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Emil Franzi: Local political legend dies at 78

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Emil Franzi: Local political legend dies at 78

'Cranky cowboy' was 'living encyclopedia of local politics'

  • Hector Acuña/Tucson Weekly

Outspoken conservative commentator Emil Franzi died Wednesday. His frame had been weathered by cancer, but the curmudgeonly political operative, columnist and talk show host kept his opinions flowing strong.

"You might not agree with him, but you had to listen," said fellow talk radio veteran John C. Scott.

His professional life was a study in contrasts and contradictions: the token rightwinger on the staff of a liberal alt-weekly. The fan of Western gunslingers who was an opera aficionado. The conservative firebrand who often directed his political ire at those off to his right. The strident rhetorician who was often gentlemanly in person.

But one thing fit him squarely: he was born on the Fourth of July. Along with opera, Franzi loved to showcase classic patriotic compositions on his radio shows.

Franzi worked as a campaign consultant, and had until recently hosted two long-running talk radio shows, as well as being the founder of the Southern Arizona News Examiner conservative commentary website. He wrote at various times for the Tucson Weekly (where he was the "automatic weapons editor" and contributed to the Skinny political column, along with Jim Nintzel and Chris Limberis), the late, great City Magazine, Northwest Explorer, Inside Tucson Business and Green Valley News, among other publications.

"Emil was a living encyclopedia of local politics," said Mark Evans, former Explorer and ITB editor "He knew everyone who ever ran for office around here, living or dead, and had no reservations about sharing his opinions about them either. I once described him in an editorial as an acerbic wit who could fillet a feckless pol in less than 25 words. And that was before I hired him, twice, to be a columnist."

What the Devil: Look out afterworld, Emil Franzi is advancing right at you

Franzi worked with politicians near and far: from former Pima County Supervisor Ray Carroll to Supervisors Conrad Joyner and Ed Moore in the 1980s and '90s, to butting heads with GOP heavyweights like Morton Blackwell and Karl Rove, said Republican National Committeeman Bruce Ash, who called Franzi "my political mentor."

"I talked to him last week and told him how special he was to me and so many people," said U.S. Rep. Martha McSally. "Emil was one of a kind and I am so grateful for his friendship, advice and faithful support. He will be sorely missed by so many but I am relieved he is no longer suffering."

In addition to a lifetime of political activity — directly working for Republican candidates (and sometimes quietly for Democrats) and generally making hay with his unfiltered comments — Franzi was a noted enthusiast of the Old West. "Passionate about it," Scott said.

"He loved the idea of the Empire Ranch coming back to life," Ash said. "Here was this city boy dressed up in his cowboy boots and jeans and wearing that crazy hat."

Franzi hosted the "Voices of the West" radio show, as well as his "Inside Track" political talk program. He received the Lariat Award from the Western Writers of America in 2014 for his contributions to the Western genre.

He also loved classical music and opera, Ash said. "He was a fan of Rachmaninoff, Brahms ... he wrote the symphony notes for the Tucson Symphony Orchestra for years," Ash said. "But he could still put down a Jameson as good as anyone."

"Emil was an American original," said Jim Nintzel of the Tucson Weekly.  "I loved talking politics, chasing scoundrels and shooting pistols with him."

The cantankerous Franzi found himself in the middle of numerous controversies: squarely amidst the late '90s legal battles over the failed incorporation of Tortolita and Casa Adobes, ceaselessly blasting GOP Supervisor Ally Miller and her supporters, garnering national attention for castigating atheists just last year, and appealing perjury charges up the the Arizona Supreme Court over a mid-'80s investigation into illegal campaign contributions to Joyner's ill-fated congressional campaign (the case against Franzi eventually got tossed out of court).

"What a character," said Green Valley News editor Dan Shearer (called by Franzi on his website, "the worst editor I've ever had" after the two disagreed about the Pima Animal Control Center). "I'm glad our paths crossed."

"From an editor's perspective," said Evans, "I liked people who had the courage of their convictions, put their money where their mouth was, and who were willing to stir the pot. Franzi was all that and more."

He could be self-righteous about his take on political matters, but Franzi was also slyly self-deprecating, with numerous allusions to perjury charges popping up in his work over the decades.

"It was rare to find a political activist with that kind of mouth who had such widespread respect across the whole political divide," said Sentinel columnist Blake Morlock, who reported on Franzi's campaigning for years, "but that was because Emil was the political divide. He was a gun-toting, right-wing agit-prop socialist, who hated agit-prop socialists."

Ash said Franzi "was like the St. Jude of politics. He almost always took on the toughest campaign, worked with the candidate with the longest shot."

Some of Franzi's political confidants weren't quite such risky bets. Ray Carroll faced scant political opposition in two decades on the Board of Supervisors.

"There were so many issues on which he'd educate me, especially when I was new" to politics, Carroll said. "He taught me all about how politics works up on the 11th floor (of the Pima County administration building, where the supervisors' offices are located).

"He was a cranky cowboy," Carroll said. "He was a patriot ... and a friend you could always count on for guidance and support."

"His enemies, and he had some, were always jealous of his spunkiness. I loved him," Carroll said. "Emil and I were so close I really didn't like the people that didn't like him, and Emil didn't like the people who didn't like me — that was clear."

"We loved each other's family and friends instantly, then came mutual losses over the decades — but none more hard to me than the great Emil Franzi."

Frazi died Wednesday afternoon at Northwest Hospital. He had dealt with a bout of esophageal cancer in 2013; it returned last year. He had been off the air since November, but had published several podcasts of his Western show and continued blogging about politics.

"He collected strays; both four-legged and two-legged," said Beth Borozan (who now has a desk on that 11th floor, as chief of staff to Carroll's successor, Supervisor Steve Christy). "I was lucky enough to be one of the two-legged ones. He was a surrogate father to a kid who lost her dad."

Franzi campaigned for Borozan's father, former TV broadcaster George Borozan, who twice ran for mayor of Tucson, unsuccessfully. George Borozan died in 1999 at age 66.

The New England-born Franzi grew up in Glendale, Calif., and then went to the University of California Santa Barbara. But after catching pneumonia during his first year at college, "he wanted to move someplace warm and dry, away from the damp air," Ash said. So he moved to Tucson and studied history and political science at the University of Arizona — where he was one of the founders of the UA Conservative Club, later the Young Americans for Freedom.

Franzi is survived by his wife Kathy, daughters Monica Franzi Humbles, Rebecca Franzi, and Carroll Schneider, and granddaughter Julia Graziani. The U.S. Air Force veteran will be interred at the Arizona Veterans' Memorial Cemetery at Marana.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified conservative activist Morton Blackwell.

Celebration of life

Friends and family of Emil Franzi will gather Monday, July 10, to remember the late political consultant and commentator. "All of his friends are invited to hear and swap stories about a most unforgettable person. Wear your cowboy boots if you have a pair," Bruce Ash said.

  • Where: Mountain Oyster Club, 6400 E. El Dorado Plaza
  • When: July 10, 5:30 p.m. "until the brown liquor runs out."

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