Josh Brodesky: Asta, who would be mayor, must come to terms with the traffic death in his past

2011-03-17T00:00:00Z Josh Brodesky: Asta, who would be mayor, must come to terms with the traffic death in his pastJosh Brodesky Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 17, 2011 12:00 am  • 

Ron Asta is a terrible driver. He turns his signal on to change lanes, but then often doesn't. He has to remind himself about where he is going. If he sees a speck of a car on the horizon, he'll wait and wait and wait in the left-hand-turn lane. But when he goes, it can feel like a rush.

He looks uncomfortable in his 2005 Pontiac G6. All hunched over and cramped in the driver's seat, clinging to the speed limit like a teenager testing for his license.

He's had at least 13 tickets since 1992, according to court records.

"I don't have an explanation for it," he says as we head to Gee's Garden for lunch. "It's certainly not anything I'm proud of."

His record is long and tragic. He killed a woman in 1994 when he ran a stop sign. Since then, he's made bad turns, been caught speeding and run more stop signs. He's been to defensive-driving school six times. And he was issued a photo-enforcement ticket last week, although he said the driver might have been his son.

In the car Monday, though, he swears the last defensive driving class has stuck. "I do pay attention a whole lot more than I used to," he says.

But on Alvernon, he almost hits a car as he enters the left-hand-turn lane. It's close enough that I lose my cool and, with silent urgency, point at the other car heading toward us. The car whizzes by. We make our left-hand turn into Gee's Garden. Asta likes Chinese food.

Asta is 69 with silver hair, a friendly smile and an easygoing mien. He's wearing jeans, collared shirt and a blue blazer - the standard uniform for someone in the development game.

"I am basically a happy person," he says. "I think it's my nature to be happy."

Asta often mentions happiness. He was inspired by Ronald Reagan, in part because of his optimism. His voice mail message - this is Rooooooon Asta! - projects happiness, too. He keeps a stuffed donkey from "Shrek" on his dashboard because he says, "It reminds me of a happy movie."

Back in the early '70s, Asta was a liberal Democrat on the Pima County Board of Supervisors. He was an environmentalist who fought growth and inspired the "Astacrats." But these days, he's a Republican who can drone on and on about the need to ease zoning and development regulations. Over lunch, he unwinds his vision for mayor, saying all the boilerplate stuff. He'd be a strong mayor. Downtown needs a vision. He'd bring a "sizzle" to City Hall.

He'd like to reintroduce water into the Santa Cruz.

"And then on one side (you could build) an Old West town, and on the other side we would have like a tribal village," he explains.

We talk like this for a while. Visions of a wannabe mayor. But once he's mostly done with his shrimp lo mein, I turn the recorder back on and ask about the crash. In August of 1994, Asta ran a stop sign on West Granada Avenue at Interstate 10, smashing his loaner car into a truck driven by Jennifer Reeves, who was heading north on the frontage road. Reeves was 18.

When police arrived, Reeves was still breathing, the report says. Her cousin, one of two passengers, was injured. But Asta left the scene to get insurance info for his loaner car, although he says he checked on the passengers and asked two people to call 911 before leaving.

He's a loud talker, but his voice grows soft. He's good at making eye contact, but he looks down.

"It was a tragic accident," he says. "I mean, it was an accident. I was surprised that it came up (in the campaign)."

The more Asta talked about the crash, the more I wondered why he was putting himself, and the Reeves family, through this. There's a difference between being happy and trying to be happy. There's a difference between wanting to offer something, and having something to offer.

Asta says he's terrified of killing someone again, but he keeps getting behind the wheel. He says he can admit to humbling mistakes like stealing a steak, but he never mentioned the crash that killed Jennifer Reeves when he announced his run for mayor. He says the crash is never far from his mind, but when a reporter called him about Reeves, he said, "That's the car accident, right?"

What happened was tragic, and it was Asta's fault. That doesn't mean he's not allowed to move forward with his life. Doesn't mean he can't run for mayor. But he hasn't been open with voters about this crash, probably because he's shut himself off from it.

Contact columnist Josh Brodesky at 573-4242 or jbrodesky@azstarnet.com

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