Pima County Supervisor Richard Elías died Saturday, March 28, at age 61.
He passed away in his sleep of an apparent heart attack, said state Rep. Andres Cano, a close friend of Elías who had worked in his District 5 office.
"We woke to the news that a community warrior and advocate of social justice is dead," said Cano.
Cano learned how to be "an advocate for those without a voice" from Elías, a Democrat who had represented District 5 since his appointment in 2002. He said he was inspired by the way Elías worked to sound the alarm about the spread of COVID-19 in the community and just last week, voted to keep gathering places such as bars, theaters and gyms closed.
"His last week was spent sending this message that the community was taking the coronavirus outbreak very seriously," Cano said. "What a noble way to leave us."
A fifth-generation Tucsonan, Elías became active in union politics while working in a grocery store to support himself while attending the University of Arizona. Paul Stapleton-Smith, community organizer and former chair of the Pima Area Labor Federation said Elías was a "mentor and leader of the creative leaders".
"Richard Elías was a union man," Stapleton-Smith said. "He espoused the principles of unionism. Everyone in, nobody left out."
In recent years, Stapleton-Smith remembers Elías being a "big supporter of the ASARCO strike" and being on the front lines with striking miners.
"He was a part of numerous press conferences, he picketed alongside and ate meals with the striking workers," Stapleton-Smith said. "He told us, 'Never, ever, ever give up the fight.'"
Before he was appointed to the Board of Supervisors, Elías worked at various government and nonprofit affordable-housing agencies, where he developed a "passion" for ensuring people had a roof over their head, according Supervisor Sharon Bronson.
"He strongly believed that adequate housing is a human right and that belief informed everything he did as a Supervisor for District 5," Bronson said. "Richard and I often agreed, but when we disagreed, he was always respectful, honest and open to compromise."
Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry called Elías "the people's champion on the board, and the champion of the rank and file county employees. He always thought of others first, especially the less fortunate, and he worked tirelessly to improve the incomes and living conditions of all Pima County residents, but especially the poor."
Justice of the Peace Ray Carroll, a Republican who served alongside Elías on the Board of Supervisors before declining to seek reelection in 2016, said he respected Elías' commitment and expertise in areas such as healthcare, the environment and housing.
"We had a lot of successes, a lot of disagreements, but we never failed in trying to do our best for our community," Carroll said.
Pima County Supervisor Ramon Valadez said he remembers when he and Elías first met at Bruce Wheeler's Ward 1 office on Grande Avenue, as a part of the Arizona Hispanic Community Forum.
"At the time both of us would wear white shirts and a tie. We got nicknamed "twins" by the rest of the group," Valadez said. "We go back 31 years."
Valadez said Elías was a man equally passionate about his family as he was his community. While the two disagreed over issues as supervisors of Pima County at times, Valadez said he knew Elías had the best intentions for the people he served.
"I always knew he was coming from a place where he firmly believed the actions he was best advocating for was the best for the community," Valadez said. "There was never any disputing that. It was always a question of 'how.'"
Former South Tucson Mayor and Pima County Supervisor Dan Eckstrom said he first met Elías as a young man at his father's print shop while starting his political career in the early 1970s. Over the years, Eckstrom kept up with Elías' schooling and career, he said.
"I kind of followed him as he grew. He worked as the housing director for the City of South Tucson, and then went to Chicanos por la Causa," Eckstrom said. "When he came to work for the housing department of Pima County, I knew him as an employee. Later on, when he got the bug to go in to politics, I got to know him a lot better."
Elías was appointed to the Board of Supervisors in 2002 filling the seat left vacant by Democrat Raul Grijalva, who resigned to seek the congressional seat he still holds today.
"Richard was appointed to the Board of Supervisors and I was one of the supervisors that supported him," Eckstrom said. "We collaborated on a lot of the causes he supported. He had a lot of progressive values and did a good job representing his constituents."
Congressman Raul Grijalva remembered his friend as a "poet-warrior" who embraced life and sought to better the lives of those around him. He was blunt in a statement paying tribute to the late supervisor: "Richard Elías gave a shit. He cared about regular folks and the issues that mattered to them. He led with his heart and used his mind and body to consistently fight for the right thing for people. The loss of a thinker and advocate like him will be sorely missed in our community."
"Poet warriors are rare in politics, and we just lost a good one," Grijalva continued. "I will miss him schooling me about the music he loved, recommending good reads, and discussing—in a deeper way—why he and I do what we do including the frustrations, losses, occasional wins, and humor of our public lives."
Grijalva concluded his tribute with Elías' frequent sign-off: "As Richard would say: 'Resist. Much love.'"
Jim Nintzel contributed to this story.