Flooding the Sistine Chapel

Once in a while, I come out of hiding to post here at my old haunt. It has to be something big, however.

There are plenty of policy outrages that have happened in this legislature so far, the evisceration of our education system being the undisputed number one on the list. It is something else, though, that is the best illustration that the crew running the place care more about ideological wins and short term profits than Arizona as a place.

Darin Mitchell has introduced HB 2570, which would limit the ability of local government to regulate landscaping. It may seem a minor point, but these are the rules that protect our iconic saguaros.

The Arizona Republic cites a variety of rules in the Phoenix area that protect native plants, but we in Tucson have the native plant ordinance as well. It mandates that developers (including the city itself) have to replace plants that are taken out for development. The city also partners with Tucson Electric Power for the Trees for Tucson program, which puts up native trees to increase our natural canopy. The growth in our natural canopy (planting non-native palm trees has only a negligible effect on it) has can lower power bills, mitigate flooding and even make it more pleasant to walk to the store on a July day.

Still, most of the attention of this bill has focused on protections for a non-shade plant: the saguaro. Yes, having to pull them out and move them, or having to “mitigate” them is a pain in the nalgas for builders. But, think for a second why people move to Arizona. Let me give you an example. Here is the Scottsdale Convention and Visitors Bureau web page:

Scottsdale Screenshot

See that? Saguaros, saguaros, saguaros. You notice what you don’t see? Tract homes, strip malls and parking lots. Funny that.

By the way, that’s from a city that’s on the edge of the saguaro’s range. Still, the saguaro is so identified with our Southwestern deserts that they feature them. For years, we had a problem with Las Vegas cactus-napping saguaros because they wanted in on the action too. They are what makes us look different than suburbs in Orange County, Dallas or Denver.

These rules aren’t just there to protect the saguaro, but also exist to protect the broader environment and save water. Non-native plants tend to be higher water use, thus harder to maintain. I’d bet that the property managers that have to keep up landscapes for all those subdivisions that Mitchell is building would appreciate not having to maintain a conifer forest out in some tract of desert. Non-native plants can also cause other problems. The amount of money and labor both governments and property owners have had to spend on controlling buffel grass is a testament to that.

Most importantly, we live in a desert with sparse water resources. It’s taken decades, but we are finally getting both a local government and business culture that understand the challenges we face. We are in a unique place, and our policy needs to reflect that.

If you think that saguaros and the laws that protect them are a nuisance, I gotta wonder if you understand what it means to live in Arizona and whether you really give a damn about this place.

Tucson’s Charter Review Committee Seeks Public Comment

Some folks reading this know that I serve on the Tucson Charter Review Committee, a body which has been meeting since August to hammer out a set of recommendations  for changes to Tucson’s 70+ year-old charter. I have been reluctant to write here about our deliberations, even though the meetings are open to the public, because we are trying to operate by consensus, and I did not want to risk being perceived as undermining the committees work by acting on my own.

The committee now has a set of recommendations and we are seeking public comments. There are two public hearings this week where members of the public may address the Committee directly regarding its recommendations:

March 10, 2015, 5 p.m. – El Pueblo Neighborhood Center, 101 W. Irvington Road

March 12, 2015, 5 p.m. – Morris K. Udall Regional Center, 7200 E. Tanque Verde Road

Written comments may be also submitted to the City Clerk’s Office by email sent to Cityclerk@tucsonaz.gov , or by surface mail to: City Clerk’s Office, P.O. Box 27210, Tucson, AZ 85726.

The public comment period ends on March 20.

