The Mayor of Fourth Avenue

Remembering the life of businessman, politician, Irishman and bohemian Mike Haggerty

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By the time I came to relish Fourth Avenue's unorthodox charms, its hippie entrepreneurs were settling into middle age, and Piney Hollow had become an institution. Perched on the corner of Fifth Street, the shop was a spectacle of earthy opulence—handmade jewelry shimmered from every corner, and at least one artist was always working inside.

Back in the early and hazy 1980s, I was bartending at a homey pub three or four doors north called Mrs. O'Leary's Cow. The bar was aptly Celtic—at least in name—and early evenings sometimes found Mike Haggerty bellying up for the leisurely refuge of Jameson Irish Whiskey. He was understated and affable, a big man without seeming so. Never did his visits pass without a half-dozen folks squeezing up alongside for a quick word, or a chummy pat on the back.

A few years later, Mike, Mimi and Shannon moved Piney Hollow two blocks south. At the new shop, there was always a daintily painted bench out front. You'd usually find Mike on that bench, indulging in a smoke and chatting with folks moving along the avenue.

One day around 1990, a young woman who'd bounced across the globe as a Foreign Service brat walked into Piney Hollow.

"I had lived all over the world, then I came to Tucson, and it was not so cosmopolitan," says Leslie Cho Newman. "But when I went into Piney Hollow to look around, there were these traders from all over the world, and these beads from all over the world. For me, it was a synthesis of who I had been and where I was now. The whole thing made me feel at home. I had never lived in the U.S., but now I had a place here."

Soon, Newman began to make jewelry for the shop. "Mike introduced me to the history of beads," she says, "and I have been a jeweler ever since. That remains one of my main interests and art forms. They only hired me because I was interested."

And 22 years after breezing through that door, she's now family, too. "They have that special spirit," she says of Mike and Mimi, "and they've passed it on to all of their kids."

In a newspaper account after his death, Molly McKasson, a former colleague on the City Council, said Mike "was like the mayor of Fourth Avenue."

A few days after he died, his daughter Shannon came across friends at the Tucson Racquet Club. "They said, 'Your dad was the first person I met when I came to town,'" Shannon says. "I bet he was the first person a lot of people met when they came to town."

There were controversies, too, and Mike Haggerty was hardly shy about wading into them. Perhaps the most caustic occurred during his single term on the Tucson City Council. It began in 1991 when he was picked to fill a vacancy left by George Miller, who had quit to run for mayor.

Mike came to the council with a potent little secret: He would not run for election when the term ended. That left him free to follow his conscience, says his former chief of staff, Scott Egan. As a result, Mike, a Democrat, was instrumental in ousting both the city manager and the fire chief in 1992, after they failed to report badly leaking underground fuel tanks at the city's southside Thomas O. Price Service Center. It was a nasty and divisive fight, with Mayor Miller calling for an investigation of four council members who met outside of regular meetings to discuss the issue. Mike Haggerty was among them.

The investigation fizzled. But for Egan, it was a triumph he hadn't even thought of glimpsing up close. He'd already retired as an aide to then-Councilman Bruce Wheeler, pledging to quit politics for good. Those plans were soon upended. "Mike called me," Egan recalls. "He said, 'I'm kind of having a hard time here. Would you be willing to come back and kind of help me out?'"

Egan hesitated, even with this call from a close friend. Then Mike told him of his very secret, one-term strategy. "At that point, I thought, 'Wow,'" Egan says. "That means we can have fun. If we don't have to work on a campaign, and we don't have to kiss anybody's ass, we can just go in there and do what we think is right.

"And we did some amazing shit. We fired a city manager. We fired a very well-connected fire chief; we exposed the underground storage-tank leaks at the Price Service Center. Mike really shook things up. He was the gentlest of men. But he was very firm in his beliefs."

All of that from a person who said he had no interest in being a politician.

"I think what made Mike so adept, other than having an incredibly charming personality, was that he was the kind of guy who was very clear where he stood ideologically on things," says Egan. "But at the same time, even though he had very strong opinions, he also had a very open mind. Part of that may have been from running a small business, and having to deal with a lot of different people who come in with a lot of different issues. You try to accommodate them.

"Even his political adversaries said to me, at the end, what a gentlemen he was to work with."

Mike "was wonderful on the City Council," says McKasson, who represented Ward 6 at the time. "He was a breath of fresh air, and brought the maturity that we needed sometimes."

He was also an independent thinker. "It wasn't that you could always just count on his vote," McKasson says. "He was a mature person who'd lived a life as a businessman, and he was a free spirit. One of the things about Mike was that he brought this passion for free enterprise to the City Council. He really believed in a free-market system."

There were other colorful run-ins, such as a scuffle with radio-host John C. Scott. That occurred after Haggerty made a suggestion—quickly withdrawn—to limit the number of wholesalers at the city's annual gem-and-mineral shows. He hoped to stanch the sale of jewelry to the public at prices meant for other licensed wholesalers. Mike thought the practice gave the wholesalers an unfair advantage over local merchants.

Scott quickly pounced, accusing Haggerty on-air of simply protecting his own self-interests as a jeweler. The response was a lawsuit. "No one has the right to defame another person's reputation with slanderous lies," Mike told the Arizona Daily Star. "That's why we have libel laws."

In documents from the lawsuit, Scott is reported to have accused Mike of having "absolutely" rolled up "the welcome mat for this fabulous gem show that pumps $28 million into this community.

"And I will tell you flat out, if Haggerty denies he did this, he is a liar." Scott's tirade continued. "A damn liar. It was Michael Haggerty, the vice mayor of Tucson, who has attempted almost single-handedly to cloud this fabulous infusion of money into our economy."

Haggerty later agreed to drop the lawsuit if Scott would apologize over the airwaves. Scott grudgingly agreed to do so; "I'm not thrilled," he told reporters.

Egan says the whole dust-up ended with a dose of humor. "Mike said, 'Good, I want an apology, and I want it three times a day for three months.' It was hysterical."

Scott now has a talk show on KVOI AM 1030. Contacted by phone, he says Haggerty's lawsuit forced him to reconsider his broadcasting boundaries.

"So he really did me a favor, even though it was kind of a nightmare at the time. And I always admired Haggerty, not only with his Irish patriotism—which was pretty courageous at the time—but I felt a great respect for him. I think he was a pretty remarkable guy."

During his short council stint, Mike helped create the city's Small Business Commission and boosted the Community Betterment Program, aimed at mitigating neighborhood problems. He also championed affordable-housing programs and sponsored the creation of an affordable-housing task force.

"I see politicians in four classifications: wannabees, power hunters, ideologues, and Dudley Do-rights. Of the four, I would rather be classified a Dudley Do-right, even though that is certainly the most vulnerable, because the mechanism for defense is not as developed as in the other divisions. Vaclav Havel has said that, "Not being bound by a love of power, I am essentially freer than those who cling to their positions."

—Memo to staff, when Mike Haggerty announced that he wouldn't run for election.

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