"If Hollywood was casting a mayor, you couldn't do better than Bob Walkup, because he is the epitome of what you expect in your mayor," says City Councilwoman Kathleen Dunbar. "He's always courteous, tries to do the right thing, tries to bring people together. He looks at the glass as three-quarters full, not half full. And he is a can-do kind of guy. It's not we can't do it, it's how can we do it."
It's true: Bob is a walking fountain of optimism who has whistled a happy tune since he stepped onto the political stage. Dunbar still remembers the first time she met him at a GOP fundraiser.
"He was just so genuine and optimistic," recalls Dunbar, a Republican who won her council seat last year. "And knowing him all these years and now working with him, what you see is what you get. He is that person. There's nothing artificial about that man."
The 65-year-old Walkup has those legendary solid Midwestern roots. He grew up in Ames, Iowa, son of an engineering professor at Iowa State University. The work was in the blood; Bob graduated ISU with a degree in industrial engineering and, after serving a U.S. Army stint, went on to make his mark in the aerospace industry. He came to Tucson in the late '80s as a senior executive with Hughes Aircraft and helped bring hundreds of high-tech jobs to Pima County.
The siren call of politics lured him into a 1999 mayoral race against Democrat Molly McKasson. Despite the Democrats' 3-2 voter advantage in the city limits, Bob pulled off an underdog victory.
He may be new to political theater, but Bob sure can do the song and dance, says political analyst Hank Kenski, a senior aide to U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl who teaches in the communications department at the University of Arizona.
"Bob's strongest point is his personality," says Kenski. "He's dynamic, he's articulate, he's interested in people and he conveys that. He really has an ability to talk to people and listen to people and be extremely personable."
Kenski calls Bob "a quick study"; his natural ability to connect with people is "something you can't teach." He remembers a more formal Walkup at the start of the '99 campaign. After Kenski mentioned that women frequently do a better job at telling stories about family on the stump, Bob began talking about his family, his grandkids and even his pet.
"He went to some school and took the mayoral dog with him," Kenski recalls.
Bob's particularly effective, says Kenski, because "he has a love of Tucson and a love of Arizona. He wants to do good things for this community. He wants to better the economy by getting high-tech jobs. He wants to deal with the transportation problem. He doesn't just want to do it to get re-elected. He wants to do it because it's the right thing to do."
Bob has traveled a bumpy road this year. Voters soundly rejected a transportation plan he put forward in May, delivering the first major defeat of his administration. Nonetheless, with that trademark optimism, he's embarked on a listening tour of public meetings to hear alternative solutions to the community's transportation challenges.
"He lost on the transportation thing but he wasn't sour grapes," says Kenski. "He said we've got to get back and try again. He has that energy and enthusiasm."
Longtime local developer Stan Abrams, a close friend of Walkup, effusively sings Bob's praises.
"From my point of view, he is the best equipped person to be mayor that I've known since I've lived here, and that's a long time," says Abrams. "He has a vision of what the community should be."
Abrams first met Bob more than a decade ago, when the two worked together to lobby for state laws that provided incentives for high-tech jobs. Since then, they've worked on different projects, including an attempt at developing an electrical car and the rejected sales-tax proposal. Along the way, Abrams has become a close confidante.
"Bob's an unbelievably talented guy," says Abrams. "Here's a guy who's a hell of a golfer, he shoots trap and skeet, he's got an old MG, he restores cars, he can make anything and unmake anything. He sings. And there's not a devious bone in the guy's body. And that's an unusual characteristic, particularly for a lot of people who get into politics."