What’s good about Tucson? Not the region, but the city of?
Stumped? That’s not surprising considering the city has struggled through the toughest four years it has seen since the Great Depression.
Last week the city officially entered the five-month council election season. Voters will choose a new mayor in a wide-open race after three-term Republican Mayor Bob Walkup chose not to seek a fourth, and council members in wards 1, 2 and 4, in which all three incumbents are running.
Part of the cynical attitude Americans have toward their government comes from our adversarial election process. Challengers rarely beat incumbents by telling voters everything is swell. That’s the incumbent’s job.
As a result, every two years we go through a process in which want-to-be civic leaders tell us how terrible life is and how they intend to make it better while the current civic leaders tell us it’s great but they intend to make it better.
So who’s a voter to believe? It depends on how the voter answers the question above. It’s voters’ outlooks that affect their willingness to agree with the gloom or the glow.
As always in elections, stump speeches and debates will be full of hyperbole and rhetoric and a great deal of arguing about issues that are settled or moot.
Take Rio Nuevo for instance. The conventional wisdom is that it was a criminal enterprise at worst, a boondoggle at best. Certainly incumbents will have to answer for Rio Nuevo’s misspent millions.
But the reality is Rio Nuevo is not a city issue any more. The state stripped control from the city in 2009 and it has been run for more than a year by an unelected board that is more at war with the city than allied with it.
And lost in the “Where-did-all-the-money-go” rhetoric is the fact that Rio Nuevo is paying off. Downtown is emerging as a vibrant hub of culture, entertainment and dining, which was the goal in the first place, irrespective of the tortured, wasteful path it took to get there.
The modern streetcar and university student housing will only further that rebirth and renewal, which will help give Rio Nuevo the money it needs to pay off its bonds and complete all the halted cultural and historical projects.
Speaking of the streetcar, optimists think it will be a huge boon to downtown, connecting vital economic hubs – UMC, UA, Main Gate Square, Fourth Avenue and Downtown – and pessimists think it will be another boondoggle that will spend hundreds of millions transporting the occasional downtown transient to doctor’s appointments at UMC.
But it, too, is a done deal. The streetcar’s funding is secured, construction has begun. You can’t stop that train.
Challengers can complain about crime, but violent crime is down in the city, according to FBI statistics. They can complain about the economy, but that’s mostly out of the hands of the council (and liberalizing the sign code is not going to put thousands of Tucsonans back to work). They can complain about the bureaucracy and spending, but the council has eliminated thousands of city jobs the past four years and cut more than $100 million out of the general fund.
Yet while Tucson is not as bad as the challengers will paint it in the coming months, it certainly is not as pretty as the incumbents will describe.
The city is broke, its employees are exhausted doing double duty, the local economy is stagnant, growth has halted, if not reversed, regionalism is dead or dying, the urban core continues to become more impoverished as those who can afford it flee the city for the suburbs while those who remain put more stress on city social services, such as they are after years of cost cutting, and the roads are a mess and traffic still sucks (though that, too, is more in the hands of the RTA than the city).
So, if you voters deign to attend any of the coming debates, (though if trends hold true, very few of you will), figure out for yourself what’s good about Tucson then take the time to ask the candidates what they think is good about it.
How they answer may go a long way in helping you answer the question of whom to vote for.