You can ignore it all you want, but the issue won’t go away.
Over and over, voters in Tucson have considered changes to the city’s oddball election system, and repeatedly we’ve rejected them.
But now we’re looking at another effort to change the system: Tucson Republicans John and Ann Holden have launched an initiative drive to put ward-only elections on this year’s ballot.
If history is any guide, it’s going to be tough to get the initiative on the ballot, let alone passed. But there’s a simple reason why this issue keeps coming back: Our system is still unfair.
As you probably know, in Tucson voters from within a given ward choose the city council candidates in partisan primary elections. So within a ward, voters of the various parties pick a Republican, a Democrat and a Green, if there are candidates from all those parties. Then, in the general election, the whole city votes on who will represent each ward.
As a result, it has happened repeatedly that voters in a given ward will pick one candidate, but the city’s electorate as a whole pick another for them. That’s been the case for Shirley Scott, the Democrat who represents predominantly Republican Ward 4, and it has been the case occasionally in northeast-side Ward 2 as well as midtown’s Ward 6.
In the past, many Republicans have been elected to the council or as mayor despite the system: Kathleen Dunbar, Fred Ronstadt, Bob Walkup, Steve Kozachik when he was a Republican. But in recent years, the system has robbed the GOP of any representation at all on the council. And they don’t view it as fair —because it isn’t.
The city in recent years appointed a commission, the latest of many such efforts over the decades, to review the charter. Among its duties was to look at the election system and propose changes. These meetings went on in sincere consideration for a couple of years, and recommended that the City Council consider proposing either of two options for the ballot: Ward-only elections, or ward-only elections plus two additional at-large council seats.
Bonnie Poulos was the last chair of the commission, which disbanded in 2016. She actually favored keeping the system the way it was, because it blends the responsibilities of the council members to the ward and to the city as a whole.
But she agreed to ask the City Council to look at options. That process was interrupted when a lawsuit filed by local Republicans, including Ann Holden, alleged that the city’s election system was unconstitutional.
After an initial victory by the plaintiffs, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found in September 2016 that the system is constitutional, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case. The City Council, all Democrats, dropped the matter.
But it won’t go away, and not just because of the unfairness of the situation. John Holden explained he thinks it’s wrong to expect council members to focus on the details of life outside their wards.
“You can’t expect everybody to know what’s going on everywhere,” he told me. “Ninety years ago when the (city) charter went in, we had like 8 square miles.”
Now, Poulos isn’t wrong when she notes that Republicans have been able to win elections under this system before.
“If they would run good candidates instead of extremists, they might win more,” she said.
But with the country as politically polarized as it is, it strikes me as less likely than ever that Republican candidates will win over the Democratic majority in the city. So, it would be good to make the simple, fair change that the Holdens propose: Ward-only elections in the primary and general elections, starting in 2021.
Mayoral hopefuls start lining up
A month after Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild announced he will not run for re-election this year, there are at least six people looking seriously at filing papers to run.
The Democrats are about who you’d expect. Councilwoman Regina Romero and Sen. Steve Farley seem to me to be the top competitors. Romero has long experience on the council and the backing of U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, while Farley has long experience as a state legislator and the donor network that came with a gubernatorial run.
I would put new council member Paul Durham in a second tier of potential Democratic candidates, along with Randi Dorman, a local developer and activist who has served on bodies such as the charter-reform commission I mentioned above.
A new name you may not have heard is Ed Ackerley, who runs Ackerley Advertising with his brother Bill and has long been an instructor of marketing and other topics at the UA. Ackerley hasn’t decided whether to run, he told me, and if he does, whether he’ll do it as a party member or independent.
Joe Arocha, who ran for City Council before, is planning to run for mayor this year on a platform of supporting public safety departments. He will be an independent.
No Republicans have announced they’re considering running yet. When I spoke with former Councilman Fred Ronstadt on Thursday, he told me he has thought about it, especially when he heard gunfire nearby on New Year’s Eve, but is leaning against it.
You may recall a couple of weeks ago I wrote about the need for the state Legislature to stop the uncontrolled draining of our groundwater supplies, especially in Mohave and Cochise counties.
Efforts at conserving groundwater outside the five active management areas (Prescott, Phoenix, Pinal County, Tucson and Santa Cruz County) are unlikely to arise from the Legislature. Too many interests, such as agriculture, have too much influence to let these bills pass. But it definitely won’t happen without any push from the executive branch.
Last year, Gov. Doug Ducey pushed a set of water-related bills that didn’t go anywhere. But now his administration appears to be succeeding at pushing through an agreement on the multistate Drought Contingency Plan, dealing with Colorado River water.
The depletion of groundwater, though, is not on the Ducey administration’s agenda this year, the Arizona Department of Water Resources’ spokeswoman said in an email after my column ran: “The Director says ADWR has no plans for any legislation other than the Drought Contingency Plan.”