Wavering Heights

Mayor Bob Walkup has waffled on the issues, but his sunny disposition may still carry him to victory over Democrat Tom Volgy next month.

"The optimist proclaims we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true." --James Branch Cabell

If it's unflagging optimism you crave, Mayor Bob Walkup is an all-you-can-eat buffet. Few politicians can match Bob's perpetually upbeat manner. Talk to him, and he'll convince you that it's always morning in Tucson, with a bright, sunshiny day ahead.

During a recent gathering at Democrat John Huerta's midtown house, Bob called optimism one of the top qualifications for being mayor.

"The sky is not falling in Tucson," the former Hughes executive told the small crowd of supporters. "It's the greatest city in the United States."

What else should people look for in a mayor? According to Bob, the mayor must be ready to work full-time, remain free to make the "right decision" without being concerned about furthering his political career, and care about the citizens. "The joy of the job," he said, "is being with people."

Finally, he said, "If you're going to be mayor, you have to look like a mayor, and you have to act like a mayor."

If the race is decided solely on those criteria, Walkup, 66, is a shoo-in for re-election to a second term on Nov. 4. His challenger, Democrat Tom Volgy, can't hope to match Walkup in the sunshine sweepstakes.

But Volgy says Walkup's relentless optimism is better suited for another profession.

"That's not a leader," says Volgy, 57. "That's a cheerleader."

A University of Arizona professor of political science who has clocked 14 years in city government (concluding with a term as mayor from 1987 to 1991), Volgy offers a totally different menu at his house parties, or "coffees," as he calls them.

Volgy says Tucson has the potential to be a great city, but that the current leadership isn't meeting the challenge of creating good jobs, improving the transportation system, educating kids, protecting the environment, creating affordable health care and, in general, getting the less fortunate through rough times.

"I've known Bob for 20 years," Volgy says. "He's a nice guy, but he's got no agenda."

THE CANDIDATES HAVE some qualities in common. Neither is particularly radical; both value practicality over ideology, leaning toward consensus over confrontation.

As Volgy did during his administration, Walkup has generally governed from the center. He's supported arts funding, briefly backed background checks on private firearms sales on city property and resisted pressure from the billboard industry to call off the city's lawyers. This summer, he joined a unanimous council to approve a citywide domestic partner registry pushed by the gay community.

Walkup's moderate style isn't terribly surprising, given Tucson's voter registration: According the Pima County Recorder's Office, there are roughly 86,000 Democrats and 53,700 Republicans, with another 49,200 voters registered with minor parties or as Independents. Given the spread, Republicans need a low Democratic turnout or a decent percentage of crossover votes to win office.

The centrist approach has meant abandoning some of the positions Walkup staked out in his '99 campaign. For example, when he ran for office, Walkup opposed a recently enacted city ordinance that banned smoking in restaurants. But after he won, he made no effort to reverse it.

Last year, Walkup joined with a majority of council members to cut trash collection to once a week and roll out blue recycling barrels that are now picked up weekly rather than every other week. Walkup opposed both those schedule changes during his 1999 campaign. Why'd he change his mind?

"I think it's bad political leadership to say, 'Look, this was my position without the information, so therefore it's my position today, even though I believe it's the wrong thing to do,'" Walkup now says. "Once we sat down and understood we could save $1.7 million with how we collect the recycling ... plus sell a considerable amount of the recycling for a substantial amount of money, all of a sudden, I thought supporting twice-a-week trash pickup is not the right thing to do for the taxpayers."

In his State of the City speech earlier this year, Walkup declared that impact fees would help pay for transportation improvements. But for his first three years in office, Walkup had staunchly opposed the fees, calling them the "trap of easy money."

"If the arguments are decent, I'm prepared to take a look, at least, at impact fees associated with transportation," Walkup says. "I changed my mind after listening to the public."

Walkup has repeatedly described himself as opposed to tax increases, but last year, he led the campaign to increase the sales tax by a half-cent to pay for transportation improvements. The city spent more than $1 million on the election and the associated publicity effort, only to see seven out of 10 voters reject the plan in May 2002. Walkup now says he opposes a citywide sales tax for transportation projects, because it's not fair to tax city residents to solve a regional problem.

