Tucson voters will decide to keep or replace longtime city council member Paul Cunningham in this election. 

Cunningham is a teacher, Democrat and lifelong Tucsonan. He currently serves on the council and is seeking a fourth term. He has been a member of the council since May 2010. 

He won against an opponent in the August primary election — the first time in his political career that he’s had a primary challenger.

In a recent candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Greater Tucson, Cunningham said he’s worked to strengthen communities in Ward 2. 

“We’ve been able to repave 16 different neighborhoods in Ward 2,” he said. “We’ve repaved just about every single corridor. We’ve added 30,000 jobs on the east side. I actually organize weekly cleanings of homeless camps … I like to be a hands-on councilman.”

His opponent, Republican Ernie Shack, said he moved to Tucson from Phoenix about four years ago and says on his Facebook page that he’s from the Bronx. This is Shack’s first time running for political office. At a candidate forum hosted in September by the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, Shack said the need for stronger solutions to widespread city problems and working to leave a better future for the next generation compelled him to run.

“I wasn’t happy with the way I saw the city. It could be a very pretty city, but it needs a lot of work,” Shack said at a League of Women Voters candidate forum. “The reason I’m running is because homelessness here is horrible. The roads? Equally horrible. And the crime is out of sight. We need to do something about it.”

Ward 2 Republican candidate Ernie Shack speaks at a community forum hosted by the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance at The Dunbar Pavilion on Sept. 18, 2023 in Tucson. Credit: Michael McKisson

Also running is Libertarian Pendleton “Penny” Spicer.

She has been living in Tucson on and off since she moved here with her family when she was 1. She worked for a time in Oakland as a child welfare worker. She has served on the Old Fort Lowell Neighborhood Association and the Fort Lowell Historic District Advisory Board. A year and a half ago, Spicer joined the Libertarian Party of Pima County and was elected as secretary.

“I am here,” she said at the League of Women Voters candidate forum, “because I am disgusted with what is happening politically both nationally and mostly here in Tucson. I believe that our freedoms have been infringed upon by government. As a Libertarian, I believe that we need to reduce government by a whole bunch.”  

Ward 2 has long been represented by a Democrat, at least since 1991. Currently, voter registration in Ward 2 is about 38% Democrats, 29% Republicans, 32% independents, and 1% other parties.

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. In the general election on 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 order to provide voters with more information about the election in November, Arizona Luminaria asked Cunningham, Shack and Spicer to respond to three questions. Shack did not respond to questions by publication deadline. 

How to vote

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

Meet the candidates

Both Cunningham and Shack said they have served in the military — Cunningham in the Army Reserve and National Guard and Shack in the Army. 

Cunnigham grew up in Ward 2 and 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 is a father of three.

He works as a middle-school P.E teacher and previously worked as a juvenile probation officer.

Shack retired after working in photography, plastics and facilities management, according to his website. Now he works with a nonprofit organization, Esperanza En Escalante, which provides transitional housing and care for formerly homeless veterans. He has also served as a member and leader with local chapters of a fraternal organization, the Order of Knights of Pythias, which promotes friendship, cooperation and goodwill.

Since moving to Tucson to be closer to his kids and grandkids, he has been active in the Pima County Republican Party as a precinct committeeman and then a state committeeman.

Ward 2 Libertarian candidate Pendleton Spicer (center, with microphone) speaks at a community forum hosted by the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance at The Dunbar Pavilion on Sept. 18, 2023 in Tucson. Credit: Michael McKisson

Spicer was a teacher for a few years before opening her own small businesses doing home repairs and bookkeeping, according to her website. She moved back to Tucson to care for her mother and in 1997 co-founded the Old Fort Lowell Live-At-Home Program “that helps seniors stay at home and out of institutionalization for as long as possible,” according to her website. She also serves as a leader with Tucson Organic Gardeners. 

Her campaign vision outlined on her website includes a city that “supports all personal and medical freedoms, free trade, less government intrusion into personal lives, small business, and where individuals can help each other to solve homelessness and prevent crime.”

Homelessness in Tucson

Question: What is something that people do not understand about Tucson’s current unhoused situation and what is the main strategy you will try to implement to address the crisis, if elected?

