Welcome to Wonderland

Down the rabbit hole of Tucson politics.

"But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.

"Oh, you can't help that," said the Cat: "we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad."

"How do you know I'm mad?" said Alice.

"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn't have come here."

ONE NIGHT LAST JUNE, WHEN this year's city campaigns were just warming up, the candidates assembled before a large group packed into a small room at a local library.

As Pima County Supervisor Ray Carroll rakishly emceed the gathering, Democrat Gayle Hartmann introduced herself.

"I thought I'd start with a bit of verse, which I'm sure will be familiar to all of you, and I'm only doing this because it somehow seemed applicable to the situation in Tucson today," Hartmann told the crowd.

"The time has come," the Walrus said, "to talk of many things; of shoes--and ships--and sealing wax--of cabbages and kings--and why the sea is boiling hot--and whether pigs have wings."

"It's also time to talk about--and perhaps do something--about a number of important issues," Hartmann continued. "The cost of growth and how we should figure out paying for it, traffic, good-paying jobs, neighborhood integrity, children's safety and the function of government."

We think Hartmann hit upon something early on. It certainly sometimes seems as if in this backwards burg, nothing is what it is because everything is what it isn't. And contrariwise, what it ought to be it isn't, and what it is it oughtn't be. Depending, of course, on what the meaning of is is.

Wonderland's paths are patchy and the buggies back up. So what do we do? Build a highway--complete with stoplights--stretching from a decaying downtown to the junkyard district. And when next to nobody uses the road, we decide we ought to spend more than $100 million to build an additional mile through downtown so it reaches the interstate--at a point where a connecting on-ramp has now been closed.

People get run down walking across the street? Build overpasses where nobody walks! Nobody wants to ride the bus? Raise the rates and cut the routes!

Can't handle the problems inside your kingdom? There's only one solution: Make it bigger! Expand your boundaries! Gobble up all the land on the edge of town so when it's developed, you can build better roads out there that won't crumble like the ones in Old Wonderland. And if anyone asks about mass transit, just promise 'em a monorail or something.

This year's jolly caucus race reaches the finish line Tuesday, November 6, with polls open between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. Although most voters ain't paying attention, they have more to choose between than Tweedledum and Tweedledumber. The major candidates in both races are pretty much the opposite of each other, fundamentally disagreeing on what government ought--and ought not--to do.

These will be important questions in the year ahead as our go-go economy gets all contrary and our mad tea party comes to an end. Soon--sometime after the election, of course--talk will turn to cutting the fat. That's never any fun. It's the sort of thing that has voters yelling Off with their heads!

Which brings us to the final twist: With that kind of unhappy forecast, it could be this November, winners will be losers, and the losers the real winners.

SINCE HIS ELECTION four years ago, Councilmember Fred Ronstadt has said he has sought to bring "common sense" to city government.

His opponent, Democrat Gayle Hartmann, says he's been the tool of special interests.

Maybe in Wonderland, they're the same thing.

Ronstadt began a strange transformation into Bizarro Fred during his re-election campaign earlier this year when he began trumpeting his intention to fight for managed growth. He took a sudden interest in light rail and announced that he supported the "underlying principles" of the city's big-box ordinance, which he voted against. (He only opposed the ordinance, he says, because it was poorly drafted.)

Ronstadt's newfound persona drew skepticism on the morning daily's editorial page, which derided him as "Fightin' Fred." Last week, the same editorial team decided to endorse the Republican incumbent, even though he opposes nearly every social issue, from the ban on smoking in restaurants to the background check on all firearm sales at the TCC gun show, that they've supported over the last four years. Wonderland, indeed.

Ronstadt dismisses opponent Hartmann as an "environmental extremist." Hartmann has served on such radical bodies as the Pima County Planning and Zoning Commission and the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan steering committee. Can someone with such a tainted background of hard work and bright thinking win election to city council?

Both candidates have raised the roughly $80,000 they can spend under the city's public financing program, but Ronstadt has also been boosted by an aggressive early balloting effort by the county Republican Party and two independent campaign committees backed by the state Republican Party and the Growth Lobby.

With the family name, the power of incumbency and the additional campaign dollars, Ronstadt stands an excellent chance of prevailing next Tuesday, despite the fact that Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than a 3-2 margin in Tucson. Only one thing can stop him: Democrats actually going to the polls and voting. And why would anyone do that in Wonderland?

DURING HER ONE term in the state House of Representatives, Republican Kathleen Dunbar wasn't the best friend the Tucson City Council ever had in the kingdom of Maricopa. When the opportunity arose, she favored restricting the power of the council on which she'd now like to serve. No background checks on gun sales, no living-wage ordinance and a billboard loophole big enough to let the most special of special interests slip right on through.

Dunbar worked her magic to help the city on the enchanted Rio Nuevo project, but after the council put its own twist in the tax-increment spell, Dunbar warned them they'd face terrible consequences from the royal family of the legislature.

Dunbar might not even be in this race, had she not narrowly lost her bid for a state Senate seat last year. Now she's ready to join the council she said couldn't be trusted.

Opponent Paula Aboud was quick to criticize Dunbar as a political opportunist who had no love for the city. But when stories about the run-down condition of some of the Aboud family's properties came to light, she called for clean campaigning on the issues--just before handing out dossiers on Dunbar's personal life to the press.

With this kind of clamorous clash, Libertarian Jonathan Hoffman's message of limited government has simply been lost in the background.