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Richard Elías, longtime Pima County supervisor, dead at 61

'Richard Elías gave a shit.' - U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva

Richard Elías, a fixture on the Pima County Board of Supervisors for nearly two decades, died Saturday morning at home in bed. He was "a poet warrior" and "a brother," political colleagues said; each described his death as a surprise.

"I want to say about my friend, as directly as I can: Richard Elías gave a shit," U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva said in a statement released by his office. "He cared about regular folks and the issues that mattered to them. He led with his heart and used his mind and body to consistently fight for the right thing for people."

"It's a shock to the system. He was the last person I spoke to besides my wife last night," said Sup. Ramon Valadez. "We talked about making sure his daughter was OK, keeping an eye on our colleagues, making sure they're handling (the coronavirus crisis) OK."

Elías, who had been feeling ill for days and had been noticeably fatigued, woke up Saturday morning and said he wasn't feeling well, sources said.

He went back to bed to rest, and died in his sleep, multiple people told TucsonSentinel.com.

A staunch progressive, Elías was tapped two years ago by his fellow Democratic supervisors to be the board chairman despite often pushing for more left-wing policies than they would support.

"We didn't always agree but we always talked to each other," Valadez said. "We parted as brothers last night. I told him 'Take care and God bless,' and he said, 'Brother, you too.'"

Dark horse appointee to unchallenged incumbent

On his Facebook page, Elías described himself as "Husband, Dad, Tucsonan. Pima County District Five Supervisor. Friend of our environment, working families, children, and seniors."

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The Democrat — a fervent fan of the of the Grateful Dead, Los Lobos, the Clash and Bob Marley — was appointed to the county board in 2002, to take a seat vacated by Raul Grijalva, who resigned to run for Congress.

What the Devil won't tell you: Richard Elías brought the heart until it gave out

A dark horse in the jockeying for the appointment, Elías prevailed over favorite Salomón Baldenegro, Sr., and then easily led in every election to follow.

"We've been together on the Board for over 16 years," Valadez said. "We were friends before that, for over three decades — since I was about 20 or 21."

"I and the rest of the Board and the rest of the community need to grieve right now," a somber Valadez said during a phone interview. "We've all lost a member of our family. I know he loved his family, loved his wife. My thoughts are prayers are with them."

"He's a dear friend. We started these quests at the same time. It's hurtful for his wife and daughter and for his whole family," Grijalva told TucsonSentinel.com. "He is a poet warrior. Sometimes in politics, being a poet warrior is sometimes one of the toughest things to do. He was something that you need badly in politics, a thinker. Elías was a good man."

"I will miss him schooling me about the music he loved, recommending good reads, and discussing — in a deeper way — why he and I do what we do, including the frustrations, losses, occasional wins, and humor of our public lives," the congressman said. "I will miss the privacy of those conversations, the kind that you can only have with family."

After his appointment, Elías went on to win five elections in District 5, which covers the central core of Tucson, the West and Southwest sides and most of the Tucson Mountains.

'Presente'

The supervisor — known for preferring an open collar or maybe a bola to a cloth tie and for responding "Presente" during the roll call that opens meetings — earned respect from the reporters and other politicians with whom he butted heads and sometimes stubbed out cigarette butts outside the county building after meetings.


Editorial cartoon: Richard Elías: ¡Presente!

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"Richard was a guy I knew before he sought elected office, and the thing is that he seemed to grow into the office but it didn't change him," said Blake Morlock, a Sentinel columnist who reported on the supervisor for about a decade as a political journalist for the Tucson Citizen. "He was still just the dude I used to shoot the you-know-what with during breaks in board meetings."

"Richard was one of the bravest men I've ever met in my life, never shying away from hard fights and always willing to fight for what is right - even if it meant losing a vote once in a while," said former Arizona Daily Star reporter Joe Ferguson, who was appointed as a constable by Elías and the other board Democrats this year. "Pima County is a little bit smaller without Richard Elías in it."

"He was my friend and political mentor," said Ferguson, who reported on the supervisor and other local politicians for about seven years at the Star.

"I covered the BOS for over 20 years straight (a record, I believe)," former Citizen reporter Garry Duffy said. "From Sam Lena and Iris Dewhirst forward, I saw and reported on them all. Richard was the one who kept me from becoming completely cynical about politicians."

