With a talented trumpeter unleashing a solo just two feet from the table, Eckstrom's heir apparent, Ramon Valadez, has to repeat what he's saying as he happily retraces his political career.
The mariachis wrap up their performance, and Valadez no longer has to shout as well-wishers approach, just as they have on countless weekends with Eckstrom, who is retiring after a 32-year run that includes positions as South Tucson mayor and councilman preceding his Pima County tour.
Valadez, 35, is pleasant as he wisely hints that his appointment on Sept. 30 is not a done deal. But it will take a train wreck or other disaster to undo this deal that has been logically choreographed--well before Valadez chose to not be seated for his second term in the state Senate. The move enabled him to get around state law that forbids legislators from accepting appointment to county posts during the term to which they were elected.
He was put on a high and comfortable shelf, as a special adviser to Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano, for $80,000-plus a year.
He'll take a more than a $25,000-cut in pay. But who cares? He never made this much before--and he could make more in other jobs if he wanted.
Valadez is single. And it is a single item that may cause a bump in this abbreviated run for local, more powerful office: A Phoenix government official and former political campaign officer in Tucson whom Valadez dated is pregnant. She has notified a whole batch of government offices that Valadez is the father. Marriage, for Valadez, is not an option.
"For the people who know me, they know I will do the responsible thing," Valadez said. "For the public, there is really nothing to talk about. This is a private matter. I will do the responsible thing. But quite frankly, it does not affect my ability to be a policy adviser and will not affect my ability to be a policy maker."
Valadez and his twin brother, Rene, were prodigies. They were testing and moving up grades beginning at Government Heights (now Hollinger) Elementary School. They earned high school algebra credit while at Wakefield Middle School, logged summer school credits and graduated from Pueblo High School in three years.
Their parents, from different areas of Mexico, pushed them. His mother worked at Hollinger; their father was a truck driver at a copper mine until shutdowns and layoffs in the early 1980s. Both now work at Jones Photo.
Valadez entered the UA at age 16. He earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering. His brother, who marched with a different engineering degree, works for a software company.
Ramon Valadez could be making big money with his degree, but at the UA, he was dragged to a student-government meeting. He met Raúl Grijalva, then in a retention job that carried the inflated title of Assistant Dean for Hispanic Student Affairs. Dean Grijalva was mapping out his political return that took him to the Board of Supervisors and Congress. He was cultivating his youth base through Valadez and other members of MEChA, the Moviemento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan.
Valadez was part of the bright young crew of future Democratic big shots, including Grijalva aide Ruben Reyes, City Councilman Jose Ibarra, and Ibarra aides Juan Camacho and Valerie Vidal, who worked the 1988 voter registration drive Project Vale on the southside.
Following that election, Eckstrom looked to his new Board of Supervisors colleague. "Hey, Raul, you got somebody for me?"
That locked it.
"I've been blessed by a lot of good fortune like family, but also I've learned so much from Danny," Valadez said.
His Democratic resume includes an early internship in Eckstrom's office, local staff for three-term U.S. Sen. Dennis DeConcini, the successful 1991 congressional campaign staff of Ed Pastor and a gig with Pastor's local staff. He moved on to the losing gubernatorial campaign of Eddie Basha in 1994, moved back to Eckstrom's staff and then started his unblemished runs, beginning in 1996, for the state House of Representatives and the state Senate.
Valadez also once interned at IBM and the county's now-beleaguered Kino Community Hospital.
"I love science, but it is not what I love to do," Valadez said. "When I do what I love, I don't work a day in my life."
"I have a long history with Kino, and I know it is needed on the southside," Valadez said. "But I will need, if I get this appointment, to study all Kino issues before saying what I would propose."
Support from both Valadez and Eckstrom on the ambitious Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan did not stop environmentalist Daniel Patterson, of the Center for Biological Diversity, from also seeking appointment to the final 15 months of Eckstrom's term. Patterson, 32, was a Green Party candidate for the Legislature in 2000. He was crushed by Sen. Elaine Richardson, a west university Democrat.
Is Patterson a slap in the face to Valadez and Eckstrom?
"I had a very friendly conversation with him," Valadez said. "He's just participating in the Democratic process."
No disrespect, adds Patterson friend Carolyn Campbell, the executive director of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection.
"Ramon is the more polished politician," she said. "I've supported him. It's nice we have a couple of guys who are good rather than the lesser-of-two-evils situations we usually get."