The week City Manager Mike Letcher resigned, we authored a column headlined “Is Tucson the worst run city in America?” There was good reason to ask the question. Mayor Bob Walkup’s teamups with former city managers Keene, Hein and Letcher had brought our city to the brink of bankruptcy.
You may remember that Walkup was once all-in on a 200-room hotel downtown that would have been backstopped with general fund dollars. Had that property been built next to an old and antiquated Tucson Convention Center, we would be cutting deeper into cops and fire to pay debt service on an empty hotel.
Prior to the hotel fiasco, Letcher and Walkup pushed a ½-cent sales tax that was overwhelmingly turned down by city voters even as the duo said massive police department cuts would be necessary if the vote failed. Well, the tax went down and surprise, the massive layoff of 400 cops never materialized. From botched contracts on the entrance of the TCC and other Rio Nuevo deals, to the closures of fire stations and pools, it was clear the city couldn’t be trusted to manage a Sonoran hot dog cart, let alone a $1.3 billion public entity.
Soon thereafter came the messy 2011 election, with Republican fumbling of petition signatures and the “two-N’s-and- two-L’s” write-in candidacy of Rick Grinnell. The Democrats stayed focused and won the big seat (if you can call it that) with Jonathan Rothschild.
Not since Mayor Lou Murphy and City Manager Joel Valdez has Tucson seen true leadership from the manager/council form of government. With an average tenure of only 36 months, the revolving door of city managers was blamed (along with ineffective mayoral leadership and a lack of accountability) for numerous city missteps.
With the departure of flip-flop wearing, earring-sporting, Che-Guevara-poster-on-the-wall Mike Letcher, we now have super-serious Richard Miranda, who brought professionalism back to the office. Miranda retired as chief of police, then worked with Hein and Letcher at the city manager’s office, and survived palace coups to become top dog.
Miranda is no nonsense, transparent and has a long history in Tucson city government. Speak to city or police staff and half the folks like him and the other half don’t. Miranda doesn’t really care. He’s got his pension, he’s done his time and he’s dancing like no one is watching – which is what we need to bring Tucson back from the brink.
Walkup was a weak Republican. Rothschild is a Democrat. With Mayor Rothschild, the Democrats have their chance to turn liberal Tucson into the shining city on the progressive hill. Between the county and city, the Democratic machines have been firmly entrenched for more than 20 years. From the looks of this community, the experiment is not going well. It’s time Pima County Democratic Chair Jeff Rogers and Rothschild fix what their party has so badly broken. It’s time to prove a liberal city can work.
Can the Democratic Party take a page from Bill Clinton’s playbook and move to the center, encourage a healthy business climate and find the balance between liberal utopia and a community that has the tax base to pay for modern street cars, low-income housing and free bus passes? Just like TUSD’s drastic enrollment decline was caused by years of ignoring academic basics, the City of Tucson’s performance has resulted in the flight of business and middle- and upper-class residents to Oro Valley, Marana and Sahaurita.
Rothschild campaigned on and, for the most part, delivered on his plan for his first 180 days in office. The denial of 12,000 petition signatures from a powerful neighborhood association aimed at blocking a major student development high rise on the light-rail line was a bold move. Bringing in small business liaisons to the mayor’s office is a positive move. Undertaking comprehensive land-use planning is a good move. Championing an annexation on River and Craycroft roads, even with Pima County opposition, is a bold move.
But all is not perfect. The mayor’s non-stance on the F-35 fighter aircraft and sending money to TREO are concerns. The weeds and pot holes didn’t happen on Rothschild’s watch, but a vigorous clean-up would send the message that city government cares how this place looks.
However, so far so good for Mayor Rothschild’s early performance. The Democratic machine broke the place; let’s see if a Democratic mayor can fix it.