As recently as January, Walkup opposed creating a 2 percent use tax, which would raise an estimated $4 million by basically applying a sales tax to major purchases made outside the city limits by city residents and businesses. Walkup said the tax was "off the table--I'm not even going to talk about it."

But when it came time to pass the budget this spring, Walkup cast the deciding vote for the tax. "The use tax, to me, is closing a tax loophole," Walkup now says. "The alternative was expanding the property tax, and I'm opposed to that."

But the city may yet re-open the loophole for major utilities. Ward 6 Councilman Fred Ronstadt has asked the city to study the possibility of an exemption in the use tax for Tucson Electric Power and Southwest Gas. Walkup says he hasn't decided whether to support the exemptions, which could cost the city as much as $1 million a year.

"Frankly, all the precincts aren't in as far as information," he says.

WHEN Walkup first ran for office, he portrayed himself as a private-sector executive who could speak the language of business and bring more jobs to Tucson.

On the campaign trail this year, he boasts that Tucson has seen a boom of more than 10,000 jobs under his leadership. But for most of his first term, the community has been losing jobs. In 2000, the average number of private, non-farm jobs in Tucson jumped by about 10,000. But by the end of 2002, mirroring the national economic slowdown, half of those jobs were gone. (Preliminary figures show a slight uptick this year.)

The economic doldrums, combined with a drop in vital tourism dollars following Sept. 11, has left the city in a serious financial squeeze for the last two years. To balance the budget this spring, Walkup cast the deciding vote to increase fees for parks and rec programs and implement the city's first-ever garbage-collection fee.

The moves have been criticized by Volgy, who says the increase in fees for KIDCO, an after-school program, hurts working families who can't afford the new charge of $50 per child each semester and $75 for all-day summer care. Although the council established a sliding scale for low-income participants (a family of five is eligible for a 90 percent discount if they earn less than $35,670, for example), Volgy says it's too embarrassing for them to apply for the fee breaks.

The steeper charge for swimming lessons has led to a significant drop in kids taking classes at city pools--particularly troubling, Volgy says, given that drowning is a leading cause of child death in Arizona.

And the new $2-a-month fee for garbage collection, which city officials have justified as a charge for brush-and-bulky pick-up twice a year, was something that Volgy opposed during his tenure in office.

"I fought tooth and nail against garbage collection fee," Volgy says. "Every city manager has wanted a garbage collection fee for the last 20 years."

Even while city officials are stretching dollars, long-term problems loom on the horizon. There's little money available for major road projects to reduce congestion. City officials boast that bus ridership is up, but the public transit system provides approximately 1 million fewer rides per year than it was in the mid-'90s, despite Tucson's population growth. And just patching residential streets and installing sidewalks and streetlights could cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 million.

City officials estimate the city is facing at least $60 million in landfill cleanup costs. Toss in the future price tag of finding a new landfill as the current one fills up, and the tab could rise as high as $100 million.

"The city is currently in the throes of a serious budget crisis," says Volgy. "We can do far better than we are doing with the resources that we have by approaching our problems more creatively and with more energy."

If he'd been faced with the city's budget shortfall, Volgy says he would have asked for a 2 percent reduction in non-personnel budget items in every city department (including the mayor and council offices and the administration) except for police and fire. He estimates the savings at an estimated $17 million dollars. "The UA absorbed 10 percent reductions in operations compared to this 2 percent I suggest," he says.

He also would have trimmed the city's public relations budget, which he puts at roughly $2 million. Volgy criticizes the city's decision to hire spokesperson Jay Gonzales at an annual salary of $80,000 during the budget crunch, as well as the city's decision to spend $16,000 earlier this week to publish a tabloid in the Sunday Arizona Daily Star highlighting positive news about the city--complete with a full-page message from Walkup on the second page.

"It is bad enough that they are doing so much self-promotion one month before the elections, but it is even worse when they claim to be broke and spending on this kind of silliness," says Volgy.

ONE WAY THE CITY could get more money would be to get more citizens, because state dollars are doled out based on population. In addition, the city would also collect a relatively small property tax from new residents and sales taxes from any commercial property that got swallowed up.

