For the first time in 13 years, Ward 2 will have two candidates to choose from in the Democratic primary election for Tucson City Council.
Cunningham is well established in Tucson politics and is seeking a fourth term as the representative of Ward 2. He’s been a member of the city council since May 2010. Cunningham lists his greatest accomplishments as helping provide free access to pools in Tucson and helping keep the city open for business during the pandemic. He’s also proud that many neighborhood streets have been repaved and parks have been greatly improved in Ward 2.
His priorities include water availability and sustainability, safe youth environments and helping Tucson grow responsibly, he said.
Cunningham originally had not planned to run again and was going to finish with three terms, he said but COVID left him wanting to complete various unfinished pre-pandemic projects, including implementing his ideas to improve healthcare and afterschool programs for kids in Tucson.
“I love serving the people of Ward 2 and it’s been an honor to do this job and I thought I could do a real good job in the next four years,” Cunningham said.
While this is Nutt’s first time running for office, she has been active in civic life and advocacy for public policy for decades, through emails, texting, voting and meeting with lawmakers in Phoenix and Washington D.C.
That’s not enough anymore, she said.
“As a mother to two young boys, I’m not confident about the future for them,” Nutt said. “And so, as opposed to continuing to stand on the sidelines, I have dared greatly and entered the arena.”
Nutt has long been registered to vote as an independent and she registered as a Democrat in February just before filing candidate paperwork.
Her decision to change parties was simple, she said. “Since 2016, what it means to be an independent has changed. In order to simplify it for the voter, I registered as a Democrat. I have been registered as a Democrat before and I took the time to understand because I was always a left-leaning independent. And now I’m an independent Democrat.”
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.
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 Ernie Shack and Libertarian candidate Pendleton Spicer. The winner in November will serve a four-year term as Ward 2’s council member.
Ward 2 is on Tucson’s northeast side. Check which ward you live in here.
The candidates’ backgrounds
Cunnigham grew up in Ward 2 and graduated from Rincon High School. He earned a bachelor’s degree in history at the University of Arizona and a master’s degree in social work from Arizona State University. He comes from a family of political figures. He’s the son of former state senator George Cunningham and his grandmother was retired Superior Court Judge Lillian Fisher. He and his wife have three boys.
He served in the Army Reserve and National Guard from 1993-2001. He also worked as a juvenile probation officer for 12 years. Currently, he works as a P.E teacher at Gridley Middle School in the Tucson Unified School District.
He’s been involved in various volunteer activities and groups such as Our Family, Friends of the Library, the Pima County Probation Officers Association, National Youth Sports, the YMCA, the Community Prevention Coalition, and Youth on their Own. The Ward 2 office hosted Tucson’s first disability pride celebration in December.
Nutt has also been a leader in her communities. Originally from Douglas, Arizona, Nutt graduated from Douglas High School, went to Pima Community College, earned a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from the University of Arizona, and then a Master’s in Global Management from the University of Phoenix.
Nutt is a first-generation American, her mother is Mexican, and she is the first person in her family to go to grad school.
“I didn’t understand how special that was until I researched how many Hispanic MBA’s there are in the United States of America,” Nutt said. “There aren’t very many of us and certainly not many of us were women.”
Nutt is the mother of two young boys, whom she adopted out of the foster care system when she lived in Pittsburgh.
“How I chose to become an adoptive parent was that I learned that sibling groups and medically fragile children are the hardest to place in the foster care system,” Nutt said. “So as soon as I learned that I was like, well I can do something about that.”
Nutt is a real estate agent at Coldwell Banker. She previously worked at Pima Community College and started a small business, Make Every Minute Count. She also works with the YWCA to conduct financial literacy programs, in Spanish and English, for new business owners and women of color.
Nutt has been invited to the White House on two occasions. One was for her work on an immigrant leadership program. The second time was for her work on a community garden and food bank collaboration with international university students back east.
The difference in her background and Cunningham’s stand out to her in this race.
“It’s a herculean task,” she said. “I am very clear on him being a 12 year incumbent. I don’t come from a political family. I don’t have a political apparatus that I plug into. I have earned every signature and will earn every vote. … We deserve better and I have challenged the status quo my entire life. This will be no different.”
Funding and support
As Democrats, the candidates are advocating for many of the same issues. Where they differ is on experience and background.
Cunningham has been the council member for Ward 2 since 2010 and hasn’t had a primary challenger until this year.
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.
In two election cycles, Ward 2 voters have cast more votes for Republican challengers, but Cunningham ultimately won the races because of the citywide general elections.
Cunningham has a long list of endorsements, including Democratic leaders like Mayor Regina Romero, Congressional candidate Kirsten Engel, and Arizona House Minority Whip Nancy Gutierrez. Many of his donors are local teachers.
