and became a leader for PCIC.
From there, the neighborhood became a model for police-citizen communication and cooperation.
From the tragedy, she says, the contacts "embraced my family and brought rays of sunshine in times of darkness."
And, Johnson says, all of those experiences have prepared her for the utterly uphill battle against Scott, a favorite of big business who will outspend Johnson by at least 10 to 1.
Johnson likely won't even be able to reach the minimum collection of 200 contributions of at least $10 from city residents to qualify for city matching funds. Scott, on the other hand, is flush with money, even if minor amounts are listed as from people who had no knowledge of the contribution.
According to an August 3 report, Scott raised $22,675 and is just $16,000 away from the maximum -- $38,677 -- that can be matched with city funds.
"There are two sides to contributions," says Johnson, who is an administrator for the taxpayer-supported Job Path program within PCIC. "I'm actually happy that we don't have that much. Ours is a grassroots campaign. I stand for struggling families."
Johnson is clear and direct on what she doesn't know. She admitted to the Nucleus Club that she didn't have a ready answer on two issues: a proposed southside annexation and electric utility deregulation.
Water is where Johnson makes her widest and clearest split with Scott, whose husband helped shape water policy for years while he served on the Citizens Water Advisory Committee.
"Voters have gone to the polls and they have spoken twice on the issue of whether CAP water should be delivered to our homes and I believe that as elected officials, it is our responsibility to ensure that the voters' will is advocated for," Johnson said. "We should not lose our allotment, but we should be looking at very creative ways at using that water. I believe in streambed recharge. And until the issues are worked out with Tucson Water to where water can be delivered to our homes in a safe and productive manner I would think that CAP water should not be delivered to our homes."
Speaking to the Nucleus Club, Scott announced that she is against the new initiative on the November 3 ballot, which seeks to tighten the restrictions on the use of Central Arizona Project water. And she invoked a well-worn line from other City Council opponents to the measure.
"What it will do is tie the hands of the Council to move forward with the best use of the water you're paying for," Scott said. "If our community had experienced a drought, you would be looking to water to help out. If you put it somewhere where all the scientists say you can get it, that makes sense."
On some issues, ranging from downtown to crime fighting, Johnson matter-of-factly weaves in her own experience.
Discussing downtown revitalization, Johnson invokes memories of shopping with her mother and grandmother and going to movies at the Fox.
In downtown and the proposed Rio Nuevo development, Johnson says she would like to see a waterfront of some sort. She is mildly critical of the evolution of Rio Nuevo -- expanding the boundaries for the tax-increment financing zone to Park Place, the former Park Mall.
"I think (City Manager Luis) Gutierrez got a little too creative," Johnson says.
Johnson says City Hall "may need to be renovated to have more space for city workers, but if it means taking away from our families and our neighborhoods, then we don't need a new City Hall. We need new roads. We need lighting. We need sidewalks. We need traffic controls that make our neighborhoods safe for our children to grow up in."
Scott, through an aide, said she could not fit an interview with The Weekly into her schedule before the deadline for this story.
At the Nucleus Club, she touted as accomplishments her work to add facilities, including the well-received Clements Center at Lincoln Park.
Scott, 56, is a partner with her husband in a fastener-supply shop that they keenly began advertising on the radio show of a onetime critic, John C. Scott. She also has taught German at Pima Community College.
On downtown and Rio Nuevo, Scott said at the Nucleus forum that she supports downtown revitalization, but expressed skepticism over the proposed Rio Nuevo project.
"Rio Nuevo, that's all there is to this at this time, a name," Scott said. "What we have are some ideas floating around."
As for a new City Hall, Scott sounded like her challenger, saying: "I will not support a new City Hall when our neighborhoods are suffering."
Scott beamed that it was so good to be in a room full of Democrats at the start of the forum, but her frequent Council ally is its only Republican, Fred Ronstadt.
She and Ronstadt joined the unanimous vote recently to support Democrat Steve Leal's move to examine regulation of big box stores. They quickly reversed themselves and sought, unsuccessfully, for a new vote. The issue of the big boxes arose from controversial plans at El Con Mall, already the subject of a pitched neighborhood battle over traffic patterns.
"The way I see it, 'big box' needs to be defined first," Scott told the Nucleus Club. "It could actually be swept into things like a hospital. A hospital is 100,000 square feet. Is that a big box? Those kinds of thoughts must also cross our minds when we consider these types of things."
Johnson says she was surprised by Scott's attempt to include hospitals and said she wonders if Scott is using it as a "scare tactic."
Johnson says she wants big boxes judged by traffic, noise and other neighborhood and infrastructure issues. She is clear that she is against an outright ban because many people she seeks to help -- middle and low income -- rely on those stores.