Cunningham answered: I have worked with homeless youth for 20 years and this crisis is unprecedented. We need to continue doing the things that have worked in the past, develop them to scale AND we need to come up with innovative strategies. The City of Tucson continues to purchase motels that offer shelter and services to those who are ready to accept help. I have personally placed a number of individuals in housing who I have come across in my duties as a teacher, a parent or a city councilman. In Ward 2, I’ve hired a Homeless Outreach Specialist to improve our response times — both to offer services to unsheltered individuals and to clean up problem homeless camps. I have also been working with the Pima County Attorney and other City and County officials to develop a Continuum of Shelter program that will provide more flexibility in the amount of structure and autonomy in regional shelter programs. I’ve personally talked to hundreds of homeless individuals and my office has assisted dozens of people in finding permanent housing. I know how widespread this crisis is. I remain open to any reasonable ideas and will meet with anyone to discuss them.

Ward 2 Democratic candidate and incumbent Paul Cunningham speaks at a community forum hosted by the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance at The Dunbar Pavilion on Sept. 18, 2023 in Tucson. Credit: Michael McKisson

Shack did not respond to this question, but on his website he says he wants to “help those who want to find a better way by assisting with admissions to local organizations that specialize in this type of endeavor.”

In the League of Women Voters candidate forum, Shack, who works with a nonprofit founded to address concerns about the “rising number of homeless veterans on the streets of Tucson,” said that said homelessness is contributing to crime.

“We have to beef up our law enforcement and give them the opportunity to arrest those that are homeless, that are committing crimes, doing drugs,” he said. “And then those that want to be rehabilitated, let the private sector, the nonprofits deal with those and not the city.”

Shack told the audience at the forum that the city shouldn’t be buying hotels to house people who are homeless and doing drugs at the facility without receiving rehabilitation services.

Spicer answered: The main cause, as I see it, of the current homelessness crisis was the needless COVID lockdowns and mandates. They caused people to lose their businesses and employees to lose their jobs. That is only the beginning! I will support the police in enforcing the laws when laws are broken and invite the public sector to get more involved in assisting those who want help with housing, drug rehab, etc. and work to get government out of the business of helping the homeless. I will insist that there be no more lockdowns or mandates. I will work to put a magnifying glass on government involvement in the illegal drug trade and work to stop that involvement as well.

Top priorities in Ward 2

Question: Aside from street/road improvements, what is another area in your ward in which you would like to allocate money to in order to improve the lives of the people in Ward 2?

Cunningham answered: Our City Parks have always been one of my top priorities. Since I’ve been in office, every single major park in Ward 2 has seen significant improvements. Jesse Owens has seen a full makeover and is now one of Tucson’s premier park destinations. Pools across the city (including Fort Lowell pool) have been reopened to the public and more than $100 million in parks projects are being planned, underway or completed.

Shack did not respond to this question. On his website, he says his priorities include improving infrastructure, addressing homelessness,fiscal responsibility and reducing crime in Tucson by increasing policing. 

Spicer answered: I would like to allocate money to get government out of people’s lives so they can make their own decisions about their own lives and take responsibility for their own behavior, thoughts, feelings, and actions. It may seem like an oxymoron to say I will spend government money to reduce government involvement in our lives, but government has made people so dependent on handouts that it is going to take a re-education process to teach people to be self-reliant. I believe that people would be less aggressive and angry if they were able to take more responsibility for themselves. They would be less dependent and therefore happier. By diminishing anxiety, aggression and hatred in this world, people’s lives will improve.

Ward 2 Democratic candidate Paul Cunningham (right, with microphone) speaks at a community forum hosted by the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance at The Dunbar Pavilion on Sept. 18, 2023 in Tucson. Credit: Michael McKisson

The city’s climate plan

Question: What are your priority projects from the city’s Climate Action Plan and how should the city pay for those projects?

Cunningham answered: My priority projects include the promotion of microgrids with battery subscriptions for homes and apartments, harvesting methane and other products from landfills, and water conservation. All of these are important pieces to long-term sustainability and addressing the climate crisis. Ultimately, these projects will pay for themselves. The city needs to help jumpstart these projects, but the cost of non-renewable energy has risen to the point that renewables will end up paying for themselves in the long run.

Shack did not respond to this question.

Spicer answered: The first thing I would do is dismantle the Climate Action Plan. I see it as another government ploy to create more money for those who are already rich, and part of the continued effort to control our lives — our every thought, action, feeling, and belief. I do not believe that the science is settled on man-made climate change. I do not believe that the water crisis is as serious as the government would like us to think. I see these all as scare tactics to make us believe that the only way out of this manufactured crisis is to beg the government to take care of us. Government will then use this opportunity to exert more control over us rather than us taking control of ourselves. We are perfectly capable of taking care of ourselves even though we don’t currently believe that in our current brainwashed state.

This story is supported by an internship from the Resilience Internships and Student Experiences (RISE) Program at the University of Arizona.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print.

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...

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