The recommendations are as follows:

The Committee’s recommendations fall into the following three categories:

1. Recommendations to Define Responsibilities and Improve Accountability. Tucson’s Charter, contains an unusual and confusing patchwork that spreads accountability for executive functions diffusely among Mayor, Council, City Manager, and Department Directors. The Committee is recommending four changes to the Charter to better define responsibilities.  These changes are intended to make City Government more effective and allow Tucsonans to better hold City Government accountable.
2. Recommendations to Eliminate Unnecessary Fiscal Restrictions. Tucson’s Charter contains a number of inflexible restrictions on the City’s ability to manage its finances. The Committee is recommending two changes to the Charter that would modify or eliminate certain restrictions in the Charter that do not provide meaningful protections to taxpayers.
3. Recommendations to Address Important Omissions and Cleanup Issues.  The Committee observed important omissions and technical cleanup issues with Tucson’s Charter.  The Committee is recommending three changes to the Charter intended to reflect the Tucson community and its values, as well as changes in the lives of Tucsonans since the charter was first created in 1929.

Recommendations to Define Responsibilities and Improve Accountability.

A. Changes to the Mayor’s Responsibilities.
Under the current Charter, the Mayor is the elected chief executive of City Government and is responsible for setting the Council agenda and presiding at Council meetings. Despite having a vote to break ties on most issues before the Council, the Mayor does not count toward a Council quorum and cannot vote on several significant matters, including the removal of the City Manager, Police Chief or Fire Chief.  The Committee is seeking public comment on 2 alternative recommendations to change the Mayor’s responsibilities:

Alternative 1. Amend the Charter to grant the Mayor a full voice and vote on all matters before the Council and for the Mayor to count toward a council quorum.
Alternative 2. Amend the Charter to eliminate the Mayor’s vote, but give the Mayor the a vetoover  all actions passed by the City Council. Council could  override a mayoral veto with a supermajority (5 votes).

If Alternative 2 is recommended for referral to voters, the Committee is also considering recommending the addition of a seventh Council Member, elected from the City at large, to avoid tie votes and to make it easier for Council to override a Mayoral veto.

B. Changes to Council Elections.
The current Charter includes a unique election system for Council Members in which candidates for Council are nominated by their political party in ward-only primary elections and party nominees then compete in citywide general elections.

Recommendation: Retain the partisan elections but make the general elections ward-only for the six council seats.

C. Changes to Department Director Appointment and Removal Process.
The current Charter contains a confusing patchwork of responsibility for appointment and removal of Department Directors and an equally confusing patchwork that makes some Department Directors “at will” employees but grants others civil service protections.

Recommendation 1. Change appointment and removal procedures as follows:
*Council appoints and removes the City Manager, City Clerk, City Attorney, and Magistrates with a majority vote (under Alternative 1 the Mayor would vote, under Alternative 2 the Mayor could veto the Council’s decision subject to override by the Council);
*Granting the City Manager authority to appoint all other Department Directors with approval by a majority vote of the Council (under Alternative 1 the Mayor would vote, under Alternative 2 the Mayor could veto appointments subject to override by the Council);
*Granting City Manager sole authority to remove Department Directors.

Recommendation 2. Make all Department Directors “at will” employees exempt from Civil Service Protections, except that the Police Chief and Fire Chief will retain their limited advisory civil service appeal rights. No change would be made to the civil service protections of rank-and-file employees.

D. Mutual Respect for Council-Manager Form of Government.
The current Charter does not explicitly require the City Manager and Department Directors to respect Elected Officials’ policy setting and oversight. Nor does the current Charter require Elected Officials to respect the City Manager’s responsibility for implementing policies and delivering services. Mayor and Council adopted a Code of Ethics Ordinance in 2013 that contains this requirement.

Recommendation. The Committee recommends incorporating Code of Ethics Ordinance’s mutual respect and noninterference requirements into the Charter.

Recommendations to Eliminate Unnecessary Fiscal Restrictions
The current Charter contains inflexible restrictions on the City’s ability to manage its finances that do not provide meaningful protections to taxpayers.

A. Modify the Property Tax Cap.
The Charter currently imposes a combined cap on primary and secondly secondary property taxes of $1.75 per $100 of assessed value.

