He’s behind push to end trash fee, limit water use
John Kromko, at a fountain near City Hall, has been a thorn in the side of local government for decades.
If first impressions are deceiving, then John Kromko is a master of deception.
He’s a little rumpled with a shock of white hair, quick to talk conspiracy and seemingly a bit absent-minded. Schedule a meeting with Kromko and it’s 50-50 he’ll remember.
Yet it would be hard to find a political figure over the past 40 years who has had more of an impact in Arizona than Kromko. The 67-year-old has been active in local politics for 40 years, including 14 in the state House of Representatives.
Kromko’s job description has been “fighting City Hall,” and he’s not slowing down.
Kromko is behind a city ballot initiative that would repeal a garbage pickup fee and prevent the city from providing new water hookups should there be a shortage of Colorado River water.
The initiative has virtually no organized support, but business has mobilized in a big way to stop it.
Once again, it’s Kromko versus the machine, and the machine isn’t taking him for granted.
“John Kromko is a smart, shrewd man, and anyone who doesn’t think so is drinking the wrong Kool-Aid,” said Jack Camper, president and chief executive officer of the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.
The way Camper sees it, the business community has to be on the top of its game to beat Kromko, who has shown an uncanny knack for judging public opinion.
Camper and the business community have in recent years battled their way toward a split decision.
Kromko is on a losing streak of late, but his activism shows no signs of waning.
He twice helped defeat transportation-related sales taxes before voters ultimately approved a regional transportation plan and sales tax in 2006. The one transportation proposal he liked – a citizens initiative to run light rail from downtown to the East and South sides – failed in 2003.
He still accuses the county of electronically changing votes so that the 2006 transportation plan won, and he’s involved in lawsuits hoping to prove it.
In 1995 and 1997 ballot measures, he helped thwart city plans to allow direct delivery of Central Arizona Project water. Voters in 1999 decided to allow the city more leeway in delivering piped-in Colorado River Water.
When Kromko loses, and even when he wins, he can lose focus, political activist and talk radio host Emil Franzi said.
“My only problem with John is that he never finishes anything,” Franzi said. Others are often left to run the day-to-day operations when he is successful, Franzi said.
Kromko may not dig the well, but he can find the water. His successes have been remarkable.
He was a central figure in establishing a health care system for the poor and repealing sales taxes on food.
He tapped voter fears of growth to effectively end the prospects for a Tucson freeway in 1985.
He was one of the first lawmakers to jump on the idea of motor-voter legislation to let people register to vote when they get their driver’s licenses.
That effort won him an invitation to the White House for President Clinton’s signing of an expanded national motor-voter law requiring voter registration forms be available at a variety of state offices.
“I got to meet Socks,” Kromko said, referring to the Clintons’ pet cat during their stay at the White House.
Kromko’s weapon of choice is the ballot initiative, in which voter signatures are gathered to put questions before the public.
Sometimes even the threat of a Kromko ballot initiative does the trick, as it did when lawmakers approved the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, the state’s version of Medicaid.
“We were the last state not to have a Medicaid program,” Kromko said. “So I started getting signatures to put it on the ballot, and the Legislature decided to just pass it rather than run with it on the ballot.”
Kromko was born and raised outside Erie, Pa., and was a somewhat politically apathetic engineering student at Penn State University when he decided in 1962 to take part in a “freedom ride” through the South to protest segregation.
“I just figured I’d see what it was about,” he said. The trips, in which mixed-race groups tested law separating races, often ended violently. Kromko was fortunate. “Nothing happened. We just went to a restaurant, and nobody really said anything.”
But the ride opened his eyes, he said.
When he came to Tucson in 1965, he noticed apartment fliers at the University of Arizona’s housing office that advertised apartments for rent and noted “colored people need not apply.”
So he organized a protest.
“I think about 15 Quakers showed up,” he said. “It wasn’t that big, but we got the policy changed.”
Kromko worked on a doctorate he never finished while teaching math at UA through last year.
He spent the 1960s as a campus organizer and war protester while teaching statistics. In 1976, he was elected to the Arizona House, where he served for 14 years.
His statistical knowledge led him to compile a very early database of voter tendencies.
Today, this is called “microtargeting,” and it’s cutting-edge national political strategy. Twenty years ago, no one had done much with it.
“It really did allow me to do some clever things,” Kromko said. “It gave us an advantage for a couple election cycles.”
And his strategy gave the Democrats control of the entire Tucson City Council from 1989-95.
Yet as the hippies aged, he also changed and began to turn on government in general.
“I’m pretty progressive generally,” Kromko said. “But I’ve spent a lot of time trying to cut taxes. The government just wastes so much money.”
Ask Kromko what local governments have done right and he just stares back, thinking, thinking, thinking. “Very, very little. It could be worse. Phoenix is worse.”
Local elected officials have spent years tangling with Kromko.
“It’s hard to pin John down ideologically,” said U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., who served 16 years on the Pima County Board of Supervisors. “But he’s been successful. When he comes at you, you have to be ready.”
Jerry Juliani, one of Kromko’s collaborators, credited the veteran for getting things done and keeping government honest.
“You see the term ‘gadfly’ used, and it’s got a lot of bad connotations,” Juliani said. “But he’s been the guy who says: ‘Hey, the emperor has no clothes.’ In a democracy you need people like him.”
Kromko’s issue now is growth. He’s against it. Or more precisely, he’s against how Tucson has grown. That and his desire to choke government revenue have led him to his newest endeavor, the Water Users’ Bill of Rights.
It would repeal the city’s $14-a-month garbage fee, forbid treated wastewater from ever coming out of a tap and shut down new water hookups when there’s a shortage of Colorado River water.
“If growth continues, we will run out of water,” he said. “I think it’s wise to plan for that eventually.”
Kromko called Juliani and launched this initiative when he heard a rumor the city would someday include a road construction charge on bills sent out to customers. He calls such maneuvers “weaseling” and sums himself up better than anyone else could: “I have problems trusting the government.”
In John Kromko’s win column:
1980: Sales tax on food. Kromko gathered enough signatures to put a repeal of sales taxes on food on the ballot. The Legislature relented and repealed the tax rather than have it on the ballot.
1982: Kromko used the same tactic to force lawmakers to establish the state’s Medicaid program, the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System.
1985: Helped pass an initiative banning construction of limited-access roads and grade-separated interchanges within city limits.
1986: Gathered signatures to put an anti-groundwater pollution bill on the ballot as Gov. Bruce Babbitt negotiated a law with Republican lawmakers.
1994: Joined in a fight that successfully delayed for five years the delivery of Central Arizona Project water from the Colorado River.
2002: A leader in the fight against the city’s transportation plan, which was routed 2-to-1 in the polls.
1990: Kromko’s initiative to roll back insurance rates by 20 percent. It failed by 3-to-1 at the polls.
1995: An effort to give tax-cut money to poorer Arizonans failed to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot.
2003: Kromko helped lead a doomed ballot initiative to provide light-rail service to the South and East sides.
2006: The Pima County Regional Transportation Plan was approved by voters, despite Kromko-led opposition.