This story was updated on April 13, 2023.

The 2023 election cycle for Tucson mayor and council kicked off this week just as Arizonans received the last of the election results and outcomes of legal challenges from the 2022 general election.

First-term Mayor Regina Romero — a Democrat and the first woman and first Latina elected to this office — will face two independent challengers, one Republican and one Libertarian. The daughter of immigrant farmworkers also was the only Latina mayor in the nation’s 50 largest cities when she was elected in 2019.

The city election cycle will find Tucson talking about nationwide trends that have hit Tucson particularly hard, like rising rents, increases in homelessness and violent crime and slower job growth.

Romero’s first term included guiding Tucson through the pandemic, spending related federal relief funds, and looking for solutions to “decades worth of unmet needs, societal inequities and lopsided investments (that) have resulted in complex, multi-faceted problems such as lack of affordable housing stock, significant infrastructure needs, houselessness, and lack of action on mitigating climate change,” she said in her State of the City speech last month.

Housing affordability has been a high-priority issue for Romero and independent candidate Zach Yentzer focused on housing in a mayoral campaign kickoff speech on Wednesday. 

Median rent is up 40% and home values are up 60% since 2017, Yentzer said. The population has grown faster than the housing supply, and homelessness grew 70% between 2020 and 2022, he said.

The city has begun implementing a new set of housing policies during the past year, including buying up motels to use as shelters and subsidized apartments.

“In just one year, the Housing Affordability Strategy for Tucson has completely transformed the way the City of Tucson is strategically using resources and identifying opportunities to address Tucson’s affordable housing needs,” Romero said in a press statement last month.

Several years ago Tucson and Pima County implemented a Housing First policy, which focuses on moving people into housing and then following up with other services, as opposed to systems that may require people to have a job or be sober before they can access housing.

Yentzer said the city’s Housing First approach isn’t scalable. He favors a “shelter first, treatment first, housing earned” set of policies that would include more shelters, quicker access to mental health care and substance abuse treatment, and faster city processes for the development of new housing.

On his website, independent candidate for mayor Ed Ackerley says he would “establish homeless transition centers in abandoned buildings” and “provide quick strike teams to address, relocate and clear homeless camps.”

Nationally, more U.S. cities, including Denver, New York and Washington D.C. are turning to housing-first policies. Albuquerque’s housing-first programs saved the city money, and Houston’s housing-first approach cut homelessness by more than 50%, while San Diego launched “a series of one-off projects but was unable to expand on the lessons learned and saw far fewer reductions in homelessness,” according to a 2020 analysis by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism.

Between the lines, this election will also be about how national-level party politics and the national atmosphere of division and polarization reflect on the municipal level of government.

It’s evident candidates are trying to show they’re not part of that problem. One of Romero’s slogans is “We are one — Somos uno Tucson.” Yentzer’s campaign logo includes a stylized version of A Mountain formed by a red triangle and a blue triangle coming together.

About 32% of registered voters in Pima County are registered as independent of a political party. And Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema changed her party registration from Democrat to independent in December.

Yentzer is part of that trend, too. He registered as an independent in January 2022 and was registered as a Republican before that. He described his positions as “fiscally responsible and socially inclusive” and said he has often voted a split ticket over the years. 

Yentzer pledged to run a campaign with no mudslinging that focuses on local issues — going so far as to say he won’t answer questions about federal-level issues like abortion and gun control because “that’s not the job you’re hiring me for.” 

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Which offices will be on the ballot?

Tucson will elect:

  • Mayor, currently held by first-term mayor Regina Romero, a Democrat
  • Ward 1 council member, currently held by first-term council member Lane Santa Cruz, who is also the vice mayor, a Democrat
  • Ward 2 council member, currently held by Paul Cunningham, a Democrat who has represented the ward since 2010
  • Ward 4 council member, currently held by first-term council member Nikki Lee, a Democrat 

All of the positions are 4-year terms.

Who is running for mayor?

Two independent candidates, not affiliated with the Democratic Party or Republican Party, are challenging incumbent Romero for Tucson mayor: Zach Yentzer and Ed Ackerley. Independent candidates are not included in the primary election cycle, and so will be on the ballot in November with the winner of the primary in August.

Romero is unopposed in the primary.

Yentzer filed paperwork for candidacy in July 2022 and kicked off his campaign on Jan. 4 with a speech in the Menlo Park neighborhood, where he was previously president of the neighborhood association. He’s currently the executive director of Tucson Young Professionals. Some voters are familiar with his perspectives on a variety of issues because he hosted a live radio talk show about civic life in Tucson. He describes himself as a “clear-eyed optimist” and this is his first time running for public office.

Ackerley declared his candidacy for mayor in May 2022. This is his second time running for mayor. In the 2019 election, Romero won about 56% of votes and Ackerley about 40%. Ackerley was previously registered as a Democrat before running for mayor. Independents can choose which party ballot they want to vote in a primary election and Ackerley typically chooses the Republican ballot.

Ackerley owns an advertising agency and teaches marketing at the University of Arizona.

What to know leading up to the Primary Election

Primary Election Day is Aug. 1 and the deadline to register to vote in the primary is July 3. General Election Day is Nov. 7.

Tucson has an unusual election system. Voters in the primary may only vote for city council candidates in their party and in the ward in which they live. Then, in the general election, voters citywide may vote on the complete slate of primary winners in all parties and all wards. The mayor is elected citywide.

Having a city election in an odd year is also unusual. Only Tucson and Prescott will do it in 2023.

This is a developing story that will be updated as candidates file their paperwork for the mayoral race.

What would you ask the candidates for Tucson mayor?

Arizona Luminaria wants to hear your thoughts and ideas as we plan coverage that helps you stay informed, advocate, and vote in 2023. Reach us at info@azluminaria.org.

Becky Pallack

Becky Pallack is the Operations Executive at Arizona Luminaria. She's been a journalist in Arizona since 1999.