Martin Bacal, former Arizona representative on the Democratic National Committee, owner of a Tucson paint factory and mainstay of the Pima County Democratic Party, died suddenly Tuesday. He was 84.
“It’s hard to assess the real impact of his work, which was, not always but largely, in the background,” said Jo Holt, chair of the Pima County Democratic Party.
“He kept us on the straight and narrow and that says a lot for a political party. He was one of the most honest, straightforward people I have ever known,” she said. Bacal continued to work voluntarily in the party office every day, and was the county party’s corresponding secretary.
Former Pima County Democratic chairman Jeff Rogers said Bacal was “a mentor of generations of Democratic Party leaders.”
Every day, for decades, Bacal made sure the county party paid its bills, kept its mailing list up-to-date and followed the rules, Rogers said.
He applied those rules consistently, said Rogers, even when he didn’t like the candidates who filed for office.
“There were times we thought we had to push the limits, but Martin would say ‘This is a primary. We have to be fair to everyone.’”
Bacal never ran for office, but he helped two members of his immediate family do so. His wife, Eva, served on the Tucson Unified School District for 12 years, and his daughter Susan is serving her fifth term as a Pima County Justice of the Peace.
“Anytime I didn’t understand something about politics or government, I could call him up and ask him and he loved to explain,” said Susan Bacal.
Bacal would read the dictionary and the encyclopedia, for fun, said son Rick, and was encyclopedic in his knowledge of history, politics and just about anything but popular culture.
“He knew a lot of things. I know, because I lost a lot of bets,” said Eva Bacal.
He was a “person of opinions, but he always listened,” she said.
His wife said Bacal loved hosting his long-running show on Access Tucson, where he interviewed Democratic candidates. “He always made them interesting and you know how hard that is.”
Bacal moved to Tucson from New York City with his parents in 1934. Bacal’s father was a chemist seeking a better climate for his lung disease. He opened “the first paint factory in the Southwest,” said Martin Bacal’s son Rick, a local defense attorney.
Pioneer Paint and Varnish Co., just south of Broadway near Interstate 10, was a familiar landmark, with a giant paint can on the roof.
Bacal was a dissertation-shy of his master’s degree in psychology from Columbia University when his father died in 1963, and Martin returned to run the business, which he sold in 1993.
Rick Bacal said his father’s political involvement began with his “extreme fondness and support of Mo Udall.”
He worked most of the long-term congressman’s re-election campaigns and was campaign chairman for one of them, he said.
As national committeeman, he led the state’s delegation to the national conventions and helped shape the party platforms.
A Democrat in a red state, Bacal often supported losing candidates but was never discouraged, said daughter Susan. “Even with the recent election, he said ‘It’s going to be OK. We’ll figure it out.’ It was never the end of the world.”
Eva Bacal said the family suspects he died of a heart attack, though he had no history of heart problems. “He was fine Monday and gone Tuesday. That was good for him but not for the rest of us. It was too soon.”
In addition to his wife, son Rick and daughter Susan, Bacal is survived by son David; daughters Katy of San Diego, and Emily of Phoenix; a sister, Andrea of San Diego, and six grandchildren.
Services are at 1:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 17, at Congregation Or Chadash, 3939 N. Alvernon Way, followed by burial at Evergreen Cemetery.