Recommendation. Modify this restriction to apply the $1.75 limit only to the primary property tax. This is not a tax increase.

B. Eliminate Prohibition on Pledging Sales Taxes.  The Charter currently prohibits Tucson from using sales tax revenue to secure bonds financing.

Recommendation. The Committee recommends that this restriction be eliminated from the Charter. This is not a tax increase.

Recommendations to Address Important Omissions and Cleanup Issues
The Committee observed important omissions and technical cleanup issues with the current Charter.

A. Preamble.
The current Charter does not contain a preamble.

Recommendation. Add a preamble to the Charter to encourage interpreting and implementing the Charter in a manner consistent with valuing Arts and Culture, the Environment, Diversity, Transparency, Prosperous Economy, and Equal Protection of all Tucsonans.

B. Enumerated Powers.
The current Charter includes two extensive lists of enumerated powers that are very specific. At times the Charter’s specificity is used to argue that the City lacks the authority to take certain actions. This problem has been emphasized to the Committee by the arts and culture community.

Recommendation. Add specific language to the enumerated powers that makes clear the City has express authority to undertake and fund arts and culture projects. The Committee is also considering adding express reference to the City’s authority to act to implement such additional values as improving the Tucson economy, improving the environment, improving Government transparency, and improving access to government.

C. Cleanup.
The Charter exclusively uses masculine pronouns, has several numbering mistakes, and refers to departments, positions and technologies that no longer exist (i.e. Transportation Director for Superintendent of Streets).

Recommendation. “Clean up” the Charter to be gender neutral, repair numbering, and identify correct titles and departments; modify problem enumerations of powers and duties topics that refer to technologies or practices that have changed or are likely to change over time.

Coming Soon To A High School Near You


Instructions: Please choose the answer that best completes the sentence and fill the corresponding bubble on the answer sheet with a number two pencil.

1. The first Spanish-speaking residents of what is now Arizona…

a.) …arrived by the middle of the 18th century and their descendants are still here.

b.) …overwhelmed the state after the 1986 amnesty.

c.) …were running drugs and taking jobs from good Americans.

d.) …keep speaking Spanish to each other within earshot of me. PLEASE MAKE THEM STOP!

2. The “rule of 31” is…

a.) …language in the State Constitution that defines a quorum in the House of Representatives as 31 members and requires 31 votes to pass a bill.

b.) …a pseudo-constitutional mandate that requires 31 votes from members of the majority party to pass a bill in the House.

c.) …a series of tax breaks and regulatory carve-outs to attract a Baskin-Robbins Megastore to the East Valley.

d.) …a reference to NASCAR driver Jeff Burton.

3. The first African-American in the Arizona State Senate…

a.) …was Cloves Campbell, Sr., Democrat of Maricopa County.

b.) …I dunno…that girl who just started working for the DOE…Lee something.

c.) …would be a Republican if he were alive today.

d.) …was Terry McMillan.

4. The branch of government that serves as the final word on constitutional matters is…

a.) …The judiciary.

b.) …The House Rules Committee.

c.) …The Speaker Pro-Tem of the House of Representatives.

d.) …The Goldwater Institute.

5. The only thing that the state legislature is required by the constitution to do every session is to…

a.) …pass a balanced state budget.

b.) …cut taxes.

c.) …secure the border.

d.) …bring God back into our schools.

6. Raúl Castro…

a.) …is the oldest living ex-governor in the United States and the only Mexican-American ever to serve in Arizona’s highest office.

b.) …is Fidel’s no-good brother.

c.) …is a Congressman from Tucson.

d.) …would be a Republican if he were alive today.

7. Arizona’s twenty-four Indian Tribes…

a.) …have a special government-to-government relationship with the State.

b.) …are subordinate to the State.

c.) …are fabulously wealthy and get too much free stuff.

d.) …what? Didn’t John Wayne kill them all?

