The Perfect Pol

To Hell With Sheep-Let's Clone Roman Soltero And Let Him Run Things.

By Chris Limberis

ANOTHER SATURDAY in South Tucson. Clear. Bright. Sunny. And Roman Soltero is headed out of the city to pick up a couple of his first-grade students near the Pascua Yaqui Village.

His job this day, for the South Tucson Lion's Club, is to deliver his students to Santa Claus, who's hanging out at El Pueblo Neighborhood Center. Along the way, though, there are stops at McDonald's and at Mervyn's, where the kids will receive, care of the Lions annual program, some new clothes--including those to be used as uniforms required at Harriet Johnson Elementary School.

Several nights later, Soltero is in the middle of another annual South Tucson bash. This one at the John Valenzuela Youth Center, where scores of people are wrapping toys from a mountain of donated Christmas gifts headed for kids whose families otherwise likely would have no Christmas.

Currents Another night and Soltero is in a Northern Arizona University class working on his master's degree in educational leadership. Yet another night, Soltero is on the steering committee of Weed & Seed, the federal grant program for crime reduction and neighborhood development. Another night and Soltero is helping pack and deliver food baskets for the elderly.

And there's something more on Soltero's schedule. He's in his second month on the South Tucson City Council, following in his father's footsteps. Victor Soltero served on the Council from 1980 to 1988 and then as the square-mile city's mayor for three years until he was appointed to the state Senate from southside District 10.

Roman Soltero is up early. He beats most folks to work. In his second year as a bilingual first-grade teacher at Harriet Johnson Elementary, he has not missed a day.

"I get up every day looking forward to it. I love my job. My days go so fast. I love to teach them to read and write and about structure and discipline," Soltero says. "My parents taught me to make sure that you love what you do, what your job is. I'm fortunate because I do."

It isn't hard to see how that was drilled into him.

Even in the dead of summer, when it's 110 degrees-plus and few souls are about at the state Capitol in Phoenix, Vic Soltero can be found running some documents over to a state agency for a constituent and crossing the plaza to see someone in the House of Representatives.

"I love my job. What an opportunity: to be able to retire and then have this," Sen. Soltero says.

What's with these guys?

"Hey, you can't mope around," the Senator says. "Life really is great."

ROMAN SOLTERO landed close to the tree. He and his older brother Victor graduated from Pueblo High School. Both were fine basketball players, though Roman is quick to point out that his brother had the edge as an All-City performer in 1986. Their father was in Pueblo's first graduating class in 1957.

The job Sen. Soltero retired from after 28 years also was in TUSD, though not in the classroom. From 1963 to 1991, he was in the district's grounds and maintenance department.

Much like his dad, Roman Soltero is unassuming and polite. Eerily polite. He wasn't scheming about a Council appointment. Nor was his dad plotting for appointment to the state Senate in 1991 when Jesus Chuy Higuera fell victim to AzScam. Indeed, Macario Saldate was the favored replacement, but his sponsor, Democratic Supervisor Raul Grijalva woke up to a surprise in The Arizona Daily Star. Saldate's failure to pay property taxes for the second time sunk his bid.

When Roman Soltero graduated from Pueblo in 1988, he didn't have his plan to teach TUSD's young. He went to Pima Community College and the University of Arizona thinking he'd become a lawyer.

He probably could have done it. Except he's far too polite and nice. In this age of profound incivility, Soltero is alarmingly respectful. Although he has known his political allies all his life, he refers to them by title. It's "Council Member Eckstrom," "Representative Valadez."

He didn't have a straight line to teaching.

"You have to learn the hard way," he says.

Political jobs and service as a monitor at Safford Middle School also shaped his plans.

He did several stints, in Tucson and in Washington, D.C., with U.S. Rep. Ed Pastor, a Phoenix Democrat who succeeded Mo Udall in 1991 when Udall's advancing Parkinson's disease finally forced the legendary Congressman to retire. Pastor, in that special election against Tom Volgy, then Tucson mayor, and Virginia Yrun, benefited from the boost from the South Tucson political family headed by Dan Eckstrom and including Victor Soltero.

Roman Soltero was chosen for a coveted internship in 1993 with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. He also worked in Pastor's Tucson office, with another of the South Tucson "family," state Rep. Ramon Valadez, and in Eckstrom's Board of Supervisors office.

Soltero earned his bachelor's degree in business from NAU. But he got hooked on teaching while subbing at a Menlo Park kindergarten.

"My priority became to teach in TUSD," Soltero says.

He quickly got his teaching certificate from Chapman University and landed his first-grade job at Harriet Johnson last year.

During TUSD's Love of Reading, Soltero's class is visited by a Who's Who of Tucson government. Pols, judges and cops. Judge Frank Zapata, of U.S. District Court, showed up in his robe.

Field trips also help Soltero's young students see just what's going on in those ugly buildings in downtown Tucson. During a pass through Eckstrom's office, the 20 students each received a certificate. In Superior Court Judge Bernardo Velasco's courtroom, the students got the feel of the jury box, lawyers' tables and witness stand.

Soltero reminds his kids, including those who've moved onto the second grade, that those "officials" are keeping track of their progress in school.

Seeing one his former students the other day, Soltero had an opportunity to keep the kid focused. "Judge Velasco was asking about you the other day," Soltero told the youngster. "He wants to know how you're doing."

Soltero grew up in South Tucson government. But he immersed himself in revitalization--human and infrastructure--via the Weed & Seed program. Funded by a federal grant that provides South Tucson with $250,000 a year for three years, Weed & Seed's four components include law enforcement, community policing, prevention, intervention and treatment, and neighborhood restoration. Soltero has shared the chair of another South Tucson event, the "Make a Difference Day" with City Council Member Jennifer Eckstrom.

"He's very focused. Once he gets something in his mind, or once there's a job to do, he gets it done," said Eckstrom, who made the motion to appoint Soltero to the City Council to fill the vacancy created by 20-year Council Member Alfonsa McKenna's retirement.

Soltero was a natural, says Mayor Shirley Villegas, and not because he's a nice guy.

"We chose him because of educational background," Villegas says. "We have our schools, Mission View and Ochoa, and we do a lot work with kids. He's very helpful in that area. He also has a great political background. He knows the community and the community knows him. I feel people will be very comfortable with him."

Soltero also has a strong background in constituent service, honed in Pastor's offices and in the bootcamp of constituent service--Dan Eckstrom's Board of Supervisors operation.

For his part, Soltero is going along with characteristic quiet diligence in his new, $200-a-month Council career, serving the 6,000 residents of South Tucson and the city's 78 employees. He's learning his way around the city's $13 million budget, and has been on patrol with Police Chief Sixto Molina in addition to his Weed & Seed duties.

"I look forward to working with them and learning from them," Soltero says of his Council colleagues as well as city staff. "I want to bring my perspective of education for kids to this job. And I want to give back. The city and the school district were good to me. I feel it's necessary to provide a service to give something back."

He's also too respectful and too smart to make grand political plans, though he knows he'll have to run for the office he holds next year. Term limits will force his dad out of the state Senate in two years. Everything hinges on what Dan Eckstrom, the patriarch of this political family, will do in 2000 after 13 years on the Board of Supervisors and another 17 years on the South Tucson City Council, including 15 as mayor.

"I'm fortunate. I'm learning from the best," Soltero says. "And this is the part you don't get in the classroom." TW

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