"This comes as a very heavy and sad shock," said Republican Sup. Steve Christy. "It's going to take some time to process it."

"I sat next to him (on the Board dais) as a colleague during his time as the current chairman," Christy said. "We had our differences and all that, but he was far too young to be taken at this time."

"I didn't know or work with Sup. Elías as long as my colleagues did," said Christy, calling the death "a very sad and unfortunate occurrence."

"At this time all I can really think of is his family and loved ones," Christy said.

"Richard and I have been friends and colleagues for a number of years," said Sup. Sharon Bronson, who was among the supervisors who voted to appoint Elías to the District 5 seat.

"If anything defined his legacy it was his passion for neighborhood redevelopment and community services," said Bronson. "That was really his baby; it's what defined him as a supervisor."

Orgullo Tucsonense: Remembering Richard Elías

"Richard and I often agreed, but when we disagreed, he was always respectful, honest and open to compromise," she said. "For that and for his friendship I will never forget him. This is a sad day for everyone in Pima County. I will miss him."

Despite his mischievous streak, Elías could quickly turn prickly, especially on the dais at public meetings. But even if he could be curt, he was always ready with a bemused and disarming chuckle. His enjoyment at holding the gavel was evidence of less of a desire to wield power than a commitment to bring people together and build community.

Whether he was the target of critical remarks during a call to the public that sometimes stepped over the line of hostility into outright racism, or praise from someone agreed to him, his standard response while awaiting the next speaker to take their turn was "I appreciate you taking the time to be here with us today, and for sharing your thoughts."

Many of his most fervent opponents — some who were at times scathing in their assessments — offered heartfelt respects Saturday.

Sup. Ally Miller, a Republican with whom Elías frequently butted heads in a way that both seemed to relish, did not respond to TucsonSentinel.com's request for comment Saturday, but posted on Facebook on Saturday night that she and Elias "fought like heck on the dais. We are on the opposite ends of the political spectrum. But we always walked off with a chuckle after most every board meeting."

"On St. Patrick's Day, I gave him a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow pin. He was so happy that I gave that to him," said Miller, who's not seeking another term. "And I have been telling him on numerous occasions lately that he was really going to miss me when I am gone. I told him he was going to miss me more than anyone. He laughed like heck at that one."

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"We had many a soul-searching conversation in his office. I'd always let him know when I was not happy with him," she wrote. "He was passionate about his beliefs and I have always been about mine. And even though we seldom agreed, I had a soft spot for him...which will surprise most people. RIP Richard."

Tucson Mayor Regina Romero said that Elías's death was a "big loss" for the community.

"I'm just devastated," she said. "I'm really shocked and said, and it's just unbelievable."

She spoke with Elías on Friday, Romero said, and during their last conversation he was concerned about services to the elderly. "That's who he was, he was thinking about others, and he was concerned about those he always fought for, the most vulnerable."

"He was always a soundboard for me, and he gave me amazing advice," Romero said. "He had such a way of giving advice that he wasn't telling you what you to do, but instead he listened, and asked questions. And, he was always respectful of where I landed."

"He had a moral compass about doing the right thing. He was very caring, and he worked so hard for our community," she said. "It's just devastating, and my heart goes out to his family."

'He loved Tucson'

"Richard was the people's champion on the Board, and the champion of the rank and file county employees. He always thought of others first, especially the less fortunate, and he worked tirelessly to improve the incomes and living conditions of all Pima County residents, but especially the poor," said County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.

"Richard seemed to know or have met everyone in this biggest of small towns. He loved Tucson, its people, its climate, its culture and its history," Huckelberry said.

"I spoke with Richard nearly every day for nearly 20 years. You get to know someone pretty well when you work with them that closely. We had our agreements and our disagreements, but he was always fair to me and I don't think a county administrator could ever ask for more than that from a supervisor," he said.

Huckelberry praised Elías's recent work on the Board:

I have been very proud of him over the past several months during the pandemic health crisis. He has kept a level head and has let the science set the policy even though the pressure of the politics of the situation was enormous. That took courage and I will always respect him for that.

He was a friend, a colleague, a compatriot, an occasional adversary, and a superb supervisor who served his constituents and this county faithfully, earnestly, honestly and always with an ethos familiar to physicians – do no harm.

