Tucson’s election race for Ward 1 city council member nearly took a sharp turn when a car ran into current councilmember Lane Santa Cruz in downtown in late September. 

The crash resulted in a broken foot for Santa Cruz, the first-term Democrat currently holding the seat. She has had to slow down performing her civic duties for a couple of weeks as she has surgery and begins to recover. 

As the incumbent Democrat, she remains heavily favored against her Republican opponent Victoria Lem

Get ready to vote

The general election is Nov. 7. Mail-in ballots will be sent out Oct. 11. Mail-in ballots must be postmarked by Oct. 31 or dropped off by 7 p.m on Election Day. Check your voter registration, find a polling place, and check which ward you live in.

No Republican has held the Ward 1 city council seat in at least 30 years. As of Oct. 12, there were four times as many registered Democrat voters, 24,599, as Republicans, 6,021, in the ward

Despite a contentious primary campaign, Santa Cruz won handily to become the party’s nominee. She racked up nearly twice as many votes as her opponent, Miguel Ortega. Lem, meanwhile, ran unopposed in the Republican primary.

To offer voters more information on the upcoming election, Arizona Luminaria sent each candidate three questions. The first touches on an issue Santa Cruz has recently become intimately familiar with: the dangers and challenges of transportation in Tucson, which is, per capita, the second deadliest major American city for bicycle deaths

We also asked the candidates about the housing and fentanyl crises.

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.

Lem did not respond to questions by publication deadline. 

Meet the candidates

Both Santa Cruz and Lem are lifelong Tucsonans. 

Lem is of Latino, Chinese, and Indigenous descent, she said in her introduction at a recent candidate forum. She is the mother of two, runs a real estate business, and serves as the president of the Tucson Realtors Charitable Foundation.

“I’m running today because I’m tired of sitting on the sidelines while our crime increases, watching our businesses shut their doors and waiting for the crumbling infrastructure and our roads to be rebuilt,” Lem said at the forum. “We need a fresh voice in our city council. I don’t believe that all is lost.”

Santa Cruz is the only current council member to work in the position full time. She has four children and occasionally does consulting work for other Latinos elected to local government in different parts of the country. 

There is a huge disparity between the candidates’ campaign finances. As of early August, Santa Cruz had amassed more than $71,000 in campaign contributions. Lem had just over $1,500

Transportation vision

Question: Despite efforts to make Tucson more bike and pedestrian friendly and expanding transportation justice, Tucson remains a car-dominant town. What’s your vision for the future of transportation in Tucson, and how will you help us get there?

Santa Cruz answered: Getting hit by a car downtown (I was the second of the night!) highlights the urgent need for improved safety and accessibility for all Tucson residents. The Downtown and 4th Ave corridors are heavily trafficked by folks walking, biking, and using transit. Once Downtown Links is completed, I want to work with our Mayor & Council and City staff for restricted hours for cars in these corridors especially during evening and weekend hours. While in office, we have been accelerating efforts to expand and enhance protected bike lanes/boulevards, improve pedestrian infrastructure, and upgrade crosswalks for greater safety. We have also prioritized public transit improvements and the expansion of efficient, reliable, and fare-free services. By actively promoting alternative transportation options, slow streets engineering, enforcing traffic safety laws diligently, and engaging in community education, we can facilitate a cultural shift towards a less car-dominant and more sustainable, inclusive transportation environment.

Lem did not respond to this question, but she answered two questions about transportation and transit at the candidate forum. In her responses, she said the city government shouldn’t tell people when and where to travel. She said she is “not a fan” of the Norte-Sur high-capacity transit proposal because it could displace people from their barrios. She said her son, who has special needs, uses transit to get to and from his job, but “since it has become free, it has become a crime bus instead of a good, reliable, affordable mode of transportation.” She said the city should go back to charging fares for city buses so more people can use the transit system.

Housing and homelessness

Question: Like many cities, Tucson is in the midst of a housing crisis — unaffordable homes and apartments, evictions, and a large unhoused population. How should the city respond? 

Santa Cruz answered: The housing crisis was decades in the making and exacerbated by the pandemic. It requires immediate and steady comprehensive intervention. Mayor & Council has approved the Housing Affordability Strategy for Tucson (HAST), a blueprint for how we want to prioritize our affordable housing stock and access. My focus is on increasing affordable housing supply in City-owned properties and acquiring properties for housing; partnerships with developers to build low-cost homes and apartments; and implementing housing-first measures to get people dignified housing. Supporting mixed-income housing, community land trusts and cooperative housing models  will foster community ownership and stabilize neighborhoods. I will continue to advocate for expanding services and shelter options for the unhoused, with an emphasis on dignity, support, and reintegration. By collaboratively engaging with our State government, Pima County, local nonprofits, developers, and residents, we can create a robust housing ecosystem that is affordable and accessible for all of us.

Lem did not respond to this question. On her website, she says: “My deep love for our beautiful community inspired me to pursue a career in real estate, where I have been advising residential and commercial clientele since 2014. In addition to my thriving real estate business, I currently serve as the President of the Tucson Realtors Charitable Foundation, where I am able to give back to my community in a meaningful way, providing grants to non-profit organizations and programs that serve the Tucson community, with a focus on supporting education, housing, and healthcare initiatives.” At the candidate forum, Lem said nonprofit organizations can help homeless people who want help. “We have tons of (shelter) beds out there … plenty of beds out there for people who want to use them.” It’s not the job of the city council to buy hotels and operate them as shelters, she said.

City response to fentanyl

Question: How should the city, and the Tucson Police Department more specifically, deal with fentanyl use in the community?

Santa Cruz answered: I share openly that my older brother Jorge died of an accidental fentanyl overdose in 2016. By staying silent about fentanyl use in our families and not educating ourselves on how to read the signs of use, how we can prevent overdose, and support recovery/harm reduction strategies, we are allowing it to go unchecked. Fentanyl use is a serious epidemic and public health issue, not merely a law enforcement problem. Law enforcement can step in when Fentanyl is being used in public spaces, but this is still a band-aid solution and not getting to the root causes of why people turn to substances. We need a multi-faceted approach encompassing prevention, treatment, and harm reduction strategies. We need increased investment in community-based treatment and recovery services, providing accessible, stigma-free support for individuals struggling with addiction. Enhancing education and awareness about the risks associated with fentanyl is crucial. Implementing harm reduction strategies, like distributing naloxone, and collaborative efforts between the police department, health professionals, and community organizations are essential to address this crisis holistically, emphasizing health and safety over criminalization.

Lem did not respond to this question. On her website, she says: “Fentanyl is streaming across our border, paired with our failing local economy and it becomes a perfect recipe for increased crime, out of control fentanyl encampments, overburdened law enforcement, overrun public resources, and a substance abuse crisis leading to deaths.” She also says she would: “Fully fund and enable officers to enforce our laws & protect our community, clean up toxic inhumane encampments, fight the fentanyl/overdose crisis, work alongside proven and effective nonprofits in our community which offer housing, counseling and rehabilitation opportunities and a path to become productive citizens. We cannot continue to measure our success based on ‘good intentions.’”

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John Washington is an investigative journalist based in Tucson with a focus on immigration and borders, as well as criminal justice and literature. His first book, "The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum...