Orgullo Tucsonense: Remembering Richard Elías
A few hours after I got the call telling me that Richard Elías died, I had to take the trash out. I got out to the dumpster to find that a neighbor was about to throw away a pile of 45s. I told him I’d take them. I saw that the one on top happened to be Freddy Fender’s “Last Teardrop Falls.”
For a second, I wanted to call Richard and tell him about it. It was the sort of little story he’d appreciate, and it would eventually lead to him telling me a much better story about some time he hung out with Fender.
Richard’s death was a particular gut-punch to me because he wasn’t just a local politician, he was a friend. I also feel a sense of loss for our community because he the sort of leadership he gave Tucson and Southern Arizona was not the kind we usually expect from our elected officials.
A politician can have a decent career by checking off certain boxes. Even a cynical one can wander into occasional heroism and end his or her time in office fairly well liked by sticking to an agenda, having some basic ethics and being competent. Richard wasn’t fairly well liked. Anyone reading the tributes to him over the last 72 hours would see that he was beloved.
The way you become well liked in politics is not to rock the boat, they tell us. Don’t rock the boat? Hell, Richard would rock the boat and maybe come close to capsizing it a time or two if he thought it was necessary. It would be wrong to say that the people on the other end of the causes he was advocating for were always happy with him, but they could never say that the stance he took was from somewhere other than deep in his soul.
I saw a bit of this myself the time I worked closest with him. I was one of his appointees to the county’s bond commission. There was a set of environmental and social priorities he wanted addressed. The county administrator, who generally got his way on the committee, was less than enthused. Richard had a couple of us meet regularly with several community groups with the objective of getting those priorities in the package.
Some in our community would have opted for lobbying board members directly or trying to cajole the county administrator with fist-pounding press releases. Richard had us try something different.
Richard knew that a big chunk of the community was on our side. He worked with us and our community networks to pack hearing rooms. It worked.
It was an interesting sort of leadership in those meetings. He sat at the head of the table but didn’t give orders. It was all asks, appeals to the basic sense of community and decency he trusted all of us to have.
Did he have detractors? Folks he didn’t always get along with? People that disappointed him? Sure he did. He also could be counted on to understand people, even his ostensible enemies. It might have been the best weapon in his political arsenal.
One time we were chatting, and we got on the subject of one of his Board of Supervisor colleagues, one that was a regular sparring partner. I made a snide comment about her, and he stopped me. He then told me some details, things that could have only come from someone that reached out and wanted to understand her. Then he said, “Pobrecita.” He gave me a new perspective on her.
He was comfortable enough in his own skin and his beliefs that he didn’t need to hate anyone. He got that sense of calm righteousness from his faith and his family. He also got it from a deep sense of love for Tucson, both its people and its history.
There are plenty of good examples of this, but I saw it close-up in his work to get FC Tucson going. He used to joke that despite decades of work on the environment and housing that he’ll end up best remembered for helping bring soccer to Tucson.
Yes, it may seem weird, but it also was a good fit with the other work he had done. He would often speak at FC Tucson press conferences and events. Most local leaders would talk economic development and tourism, but he would talk about support for youth sports and, most of all, making FC Tucson a point of pride for the community. He would even reference two ancient Native American ball courts that had been found out by Martinez Hill. He would say proudly, “This has always been our sport.”
That sense of history and culture was important to him. It was why he would say “presente” when roll was called at Board meetings. It was important to fly the flag. We had a lot of chats about local history: from what movies got filmed here to the impact of Vatican II on the local Chicano movement. He felt obligated to honor that history and the people that made Tucson the place it is. He never wavered from that.
He was a relentless poster on Facebook, everything from photographs of flowers to Spotify playlists. They all ended the same way, and maybe it should be our community motto:
Much Love. Resist.