8. Arizona’s “right to work” law…

a.) …bans the so-called “closed shop” which requires labor union membership as a condition of employment.

b.) …makes labor unions illegal.

c.) …means that everyone who really wants a job can get one if they just look hard enough.

d.) …means that legislators are entitled to lobby on the side.

9. Miranda v. Arizona refers to…

a.) …a landmark United States Supreme Court decision which requires law enforcement to notify an individual of his or her rights when being questioned.

b.) …a pain in the ass.

c.) …a floor speech given by State Senator Catherine Miranda, Democrat of Phoenix.

d.) …an unfortunate incident at Canyon Ranch involving Cynthia Nixon.

10. Arizona native César Chávez is best known…

a.) …for organizing farm workers in Arizona and California to fight for better working conditions.

b.) …as the greatest Mexican boxer of all time.

c.) …for leading the Mexican Revolution.

d.) …as someone who would be a Republican if he were alive today.

Scoring: If you answered “a” to all the questions, congratulations! You actually know what you are talking about. An answer of “b,” “c” or “d” to any question may be factually incorrect, but is acceptable if you can defend your position with a smug sense of self-assurance and call anyone who disagrees with you anti-business, soft on crime, or uncivil.

It’s GOTV weekend, so things get stupid

2014-10-31 17.05.12The stupidity has reached such a crescendo that I am violating my self-imposed blogging moratorium, or “quarantine,” as Chris Christie might call it.

I got a last minute hit piece on Ron Barber yesterday decrying his vote for the Ryan Budget.

Ah, where to begin on this.

First off, Ron Barber didn’t vote for the Paul Ryan budget. What he voted for was a budget deal negotiated by Patty Murray and Paul Ryan referred to as some as a “mini-budget deal.” It was not the Paul Ryan budget touted in his “Path to Prosperity” plan which is referenced every time a Republican candidate wants to feign seriousness about the budget. Most of the elements of Ryan’s budget were not in the deal, which led to a lot of grousing from conservatives at the time.

Even the people that sent out the mailer acknowledge that they don’t mean the actual Paul Ryan budget, but only in the fine print.

2014-10-31 17.05.33

Since it was not the Ryan Budget, many of the cuts decried in the piece (Medicare, Food Stamps) were not actually cut in the plan.

Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t a fan of this deal when it was made (although, predictably, my troubles are from the left). I also know it is far better than the Ryan Budget. As a matter of fact, the criticisms in the piece are spot on about the Ryan Budget. Say, what kind of “scary” candidate supports the Ryan Budget?

Oh yeah, Martha McSally.

Maybe this group that wanted to call out candidates for supporting the Ryan Budget will come on out and run a piece decrying her for being so scary. Say, who sent out this piece anyhow?

2014-10-31 17.37.23

I would welcome their opposition to Paul Ryan, but something tells me they aren’t very sincere about it.

POST SCRIPTS: I’ve got a couple of extra observations to throw in here.

  • Have you noticed how Republican candidates are quick to align themselves with the Ryan Budget, but cry foul when they get called out for supporting the details of the plan? It’s like they haven’t read the thing.
  • The mailer apparently went to Democratic voters. Independent voters are on a different mail program. This is a last ditch effort to peel liberal voters away from Barber. Given how poorly Matt Heinz did as the lefty challenger to Barber last time, I think more liberal voters have already resigned themselves to Barber’s pragmatism.
  • Oh, by the way: Ron Barber is a Trotskyite overspending Obama coddler and he supports this horrible, granny murdering, poor bashing budget? Could you guys pick a knock against the guy and stick with it?
  • I received this along with two mailers from my local Republican legislative candidate after I’ve already voted. Keep spending that money, boys.

Twelve Gen-X Republicans Who Will Have Some Explaining To Do Some Day Soon

Dirty_DozenThe worst day of my six years in the legislature was also the last day of my last session: June 27, 2008.

