Tucson voters appear ready to break with recent history and back millions of dollars in bonds for schools and students. Voters remain steadfast, continuing a legacy of electing Democrats to represent them locally. 

For years, people in the progressive-leaning city have said “no” to school bonds. This election, voters are backing ballot measures in Tucson Unified School District, as well as in Sunnyside, Flowing Wells, Sahuarita and Altar Valley school districts with more than 95% of precincts reporting, according to the Pima County Elections Department.

Voters across Pima County approved increased funding for their public schools, according to unofficial results. Every school bond and budget override proposition on the ballot — seven in total — appear to have passed, including a $480 million bond to renovate and upgrade TUSD’s aging buildings.

It has been 20 years since a TUSD bond was approved by voters, according to the district.

“This is the first time in a generation that voters came out in favor of our public schools. They know our facilities need help,” said Ravi Shah, TUSD governing board president.

Shah said that the average age of the school district’s facilities is more than 55 years old. 

“Tucsonans saw this as an opportunity to invest in our schools,” he said.

Sunnyside Unified School District funding questions have been rejected the last three times they were on the ballot. It’s been 10 years since any public school funding proposition has been approved by Pima County voters.

“It’s a good night for Tucson. It’s a good night for TUSD,” said reelected Mayor Regina Romero after initial results rolled in.

Romero and fellow incumbent council members — all Democrats — Lane Santa Cruz (Ward 1), Paul Cunningham (Ward 2), and Nikki Lee (Ward 4) are edging out Republicans, according to unofficial election results Tuesday evening.

Elections staff were still counting ballots as of 9 p.m.

“It’s humbling to know Tucsonans believe in the work I’ve been doing,” Romero said at an election party, standing just off stage surrounded by cheering supporters at a local barbeque joint.

Ward 1 city council member Lane Santa Cruz, left, speaks at an election results party at Brother John’s Beer Bourbon & BBQ with Mayor Regina Romero. Both won reelection on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. Credit: John Washington

“No mayor in the history of Tucson has seen four years with so many historic events,” she said, remembering the pandemic, the protests for justice in response to the killing of George Floyd, and other financial and social challenges many people have faced since 2019.

Romero won her second term after becoming Tucson’s first woman mayor and first Latina elected to the office. She also was the only Latina mayor in the nation’s 50 largest cities when she was elected in 2019.

“Thank you Tucson for reelecting me as your mayor. It’s an incredible privilege for me,” she said. “Never would I have thought that we were going to run in 2019 and make history. And in 2023, to elect us to continue serving the residents of Tucson.”  

She called herself the proud daughter of immigrant farm working parents. “That’s where I come from,” she said. 

Unofficial results show Romero with an estimated 60% of votes and Republican challenger Janet Wittenbraker with 32%. Independent candidate Ed Ackerley received an estimated 7% of votes and Libertarian Arthur Kerschen 1%, according to unofficial results as of Thursday.

Contenders: Civic engagement in elections is a win, no matter the results

Republican challenger Wittenbraker spoke with Arizona Luminaria on Friday about losing the mayoral election. She stressed that it is not a defeat though.

“I set out exactly what I intended on doing in a very short time, and that was educating people on the issues that we’re dealing with in our community,” she said.

Wittenbraker laments the low voter turnout and said she feels she wasn’t successful at encouraging the vote.

Voter turnout as of Thursday was 30.14%, according to the Pima County Elections Department. There are 409,687 registered voters in Pima County and 123,463 ballots cast so far.

Wittenbraker maintains a positive outlook on the civic experience and the conversations it opened up.

“I think we can all be very guilty of disregarding opposing views. So I’m grateful to the insight I’ve received from …different organizations that I probably wouldn’t normally have been involved in,” she said.

Wittenbraker intends to continue her involvement in local government and is thinking about running for another elected position to serve her communities.

Independent challenger Ackerley told Arizona Luminaria that “politics over the last few years has divided our country, our state, and our city. What is lacking in government is leadership.”

“My campaign focused on bringing leadership to City Hall and moving our community forward in a positive direction, making it safer, cleaner and profitable for all,” he said.

“It has been a professional and personal privilege to run for mayor in the city that I love. I thank the citizens of Tucson for the opportunity and I will continue to help make Tucson the best place to raise a family and grow a business!”

Ernie Shack and Ross Kaplowitch, Republican contenders for Ward 2 and Ward 4 seats, respectively, said they would comment when results are complete.

This was an all-mail election, although voters could drop off their ballots up to 7 p.m. on Election Day at vote centers.

‘Another four years!’

Incumbent Lane Santa Cruz, speaking on stage next to Romero at the election night party, told the crowd of supporters how important it is to elect women to leadership positions.

“We find a third way,” she said. “That’s why it’s important to have women and queer people in office. We find a third way. Hasta la victoria siempre! Let’s do another four years!”

Cunningham and Romero both signaled the value of local races as voters head into state and national elections next year.

“It’s no secret that the city of Tucson is an important piece of a Democratic win in Arizona,” Romero said. “When we excite people in Tucson, we can continue to engage all of Arizona in a presidential race.” 

Romero leveraged her platform to stress the importance of electing “a real Democrat” to the U.S. Senate, referencing Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. Sinema switched from Democrat to independent and has yet to announce her candidacy.

Cunningham, winning his fourth term to represent Ward 2, celebrated all the city has accomplished over the past four years. However, he listed a series of ongoing challenges, including unaffordable housing, community safety and economic stability. He said that Tucson must partner with the county, state and federal governments.

“We’ve got to all come together and take a look at how we’re doing with community safety and wellness,” he said.

Too close to call was a ballot measure to give pay raises to the city council and mayor. Proposition 413 would increase the annual salary of the mayor from $42,000 to about $95,000, tying it to the Pima County Board of Supervisors’ salary rates. City council members would see an increase from $24,000 to about $76,000.

Elected officials representing Tucsonans haven’t had a pay raise since 1999.

Early results showed the proposition passing by a narrow margin, or just over 500 votes out of an estimated 77,000 cast as of late Tuesday.

The separate vote for Vail residents to decide whether to form their own incorporated town appears headed for rejection — the third time in recent years that local constituents may nix the proposal. If so, Vail will remain part of unincorporated Pima County.

This story has been updated to reflect latest election results and comments from candidates. Carolina Cuellar and Becky Pallack contributed to this article

Corrections and Clarifications: An earlier version of this story included information that misstated the number of voters who didn’t answer the Prop. 413 question.

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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...