The race to replace outgoing Tucson City Councilwoman Karin Uhlich has both candidates promising changes inside City Hall.
Retired attorney Paul Durham, a Democrat, uses the slogan of “New energy for the Old Pueblo” while firefighter Gary Watson, who is running as an independent, says he is putting people before politics.
The two are running to represent Ward 3, which stretches primarily north of Grant Road to the city limits, east to about Swan Road and a portion west of Interstate 10. There are no Republicans in the race, which will be decided Nov. 7 through a largely mail-in ballot election.
The general election allows Tucson voters citywide to decide the ward races. The only other contested race is in Ward 6.
On paper, Democrats have the advantage regarding political registration. While outnumbering Republicans nearly two to one, registered Democrats inside the city limits also outnumber so-called registered independents — 107,000 voters to 74,000.
Durham has long been associated with local Democratic politics, serving as the chief of staff for former Councilwoman Nina Trasoff for a year and as the local Democratic party’s treasurer several years ago.
He credits his win in the Ward 3 primary to knocking on about 5,000 doors leading up to the election. But Durham also leveraged public funding to raise more than $89,000 for his campaign, spending most of it during the three-candidate primary race.
Watson’s politics are a bit more nuanced. He is registered as an independent, but changed parties about six months ago after spending most of his adult life as a registered Republican.
The split with the GOP came after a meeting with local party officials, with Watson saying he walked away after they wanted him to take strong stances on taxes and solar.
“It was a pretty interesting meeting, to be polite,” said Watson, a captain with the Northwest Fire District. “There are some taxes that are good. The Republican Party was telling me that there are no good taxes.”
But Watson points to his professional life as someone who works for solutions.
“My history as a firefighter, as a teacher, as a union leader for crying out loud as an independent,” Watson said. “We have to be free-thinkers; we can’t follow party lines.”
The city’s top issue:
solar or the budget?
Looking past November, the two candidates have different concerns when it comes to the city’s future.
A consultant in the private sector for over 20 years, Durham said the city still hasn’t fully recovered from the Great Recession.
“We’re still catching up, so there are many issues and problems that I think we need to address,” Durham said.
But Durham has made one issue a priority — making Tucson a leader in solar energy and sustainability.
He believes it is one of the biggest issues facing the city in the coming years. Durham proposes that all city buildings be 100 percent powered by renewable energy by no later than 2025.
Watson sees things with a vastly different viewpoint — saying the city’s finances rely too heavily on the health of the local economy.
The city, he argues, is one disaster away from having to make some very tough choices.
“If we do have another recession right now or something drops in the economy, all we can do is raise taxes or lay people off,” Watson notes. “We don’t have any kind of fiscal solvency.”
Watson suggests the city go through a ground-up budgeting process that looks at all city services and considers whether they are vital core services. From there, the council can plot out long-term strategies to build up departments as well as establish financial reserves.
The net result, he said, would allow for employee raises and increase the number of police officers patrolling city streets.
Should the city keep offering tax breaks
to attract businesses?
For Watson, the answer is qualified yes. Incentives are appropriate when it comes to helping local companies.
“We need to focus on our current small-business community and not go to bringing in new businesses,” Watson said.
An instructor at the county’s Joint Technical Education District, Watson said the focus should be on training the next generation of workers rather than trying to lure Fortune 500 companies.
He approved of the regional approach to bring Caterpillar to Tucson, but still has his doubts every last nickel was necessary to bring the company here.
“I am not convinced that Caterpillar wasn’t coming here without the incentives,” Watson said. “They have their proving grounds here. Arizona is a massive mining state; the bulk of their business is in South America. Tucson is in the pipeline right down to South America and everything else made sense for them to come here.”
Watson said that agribusiness giant Monsanto decided to open a research greenhouse on the northwest side even without getting all the incentives it wanted.
Durham said the city should look at every proposal on a case-by-case basis.
“A good example is Caterpillar. We offered lots of incentives to get them here,” Durham said. “Now that they’re here, companies that do business with Caterpillar are looking at opening offices in Tucson.”
Those secondary jobs, he argues, won’t require some kind of financial carrot from the city “because the incentive is Caterpillar and they’re already here.”
Durham said he has learned a lot as a consultant working with small, locally owned businesses for the last two decades and believes the city should focus on helping them grow.
Hiring more police officers
Both Durham and Watson are calling for the city to hire and train more police officers.
Durham suggests the city could fund additional personnel by expanding the city’s boundaries.
“We do need to increase the number of police officers on the street,” Durham said. “I believe we can find the money to do that by speeding up our process of annexations so that we increase the state revenues that we receive.”
Also, the city can curb the number of officers leaving Tucson for other jobs by increasing their salaries, he said.
“Our first priority should be to ensure that officer pay is competitive with comparable cities,” he said. “It’s important that we need to stop the loss of police officers that the city has invested time and resources to train; this is just money walking out the door.”
Watson offers a measured assessment, saying various groups will offer a general number on how many officers should be patrolling the street — but those are based on various national standards.
“The City Council needs to sit down with the police chief and (the Tucson Police Officers Association) and look at national standards and look at crime rates in Tucson and let’s find out what that number (of officers) is.”
Losing trained police officers, especially experienced officers, to other jurisdictions is a big problem, he argues.
“We’re wasting money in the police budget,” he said. “Sixty-six officers have left in the last year, so that’s money that’s going out the door since we’re losing those officers. It costs a lot less than it does to hire and train them.”
The suggestion to reassess the entire city budget, he argues, should allow staff to identify ways to put more money back into hiring officers, offering pay raises.
Working with the state, neighbors
The two are at odds with some recent high-profile decisions by the City Council.
Watson would have, for example, never fought the state when it came to the legal challenge over destroying some seized firearms. The city recently lost a court case with the state over the city’s program to destroy guns turned in by residents or seized by police.
“We have to follow Arizona Revised Statutes,” Watson said. “We can find better ways to work within it without wasting the precious tax dollars we have without fighting with the state.”
The decision to destroy guns was political pandering, a symbolic act rather than working to find a lasting solution, Watson said.
Durham said he supported the policy to destroy guns and believes the city had the legal authority to dispose of surplus firearms. He called the Arizona Supreme Court decision against the city “unfortunate.”
It terms of the one-square-mile city known as South Tucson, Watson says Tucson may need to look at its relationship with the cash-strapped neighbor.
With Tucson firefighters regularly going into South Tucson as part of a mutual aid agreement, Watson said the relationship is not reciprocal. South Tucson simply doesn’t have the staffing to assist on fire calls in Tucson.
He suggests South Tucson should be asked to pay for incidents when Tucson firefighters assist in South Tucson. Tucson shouldn’t be shouldering the costs, he said. “South Tucson’s government needs to figure out how to pay for it or not be a city,” Watson said.
Asked about the city’s relationship with South Tucson, Durham said the city should be economically independent.
He said the City Council may have to revisit the issue in the future if it reaches a tipping point where Tucson taxpayers are paying too much to provide services in South Tucson.
Both men said they are comfortable with the decision to make Tucson an “immigrant welcoming” community rather than a sanctuary city. They agree the council has done what it can without drawing the ire of federal officials with a sanctuary designation.
“First of all, the federal government hasn’t even defined what a sanctuary city is,” Watson said. “With federal funding (at risk), why would we even play games with that?”