Home / Top Stories / Paton’s bill to eliminate partisan city elections advances

Paton’s bill to eliminate partisan city elections advances

Partisan municipal elections in Arizona will vanish if legislation by Sen. Jonathan Paton is signed into law, but supporters of the bill say its ramifications would be far greater than just the removal of party affiliations on city ballots.
Paton’s proposal, S1123, passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 8, on a vote of 6-1, without amendments.
On paper, the proposal has statewide consequences. But in reality, municipal elections with clear partisan designations occur only in Tucson, much to the vexation of southern Arizona business officials who traveled to the Capitol to support Paton’s bill.
Jack Camper, president and chief executive of the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, testified in favor of the bill and told the Arizona Capitol Times that Tucson’s election system injects useless partisan politics into the most simple local government functions.
“There’s no Republican garbage, there’s no Democrat playgrounds. There’s just trash and playgrounds,” he said. “We don’t think it takes partisan politics to take care of our city, to get public safety and economic development going the way it should and to get trash picked up.”
Aside from Tucson municipal candidates sporting their political designations on the ballot, Camper bemoaned the city’s combined use of individual ward primaries and general elections that force candidates to compete in the city at large. Paton’s proposal also mandates that residents can only cast municipal ballots to elect representatives from their own wards.
The system in use now creates a natural disadvantage for a minority party. Right now, Republicans are outnumbered in Tucson and unrepresented on the six-member council, although Tucson’s mayor, Bob Walkup, is a Republican.
“If you’re going to run in your ward and then lose citywide, that doesn’t make any sense because you can’t represent your ward,” Walkup said. “In your ward, as a Republican, you may win the ward, but lose citywide. Or, as a Democrat, you may lose in your ward but then the rest of the city is electing you. Or vice-versa.”
Despite the partisan tinge of S1123, Paton’s measure passed with the support of two Democratic committee members, Sen. Ken Cheuvront of Phoenix and Sen. Richard Miranda of Tolleson.
Cheuvront told committee members the bill is an overt attempt by Republicans to secure more political power in Tucson. But, he said, the goal of removing partisan politics from local elections is worthy.
Paton, a Republican from Tucson, said he doesn’t fool himself into believing his bill will magically transform the Tucson City Council into a Republican stronghold. What it will do, he said, is move the city’s representation to the center of the political spectrum, and away from a far-left council he criticizes as inept.
“They have mismanaged Rio Nuevo, they’re not transparent, they’re not accountable to the public, they’re consistently busy pointing fingers at each other, and they’re all running for mayor,” he said.
Tucson’s Rio Nuevo development project began in 1999 with the creation of a special tax district to raise tens of millions of dollars to help revitalize the city’s downtown area with new hotels, shopping destinations and residential housing. To date, the tax district has pulled in approximately $60 million in taxes that otherwise would have gone to the state.
But the project has produced few results so far and has racked up an estimated $200 million of combined expenses and debt. Losing patience, the Legislature’s budget includes a provision that specifies the district will receive only enough to finance the acquired debt.
Tucson Vice-Mayor Regina Romero said the city’s residents, not the Legislature, should be in charge in determining how their elections operate and who they want to serve on the council.
And providing partisan affiliation on the ballot is an important element of having an informed electorate, as each party holds known “guiding principles,” she said.
“Residents want to know more about candidates, not less,” Romero said.
Romero, elected to the council in 2007, said she supports the city’s use of the ward system, which she credits for holding candidates accountable to wards and the community at large. The scenario also provides voters with greater political influence, she said.
Frustration among the city’s business leaders was evident during the Judiciary Committee meeting. Supporters of S1123 included Stanley Abrams, a Tucson Democrat and land developer who declared the election structure outdated and said it hampers progress.
Abrams testified that Tucson needs to annex unincorporated areas or face the “ultimate destruction of our city.” He was referring to the unincorporated Foothills area.
Business interests in the city say efforts to annex the Foothills have come to a halt, mostly due to mutually held reluctance and unanswered questions over how the unincorporated area would fit into the city’s political landscape.
Rick Grinnell, of Smart United Business Strategies, said Foothills residents tend to be more affluent, business savvy and conservative. As a result, the community has balked at incorporation efforts, fearing getting stuck in a system that has favored heavily partisan Democrats.
Likewise, he said, Democratic interests in Tucson are squeamish about introducing a community of an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 mostly conservative and high-efficacy voters into a scene they dominate.
“That would probably change the dynamics of city government to a much more conservative-spending mentality,” said Grinnell.
While Romero says her office door is open to all residents, she refers to Grinnell and the registered supporters of Paton’s legislation as the “usual suspects.”
“I don’t see them representing the city of Tucson,” Romero said. “I see them representing special interests. They’re lobbyists.”
Southern Arizona Leadership Council President Ron Shoopman said the business community is more concerned with achieving structural change of Tucson’s election scheme than changing the faces on the council. The failure to annex the Foothills area has its costs, he said, noting the city loses out on millions of dollars of tax revenue and highway-user revenue.
“We need structural changes in place that over time will allow Tucson to operate like other cities in the state that have annexed and are more effectively governing their cities,” he said.
While Paton’s bill passed through its first committee hurdle almost completely unscathed, opposition to the idea is easy to come by.
Tucson Rep. Phil Lopes, a Democrat from Tucson, said it’s “pure speculation” that political squabbling is responsible for holding up the Foothills annexation. He said he will oppose attempts to change the city’s election system by enacting a new state law.
“What is behind Paton’s bill is what people refer to as ‘sticking your nose into other peoples’ business,’” he said. “I’m always flabbergasted about these Republicans-slash-Libertarians that will tell other people what to do.”
The sole committee opposition on S1123 came from Tempe Democrat Sen. Meg Burton Cahill, who doubted that removing party identification on ballots would have any noticeable effect, as partisan groups still would be free to influence elections through independent expenditures.
Jeff Rogers, executive director of the Pima County Democratic Party, said Democrats would continue to trample Republicans in the region no matter what type of election system is in place. The party, he said, provides support and helps Democratic candidates win races in towns
that surround Tucson, such as Marana, Sahuarita and Oro Valley.
“Down here in the southern Arizona, unlike up there, the Democratic Party is very active and we get in those so-called nonpartisan elections and we help our candidates win,” said Rogers, who supports annexing the Foothills. “They (Republicans and Tucson’s business community) may think this (Paton’s legislation) is some kind of clandestine stalking horse that’s going to get them into the City Council, but we’re still going to elect Democrats down here.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>


Scroll To Top