But Ibarra was already a political veteran, having jumped into Chicano politics during his freshman year at the UA. By the time he made his debut run, defeating four other experienced Democrats in a tight primary for an open seat, Ibarra had already run George Miller's 1991 mayoral campaign, coordinated Bill Clinton's 1992 Southern Arizona effort and worked on Democrat Sam Coppersmith's unsuccessful 1994 U.S. Senate campaign.
Now, as he seeks re-election to a third term, Ibarra faces Republican Armando Rios, who could hardly have less political experience. Rios, 34, who is making his first run for public office, never even voted in a city election until last month.
A onetime standout defensive back at Tucson High who briefly played college ball in Colorado before returning to Tucson and landing a gig helping former UA basketball star Sean Elliott manage his business affairs, Rios is hoping that his lack of political baggage will appeal to voters who are weary of gamesmanship at City Hall.
Rios' inexperience was particularly evident in the early days of his campaign, where he aggressively refused to stake out positions. As he's spent more time on the stump, he's become a little more skilled at sidestepping questions in a diplomatic manner.
Take the city's budget. To balance the books, Mayor Bob Walkup joined with his fellow Republicans, Fred Ronstadt and Kathleen Dunbar, and Democrat Carol West to institute a use tax and the city's first-ever garbage collection fee, as well as raising fees for senior activities and children's programs such as swimming lessons and KIDCO, an after-school service.
"The budget I voted against was an attack on families, kids and the elderly," Ibarra says. "It protected a lot of fat at the top of the bureaucracy, which needs some major liposuction in my opinion."
Rios, who says he's patterning his own candidacy after Walkup, remains evasive about how he would have voted on the budget.
"It's hard for me to throw rocks," Rios says. "A billion-dollar budget, there are so many elements."
Would he have supported the use tax, which essentially applies a 2-percent sales tax to major purchases made outside the city limits? "It was a give-or-take item," he says. "I may have approached it different."
Would he have supported the new $2-a-month garbage fee? "Maybe I would rather have raised fees over there or taken from over here and left it for free," he says. "Maybe I would have been for raising it."
Would he have supported a fee for swimming lessons? "I may or may not have been for that," he says.
And KIDCO? Rios says he would have supported a sliding scale more extreme than what the council approved, with even higher fees for parents who can afford more and free admission for lower-income participants, although he doesn't know where he would have set the standards.
"I have a major problem with the way KIDCO is run," Rios says. "I think it's a great program and I think we need to offer it for free to the people who can't afford it, but the people who can pay ... should be asked to pay a little bit more."
Ultimately, issues are secondary to the Rios campaign, which is counting on Ibarra fatigue to knock down the incumbent. "It's time for a change," Rios says. "We need a new vision."
Rios criticizes Ibarra for failing to do his job, saying the incumbent regularly misses meetings of the neighborhood subcommittee he chairs, despite his professed concern for neighborhoods. He says that Ibarra has yet to attend any of the meetings of committees that are planning the Rio Nuevo projects, even though he lists it high among his priorities.
"It blows my mind," Rios says. "It's called lip-service accountability. What I'm trying to show people is that I'm going to be held accountable for my actions, not for what my mouth says."
Ibarra says he's too busy meeting with constituents to be bothered with the details of developing policy through meetings.
"There are two ways of looking at this job," Ibarra says. "You can be the type of elected official who's in the subcommittee meetings and out there with the city manager and department heads and is stuck in City Hall. That's not me. I like being out in the community."
But a look at all the Rios signs popping up on Grande Avenue just down the street from the Ward 1 office shows that the incumbent has angered many of his constituents.
He's certainly angered his Republican colleagues on the City Council. He's been such a thorn in the side of Walkup, for instance, that two years ago the council took the unusual step of bypassing his rotation in the vice-mayor's post, giving the job instead to Democrat Carol West.
But it's not just his enemies that he's upset. Despite his early reputation as a political whiz, Ibarra has damaged many of the relationships that helped him in his younger days. Case in point: Four years ago, when he was seeking his second term, Ibarra himself said he no longer had much of a relationship with one of his early mentors, Raúl Grijalva.
Some of the frayed relationships can be traced back to Ibarra's temper. Even he concedes that he sometimes overreacts.
"I'm a passionate person," Ibarra says. "Sometimes my passion is a little overzealous, but at the same time at least I feel strongly enough about an issue to fight for that issue. Sometimes it pisses people off."
He's pissed off enough people to generate a lot of financial support for Rios, who had raised more than $86,000 (including $35,567 in public matching funds) by the end of September. On top of that, an independent campaign committee, Independent People Like You, has targeted Ibarra with negative ads appearing on billboards and the radio.
Ibarra calls the backers of the independent campaign, which include car dealer Jim Click and legendary land speculator Don Diamond, "gutless cowards."
Rios says he didn't even understand what independent campaigns were until he heard about their work.
"I have nothing to do with it," Rios says. "I don't support those kinds of campaigns."
Ibarra, who said at the beginning of the year that he wouldn't try to raise much money for his re-election campaign, has become more aggressive in recent weeks, but he'd raised less than $24,000 as of Oct. 15, according to reports filed with the city.
Ibarra says he's been forced to raise the money to defend himself.
"Have I made some mistakes in life?" Ibarra says. "Yes, I have. Have I pissed some people off? Yes, I have. But I also work hard and I have the guts to put together a platform and say this is what I stand for."
Ibarra: "I feel strongly enough about an issue to fight for that issue. Sometimes it pisses people off." Rios: "What I'm trying to show people is that I'm going to be held accountable for my actions, not for what my mouth says."