The five-way race to fill retiring Councilman Michael Johnson’s seat has offered fireworks for political observers and jobs for political consultants in a time when both are needed.
During the summer of odd-numbered years, political life slows considerably for most people involved in Arizona politics, and the saving grace for those political junkies is found in the council elections that 39 Arizona cities and towns hold during that time.
But in 2012, the Arizona Legislature and governor approved a law consolidating election dates so that all city council elections are held on even-numbered years, in conjunction with legislative and congressional elections.
In order to increase turnout in city council elections and cut down on costs of running an election every year, Republican Rep. Michelle Ugenti introduced the legislation, which would move election dates for 76 of the state’s cities and towns.
The law is facing a suit brought by the cities of Tucson and Phoenix, which hold their city elections in odd-numbered years. If the lawsuit is unsuccessful, this year’s election will mark the final city council election in an odd-numbered year. The case headed to trial last week in Pima County Superior Court, and lawyers expect a ruling in the coming weeks.
Candidates, consultants, reporters and voters worry that cramming city, state and national elections into one date will adversely affect the ability to provide name ID, promote candidates, cover the host of issues and study the candidates.
Many, like Phoenix City Council candidate Lawrence Robinson, worry that “down ballot races,” or the local issues located at the bottom of the ballot, will get overlooked in the hectic election cycle.
“We won’t get this kind of attention,” Robinson said, after the crowd had cleared out of the church.
Gaining name ID
Catherine Alonzo is a political consultant who works for Javelina Consulting, a group that has worked with candidates for city council and candidates for the state Legislature and is working on Robinson’s campaign. Her biggest worry about consolidated elections is finding a way for local candidates to engage voters and gain name ID when most people are focused on congressional or presidential candidates.
Alonzo said if both state and local candidates are on the same cycle, her workload will drop off in odd-numbered years and increase in even- numbered years, and her firm will have to be more selective about who they represent.
“You get to the point where you just have to say no. It already happens in even-numbered years. (Consolidated election date) just crowds an already crowded field…. There will be a fixed number of consultants and more candidates on the ballot,” she said.
Many political consulting companies like hers work on city council races to make ends meet during the slow years, and she predicted some will move into the lobbying world to fill that gap.
Except for Tucson, city council elections in Arizona are nonpartisan, and Alonzo worries consolidating elections could lead to more partisan alignment and increase partisanship in local elections.
On top of that, Alonzo also is concerned that because the elections will be held simultaneously, local issues will get fused with national issues, and the latter will dominate the debate, leaving little discussion on the local issues that directly impact people’s lives.
Jeff Rogers, former executive director of the Pima County Democratic Party, said that as the only city to hold partisan elections, Tucson will feel unique effects of consolidated elections. The odd-number year races in Tucson’s partisan City Council elections keep the party base active and involved every year — be it for city elections or state and national elections.
“It keeps the party machinery well-oiled,” he said.
Rogers said he worries that if city elections are combined with every other election, the Pima County Democratic Party may whither.
“You wonder if we would be able to keep our executive director, our PR person, the employees we have. Would we be able to do that year after year if we had these down cycles?” Rogers said.
He said it will also be harder for regular donors who are already pretty tight on money during even-numbered years to donate to city council candidates while they are donating to other higher-profile candidates and races.
“People are going to have to decide, ‘Am I going to give to (Congressman) Ron Barber or (Tucson Mayor) Jonathan Rothschild?’ If they can’t give (their usual amount) to both, they’re going to give less to both, or give to one and not the other,” Rogers said.
Adam Kinsey, a political consultant with Strategic Issues Management Group and former executive director of the Pima County Democratic Party, said he doesn’t think city council candidates will have too tough of a time gaining name ID should the state move to consolidated election cycles.
He said if candidates for Corporation Commission — one of the state’s more obscure offices — can make their names known throughout the state during even-year elections, city council candidates should have no problem introducing themselves to a smaller pool of voters, despite consolidated elections.
“I bet if you were to ask people who their city council member is and who their corporation commissioner is, they would have no idea what the Corporation Commission was, but they’d know their city council person,” Kinsey said.
Where he thinks the problems will arise is on city initiatives, which already are hard for voters to follow and will get more difficult when added to the various state initiatives and constitutional changes proposed in each election cycle.
“You see a lot of under-voting on the initiatives already because people just don’t understand them, and that’s only going to increase,” he said.
Jim Nintzel is a political reporter for Tucson Weekly who has been covering city, state and federal elections for more than 20 years.
Even he has difficulty finding time and space for coverage of the all the races and propositions during busy election years.
He said the voters will ultimately lose the most from consolidated elections because they’ll have to study-up on more issues with less help from the local media, which will be stretched thin trying to cover all the different candidates and issues.
“I won’t be able to give the issues the coverage they deserve,” he said.
Only 16 cities and towns in Arizona hold their elections in conjunction with the state and federal election cycle, and the 75 other incorporated cities and towns will have to move their election dates if consolidated elections go into effect.
Cities and towns not impacted by consolidated elections:
Lake Havasu City