Regina Romero is seeking a second term as Tucson mayor and faces three challengers who are raising their voices about tough problems with homelessness, crime and roads.
The mayor faced a challenging first term during the pandemic.
Before she became the first woman and first Latina elected as Tucson’s mayor in 2019, Romero served as a city council member for 12 years and worked as staff to a city council member before that. She said she was thankful for the years of knowledge of city government and relationships with city staff when the pandemic hit because she was ready to trust their advice and to “push when I needed to push.”
Tucson was one of the first few cities in the U.S. to “make the call” on closures and Romero remembers worrying about the impact on small businesses.
She was a mayor and mom working from home, going to city hall only for city council meetings and taking late-night calls with city staff to get things done.
Romero describes herself as a systems thinker. She likes to have a big-picture strategy that breaks down into specific goals and work plans. She likes to see data that show what’s working and what’s not.
Under her leadership as mayor, the city created new or updated strategic plans for many of the key issues, including housing and homelessness, public safety, economic development, roads and infrastructure, and climate change and sustainability.
“As we were focusing on the pandemic and making the decisions and the calls that we had to do, we were also putting those issues on the agenda to make them happen,” she said in an interview last month.
But also as they were planning, the pandemic was exacerbating many of those issues.
The Republican challenger, Janet Wittenbraker, is a contracts administrator who formerly worked in the city manager’s office.
What inspired her to run? She says it was despair.
She was listening to a county leader discussing vaccines on talk radio and she felt despair because, although she herself got vaccinated against COVID-19, she believes everyone should be able to make their own decision about that, she told Arizona Luminaria in May.
Her priority is fiscal responsibility and fiscal accountability. She wants to reorganize the city budget to spend more on public safety and road repairs.
Wittenbraker is running for mayor because “there is wasteful spending, our crime is out of control, we are suffering from the homelessness crisis, and our infrastructure is failing,” she said at a candidates forum hosted by the NAACP in June.
“As a fiscal conservative, I believe in taking city taxpayer dollars and focusing those dollars on the services that are to be provided per our city charter.”
Wittenbraker left the GOP in 2013 “because I was dissatisfied with the direction,” and then rejoined in 2017 having registered as a Democrat and an independent at various times in between.
The independent candidate in the race is Ed Ackerley, who also ran for mayor in 2019 and “did a pretty good job, for a novice,” he said
Ackerley owns an advertising agency and teaches marketing at the University of Arizona.
He’s “making one last run at it,” he told Arizona Luminaria in May, because he believes Tucson is missing the obvious basics in its attempts to be forward thinking. He watched as the issues he ran on in 2019 got worse during the pandemic.
“As a city, we should be prioritizing the core services of public safety, roads, parks, transportation, water, libraries, courts,” he said.
“We need somebody to step forward and to stand up at city council meetings — literally stand up — and ask the question: Why are we talking about this when we have a public safety problem? When we have a traffic problem? When we have a fentanyl problem, and we have a homelessness problem?” he said at the NAACP event.
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.
Also running is Libertarian Arthur Kerschen, a chemist who works as a lab specialist at Pima Community College. He previously served on the county’s Election Integrity Commission.
A vote for him is a vote for limited government, Kerschen said at the NAACP forum. The city should prioritize the police and fire departments and privatize as much else as possible, including transportation and parks and recreation, he said.
All of the mayoral candidates ran unopposed in their parties’ primary elections.
Here’s where the candidates stand on a few key issues in the city.
Housing and homelessness
When she became mayor, the city didn’t have a strategy in place to address affordable housing and homelessness, Romero said. So she directed the city’s housing department to come up with a Housing Affordability Strategy for Tucson.
“Unsheltered homelessness is much more complex than just removing people from the street,” she said.
Under her leadership, the city implemented a Housing First program, which places people in housing and then layers on services from nonprofit partners for mental health, substance abuse disorders, PTSD treatment for veterans, and other needs. Many other programs have upfront requirements for sobriety or require people to live in large groups.
