Tim Steller: Is the Eckstrom era really over?

2013-04-21T00:00:00Z 2013-04-21T21:47:02Z Tim Steller: Is the Eckstrom era really over?Tim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
April 21, 2013 12:00 am  • 

South Tucson leaders call it a new era for the city. We'll see.

For the first time in four decades, there are no elected Eckstroms in South Tucson or Pima County offices.

Dan Eckstrom, who first joined the South Tucson City Council in 1971, retired from the Pima County Board of Supervisors in 2003. His daughter Jennifer, who joined the South Tucson council at age 18 in 1995, resigned as mayor April 10.

Not only that, the new 5-2 South Tucson council majority is unaligned with what members call the Eckstrom "machine."

Critics describe Dan Eckstrom, 65, as running a Democratic political machine that brought money into the city but demanded allegiance. Jennifer, they say, was the last figurehead.

Now things will change, said Ildefonso Green, who won a council seat in March.

"We can go back and direct the city manager to work in the interests of the city, for the constituents, the residents, instead of separate individuals within the community," he said. "We don't want people to be afraid to approach mayor and council or the city manager. We don't want them to feel like there may be retributions."

But there's reason to wonder whether the Eckstrom era was such a bad thing - and whether it's really over.

"I still live in South Tucson, and I guarantee I will remain active in South Tucson," Dan Eckstrom told me Friday. "If they're issuing me a challenge, they ought to think about what they're hoping for."

South Tucson was established in 1940 and covers just over 1 square mile south of 25th Street. Not even 6,000 people live there.

It's always been poor, but many multi-generation families live there, such as the Eckstroms, and it's one of the few easily walkable areas of metro Tucson, with small businesses and restaurants lining South Fourth and South Sixth avenues.

"I've always thought it was a wonderful place to live," said newly elected Councilman Oscar Patiño, who's lived in South Tucson all his 49 years.

A former "catastrophe"

Remembering his youth on 35th Street, where his family occupied most of two blocks, Patiño said: "I still can see people out there chopping wood, people cooking tortillas outside."

But people tend to forget how rough South Tucson was when Dan Eckstrom got into politics, former Tucson Mayor George Miller said.

"The City of South Tucson years ago was a catastrophe filled with bars and prostitution - that sort of thing. Not a very pleasant place," Miller said.

"It was hard work and intelligent political work on his part that made the Eckstrom family dominant in the area. It was a small, small area and you could control it if you really worked at it. And he did," Miller said.

Baseball stadium

In 1988, the year Eckstrom left city government by appointment to the board of supervisors, South Tucson completed a new city hall. They named it the "Daniel W. Eckstrom Municipal Complex."

As a county supervisor, Eckstrom's influence spread beyond the borders of South Tucson to the rest of his south-side district. He built a reputation for steering grants and projects into the area he represented.

"The Eckstrom family was able to organize the people there in order to be able to extract help from the county, as well as the state and federal government," Miller said.

In perhaps the most notorious decision he influenced, the board decided in 1996 to build a baseball spring-training stadium and training complex on east Ajo Way. The way former Supervisor Mike Boyd remembers it, even Eckstrom was in favor of building downtown first. But difficult issues between the city, the baseball teams and the county pushed the county to look for a new site.

Eckstrom naturally pushed for, and won, a site in his district.

In Boyd's first term, Eckstrom "was very pugnacious and difficult to do business with," Boyd said.

But that changed in the second term.

"I was able to work with Danny. Basically, some horse trading where I would vote for some issues in his district that didn't have to do with roads - bricks and mortar - in exchange for roads in my district," Boyd said.

When Eckstrom retired in 2003, the board gave his handpicked successor, Ramón Valadez, the seat. Valadez then hired Jennifer Eckstrom, at the time a South Tucson Council member, as his chief of staff. Typical Eckstrom.

But people have accepted the system while the family works to bring home the bacon.

"They can talk about me and my father all they want," Jennifer Eckstrom told me, "but the proof is in what South Tucson has become."

Avoiding trouble

Some in South Tucson dislike the quid-pro-quo politics of the Eckstrom era. The owners of two neighboring businesses on South Fourth Avenue told me they've tried to avoid the city government over decades in town.

"It's been one of those things where, as long as they leave me alone, I'll leave them alone," said Willard Adams of Adams Automotive.

Neighbor Lalo Baca, of Baca Upholstery, echoed the sentiment: "I hear this, I hear that, but I don't get involved."

The vague critiques bother Jennifer Eckstrom.

"I don't understand what is so bad about what we've done. If they can pinpoint things we've done wrong, I'd like to know," she said.

Green and others point to a purported proposal by Walmart to open a store in South Tucson as exemplifying the problems with the city's government. South Tucson had recruited Food City - owned by Eckstrom ally Eddie Basha - to open a store in the city in 1999. So when Walmart considered a store a few years later, it was blocked by a big-box ordinance in 2005, protecting Food City from competition.

That's how Green, who was on the council in those years, describes the story. But Jennifer Eckstrom said "Walmart never came to me. Walmart never came to the city."

So what will the new council do differently? The members are loath to speak in anything but generalities till they take office in June.

"We just want to bring freshness to the place. We want to spruce it up," Patiño said.

Dan Eckstrom scoffs at the newcomers' naivete.

"I think that these folks are going to be surprised when they find out they're going to have a job to do," he said, adding: "I'm very proud of the Eckstrom influence. When they can start matching things they bring to the community, then they can start comparing."

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-8427.

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