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What the Devil won't tell you

Look out afterworld, Emil Franzi is advancing right at you

Politically ambidextrous operative was one thing to all people

Emil Franzi, I hardly knew ya.

By that I mean, I didn't really know him well, but that doesn't mean I couldn't take the measure of the man. All that required was meeting him.

Joseph Conrad described the title character of "Lord Jim" as "advancing straight at you." Boy was that Emil. He didn't wear his heart on his sleeve. He wore his chin in your face.

Emil of course, was Franzi in the local media vernacular so I find myself referring to him as “Emil” because that's somehow less familiar and more respectful. He had a way of calling me “Morlock.” No one calls me that.

It's all too easy to praise the dead, and Emil slipped the mortal coil having a bone to pick with the hereafter. I'm just going to appreciate the individual thing that was him. I can't vouch for all his deeds or the full depth of his character but I can tell you that he was one of the great characters in turn of the century Tucson.

I can tell you, though, that I specifically remember two emails more or less word-for-word from between 1998 and 2008. The first was from the president of the American Astronomical Union telling me Neil DeGrasse Tyson got a kick of my wise-ass takedown of him delisting Pluto as a planet. The other was from Emil Franzi.

Obituary: Emil Franzi: Local political legend dies at 78

When you are coming up in the professional world, there are individuals that just burn brightly, whom you use to navigate. I remember seeing Bud Fosters' mug on a billboard shortly after I arrived in Tucson to study journalism. A dozen years later, Bud and I were dishing about gossip on a regular basis. "Oh man, I'm an adult professional now. The guy from the billboard knows me."

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You probably have that too.

Emil Franzi was one of those celestial fixtures for me and he did not (nor did Bud) disappoint. He elected Republicans, defended the desert and helped unearth political malfeasance as a muckraking fist-in-the-throat crossover journalist. The thing I most admired about Emil, though, was that he was unsculpted by outside opinions of him.

I admire that, with my golden retriever pedigree.

Throws right, bats left

National Republican Committeeman Bruce Ash called Emil his mentor and Ash is a driving force behind the local GOP. Martha McSally said she learned a ton from him. And whenever I had interactions with him, I would say to myself “C'mon! You're sure you are a Republican?”

I got to know Emil in the context of the growth debate that dominated local politics in the 1990s. This was when I was a hanger-on with the Tucson Weekly crowd. Emil had gone full eco-warrior. He had helped elect Ed Moore as a Pima County supervisor in the 1980s. Then they had a falling out and Emil spent most of the early 1990s set to destroy Moore.

It was a weird feud because they seemed not to hate each other. Moore, like Emil, had a way of keeping others of balance. The difference of course, was that Moore wrested control of county government for about a year after he became Board of Supervisors chairman in 1993. Moore was in tight with the growth lobby. And the growth machinery was flashing its chomping incisors right up through Marana toward Emil's desert paradise.

So Emil went to work as a journalist for the Weekly when it was a journalistic powerhouse (not like today, when they'll let anyone write their cover stories). It was lead by Dan Huff, a reporters' reporter who bragged about how editors fired him and included a very good Beth Hawkins and a young up-and-comer named Jim Nintzel. It also had a freelance budget to burn and Emil found work.

In that context, railing against a Republican board and fighting to protect the desert that the right-winger turned leftist.

I liked to look at it like he batted lefty but threw right-handed.

He knew how to get information like hardly anyone else and did some great stuff. Though, he wasn't exactly down the middle. I remember Jim Nintzel once telling me editing Emil wasn't that hard; you just have to take out the word “cocksucker.”

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Skinny kid, skinny column

What Emil was best known for though, was the voice behind The Skinny back when it was a local political gossip strip par excellence. It skewered anonymously local politicos and with stuff that was known to be true because the insiders were feeding this stuff to guys like Emil. It was bite-sized brutality and boy was it a fixture. And no one feared The Skinny more than the local fleets of newsroom reporters pumping out the two daily papers. Emil would come after you if he didn't like you, in ways that would make Donald Trump blush.

That's how I met him. One of my best friends from journalism school had wound up in his crosshairs as county reporter. He kept pulling the trigger on her. So when I met him finally about a year into this, I stood up to him for my buddy.

Oh lord.

Emil unloaded on me. "You don't know anything. She doesn't know squat. She missed the real story. If that's how good you report then maybe you should try going outside and using your own fucking eye and ears. Now go away."

So the skinny cub reporter that was me, turned and ducked away with my tail between my legs. Years later, our relationship improved greatly but his tone never changed. If he was mad at you or happy to see you, he shivered with the same intensity.

Emil was Tucson

Emil was Emil was Emil. You got what you were going to get and in that, he never disappointed. He knew his stuff cold and even if he didn't give you the whole story, he gave you a good part of it.

I guess the last interaction I had with him was over email. He wanted me to go after some local pol with a story about alleging something that wasn't as there as he thought it was. But it was close. He was working for the candidate trying to beat this person and I tended to resist doing a campaign's bidding unless it was a slam dunk. It wasn't a slam dunk but Emil thought it was close.

“Goddammit Blake, it's a three-foot putt!” I got a lot of work emails in my day from a lot of people. I don't remember many of them verbatim. I remember Emil's though because Emil wrote it and I always felt like I should have trusted him more on that.

In thinking about writing this, I kinda wandered into the idea that Emil hit home with so many people because Emil was Tucson. He was what he was and that was that. That's Tucson. Phoenix is too much of a social climber. It wants to be Paris but it's not even Miami. Phoenix is like if the dull part of Orange County cracked off during an earthquake and slid east a few hundred miles. Flagstaff tries to hard to be mountain cool.

Tucson has no illusions about being anything other than what it is. Sure, Tucson would have to pay better and traffic should flow … I'd say more smoothly but that implies there is a degree to which more might apply. Our idea of a big-time concert coming to town is a David Bowie cover act. Architecture, well, there's mid-century modern and some of this Joesler-style work here and there but you gotta look for it. Even the Pima Air and Space Museum, which is jaw-dropping in its collection if you are an aviation enthusiast, looks like a flung-about stash for the guys from American Pickers to comb.

“Yeah, I guess I got a collection of vintage MiGs … 'round here somewhere ...”

The best thing about Tucson is that more than any other major city in America, it is what it is and doesn't care if you don't like it. If this were 2011, we would be The Honey Badger City.

And that was Emil, the original honey badger.

I covered match day at the University of Arizona Medical School one year, where graduates get told where they are accepted for residencies. One of the students was named Rebecca Franzi and I thought … it couldn't have been. Emil raised a doctor and not an outlaw?

Sure enough, there was Emil a few rows over looking as happy as I ever saw him. After the ceremony, and it is a whole to-do, I interviewed her. Had to. And she came right at me.

Later, I was talking to the students and had to ask about Rebecca Franzi.

I got hesitant responses about their colleague “The thing you gotta know about Rebecca is ...” interrupted by “Yeah see she is sort of … what's the word ...”

Yeah, the apple dropped directly under the tree and took root. So the beat goes over at Team Franzi.

The rest of us, do a shot sometime this week for a little bit of Tucson crossing over to whatever comes next. No doubt someone over there is going to get an earful about something or other.

Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.


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1 comment on this story

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5 comments
Jun 9, 2017, 4:16 am
-0 +2

Nice work, Blake. Franzi was always one of my favorite gripers and you have taken up the mantle pretty well. Maybe in another 10 years you could start a radio show.

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