This was the day that the Senate passed SCR 1042, which referred to the ballot a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. The change was unnecessary and strictly political. Arizona law already forbade such marriages, so the referendum ultimately had little practical effect other than to poison the public dialogue to advance the agenda of some sick and cynical people.

I could go on for a while about the ugliness that led up to 1042’s passage, like the promises that leadership and rank-and-file Republicans broke with the legislation’s opponents so that the bill could advance, the bizarre glee of the measure’s supporters (this did not include lobbyist Cathi Herrod, who continually bore her permanently sour countenance as she watched from her command post in the gallery), and the overall bigotry behind the whole thing. Suffice it to say, supporters of the bill went through a lot of trouble to get this passed. One could admire the parliamentary skill at play here if only it was about something useful like fixing potholes or building a hospital.

The bill got the votes of every single Republican present save two: Representatives Jennifer Burns and Pete Hershberger, both of Tucson. Burns had already announced that she was not running for reelection. Hershberger went on to lose a Republican Senate primary to the famously grumpy Al Melvin. If this issue was a factor, it was only one of many as Melvin had beaten another well-regarded moderate Republican in a primary for the same seat 2 years before. Based on my subsequent conversations with him, I think I can safely say that Pete has few if any regrets about any of this.

It would be easy to dismiss the passage of this as the act of a bunch of frightened old people who were intimidated by a modern world that they no longer understood were it not for the fact that twelve legislators under the age of 40, all Republicans, three in the Senate and nine in the House, enough to change the final outcome, were among those who voted for this. In other words, people who should have had an eye to the future rather than the past supported this even though they knew better.

At the time, I remember saying that the folks under 40 who voted for 1042 were all going to live to feel foolish about their vote. Society was moving in the opposite direction, and the future would not look kindly upon those who stood in the way of progress. We were people who all grew up around folks of our parents and grandparents’ generation who lived through the days of legal segregation. We would hear the lame excuses of older people who told us that while they all knew that the way that African-Americans were treated was wrong, they just had to go along with it in the name of expedience. As usual, evil triumphed because so many ostensibly good people found excuses to do nothing. The fact that the older generation was still (and is still) making excuses many years later indicates that they were embarrassed by their part in allowing it to continue.

Despite the court decision, the debate over same sex-marriage in Arizona is by no means over. Opponents have made it clear that they will continue to fight, but they are rapidly looking more like the Japanese holdouts who were still waging war from caves in the Marianas years after the surrender. It is clear where the issue is going, and it is happening much faster than even the most hopeful among us ever thought it would.

This was a very different issue than most of what we dealt with in the legislature. Unlike our arguments about taxation or whatever, this was one where, as what happened with SB1070 two years later, the legislature singled out one constituency for stigmatization, as the folks to blame for the problems the rest of us were having. They targeted our fellow human beings for crass, cynical and craven reasons. They all knew exactly what they were doing.

This is the part where someone says “Hey Tom, that was 6 years ago. Why still hold a grudge?” The reason is simple. I have seen nothing in the intervening time that shows that any of these folks have regret over their vote in 2008. Based on the fact that three of these individuals: Senators Adam Driggs, Rick Murphy and Michele Reagan, recently voted for the clearly anti-gay SB1062, it is safe to say that they still think that political considerations trump the dignity of our neighbors. So far, none of these individuals has had a George Wallace moment where they admit that they were wrong.

Now that it is clear that they are on the wrong side of history, they all better start thinking up what lame excuses they are going to be making. Their grand-children’s generation is sure to ask questions.

Tom’s Cheat Sheet

Posted by popular demand, here are my proposition recommendations:

Proposition 122: No

This is complete bullshit. It allows the state to ignore federal laws that they legislature does not like. This sort of thing comes up every few years and seems to be a way to provide an excuse for the state to sue the federal government (unsuccessfully, in all likelihood) and provide work for a clique of otherwise unemployable think-tank attorneys at taxpayer expense.

