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Reno Public Radio is providing coverage of several local and state political races for this year's elections.For a look at national elections, NPR has provided special online coverage. Click here to see those stories.

Opposites fight it out in Reno's Ward 4 race

Reno City Council races are nonpartisan, but, for Ward 4, it's basically in name only.

On one side is Bonnie Weber, a termed out Washoe County Commissioner, who says the choice in this race is "black and white." 

“My opponent, we're completely opposite from one another. I'm a conservative. I believe that I work for the people, all of them. I’m not a special interest person.” 
And that opponent is Paul McKenzie, a longtime union leader, who currently represents about 3,000 construction workers. 

“I’ve spent the last 17 years of my life representing working men and women, negotiating contracts, much like the one the City of Reno is having such a hard time negotiating with the firefighters right now.” 

 McKenzie says his record of fighting for workers speaks for itself and points to Weber’s list of donors, made up of mostly developers.  That said, many unions are funding McKenzie’s campaign. And he says what first drew him into the race was concern about taxpayer dollars going to out-of-state developers, instead of benefiting local workers.  

Likewise, he takes a hard line on Reno's current dispute with its public employee unions, like the firefighters.   

“The biggest issues in the City of Reno are items that were collectively bargained in the 1990s."  

McKenzie says accusing the labor groups of wanting unreasonable retirement medical benefits, for example, isn't fair, because it’s the city’s fault for not putting that money aside.  

"And to come now and say 'I can't afford this because I didn't put the money away' is like somebody coming to the mortgage holder of their home and saying: 'I can't afford the payments anymore for the house because I went out and bought a car, and a motorcycle and a boat. I got to make those payments first. My home is no longer the most important thing on my list of things to do.' "  

McKenzie says his background makes him the ideal person to now resolve this conflict with the labor groups. He points to how the county did a good job allocating money for its union contracts. And, as it turns out, he and his opponent, County Commissioner Bonnie Weber, agree on that.  

“And I hope to bring some of that experience in what we did in the county: working with our eight union organizations and getting through and negotiating; everyone not getting what they absolutely wanted, but that we could work together."  

Weber’s county commission district overlaps in some places with Reno’s Ward 4, so she’s already familiar with the public safety concerns among those who live there. She hopes to encourage more cooperation between the county and city. During her time at the county, the commissioners put in place fire districts, meaning that certain tax revenue is set aside, in advance, to pay for fire.

Weber says she'd like to do the same, if elected.  

“I just hope we can come together and, for the city of Reno, at least get these fire districts, so that we can have actual funding that we know we have and we’re not taking money from the general fund.”  

The most obvious difference in this race is persona. But McKenzie is also critical of Weber’s record in office, characterizing her as a "career politician." For example, he believes she should have cast a vote one way or another on a controversial school funding bill, known as AB46, rather than let it die.  And he made a similar point, in a KNPB debate earlier this month, about Weber’s time on the board of the Regional Transportation Commission.  

“Ms. Weber keeps mentioning the RTC and connecting the downtown with the buses. RTC has been working on that since 2001, when I sat in my first RTC meeting, and they haven't got it done yet. That’s one of the reasons that I need to be elected to the city council because I do things. I don't sit there and talk about doing them. I get up and do them."  

Weber didn't get a chance to respond to that in the debate, but, in a KUNR interview later, pushed back.  

“I believe we need more transit in this community. He says he'll do something completely different, or that I haven’t gotten anything done. Well, guess what? It takes a team. It takes more than one person to get anything done.”   

Weber says she focused on her constituents, not on what her competitor is saying. But others are taking shots at her, as well. A local political action committee has set up a website, called justtooextreme.com, that calls her the “Queen of [voting] No” and suggests she’s with the Tea Party. But the county commissioner says her record reflects her belief in small government and keeping taxpayers' best interests in mind.  

“We can’t live beyond our means, so we have to look at what we can do and what we can't do."  

Weber is enthusiastic about the direction of economic development and the University’s expansion into Reno. McKenzie is more skeptical. According to him, the city has been giving out subsidies to only a few developers and, he feels, the current way UNR is growing hasn’t been good for the community.  

“I believe we need to develop a plan that doesn't increase the cost for students to attend school here at UNR and that we need to reinvest in our local community, which, the current administration up here at UNR, doesn’t seem to have much concern about.”  

So far, both candidates have pulled in about the same amount of money, close to $70,000. Weber’s long tenure in office gives her name recognition and an advantage, but McKenzie would bring a totally new voice for this ward. Outgoing Council Member Dwight Dortch has been one of City Hall’s most vocal critics of the unions.

Whoever wins out, it will be a clear message about the kind of politician voters want for Reno’s next chapter. 

Will Stone is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.