As Lane Santa Cruz nears the end of her first term as Ward 1 city council member, she reflects back on a host of successes and innovations she’s racked up and helped usher in for her constituents. That may or may not not be enough to keep her in office, however, as she faces a rising challenge in the primary race from fellow Democrat Miguel Ortega.
A first time office-holder who began her term at the end of 2019, Santa Cruz says that one of her biggest successes was getting emergency funds flowing to offices and to the people who needed it during the pandemic.
“During the pandemic we got to really drive how to allocate federal money instead of waiting for the city manager to come to us with a proposal,” Santa Cruz says. She explains that disbursing funds can be a laborious and time-consuming process, but she and other council members moved fast to streamline it during the pandemic.
“We created proposals and said, ‘Look, this is what we know the need is going to be. Here are the organizations closest to the issue. Now we need to move money as fast as possible,’” she says.
She adds, “The city had never done that.”
With decades of local activism and civic engagement under his belt, Ortega has his own successes to boast of, including putting pressure on Santa Cruz in this race. Ortega also ran against Santa Cruz four years ago, when he finished third of four candidates, with about 20% of the votes.
Ortega is largely running as a critic of Santa Cruz, claiming she hasn’t listened to her constituents. Boasting the support of various unions, and frequently flaunting an “I’m proud to be union” button on his shirt, Ortega is optimistic about the race.
“I learned that if you want to go against the establishment, if you want to go against the folks with the power and the money and backed up by corporations and developers, you have to be united to win,” Ortega says.
Registered voters will have the chance to decide between the candidates on primary election day, which is Aug. 1. Most Tucsonans will vote by mail. The last day to drop a ballot in the mail is July 26. See a list of ballot drop-off and voting sites.
The general election is Nov. 7, when the Democratic primary winner will take on Republican candidate Victoria Lem. The winner in November will serve a four-year term as Ward 1’s council member. Ward 1 is on Tucson’s west side from just below Valencia Road to the south and just north of Grant Road to the north.
Tucson has an unusual election system. Voters in the primary can only vote for city council candidates in their own party and in the ward in which they live. Then, in the general election, Nov. 7, voters citywide can punch the ballot on the complete slate of primary winners in all parties and all wards. The mayor is elected citywide.
The candidates’ backgrounds
Santa Cruz is a lifelong Tucsonan, raised in the city’s south and west side. She earned a doctorate degree from the college of education at University of Arizona in 2016. The only current council member to work in the position full time, she says she occasionally does consulting work for other Latinos elected to local government in different parts of the country.
Santa Cruz is frequently seen biking around Tucson, and is a strong advocate for migrant and Indigenous rights. This year, she led Arizona’s first ever participatory budgeting initiative, which gave Ward 1 residents the purse strings to distribute $450,000 of city funds. She is a mother of four children.
Ortega also has deep roots in southern Arizona, but was born in Northern California to Mexican-American field workers. He has been living in the Old Pueblo for decades. He currently works for the American Lung Association, where he counsels people trying to quit smoking.
Ortega was a key activist in bringing Mexican-American studies into Tucson school curriculums. He has long been an advocate of street theater and has a background in radio. He is the father of two.
Santa Cruz and Ortega have known each other for years, and both have put decades into community activism. As they square off for a second time in August, the race has become increasingly antagonistic, with divisions rippling across the city.
City council political factions
Ward 6 council member and vice mayor Steve Kozachik endorsed Ortega in an op-ed for the Arizona Daily Star. Soon thereafter, former Ward 3 council member, Karen Uhlich, penned a counter opinion, fully endorsing Santa Cruz.
Ortega worked as Uhlich’s chief of staff during her first term on city council, beginning in 2005. Uhlich was cautiously critical of Ortega’s time working for her, writing, “It was not until I hired a new chief of staff and additional talented public servants that we figured out how to effectively serve Ward 3 constituents.”
Former council member Nina Trasoff also appears on the list of Santa Cruz supporters.
Fundraising in this race has been low but has brought oversized scrutiny.
By the end of April, Santa Cruz had raised about $12,000 and Ortega $4,700, campaign finance reports show.
Ortega and Kozachik criticized Santa Cruz for accepting donations from people who work in development and people who work at Tucson Electric Power.
“I’m running as a clean elections candidate,” Santa Cruz says. “And that means that I can’t get bought out by anybody because there is a cap on how much they can fund.”
Santa Cruz acknowledges the contributions from developers and utilities to her campaign, but they account for a very small percentage of contributions. “The majority are educators or librarians. They’re just working people,” she says.
Beyond the spats, both candidates said affordable housing would be their primary focus in office.
If Santa Cruz wins another term, she hopes to push for more affordable housing, which she sees as an issue that touches on a lot of the other pressing problems facing the city, including homelessness and the opioid crisis. “Dealing with our unsheltered population, with fentanyl, if you can’t stabilize people with housing first, all the other things aren’t going to happen,” she says.
Santa Cruz wants to work on zoning to allow more affordable homes to be built, as well as increase transitional housing, which offers short- or medium-term housing support to people coming out of homelessness. She mentions the importance of working with the city’s commission on equitable housing and development. “We have a lot of properties in Ward 1 that we’re going to do mixed income and mixed use housing,” she says.
What to know about voting in the Primary Election
Most Tucson voters will vote by mail. The last day to drop your ballot in the mail is July 26. Primary Election Day is Aug. 1.