After taking office, Walkup tried to figure out a way to annex the more than 100,000 people living north of the city in the Catalina Foothills and Casas Adobes areas. But he proved no more successful in persuading those people to join the city than previous administrations had. Meanwhile, lobbying efforts for the Legislature to make annexation easier have gone nowhere.

Walkup returned early this year with a new plan to solve many of Tucson's troubles: consolidation of city and county government. By bringing together the two governments, Walkup says unnecessary services can be cut, and money can even be returned to the Tucson taxpayers.

Walkup has yet to reveal much in the way of details. He sidesteps questions about whether the new body would take responsibility for the county courts system or health care programs, for example. But--ever the optimist--he thinks the process could be done in the next two to three years.

He'd like to pave the way with a regional transportation authority, seeking voter approval within the next two years to create an agency that would handle major road projects. Walkup envisions keeping both the county and city transportation departments around to manage residential streets, sidewalks and other, smaller projects.

While he can point to a handful of communities that have been able to cut taxes by merging government operations, Walkup can't point to any research that demonstrates the same thing can happen here. While Walkup promises metro government will save money, others warn it could increase some costs. County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry points out, for example, that if Walkup wants to keep the current ratio of city cops per 1,000 residents, he'd have to hire more officers, because the Pima County Sheriff's Department has a lower ratio.

Although he announced the merger of the governments as a priority last January, Walkup still hasn't contacted any county officials to talk about the process.

"It is clearly too early for that," Walkup says. "One of the reasons I haven't picked up the phone and talked to Chuck Huckelberry or any of the supervisors is that they've been historically against it, and I think the right thing to do is get the taxpayers and public more aware of the procedures you have to go through... ."

Instead, Walkup hopes to study other communities and approach the Legislature to start the merger process rather than work with the county on it.

Walkup says he can't recall broaching any consolidation topics with the county. "I'm trying to think back of the last consolidated government function that we put on, and I'm not sure I've got one," he says.

The closest he came to openly discussing consolidation came earlier this year, when he put it on the City Council's agenda. But when the topic came up, he voted with the majority to immediately table the issue.

In fact, under Walkup, the city has moved away from working with the county. This year, for example, city officials lobbied the Legislature to grab some of the county's flood-control funds. Walkup says they took this step because city flooding problems have been ignored by the county. "We think that city taxpayers should receive flood monies at the same rate at which we put it into the pot," he says.

When the county initially invited the city to work collaborate on the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, Walkup and the council voted to reject the offer, choosing instead to develop a separate habitat conservation plan. Earlier this year, the city slightly changed course, voting to piggyback on the county's data while still pursuing their own plan.

But in recent weeks, Walkup and the council have been threatening to disrupt the county's strategy to raise funds for the conservation plan by refusing to support an upcoming county bond election unless half the money is spent within the city limits. "We think that 40 to 50 percent ought to be specific city projects," Walkup says.

Gayle Hartmann, a local archaeologist who has been working with the committee scoping out potential open space for the county's plan, says the city's demand makes no sense, given that the county is trying to purchase environmentally sensitive land for the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan. Hartmann, who is supporting Volgy, says little of that land falls within city limits, but city residents still reap benefits when nearby open space is preserved.

Volgy says Walkup's track record on consolidation is too dismal to give his new push much credibility.

"Bob has no plan," Volgy says. "In the four years that Bob has been mayor, he's consolidated absolutely nothing. To say at the end of four years, 'Oh, by the way, this is the most important thing possible, I'm going to do this in the future,' those are just empty words. If he really cared about consolidation, he'd have been doing consolidation the four years he's been in office. There's seems to be this confusion between saying words and making things happen."

A longtime supporter of metro government, Volgy thinks there's room for more consolidation between the city and county, but it won't happen until the two governments stop squabbling. He says he'd schedule a monthly meeting between the mayor, the chair of the board of supervisors, the city manager and the county administrator.

"You don't come out shooting," he says.

IF WALKUP'S CONSOLIDATION plans seem like a political Hail Mary, Volgy has proposed his own major reform: getting the city involved in fixing health care.

Although the city now has little responsibility in the health care arena, Volgy says too many residents lack health insurance, and too many businesses are struggling to provide the benefit in the face of increasing premiums.