There are an estimated 2,209 people experiencing homelessness in Pima County, according to numbers from the Tucson Pima Collaboration to End Homelessness. The data is based on the annual Point in Time Count of unsheltered people on Jan. 24. Pima County has seen a 300% increase in individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness from 2018 to 2023.
Romero said the city had been trying the same programs for homelessness for 40 years and it was time to try adding Housing First to the list of programs. “It is one piece of the solution and not the silver bullet,” Romero said.
In the first 20 months Housing First has been in place, more than 600 people have been placed in permanent housing, Romero said.
The next step should be to create a city-owned low-barrier shelter that would be operated by nonprofit service providers, she said.
Wittenbraker said she is “adamantly against” the Housing First strategy and said it’s enabling, not solving, homelessness and related addiction problems.
“We’re a compassionate society. But we’re also a very capable society,” she said. “And I think there are better solutions out there than just enabling.”
Those solutions could be provided by nonprofit organizations, not the city, she said.
“I think we can all agree we have a social obligation to take care of our elderly and our underprivileged and our seriously disabled,” she said. “But we also have an obligation to help our communities when we can. And in my opinion, that’s treatment and rehabilitation, and mental health care. And there’s many organizations within this city that already receive city funding that can provide those services.”
Different strategies are needed for different people, Wittenbraker said. The city should deal with a homeless person who is stealing differently than someone who is fleeing domestic violence or someone who is a homeless veteran, she said.
“So we need to pull together as a community and hopefully we can partner with our neighborhoods, cities and our hospitals and figure out where we can provide assistance but not necessarily shelter. Not at city taxpayer expense,” Wittenbraker said.
A correct role for the city should be in removing homeless camps where people are living in inhumane and unsafe conditions, she said.
Kerschen, too, believes the city is encouraging homelessness by providing shelters that would be better provided by private companies and nonprofit organizations, he said at a candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters.
Ackerley said of course homeless people need a place to go, but that place shouldn’t be city parks, streets and washes. “Let’s get those people someplace where they can get some treatment,” he said, starting at the Center for Opportunity.
He said the city should enforce laws against urban camping and panhandling and the city shouldn’t spend money to buy hotels and convert them to shelters and apartments for homeless people.
“The people who are creating a fentanyl habit here should either agree to help or be incarcerated,” he said at the League of Women Voters forum.
Beyond housing the homeless, Romero said she has been “very aggressive” in reforming the city’s development code to promote the development of affordable housing of different kinds.
She highlighted changes like:
- Adding a code for casitas or “accessory dwelling units,”
- Improving incentives for dense infill developments in designated areas and areas near transit lines,
- Creating a city-owned nonprofit development company, El Pueblo Development, so the city can apply for tax credits to develop housing for low-income people and borrow money from the Tucson Industrial Development Authority,
- And partnering to establish down-payment assistance programs to help pandemic frontline workers buy homes.
“So in the last three and a half years, I think we’ve had to change systems and structures that had been entrenched in the city of Tucson (to ones) that are more forward thinking and innovative and visionary — and that have that potential to transform the city of Tucson both in creating affordable housing and homeownership opportunities,” Romero said.
Crime and policing
All of the candidates say public safety and police staffing is a priority.
Romero said the issue of public safety is “much more complex than just putting cops in the street.”
She often uses the phrase “putting the right work in the right hands” when it comes to safety. The city created a Community Safety, Health and Wellness program in 2020 that is meant to help people address problems with mental health, substance abuse and poverty rather than going through the criminal justice system, she said.
The city also has been changing the way the police department is staffed, by hiring more “community safety officers” who can take some non-emergency police calls, address needs at homeless camps, and free up police officers for true emergencies.
The city council has approved raising pay for police officers by an average of 20% and budgeted for more police officers and community safety officers, Romero said. “When I first started, we were seeing six to eight or nine officers leaving per month. Now we’re seeing two, which is the norm,” she said.