Nutt is endorsed by the Tucson Association of Realtors and lists Arizona Reps. Alma Hernandez and Consuelo Hernandez among her supporters. Many of her donors are real estate agents and local business people.
Cunningham had raised about $30,000 by the end of the most recent campaign finance reporting period, while Nutt raised about $8,000.
Outside spending is flowing. The Arizona Multihousing Association spent about $45,000 and the National Association of Realtors spent about $35,000 to support Nutt’s campaign by sending texts, mailers and other ads to voters in June and July, according to independent expenditure filings.
Both candidates say housing stability is a top priority, especially with the growing population of unhoused people, the growing price of real estate, and the steady increase of population in Tucson. Cunningham is very familiar with the housing issues within his ward and Nutt has a unique perspective on it as a real estate agent.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. The deadline to request a ballot is July 21. After that, independent voters can vote at any voting location on Election Day.
Both candidates say changes are needed to city zoning ordinances.
Nutt has been helping her clients navigate the affordability issue since 2018. She focused on home ownership and eviction and foreclosure prevention, especially during the pandemic, and will continue to do so if elected, she said.
“We need to take a hard look at our land use code in order to understand how to really streamline those regulations in order to facilitate more construction endeavors and public-private partnerships. That is something that hasn’t really been done,” Nutt said.
Cunningham says one of the biggest obstacles is height restrictions.
“People don’t want a big tower built above their homes looking into their yards, because when they bought their house they were under the assumption that would never happen,” he said. “So we’ve got to figure out a way to have that responsibly — and I think there’s a way to do it.”
Both agree housing supply is low for the continuously growing population in Tucson and both agree townhomes could be a possible solution.
“One of the things is that townhomes are high density,” Cunningham said. “They offer the opportunity for ownership and they are less expensive to construct.”
Nutt is frustrated with the rate of change. “Just a few months ago, we are now able to build townhomes once again in the City of Tucson. We weren’t allowed to because somebody decided some time ago that that shouldn’t happen. That process took nine months and all we got out of it was to be able to build some townhouses,” she said.
City processes are too slow, she said.
“It will take four years for anything to begin being built because it’s about 2-3 years on zoning and another 8-9 months in terms of the permitting process,” Nutt said. “We don’t have four years.”
“A lot of people say oh, yeah, we need to increase housing and they kind of temper off with all we need to do is, you know, deregulate and just build more. Well, it doesn’t really work like that,” Cunningham said. “The reason that we have quality housing is because we try to preserve some semblance of quaintness and community within neighborhoods. It’s important to do this,.”
Cunningham is proud of the projects Tucson has accomplished by using Low-Income Housing Tax Credits.
“We averaged about one project a year, which was higher than a lot of places, especially for a city our size. But we did four last year and we did it because we passed two new ordinances that facilitate an easier navigation,” Cunningham said. “So I think we’ll be able to do a better job in the next few years.”
He also supports a program that would benefit city residents who are first-time home buyers.
The candidates differ in how to solve homelessness and support unhoused people.
Cunningham and his staff are trying to stay active within the unhoused community on the east side, he said.
Every Friday he and his staff participate in a day of service where they gather up some volunteers from the community and go out to help the community through acts of service like cleaning up garbage, serving food at Casa Maria and cleaning up homeless encampments, like they did in April.
He says they try their best to keep track of all the folks on the east side and he personally tries to make contact and speak with them.
“A lot of times it’s pretty crazy. Like ‘no way, you’re my councilman. You’re the councilman here? What are you doing here talking to me?’ It’s like well, I’m here because I want to help you.”
Cunningham says arresting people for being on the street should not be happening and is more expensive than rehabilitation.
“Would you rather incarcerate a person for two years and pay whatever the jail cost is or take a person who’s having a lot of trouble put them into rehab for three or four months?” he said.
He explains that transitions like this are hard, relapses and mental health issues occur, but what matters most to him is that with more rehab there is more opportunity for progress.
He is excited to see that Pima County is building a triage facility. “I think we’re gonna see an improvement as this county triage facility is finished,” he said. “I think we’re gonna see a great improvement once the CRC (crisis response center) is expanded.”
Cunningham takes issue with the phrase “public safety” and wants to redefine corrections.
“‘Public safety’ is an antiquated term, because you’re thinking about, ‘we need to make sure we catch the bad guys.’ That worked in the 1980s. Well it’s not the 1980s,” he said. He wants to see more transitional housing and rehab centers.
In terms of housing the unhoused, Nutt said the city’s strategy of buying up motels is not the solution because it still leaves thousands unhoused.
