The Complex Political Landscape in Tucson

Days after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords this weekend — and the deaths of six others at the same incident — the question of “why” remains.

The theories have come fast and furious since this weekend, shedding little light.

Some have hinged on drug use. Others have focused on a mentally unbalanced young man. Still others have looked for ties to the tea party. And it may be weeks before any real motive can be found in the assorted notes, emails and accounts that are creating a composite picture of suspect Jared Lee Loughner.

But that is less true of the setting of the shootings, Pima County and the city of Tucson. A mix of big college town with a strong, activist conservative base, Pima is a complicated backdrop.

A complex blend of seeming contradictions, Pima is a county where the long-serving Democratic Sheriff can rail against conservatives who talk about “tearing down the government” — as he did this weekend. It is also the place where a congresswoman can have her office vandalized after voting in favor of the health care reform bill — as happened to Giffords last year.

A College Town

If you were to look closely at a map of Arizona, Tucson would not likely be the place you would expect a Democratic Congressperson to have troubles with angry voters, as Giffords did long before Saturday.

Arizona is most certainly a conservative state, but Pima County, Tucson’s home, is no bastion of conservativism. The home of the University of Arizona and its 36,000 students, Pima is a Campus and Careers county in Patchwork Nation. It was one for the few densely populated counties in the state that voted Democratic in the 2010 midterms.

Giffords won her seat because of the vote out of Pima — the 9,000 vote edge she drew out of the county helped make up for losses elsewhere. She won by only 4,000 votes.

And Pima Sheriff Clarence Dupnik (a Democrat who has been elected to his office six times since 1980) has a long history of being to the political left of many other officials in the state. Last year he called Arizona’s new restrictive immigration law “stupid,” “racist” and a “national embarrassment.”

Those are words one could never fathom coming out of the mouth of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose conservative stances on a host of issues — particularly immigration — have made him frequent target of politicians and media on the left.

And while there are more than a few places to get guns in Pima — some 25 shops and/or dealers to be precise — that is still only 2.69 shops per 100,000 people. That’s lower than the average for Patchwork Nation's Campus and Career counties — and those counties in general are much lower than most of the 12 county types Patchwork Nation studies.

It’s also lower than most other counties in the state.

Conservatism Abounds As Well

Still, the political atmosphere in Tucson is not simply categorized. There is a strong, grassroots conservatism to the place. The Tea Party movement has found ripe ground for its efforts in the county.

There are at least three Tea Party groups in Pima — Pima County Tea Party Patriots, the Tucson Tea Party and the Tucson 912 Project — two of which, so far, have issued strong condemnations of the Saturday shooting.

None of that means anything about the tea party where Loughner is concerned. There are as yet no signs that he was a member of any tea party group and increasingly he seems to fit the pattern of a very disturbed young man.

But it does say something about the political atmosphere in Pima. There is a strong conservative bent in Pima along with the county’s more liberal leanings. The community is split and that split may have added to the tensions there.

They certainly may have had an impact on a disturbed, increasingly troubled 22-year-old.

Were those tensions an important factor in pushing Loughner to the shootings Saturday? We may have an answer to that question soon. But at the very least they indicate how strong feelings from both sides play a big role in the politics of Pima.