Senator Goudinoff put it best many years ago: “I thought we already settled this question on a hill in Pennsylvania.”

Proposition 303: No

This allows terminally ill patients to access experimental drugs. Though this sounds good and is very constrained, it effectively absolves doctors of liability for handing out medications of dubious value and opens the door to all sorts of quackery and bad science.

Proposition 304: Yes

This raises legislator’s salary to $35K. Though I know that you hate the legislature, and you should these days, please keep in mind that there are a lot of good, hard-working people there who deserve better than a paltry $24K a year.

If you think that $24K is more than the legislature deserves, then keep in mind that you get what you pay for and maybe it is you that deserves a legislature that does not take its job seriously.

Proposition 415: Yes

This would authorize a $22 billion bond to build a new animal care center. The current overcrowded facility has been obsolete for decades and is scattered about an unruly warren of modular buildings, making it difficult for the staff to do its work.

The opposition to this is, with all due respect, knee-jerk and stupid. These folks would be equally opposed to a bond to build a school, a fire station, or a bridge and they deserve to be rebuffed and ostracized. This thing will cost the average taxpayer about $3 a year at most, and it is critical to the health and safety of a community where stray animals are a serious problem.

Proposition 420: Yes

This allows TUSD to sell surplus land, whether it is land that has been abandoned due to a school closure, or simply land that was purchased years ago for projects that never happened. No one will deny that the revenue is necessary, and this is a no-brainer.

About That

Bloggers are, to some extent, a higher class of the trolls we so despise. We want to provoke a reaction. We’d like to be regarded as a thorn in the side of those in power.

This is why the biggest disappointment of the current John Huppenthal controversy is that I seem to have only caught his attention once. I had a state senator who posted anonymously on here for years, and the son of a now-disgraced former state treasurer used to come on here too. Still, the biggest blogging controversy in this state, and I have only a tangential relationship to it.


Three of Huppenthal’s internet aliases have been printed in numerous places. I went through the comments and didn’t find any from Thucky or Thucydides. I found a grand total of one from Falcon9.

Back in 2010, I did a short report about the post-election Arizona State Democratic Party Meeting. The report included Felecia Rotellini’s promise to keep being a watchdog on just-elected Attorney General Tom Horne. This prompted several very long comments from a fella named Jochas defending Horne’s record as Superintendent of Public Instruction. What the guy is saying these days, I’m not sure.

Anyhow, this prompted a comment from Falcon9 that seemed to be somewhat skeptical of Horne’s record:

Arizona’s graduation rate for 2002/2003, the year Horne was elected, was 75.9.

Arizona’s most recent graduation rate, as mentioned above, was 70.7%.

If you are going to make conclusions about Horne’s tenure using this data set, the best that can be said is that he held things steady, no statistically significant change.

However, we need the most recent data, for school year 2010, to make any conclusion.

Yep. That’s it. Not exactly provocative, but interesting that he was less than a cheerleader for Horne.

Three Sonorans published a list of comments made by Huppenthal under the name Falcon9. That one included several IP addresses. Those didn’t lead to anything new from Huppenthal, but I did find a guy at one of those IP addresses calling himself Doug. Doug seems to be a Republican, but he also had good words for Ted Kennedy. I doubt that Doug is Huppenthal, but if it was him, that post alone would probably lead to impeachment proceedings.

By the way, after talking to a few legislators, it seems that Huppenthal wasn’t exactly chummy with his fellow solons back when he was in the lege. This is probably the bigger reason for the lack of the usual wagon circling by the Phoenix civic establishment than the racism and general unhinged nature of his commentary.

Obviously, I didn’t catch the guy’s attention. That means I missed out on gems like this one posted in response to a bit on employer sanctions over at Espresso Pundit:

We have a whole lot fewer caucasians working now that the hispanics have left. But, crime is much lower. No money and no one is stealing it.


