The End of an Era

Dan Eckstrom will soon step down after more than three decades of public service.

Dan Eckstrom, the benevolent padron who both carried and ruled South Tucson for 32 years and the greater southside for more than 15, is retiring from the Pima County Board of Supervisors.

His long-rumored resignation is now imminent, according to two Pima County sources with intimate knowledge of Eckstrom's plans.

Supervisors will choose a Democrat to fill his District 2 office for the 15 months that remain in Eckstrom's fourth full term. Ramon Valadez, a two-term member of the House of Representatives and one-term state senator, is the odds-on favorite.

Eckstrom, who hits 56 on Sept. 12, would not return calls from The Weekly. But sources say Eckstrom is to follow the method set last year when Democrat Raúl Grijalva resigned to run for Congress.

That means a letter to supervisors, to be sent within a week, the sources said. His four colleagues also are likely to mimic the process they used to put Richard Elias into Grijalva's seat: They will accept applications from District 2 Democrats, enlist a sponsor to stage a hearing and then vote to name the replacement.

Don't look for Jennifer Eckstrom, his daughter and veteran member of the South Tucson City Council, to apply. Who's next?

A member of the Eckstrom machine since (political) birth, Valadez, like Eckstrom, is a bright Pueblo High School alumnus and UA graduate. He has served this year as a special adviser to Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano, having declined to take the oath for his new term in the Senate. If sworn into the Legislature, Valadez would have been prohibited by state law from taking appointment to Pima County office for two years.

The Valadez balk also allowed Eckstrom and the supervisors to return Vic Soltero to the Senate office he had to give up because of term limits.

Although Eckstrom is alternately not returning calls or is out of town, he revealed months ago that he was eager to spend more time at home.

He found solace in a painting job at his South Tucson home with his wife, Alice. The county grind also won't interrupt his contact with his mother and mentor, Lupe Eckstrom.

Brash but effective, Eckstrom grew from a cocky Republican-turned-Democrat who had the guts/gall to challenge legendary southside political godfather Sam Lena in 1976. He had already spent five years on the South Tucson City Council, including three as mayor. Lena crushed him, but he and Eckstrom quickly created an impervious alliance.

It was with a combination of backbone and bluster that Eckstrom united his people to save South Tucson from dissolving during the tumultuous period that began when a South Tucson policeman shot a Tucson cop, Roy Garcia, by accident during a joint operation. The court award to Garcia was $3.6 million, which was greater than the city's annual budget. A settlement allowed South Tucson to give Garcia $1.5 million plus property.

Lena remained so close with Eckstrom that it was out of the question for supervisors to think of anyone else when Lena retired. Eckstrom then smacked down Luis Gonzales, a former state senator, in the Democratic primary that decided who would control the seat for the next 15 years.

Eckstrom arrived amid a stern economic downturn spawned by the sudden loss of most of the highly paid workforce at IBM. He preached jobs. A former executive with Maya Construction and Ruiz Engineering, whose job it was to cut through mountains of regulations, bids and bureaucracies to land military and other federal contracts, Eckstrom was, frankly, a cement head.

But his first day in office, when he voted for a controversial medical plaza on the northwest side--and the tone set for his last--demonstrate his shift to an embrace of stiffer environmental protection, someone who has had enough of growth lobby politics.

Eckstrom's chief goal was to bring money and facilities for South Tucson and his south-of-Broadway district that also includes needy portions of the southeast side. In the minority from 1993-1996, he still scored big projects such as Tucson Electric Park and the nearby Kino and Veterans Memorial Sports Park, flood control and parks and street improvements.

He tried to help builders six years ago by keeping the cost of impact fees down. But he has been betrayed, such as when Southern Arizona Home Builders Association operatives teamed up with Republican Party workers to meddle in South Tucson politics and back a candidate this year against Jennifer Eckstrom and her slate.

Eckstrom has supported every measure to advance the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan. He was pleased by his appointment of Jenny Neeley, of the Defenders of Wildlife, to a committee that will recommend what parcels should be acquired in the county's proposed bond election next spring.

Part of Eckstrom's bond with environmentalists arose from his relationship with an unlikely but ardent ally, Molly McKasson, a Democrat and former two-term member of the City Council (and also an occasional Weekly contributor).

But Eckstrom did not need coaching. He voted against speculator Don Diamond's 4,500-acre Rocking K development in the Rincon Valley in 1990. Two years later, he tacked on so many conditions to Diamond's Pima Canyon plan that Diamond was forced back to the drawing board. And Eckstrom supported a small portion of Fairfield's Canoa Ranch development in 1997, but didn't hesitate to clamp down on the subsequent and larger proposal.

So it was no surprise when Eckstrom told the Arizona Daily Star, in response to the latest court ruling on the pygmy owl, that "people are concerned about open space and habitat. If there isn't something to protect it, the development goes unchecked."

Eckstrom sought neither media attention nor protection. Throughout his career, he sent zero press releases and called zero press conferences. (He may have shown up at a few.) But he did deliver hundreds of eulogies in his district and sent countless cards, plaques and award certificates.

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