Romero advocated for the creation of a Place Network Investigation strategy, which addresses high gun violence in specific neighborhoods or even specific apartment complexes. The program has resulted in 75-80% reductions in gun violence in those areas in the first two years of the program.
Wittenbraker and Ackerley both say the police department is not sufficiently staffed and identify fentanyl as a crisis.
Both also said the city should work harder to recruit police officers from other cities in Arizona. Wittenbraker suggested pay raises and signing bonuses.
Ackerley said people are experiencing more crime and traffic problems because there were around 1,400 police officers a decade ago and now there are around 760.
“We’re trying to fight crime with not enough officers,” he said.
As mayor, Ackerley said he would staff 1,000 police officers.
“There are people (drivers) that will blow by me at 90 miles an hour. You know why they do that? Because they can,” he said. “Because there’s nobody there enforcing.”
“We’ve got a $2.2 billion budget. We ought to be able to carve out enough funding to recruit, train, retain police officers, even maybe in a negative environment where people don’t want to be police officers because of the way they’ve been treated,” he said.
At the League of Women Voters forum, Wittenbraker said the city should reallocate money from other city programs to build up the police department.
At the two candidate forums, Ackerley said he would place police officers in schools as School Resource Officers to develop relationships with kids and help kids develop respect for law enforcement.
At the NAACP event, he asked the NAACP and other groups to help identify people of color who would be good candidates to join the police department and “help us change the culture from within.”
At the NAACP event, Wittenbraker called for more arrests and prosecutions in the fight against fentanyl.
She said people who are addicted should be connected to services offered by qualified nonprofit health care organizations, but it’s not the city’s role to provide diversion programs, recovery services, or mental health services.
“For those who are addicted, we try to provide them care. And if they refuse that care, then they will either have to be punished by the extent of the law or, sadly, lose their lives,” she said.
Kerschen said the city should better fund the police department and focus resources on preventing crime to keep people safe.
He said he believes in the legalization of all drugs, including opioids, with restrictions for people under age. He pointed to the legalization of medical and recreational marijuana in Arizona, and said legalization eliminates the black market and thus reduces crime.
“Making drugs illegal is very destructive to our society,” he said at the NAACP forum.
People have the right to make choices for their own lives, as long as they’re not hurting others, he said.
“We have to be good Tucsonans, help each other, respect the rights of others — including living the way you want to live your life,” he said at the League of Women Voters forum. “That’s what liberty is all about.”
Tucson roads are bad and getting worse, making infrastructure a hot topic.
Romero said the problem “has been decades in the making and it’s going to take some time to repair and remediate.” Ackerley agreed the city is paying now for decades of neglect.
When she was first elected to the city council in 2007, the size of the need was $2 billion, Romero said. The city was moving slowly by using bond funds at perhaps $100 million at a time.
Romero led and advocated for extending an existing (but expiring) half-cent sales tax to create dedicated funding for road improvements. The city is expected to generate and spend $590 million to repair residential streets and $150 million on safety projects over 10 years.
And while the funding was approved by city voters in 2022, the city is just getting started on the first projects, making it seem like there hasn’t been much progress.
Wittenbraker said “there are more patches than actual road” on her neighborhood streets and the city should continue to prioritize road repair and replacement.
Ackerley said Tucsonans shouldn’t politicize the issue but should come together to solve the problem. At the NAACP event, he borrowed a quote from fromer Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter who said, “There is no Democratic or Republican way to fill a pothole.”
“That’s our pothole. That’s a Tucson pothole,” Ackerley said. “Let’s get together and fix that pothole together.”
Still, Ackerley took a moment to make a political jab at Romero and her goal to plant a million trees, saying she should fill a million potholes instead.
Romero said she’s working hard to bring federal infrastructure funds home to Tucson and next wants to attract more funding to expand and improve the transit system.
This article was updated on Oct. 17 to add context to Janet Wittenbraker’s political party changes between 2013 and 2017.