Recommended Reading For The Bundy Thing

The cameras have largely left, but this week, we were reminded that the story of our Little Ukraine On The Virgin River continues. First, there were reports that militiamen (largely from other states), having stayed behind after the standoff and apparently lacking anything else to do, have been harassing the locals and demanding their papers. There also came word of infighting among the various militia groups camped out at the Bundy Ranch, a predictable result considering that we are talking about a movement where every man fancies himself a colonel.

To the media’s credit, reporting on this story has largely made it clear that this insurrection was not an isolated incident, but merely a fairly extreme manifestation of a long-standing conflict between rural westerners and a Federal government which they simultaneously depend upon and rail against. While most would trace this back to the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s, those more familiar with the history of the western states see this current running back into the 19th century. Folks who want insight into the roots of this might do well to check out two books, one a scholarly history and the other fiction, about a spectacular crime that occurred in Arizona in 1889.

AmbushAmbush at Bloody Run: The Wham Paymaster Robbery of 1889- A Story of Politics, Religion, Race and Banditry in Arizona Territory by Larry D. Ball (2000) tells of an incident when a gang of Mormons in Graham County held up a U.S. Army pay wagon bound for Fort Thomas with twenty-eight thousand dollars. As implied by the title of the book, the crime, investigation, and subsequent trial provide an excellent window into many of the conflicts that came to shape our state. Coming at a time when an ascendant progressive movement was becoming more prominent, the events pitted figures from the two emerging factions of Arizona’s Democratic Party against each other: on one side progressives like former Representative Selim Franklin and Arizona Star editor (as well as future Governor) Louis Hughes versus conservatives like Territorial Delegate (and future U.S. Senator) Marcus A. Smith, who neglected his duties in Washington D.C. to defend the gang when they went on trial in Tucson.

One of the things that becomes clear in this book is that that, unlike today, the military was not spared from the anti-government rhetoric of the era. The peacetime Army was regarded as a nuisance, and soldiers were regarded as freeloaders. Because the soldiers at Fort Thomas were largely African-American “Buffalo Soldiers” of the 24th Infantry, racism was a factor as well. It is only in this context that it starts to make sense that a significant number of Arizona residents regarded the theft of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money to be no big deal, even if 8 men were wounded in the process. Of course, then as now, these attitudes were tainted by hypocrisy. In this case, the gang’s ringleader Gilbert Webb had a contract to provide grain to the Army. In other words, he was financially dependent on the same soldiers that he robbed.

This episode of the Old West is largely forgotten in the popular imagination. I think this may be because it is messy and unromantic, and it cannot easily be made to fit cinematic tropes that we have come to accept whether we like it or not. The good guys, to the extent that they exist, do not fare well, while the bad guys largely get away with something close to murder. The subsequent career of bandit Wilfred Webb will make Arizona readers nod and say “Yep. Sounds like our state ain’t changed much.”

The novella “A Pilgrim on the Gila” by Owen Wister (1895), a political satire inspired by the same incident, similarly rings true today. Except for two uncomfortable passages, where a character based on African-American woman gambler Frankie Campbell (who Ball’s narrative shows as one of the most fascinating characters to emerge from the incident) is reduced to a dated, panicky mammy stereotype, the sophisticated, cynical humor mostly still works after all these years.

The author, who was visiting Fort Thomas when all this happened, is someone whose name may not be familiar, but we have all been affected by his influence on popular culture. Wister’s novel The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains, is widely regarded one of the first westerns, and he is credited with creating many of the conventions of the genre. Wister’s own politics, which come through in his writing, were considered conservative even in his own time, and today he would probably be a Republican in the snobbish authoritarian mold of Michael Bloomberg. But whether you not come away agreeing with the politics behind them, “Pilgrim” and his other works show that the rugged individualism of the west always inspired controversy.