More helpful links:
- Check your voter registration
- Find out which city ward you live in
- See a list of ballot drop-off and voting sites
Registered independent voters can vote in this partisan primary, either by returning a postcard indicating whether they want to receive a Democratic or Republican ballot or by contacting the City Clerk’s office at 520-791-4213 or email@example.com. The deadline to request a ballot is July 21. After that, independent voters can vote at any voting location on Election Day.
Housing development has become a central focus of criticism from Ortega, who claims that Santa Cruz dismissed neighborhood concerns about development in the La Cholla/36th Street area, a semi-rural area on the southwest side of Tucson.
Nearby residents largely opposed the development, according to Ortega. But, as Santa Cruz says, the land in question was privately held, and developers wanted to build.
Santa Cruz says the city balanced the sides as best as they were able, striking an agreement that left 70% of the land undeveloped. Santa Cruz says that with a “developer motivated to build,” leaving the land in its natural state was never going to happen. Ortega thinks there was more Santa Cruz and other city officials could have done to oppose construction.
Abreeza Zegeer, chair of the westside neighborhood association at the time of the development, says that Santa Cruz may have listened to the residents’ concerns, but Zegeer remains dubious that Santa Cruz was open-minded. “Politicians listen to you, whether they do anything, I don’t know,” Zegeer says. “They just turn into bobbleheads.”
Ortega’s campaign shared multiple neighborhood association letters opposing the development, including one survey with just under 500 signatures of nearby residents who overwhelmingly opposed development.
Yvonne Reineke, a Ward 1 resident who’s written in opposition to the development, decried what she said was Santa Cruz’s imperious attitude at meetings about the project. “Her office came in and said, ‘This will be developed,’” Reineke says. She also said that Santa Cruz was dismissive of residents’ concerns.
Santa Cruz disputes such claims, saying that she and other city officials went door-to-door to talk and listen to residents as they were negotiating with the developer.
Looking to address the housing challenges both candidates are focused on, one of the first things Ortega would do would be to bring back printed neighborhood association newsletters. “I’m passionate about it,” Ortega says. He explains that keeping residents informed and engaged is crucial, and that printed newsletters help.
“And as simple as that may sound, it’s symbolic of a lot of other things that are going on with the city, where the mayor and council has slowly shifted to a city manager led community, where the city manager basically says, ‘Guys, relax, we got this.’” He wants to put control of the city back in the hands of the mayor and council.
It’s an issue that Santa Cruz also sees as important: making city services, funding allocation, and responses to constituents more efficient.
Housing, both candidates recognize, is an issue that bleeds over to a lot of other concerns: not just affordability, but how the community responds to homelessness and the opioid crisis.
The city’s response to these issues is tightly wrapped up in what role the police department should play. It’s one of the clearer dividing lines between the candidates.
Santa Cruz says that, concerning the police department, “We’ve given them the tools and resources we need.” Tucson Police Department’s budget increased this fiscal year, to nearly $200 million.
Ortega has said that the police should be “properly funded.”
“We need to discuss how resources are spent, what work they’re doing. We need to ask them, ask neighborhood associations, and look to other models” for policing, Ortega says. In short, Ortega says of the police department, “I don’t think they’re properly funded.”
Santa Cruz has also pushed for alternatives to policing-first models. “I think, and I think our chief of police would agree, that we give way too many tasks to our police department.” She suggested, for example, continuing to expand the 311 resource line, a non-emergency number that people can call to make complaints or connect with community support systems.
As Santa Cruz notes — returning to the old trope of politicians as pothole fillers — one of the most consistent and biggest issues for constituents are road conditions. Both candidates are concerned, and both say our car-centric city is a problem not just for congestion and upkeep of our streets, but our planet’s air quality and the accelerating climate crisis.
Ortega criticized Santa Cruz and other city officials’ role in transforming South 12th Avenue into a narrower street with added bike lanes. “They didn’t listen to the people there,” Ortega said. “You don’t fight climate change by forcing some ideology of bike lanes.”
Santa Cruz says the South 12th reconfiguration was already set in place before she took office, and agrees it wasn’t perfectly executed. She hopes to be able to continue to improve the area, adding green spaces and listening to the residents and business owners there.
More broadly, Santa Cruz reiterates her commitment to mobility justice. She pointed to her role with FUGA, a bicycling collective that encourages riding on Tucson’s south and west sides. “Access to different modes of transportation and mobility is a hidden mechanism that makes life happen,” Santa Cruz says.
Citing “decades of general disinvestment in our barrios,” she says that by “championing walking and biking we uplift the most energy-efficient and lowest-carbon forms of transportation.”
Both candidates agree on one issue: the urgency of mitigating the effects of climate change. How to get there, and how to make Tucson greener and keep it habitable for future generations is critical, they say.
“I will not rest and I’ll do everything I can to fight climate change,” Ortega says. “Because when I’m gone, I want my boys not to be ashamed of my work.”
He adds that it’s important to go about it the right way, and says again that the city’s work on South 12th Avenue was a “missed opportunity.”
Santa Cruz says that the city needs to, and will, make that right.
“I have to be optimistic,” Santa Cruz says. “My ancestors survived so much for me to be here, and I owe it to them, and I owe it to my kids. That’s what I always say, that I want to leave things in a better position for my kids.”
This story was updated on July 13, 2023, to add new information about independent expenditures in this race as of July 11, 2023.