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Richard Elías brought the heart until it gave out

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What the Devil won't tell you

Richard Elías brought the heart until it gave out

  • Board of Supervisors Chairman Richard Elias declaring Day in Pima County — the last time this columnist saw him.
    Randy Metcalf/Pima CountyBoard of Supervisors Chairman Richard Elias declaring Day in Pima County — the last time this columnist saw him.

Richard Elías was just a guy.

He and John McCain didn’t have much in common but they both seemed to have a default presence: like they were supposed to be chewing gum, with their hands in their pockets and looking at you sideways.

“S’up, dude?”

He had a casual twinkle that gave you a glimpse of a sense of inner mischief that couldn't be constrained.

The five-term supervisor died Saturday morning of an apparent heart attack and Tucson is mourning the loss of his presence in county leadership. Elías brought the heart until it gave out.

He was a politico who made the job fit him, rather than the other way around.

Forget about the proper noun “Democratic Party” when you read “Democratic Party circles.” Just think circles. We all have them. There are conservative circles, Baptist circles, gun-loving circles and Wiccan circles. They happen whether you like it or not and in those circles some people evince the reaction "Oh, he’s coming with us?” and it’s a sigh. Then there’s the other kind. “Oh, he’s coming with us?” and it’s a moment of anticipation.

Read more: Richard Elías, longtime Pima County supervisor, dead at 61

In Democratic Party circles, Richard Elías’s presence mustered anticipation. He was relatable. He was just a dude without the self-consciousness that makes the electeds pre-emptively second-guess themselves. People liked Elías, because by and large, he liked them first.

And as his friend Rep. Raul Grijalva said, "Richard Elías gave a shit."

People in elected office can become the office. The office affords them that superior position that comes with power over a billion-dollar budget, the authority to make law and land-use decisions. At every Chamber of Commerce luncheon they attend, they are specifically pointed out for a round of applause. Among community leaders, they become mini-celebs. Everyone wants a piece of them.

It creates an understandable shield and an outsize sense of self.

Elías remained the guy he was – by and large (let’s not get nuts) – before getting selected to office.

But even that was a good story.

The brimstone floweth

He was one of the few elected leaders I knew before they took office. He was a staffer running the county’s housing office and – yes (insert judgment here) – a fellow smoker.

So I was shocked a bit and impressed by the sheer ballsniness when Elías submitted an application to follow Raul Grijalva on the county board. Grijalva was leaving to run for Congress.

A seat on the board is a good get. There were some major players who submitted applications. It comes with all the puffery of being in charge, affords a staff boss around and pays good money. City Council members and state lawmakers barely make minimum wage. School board members work gratis. Supervisors make high-mid five figure salaries depending on the year. There’s a reason Ann Day and Ramon Valadez went from the Legislature to the local government (I ain’t bitching. Being able to feed yourself is a worthwhile consideration).

Sol Baldenegro, a University of Arizona administrator, well-known Latino activist  and Grijalva buddy from way back, was thought to be a front-runner for the job and let people know that, too.

So Elías, part of mid-level county management, putting his name elicited a “wow” and an “OK,” but hardly any real anticipation he would get the gig.

That changed during the public hearing where the candidates delivered a statement saying “Why I’m best for the job.” The bulk, were professional, pious and public-oriented.

Then came Elías.

Holy mother of Elway, he peeled the paint off the walls. The fire gushed, the brimstone flowed. Elías delivered less of a pitch than an evangel dedicated to looking out for the people most hurt by the recession, standing up to the state Legislature and defending the environment. By the time he was done … well, had he called us to grace that day that may have been the end of my agnosticism. Can’t vouch for Supervisor Sharon Bronson’s Judaism.

But still, a good speech was one thing. Getting the job was another. And when he got it, it was a bigger wow moment.

He immediately joked with me about going from County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry's subordinate to boss with a single vote of the board.

Sliding into technocracy

I gotta hand it to him. He slid right into it. Supervisor Ray Carroll came onto the board a similar way but he was a self-described “Teddy Roosevelt” Republican in a party that had long ago moved from that kind of help-the-little-guy silliness. He went to war with the local party for about a year until he charmed his way door-to-door to a partial elected term. Then the R’s had to deal with him.

Elías learned to play the game quickly.

He fought for the passage of land bond propositions that helped finance the county purchase of open space as a major element to the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.

He also worked for the kind of services that have been out-of-vogue since Ronald Reagan’s time but important for people to get a leg up, as they scurry over the rubble of poverty snowing them under.

But Elías’s time on the board was marked by stability and a technocratic kind of leadership. I think that's a bit of a prejorative term for professional leadership that doesn't make promises it can't keep. Yet it's a departure for a body which in the 1990s was known for the upheaval of Ed Moore’s purges, the big think of the Conservation Plan and the fiscal crises that went with the running of Kino Community Hospital (Now Banner University Medical Center South.)

The county has taken the lead on economic development but at a time when the “elites” are seen as working to their own ends, negotiations between the county and businesses opting to move to southern Arizona can smell bad. Those private discussions come off like “sweetheart deals cut behind closed doors between the Deep State and corporate honchos” when they were once hailed as "successful deal making."

There’s no winning for winning.

The county has somehow gotten crossways with the public. During the past five years, the voters have swatted down multiple measures referendums that would have allowed the county to do things like fix roads and improve public services.

They’ve also had to say “no” a lot because the county has been broke since 2008 and with the coronacession it’s going to be broke again.

A great example of Elías being Elías occurred last summer when he had to be brave enough to screw his friends. That is the true mark of political courage. Anyone can go to war with an enemy. Turning against allies when they lose track of the game's object is much, much harder.

Last year, he blocked the housing of migrants at the Pima County juvenile detention center during the asylum seeker crisis on the border. He was working at the behest of the activists who wanted to put them anywhere else but a jail and were pissed they weren’t included in discussions sooner.

Then it became apparent that those migrants, in the country legally pending asylum cases, had nowhere else to go. Elías had to commit to  truly tempting the political fates and line up against the groups he had been repping.

It was house migrants in the detention center, or let them bust. He gave into reality to huddled masses a place to crash. During a key vote, he changed his "no" to an "aye."

"It doesn't need to stay the only option, but today it is," Elias said.

And so one activist left the supervisors meeting calling Elias “a motherfucker,” over his flip-flop.

“It’s OK,” Elias said. “I’ve been called worse – maybe yesterday.”

The shift wasn’t political. It was human. He wanted a better option and stood up for his friends. When it became obvious he couldn’t look out for the migrants and give his friends what they wanted, he changed his vote, instead standing up to his political friends.

I will point out that the activist who dropped the F-bomb on Elías didn’t offer to give up her home for the migrants and spend the night sleeping in front of a Walgreen’s. This is my problem with some arch activists – they are willing to make others the martyrs of purity.

Then again, I heard that the Methodists were pissed the Catholics got the money to provide services to migrants. Y’know, because that’s what’s important.

Elías on that day was the true progressive.

The last time ...

The last time I saw Richard Elías, he was officially honoring the staff of with a proclamation on this news outlet’s 10th anniversary.

We repaid the favor by setting about the board that day with hammers and tongs about improving their open records policy.

I figured at some point, he’d give me shit about it and I could explain that we were just celebrating the free press he was giving a shout-out. We were all on the same page.

That won’t happen now.

But Richard was one of the good ones. So attention to the hereafter, Richard is coming. View it with anticipation. A bunch of us will be sighing and more over his departure.

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