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I will miss him but by my grief and I hope the grief of all the members of his family and his friends will be lessened somewhat in the knowledge that Richard Elias was a good man who lived a good life.

"I knew Richard long before I became sheriff. We shared a commitment for the South Side of our community," said Sheriff Mark Napier. "We had at times spirited political disagreements, but they were very respectful and we always maintained friendly relations. Chairman Elias was a loyal and dedicated public servant who cared deeply for the community that he served for many years with such great passion. I will miss him."

"I will forever appreciate Richard's friendship, quick wit, inspirational speeches and his support over the years. He was a tireless advocate for working families, our most vulnerable and social justice," said Felecia Rotellini, chair of the Arizona Democratic Party.

'Enjoying the ride'

Elías had filed his nominating petitions to seek another four-year term on Wednesday. With his death, the Board of Supervisors will appoint an interim supervisor — who must be a Democrat — to serve through the November election.

If the Board deadlocks on party lines in picking a replacement — without Elías, there are two Democrats and two Republicans — the tie will be broken by Julie Castañeda, the board clerk.

Elías served about 15 years alongside Ray Carroll, a Republican who left the Board three years ago and now is a justice of the peace in Green Valley. Carroll himself was first elevated to the Board with a tie-breaking appointment vote by the then clerk Lori Godoshian.

"We had a way of working together that I think, in the end, created an opportunity for friendships," Carroll told the Green Valley News.

He said he had texted with Elías on Friday night about coronavirus and the county budget and said they spoke last week "about some things he could do for the court and Green Valley."

"He cared a lot about the general health and welfare of Pima County," Carroll said. "It was always productive and positive when you talked to Richard."

Carroll said Elías texted him lyrics to a song on Friday that drew parallels with the coronavirus situation:

You imagine me sipping champagne from your boot
For taste of your elegant pride
I may be going to hell in a bucket, babe
But at least I'm enjoying the ride, at least I'll enjoy the ride.
Ride, ride, ride
Ride, ride, ride
Ride, ride, ride
At least I'll enjoy the ride.
At least I'll enjoy the ride.
At least I'll enjoy the ride.
— "Hell in a Bucket," the Grateful Dead

Carroll said they had a lot in common and that their children went to school together at Salpointe Catholic High School.

Elías was a fifth-generation Tucson native, the son of longtime printer and community leader Albert Elías, who died in 2015.

A Salpointe graduate, Elías was a union shop steward with Retail Clerk's Union Local 727 (now United Food and Commercial Workers Local 99) when he worked in the grocery industry before completing college. He earned a degree in History with a minor in Mexican-American Studies from the University of Arizona.

Before assuming elective office, Elías had a career in nonprofit and government affordable housing agencies, with Pima County, Chicanos por la Causa, and the city of South Tucson.

Elías chaired a special meeting of the Board of Supervisors on Thursday, after holding previous meetings also about the COVID-19 outbreak.

He was active in speaking with reporters and community members, county staff and political leaders in recent days.

Elías had diabetes and was a frequent smoker, and although he had not been feeling well recently, kept up a regular pace of phone calls and texts, staying in contact with a large number of people as the coronavirus pandemic stressed the county's staff and leadership.

Sources said he wasn't feeling well Saturday morning, and returned to bed to rest. The cause of death has not been determined, but he died of an apparent heart attack, sources said.

An ambulance was seen outside his home, but Elías was already dead and was not taken to a hospital.

Richard Elías, who was 61 years old, is survived by his wife of 31 years, Emily Velde Elias, and daughter Luz; his sister Ana Elias-Terry (Thad, deceased); his brother Albert F. Elias (Sarah); and his nieces and nephews Elena Quach (Josh), Arianna Terry, Matt Elias (Shannon) and Ben Elias (Chelsea).

"The family asks for privacy during this time of grief. Services will be announced at a later date," an announcement from his office said Saturday afternoon.

While a celebration of his life will be held later, his family suggested anyone who wishes to honor Richard Elías make a financial or volunteer contribution to Tucson Interfaith HIV/AIDS Network, Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse, No More Deaths or Literacy Connects.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Richard Elias speaks during a protest over the construction of the border wall in December 2019.