Happy with legacy, Tucson mayor looks forward to practicing, teaching law

From his office on the top floor of city hall, Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild pauses to take stock. (Debe Campbell/AJP)

When Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild walks out of City Hall on Dec. 2, turning his gavel over to Regina Romero, he will walk a few short blocks to his new desk at Mesch Clark and Rothschild, attorneys at law. He told the AJP he looks forward to returning to a law practice where he will reunite with some former colleagues and engage with some new, young ones, including his two sons, Isaac and Nathan.

Rothschild fulfilled a productive two terms as the Old Pueblo’s mayor. As a candidate, he looked to make changes in the city. “The citizens had lost trust in the city government for different reasons, one being Rio Nuevo,” says the mayor. The Rio Nuevo redevelopment of downtown used a tax increment finance district as a public funding method to subsidize development and infrastructure. A scandal ensued when expectations were not met before Rothschild took office.

“It’s not healthy for citizens not to trust their city government,” Rothschild says. His first step was to restore the citizenry’s trust. “To do that, I had to be open about things. If the city does something wrong, we have to admit it.” Once Rothschild was seated as mayor, he discovered the portrait that citizens were painting was incorrect. “Changing the perception of what the city thought was the task. I learned in my law practice that people just want to be communicated with.”

Addressing complaints with city department heads, “sometimes we can and sometimes we can’t do something about them, but we can explain why we can’t. Our city is constrained in revenue,” he says, explaining that resources are limited to state and federal funding and sales taxes. “Or to go to the voters to raise taxes.”

Six years ago, the city was successful in passing — “by a landslide margin of 900 votes” — a $100 million road bond issue funded by a temporary five-year tax. “We put together a plan and came in on schedule and under budget.” So they went out again for another $100 million road bond and a $150 million bond for police and fire department improvements. “That passed by something like 64-36%, which shows we had restored confidence. Last year we passed a $225 million temporary nine-year tax for parks by 59-41%.

“I’m happy about that and proud. Some look at parks, not as a necessity, but I feel it goes to the quality of life. We also completed a 138-mile greenway connecting the whole city. This is a signature thing,” he adds. “The biggest challenge remains that there’s not enough revenue under the structure we have to do what we need to do to maintain the core services, police, fire, roads, and parks. That challenge makes the job much more of an administrative one,” says the mayor, “always looking for ways to keep services at the current level. This is not a new challenge.”

Rothschild admits there were other things he would have liked to accomplish in his tenure. He became mayor “in 2011 when we were just beginning to come out of the Great Recession and Tucson was slow coming out of that. We could have done better. I would like to have seen more business come to Tucson. It would be nice to have more community resources to stimulate the economy. That’s a start for seeing our median income go up in the community. It has risen in the last couple of years, but we can still do better.”

Rothschild says his Jewish core definitely informed his work as mayor. “Most Jewish people are familiar with tikkun olam, healing the world. That’s always at the heart of it,” he says of his work, through programs such as Steps to Success, re-enrolling dropouts in high school; Veterans and Chronic Homelessness, coordinating efforts to provide permanent supportive housing; and the 10,000 Trees Campaign, planting trees to shade and beautify the community; as well as helping people sign up with the Affordable Care Act. “Those all go toward the concept of tikkun olam.

“The second value is hard work, being accountable to the core values I learned growing up in my Jewish family. Also, the importance of education and literacy, putting a lot into those areas. The path to a successful life has a spiritual side to it too, such as childhood literacy,” he adds.

Rothschild’s advice to the incoming mayor is simple. “It is important to be open to all constituents. My dad once told me, ‘Once you’re elected, you’re not partisan, neither Republican nor Democrat. You’re mayor to everyone in the city.’” Quoting New York mayor Bill de Blasio, Rothschild paraphrased, “‘Fixing potholes and picking up garbage are not partisan issues.’ My community involvement was important before, but after being mayor, it opened my eyes to things I didn’t know were out there. It’s important to get input from all sorts of people.”

After a vacation with his wife, Karen Spiegel, in December, the former mayor plans to stay busy, “but with a little more flexibility.” Not only will he practice law, but he also will teach it at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. “They want me to put together something called Participatory Democracy.
“I’m ready for the transition. Eight years was the right number. I’m still young enough to be able to contribute,” he said Oct. 28. “The city will go on with an excellent city manager and city attorney. The new crew will recognize that they do a good job and the city will be in good hands.”