“Current mayor and council are what I call process politicians,” she said. “They like to point to the process as the solution as opposed to real progress. They like to say Housing First is our solution. But if it’s creating other issues, or it’s not going to result in a few thousand people actually being housed, then how was that progress? It’s creating a distraction. Talking about what they’re thinking about doing, as opposed to actually doing something that brings about lasting change.”
Cunningham said the motels and other efforts are helping to solve a major problem.
“We built 800 transitional housing spaces. And these aren’t shelter beds where you sleep next to someone and risk being victimized. These are spaces where you have your own bathroom, kitchenette, privacy and you get the opportunity to come off the streets and stabilize,” Cunningham said. “That didn’t exist before.”
Nutt said that without barriers on housing for the unhoused community, substance abuse will remain a challenge.
“Places like Gospel Rescue Mission have a 60% occupancy rate. In other words, they have beds available because they require people to commit to their sobriety, right?” she said. “So if our housing policy is resulting in people continuing in substance abuse, that doesn’t help us as a community either.”
“Being unhoused is not against the law, having mental health issues is not against the law,” she added. “However, our law enforcement has not been allowed to enforce the laws that currently exist so that contributes to the challenges as well.”
Both candidates expressed support for Tucson’s police department.
Cunningham worked as a juvenile probation officer for 10 years and Nutt’s brother worked in TPD for 12 years. The low number of police officers is a concern to both.
Cunningham said it is a struggle to find people who want to be police officers or who can pass background checks, but that there are still different ways that police numbers could be increased and officers could feel more supported.
Cunningham said he has spoken with the chief of police about his ideas to help increase retention numbers within TPD.
“I think it’s really important to temper that response with the ability to have social workers engaged in the field,” he said. “When examining strategies we can have to improve patrol, one of the things we can do is transition some of our commission positions to civilian positions.”
Another possibility would be asking retired officers to come back to work and work within a civilian capacity. Cunningham proposed retention or milestone bonuses, as well as a hiring bonus when they come from a different jurisdiction.
Nutt said the police staffing problem has to do with morale.
“It’s not due to compensation. That’s not why people have left,” she said. “They have left as a result of the frustration of not being able to do the job that they feel they are here to do.”
“We only have 275 officers on patrol. We have just over 800 officers according to the current mayor and council’s data on the payroll. For a city of our size, we actually require a police department that’s nearly twice the size we have. We used to be at about 1,100 right but now we’re at 800,” Nutt said.
“We will not have prosperity without public safety and we will not have public safety without public trust,” she said.
Both candidates agree there is plenty of opportunity for more social workers and community engagement in order to better support Tucson’s officers.
“What aspects of those community needs can be shifted away from law enforcement and redirected to social service agencies — where the support would be more responsive and free up our law enforcement in an effective efficient way,” Nutt said.
Nutt is concerned that the same streets are being repaired in Tucson. “We keep repairing the same streets over and over and over again,” she said. “I travel Grant Road probably more than any other road and the amount of repair that seems to never end and the potholes that remain, I understand everyone’s frustration.”
She is doing more research about different kinds of technology that could help with paving and painting for the city, she said.
Nutt said the city’s transportation plan is outdated and the public deserves clarity on the kinds of funding the city is receiving, such as federal and state, and how those funds are being spent. Nutt also has high hopes for Prop 411, approved by voters in May 2022, which is meant to fund improvements to neighborhood streets and public safety.
Cunningham said that when he first came into office a good majority of the roads in Ward 2 were failing. Now, he said, every major corridor in Ward 2 has been paved, as well as 16 of 33 neighborhoods this year.
“We’re trying to be as methodical as possible,” he said. “I’m really proud of the progress we’re making and by the time 2025 ends, I’m pretty confident that more than 60% of the residential roads in Ward 2 will be performing.”
Jobs and the economy
Nutt, if elected, intends to diversify the types of jobs in Ward 2 and promote economic growth in the city.
“We’re dominated by the service industry and hospitality, which the pandemic taught us how vulnerable that makes us,” she said. “We need to diversify our economic base. In the case of DM (Davis-Monthan Air Force Base), we’re going to have to redefine what that means because the A10 fleet will be leaving us.”
One idea she has is city support for networks of business owners and making sure business owners have access to capital, especially women business owners. Nutt is on the leadership team at the Tucson chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO).
Cunningham is proud of the improved employment rate and growth of the job market that Tucson has experienced in the past few years.
“Like I said, I’ve been proud to serve Ward 2,” he said. “It’s where I grew up. It’s who I am. It’s really a labor of love and it’s been an honor. So I hope to do it for four more years.”
This story was updated on July 13, 2023, to add new information about independent expenditures in this race as of July 10, 2023.