There's nothing like the end of the Bob Walkup era to make you play the "What if?" game.

What if, instead of falling for that smiling face, Tucson's Democratic majority fell for one of its own way back in 1999? What if Democrats had backed Molly McKasson?

We all know Walkup's story. Nice guy. Rio Nuevo. Maybe that streetcar will revive his legacy.

But it's the story of McKasson, who impressively lost to Walkup by a 53 to 39 percent margin in a Democratic town, that is boundless.

It's hard to know where to begin her story. With that loss to Walkup? What about the broken heart she carries from the death of her husband nearly two years ago? There is the memoir she has written about marriage and solitude. And, of course, her acting.

But let's start her story with something more prosaic: The RTA.

In a parallel political universe where Molly is Mayor (and the Buffalo Bills are four-time Super Bowl champions) there is one certainty: She would have fought like hell against the RTA.

"I believe that as mayor I would have defeated it," she told me a few weeks ago as we sat in her Sam Hughes home.

Transportation is critical, she said, but with the RTA, "People do not have representation on the major planning issue in the city of Tucson. They have no representation. And then you have to add a little injury to that insult, and that is that we have the same vote as Sahuarita."

Tall and graceful, McKasson was always a fighter and a meddler. She has an easygoing and flighty charm that belies an intense spirit and intellect.

She's smart. But her convictions about the environment and neighborhoods were like concrete in water. They sunk her.

"She was creative and just righteous," said Carolyn Campbell, an environmentalist who was once an aide to McKasson. "She stuck to her position, which didn't make her a lot of friends sometimes."

Or office mates.

Fed up after a public fight over a water initiative, former Mayor George Miller kicked her out of City Hall in 1995.

When she wouldn't move, he brought in city workers to tear down her office walls around her.

"We needed the room, and she knew it," Miller said. "And the people who worked for her also knew it. And they were happy to go."

Happy? McKasson's staffers were still in the office when he started demolition.

"That whole thing was a little ridiculous," Miller acknowledged. "Molly is a good soul."

Former Mayor Tom Volgy said McKasson struggled with compromises needed to make government work. "I don't think there was any occasion where she sacrificed principles," he said. "You have to give on some things to be able to accomplish other things."

She hinted at this in our interview: "I got so opinionated about identity and community and stuff, there were just some things I couldn't go with."

Now 64 - "Yiiikes" she said of her age - McKasson is still outspoken about water, growth and neighborhood issues. She has written extensively about poverty for the Tucson Weekly. She sees the repercussions of the housing crisis here - the vacancies, our high poverty rate, foreclosures ringing the city - as reflective of our failure to develop a dynamic workforce.

"How interesting, and how sad, that we should hit a point that having put all of our eggs into the basket of development, lo and behold we hit the wall."

She grieved her loss to Walkup, but it freed her to let politics go. And in its place came a return to theater, which she studied in college and did professionally for years.

She grieves the loss of her husband, Rich Morgan, who died in January 2010 after a seven-month fight with cancer. She has poured her grief into writing (and long hikes), recently finishing a creative-writing program where she produced a series of personal essays she hopes to publish.

"This is sort of a reflection on marriage and on solitude at the same time. Because you are suddenly alone," she said, handing me the book. "It's trying to move forward and trying to move forward. But it loops back the way memory takes us back."

Politics is the art of definition. Walkup defined McKasson as a flaky liberal in that 1999 race. Now Walkup is defined by his failure with Rio Nuevo.

But McKasson reminds us that life is beyond definition. It's full of lessons, love and grief. We are all moving forward, even as we loop back.

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Happy voting. Contact Brodesky: 573-4242 or jbrodesky@azstarnet.com