Guest Commentary

Remembering Jim Wright: union organizer, 'Weekly' freelancer, great man

I first met Jim Wright in 1974 when we were both working on a county bond proposal. He'd just arrived from D.C. and was getting involved in local politics. There was something about him I instantly liked, and we hit it off well, comparing notes about our scandalous and extremist connections on opposite sides of the spectrum.

Jim, a 6-foot-4, big-framed man, was a former Gary, Ind., steelworker who had become a union and community organizer by way of attending the Saul Alinsky School in Chicago back when Alinsky himself was still around. My political equivalent was California Congressman John Rousselot, forever branded by his John Birch Society association. We both found it amusing over the years that we got along better with each other than we did with lots of weenies in the middle.

Amateurs talk strategy, pros logistics. Our discussions were mainly devoted to the practical and tactical, from how to research government documents to the best way to manipulate some not-too-bright reporter.

Jim had served in the Marine Corps pre-Vietnam, something common with Mexican Americans. The surname Wright had been floating around Mexico for many generations. His grandfather had been killed by revolutionaries, his dad drafted into Villa's army. Like many others, he hopped the border at the first chance, making his way to the steel mills of Gary, where he remained for many years.

Jim tried some self-led community stuff with an outfit called the "Citizens Take the Initiative," back when signature requirements were low enough for grassroots operations to actually get stuff on the ballot. Failing at that taught him that the process was growing too complex and required a lot more money. We both felt that the initiative process has degenerated into a public auction everywhere but in small jurisdictions.

Jim then went to work for AFSCME and started recruiting in Pima County. One of his first new members was me. I surprised him early on with my general support for organized labor, even in the public sector, with two caveats now generally ignored: that locals must be autonomous, and the goal is better conditions for members, not selling the programs of the left wing of the Democratic Party. Jim and later Jon Showalter did a great job of building that local, and I served as an officer for several years. It collapsed when higher authority arbitrarily removed a local president, and membership dropped over a lack of adequate representation.

Jim moved to San Francisco in the late '70s and then Montana in the '80s, holding a variety of union organizing jobs. He returned to Tucson in early 1993, spending a couple of months living with Kathy and me while he pieced together some odd jobs. One of those was freelancing for the Tucson Weekly. Jim had all the instincts of a good reporter and couldn't be conned. You can find his work in the TW archives over the years, with a spurt in 2001 when he was between union organizing jobs.

The latter had him working in both California and Nevada, until he finally retired and settled in Bisbee with his present wife, Tony. Colon cancer had hit him, along with a bad diagnosis from a Nevada doc. We all thought--and hoped--he'd beaten it.

He hadn't. Jim died on Aug. 9, age 68, survived by Tony and a bunch of kids, grandkids and even a great-grandchild.

Jim once remarked about what it was that brought us--an old rightee and an old lefty--together. He thought it was a basic sense of justice. I'm honored that he believed that.

Kipling put it best: "East is east, and west is west, and never the twain shall meet, 'til earth and sky stand presently at God's great judgment seat. But there is neither east nor west, border, nor breed, nor birth, when two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth."

Jim had a great love for animals, particularly cats. If you have a notion to please his ghost, please consider a donation to one of the rescue groups here or in Cochise County.

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