Particularly appropriate to the issues in Nevada, is a passage that comes near the end of the story:

I supposed it something local then, but have since observed it to be a prevailing Western antipathy. The ill thinking sons of the sage-brush ill tolerate a thing which stands for discipline, good order and obedience, and the man who lets another command him they despise. I can think of no threat more evil to our democracy, for it is a fine thing diseased and perverted–namely, independence gone drunk.

“Pilgrim” goes in and out of print, though it is often anthologized. One such collection be found for free here.

While there are few similarities or outright parallels between what is going on in Nevada today and what happened in Southern Arizona in 1889, anyone who checks out these books will find sentiments and conflicts that still sound strangely familiar.

KOLD Jumps the Shark

The last few weeks have been tough on anyone who still believes that the media should have a serious role in the public dialogue in Tucson.

First, city staff proposed a budget that axed Access Tucson and left the city’s Channel 12 “restructured” and without a home, apparently so the building that houses both of them can be sold to a developer, leaving Tucson without a public-access cable station and severely limiting citizen access to City Council proceedings. Next came the news that the Tucson Weekly, which recently celebrated 30 years of independent journalism, has been sold to an out-of state firm with “a record of decimating publications they acquire.” (Here is where someone points out that the same outfit also acquired Inside Tucson Business, but, considering that ITB is little more than a Chamber of Commerce organ that has been giving schmucks like Lionel Waxman column space for years, its demise would be no great loss.) Finally, Arizona Public Media announced that Arizona Illustrated, a local institution since 1980, will be put “on hiatus” until June. This move will mean that our local public broadcasting system will be almost entirely without local public affairs content, with the exception of a few minutes of headlines at the beginning of NPR programming and, of course, whatever Arizona Spotlight can fit in-between self-indulgent essays and profiles of out-of-town artists during its weekly half-hour on the radio.

As if to remove any doubt that things are in a downward spiral in this regard, local CBS affiliate KOLD decided to observe the 2-year anniversary of the disappearance of Isabel Celis with a “special report” in which reporter Som Lisaius asked famed Phoenix-area psychic Allison DuBois for “insights” into the as-yet unsolved case.

Even someone who is not skeptical about psychic phenomena should question why DuBois is taken seriously. Her purported superhuman powers have thus far failed to lead to an arrest in a criminal case, and Phoenix police detectives have characterized her “insights” into the Baseline Killer and Serial Shooter cases as less-than-helpful. Her credibility moral authority reputation in this regard is due largely to the fact that she was played by Patricia Arquette in a successful and long-running television series. Essentially, KOLD brought her on board for the story not because she had a proven record of solving tough cases, but because a fictional character with the same name as her was seen busting the bad guys on teevee nearly every week. Lisaius would have done as well to interview Patrick Jane or Shawn Spencer.

miguel_sandoval(An aside here: I always had difficulty suspending my disbelief with regard to Medium. This was not because of DuBois’ psychic abilities, but because the Maricopa County Attorney, played by veteran character actor Miguel Sandoval, was portrayed as a Mexican-American. The show ran during the height of the Arpaio-Thomas reign of terror, and I always thought that the portrayal of Maricopa County government as a paradise of ethnic harmony strained credulity and made it clear that the writers really had no interest in portraying anything other than an imaginary and generic Phoenix.)

I guess it should be mentioned that the idea for this story seems to not have been entirely KOLD’s idea. The story mentions that the family contacted DuBois based on the suggestion of a Tucson Police Department detective. Clearly, on top of the other issues that the TPD has been facing lately, their officers have to answer for giving Celis’ distraught relatives some useless and terrible advice.

This, however, does not absolve KOLD from responsibility. They still ran with what amounted to a sensationalist celebrity story which exploited the grief of a local family and the community in general. More than this, the story lacked  depth and was otherwise irrelevant and stupid. Unfortunately, such irrelevance is increasingly the norm with regard to journalism in the Old Pueblo.