He proposes to create an experimental health insurance cooperative. Basically, members would put their premiums into a new nonprofit operation. Using the city's staff as the initial risk pool, Volgy would offer membership to other local governments and private businesses. Since the company won't be out to make a profit, he sees lower insurance costs for participants; as an added benefit, easier access to insurance coverage will help small business and lure out-of-town companies.

Theoretically, the health care credit union is as nifty an idea as metro government. But there are no similar working models, and it would burden the city with new responsibilities at the time when the budget is already strained. Even if a separate nonprofit handled the program, city employees would be bearing the risk of failure--and city taxpayers could end up on the hook if it didn't work as planned.

WALKUP CAN PINPOINT the moment he started thinking about running for mayor.

He and his wife Beth were celebrating his 60th birthday in November 1996 with a tour of the city that ended with a surprise party at the Tucson Children's Museum.

As Walkup remembers it, then-Mayor George Miller raised a toast to him, declaring he couldn't imagine a better person to take over the job when he retired.

Nearly seven years later, Miller says he can't remember making the toast, but if he did, he's sure changed his mind about Walkup. The two-term Democratic mayor, who was known to clash with Volgy when they served together on the council, says he's firmly in the Democrat's corner.

Miller's support for Volgy illustrates one of Walkup's big problems: One of the keys to Walkup's '99 victory was crossover Democrats. Many moderate Democrats considered Walkup's opponent, Molly McKasson, too radical or flaky for the mayor's job, especially when she embraced an initiative that would have essentially forced the city to recharge CAP water in the riverbeds or sell it to mines and farms. The initiative lost by a nearly 2-to-1 margin on election day.

Walkup himself credits the failed water initiative for his victory. He says the early polling his campaign did showed that he had little name recognition, but that voters were skeptical of initiative, which was funded primarily by local car dealer Bob Beaudry.

Walkup doesn't have a water initiative on the ballot this year, but he does have the advantage of incumbency. Tucsonans have been traditionally reluctant to kick their incumbent mayors out of office. Despite the voter registration disadvantage, the last Republican mayor, Lew Murphy, held onto his job for four terms until he chose to retire in 1987.

In recent city elections, Republicans have proved that they can get their troops out on Election Day. In 1999, Walkup easily won the mayor's race; two years ago, Republicans swept the contested council races, giving Fred Ronstadt a second term in Ward 6 and former state lawmaker Kathleen Dunbar a win in Ward 3. Republicans, backed with party dollars and independent expenditures, have dominated early ballot efforts and brought eastside voters to the polls.

In 2001, Democrats botched voter turnout, which has always been a challenge on the south and west sides in the city's off-year elections. This year, new county Democratic chairman Paul Eckerstrom is promising a better effort, including aggressive mailings and phone banks.

With early voting beginning this week, the GOP has a slight edge. Through Sept. 26, 4,743 Republicans and 3,871 Democrats had requested early ballots, along with 868 voters not affiliated with the two major parties.

But the Democrats have a lot of stars aligned in their favor besides the registration edge. Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat who is backing Volgy, retains sky-high approval ratings. Volgy has support from the southside machines of Congressman Raúl Grijalva and Dan Eckstrom, who just retired from the Pima County Board of Supervisors. State Democratic Party chair Jim Pederson is promising support for the get-out-the-vote effort.

Under the city's campaign finance program (designed primarily by Volgy and approved by voters in 1985), both candidates are limited to spending $142,272 on their campaigns. (The program provides a dollar-for-dollar match of privately raised funds for qualifying candidates.)

But that balance of campaign spending has been upset in recent years by the emergence of independent campaign committees that have spent money, primarily on attack ads designed to soften support and turnout for the Democrats.

At least one independent committee, Independent People Like You, has filed organizational papers with the city.

What's Volgy's plan when the attack ads hit?

"We are going to make a direct appeal to the public that the special-interest folks who used to try to buy (the) mayor and council before we had campaign finance reform are now going to use a loophole in the law to accomplish the same thing," he says. "I think voters will do the right thing and reject it."

Walkup, naturally, remains optimistic that he'll prevail in November. He says he's got the greatest job imaginable.

"Every single judgment I've made over the last four years has been based upon what was truly the right thing to do for the community," Walkup says.

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