The conventional wisdom about political parties in local elections is that they are irrelevant. The saying goes something like “there is no Republican or Democratic way to pick up the garbage.” Emil Franzi, the one-time Republican Rasputin turned columnist best known to Old Pueblo political geezers as the man most responsible for Ed Moore’s takeover of the Pima County Board of Supervisors back in the early 1990s, once famously dismissed this notion by pointing out that Democrats generally want the garbage to be picked up by unionized public sector employees, while Republicans are usually friendlier to the idea that garbage should be picked up by private-sector vendors.
The approach to governing, or rather, the approach to non-governing, which currently dominates the Republican party is largely inconsistent with what people expect from local governments. It is no longer a matter of Democratic versus Republican ways of picking up the garbage. It has become a question of whether cities should be in the business of picking up trash at all.
This is really at the heart of Councilman Steve Kozachik’s announcement on Friday that he was leaving the Republican Party and joining the Democratic Party. Folks have been discussing this possibility for a long time, and it came as a surprise to very few on either side of the political fence, but I was always skeptical that it would happen. It sounded a bit too much like the chatter about Senator McCain switching parties back in the 1990s, or the persistent delusion among some left-wingers that Supervisor Carroll is a progressive of some kind, both of which are, of course, complete bunk. It was not too long ago that Councilman Kozachik voted against the City’s legal challenge to SB 1070, explaining his vote with a partisan rant against Congressman Grijalva which had almost nothing to do with the issue before the Council.
Democratic fans of Kozachik pointed to his public feud with State Senator Frank Antenori as evidence that the Councilman was secretly a Democrat, when, in fact, it was merely evidence that he was a thinking person who cared about his community and respected his constituents. Of course, this was the real problem.
The Councilman was elected in 2009 in small part due to Tea-Party enthusiasm, but also because of general frustration and the incumbent’s high-handed behavior which had turned off a lot of Democrats. Some Republicans assumed that this was some kind of mandate and expected the same sort of partisan score-settling and ideological lunacy that we see in the legislature. Of course, this sort of thing is precisely why Frank Antenori will be sitting out the swearing-in of the new legislature on Monday.
Congressman Harry Mitchell, who also served as Mayor of Tempe and in the State Senate, used to say that one striking difference between the legislature and city government was the relationship with one’s constituents. Decisions at the city level are made with the affected constituents in the chamber, literally at arm’s reach from the Mayor and Council. In the legislature, where members are shielded from the people that they represent not only by physical distance, but by a protective sangar built from lobbyists, pliant reporters and gerrymandered districts, they can afford partisan crusades, but at the city level, one must govern.
This is still Tucson, and Kozachik had the choice between working for his constituents or advocating for what amounts to a vocal but numerically small corps of vocal and rabid activists. Increasingly, he chose the former. Switching parties lets him avoid a primary against an as-yet-unnamed opponent whose contempt for his fellow Tucsonans would make him more palatable to the Republican base.
I suspect that Kozachik’s approach will not change much. As the cliché goes, he did not leave the party so much as the party left him. Democrats will forget his past, slaughter a fatted calf for him, and support him with enthusiasm.
This all leads to a question. Local business leaders and others supported “Paton’s Law,” which was thrown out by the State Supreme Court, saying that partisanship had no place in local government. Of course, these same people generally treat local Democrats rudely, snubbing them in favor of Republicans. They have been very supportive of the Councilman in the past. Will they remain so now that he is a Democrat?