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Ron Asta, the productive one-term politician

Ron Asta had one of the shortest political careers in Tucson history.

He was elected as a Democrat to the Pima County board of supervisors in 1972. Four years later, voters gave him the boot, or, better said, homebuilders financed a big campaign against him — enough money to kick his butt from Tuesday to December. And back. Asta came along when growth sizzled in Tucson. He campaigned on the oddly logical notion that such rapid growth ought to be managed or controlled. This was, naturally, anathema to homebuilders, developers and other related denizens of the real estate trade.

Asta last November

Asta, November, 2012

Despite his short political life, Asta left a legacy. He did two things to make Pima County better than it might have been. He was responsible in large part for creating Catalina State Park. And, second, he was the key element in saving the Empire Ranch from being sliced and diced into small lots and sold like hot cakes. That is what happened to Rio Rico more than 40 years ago.

Asta gets no credit. That’s because he’s remembered for trying to shoplift a steak from a grocery store. That cloud hovered over him for 20 years. Two years ago (in 2011) he announced as a Republican primary candidate for mayor. His campaign lasted two days. The press tore him apart, recalling the steak incident and a tragic auto accident in which a woman was killed. Asta was at fault in the accident.

Asta said he decided to run because there was a great lack of leadership in the city. That has been true since George Miller left office. In fact, I would love to hear what any Tucson mayor since the 1970s besides Miller and the honorable James N. Corbett has accomplished. Anything. We have nothing but zeros, nada behind such names as Lew Murphy, Tom Volgy and Bob Walkup.  It likely will remain the case until the city charter is changed to create a strong mayor governmental structure. The city manager runs the city.  The city charter is a creature of the 1920s and ill-suited to metropolitan governance in 2013.

Asta managed to eliminate destruction of the Empire Ranch by demonstrating the development had inadequate water supplies. The owners had proposed city of many thousands. He accomplished that while was on the staff of the Pima County Planning Department, second to its director Alex Garcia.

Then Asta ran for the Pima County Board of Supervisors in ’72. He won. It was an election like no other, before or since. The Arizona Legislature, that majestic institution today devoted primarily to the well being of Maricopa County and political pedantry, decided the state’s two urban counties, Pima and Maricopa, should have greater representation. To that end, it passed legislation that two additional districts be added in each urban county, thus increasing the number of supervisors from three to five.

Only one incumbent supervisor sought reelection. Asta was one of four new faces, but by far the most controversial. He was known as a leader of the New Democrats, a small group of politicians who argued for controls on growth. When a developer, John Ratliff, proposed to carve up much of the western slope of the Catalinas, Asta led the movement to preserve it as a state park. It was thus preserved.

But Asta attracted enormous opposition. Defeat in 1976 was the price for his activism. It’s sad that he is remembered only for getting caught trying to shoplift a porterhouse.

Lunch with Ernesto Portillo at La Costa Brava, 3541 S. 12th Avenue

La Costa Brava has the best cabrilla, the best fish soup and shrimp ranchero I have had in this town. I am not sure how long ago I discovered it. Actually, I did not actually discover it. I was led there by my long time friend and compadre Ernesto Portillo Sr. who was for several decades the towering voice of Tucson’s Spanish radio. His story is also the story of Tucson radio from the mid-1950s.

Neto is a Chihuahuense, born in Parral. When he was a youth, his family moved to Juarez. His[slickr-flickr set=”Neto” delay=”2″] brother-in-law, who Ernesto says was one of the old-time broadcasters

]in Juarez, asked him if he might like to learn about radio. He got his training outside a radio control room, using a salt shaker instead of a microphone.

Neto qualified for his broadcaster license in 1951 at the ripeold age of 17 after taking examinations in Mexico City. He was given a provisional license only because he was underage. His official papers were issue when he turned 18.

Ernesto worked in Juarez radio for three years, figuring — correctly as it turned out — that he would either go to Mexico City or the United States to further his career. Spanish-language radio started in Tucson in 1953 with the advent of KEVT. Months later, in 1954, Neto got a call and an offer to come to Tucson. He was 20, working in radio and in father’s store in Juarez. He took the job. He stayed at KEVT until 1960 when he took a job selling life insurance. That lasted only three and a half years.

Two of his fellow radio colleagues at KEVT, Oscar Stevens and Carlos McCormick, applied for a license to operate the second Spanish-language station in Tucson, which eventually was granted. They asked Neto to be sales manager.

KXEW began broadcasting in November of 1963. After six months, they asked Neto to manage the station. After a time, the station’s management asked Ernesto to help establish a FM Spanish-language station. Years later, a group of investors, including Neto, Tucson attorney Lowell Rothchild — father of the present mayor — and Swede Johnson, a University of Arizona vice president, acquired the stations. Harry Belafonte was the principal seller.

In 1978, the group sold the FM station. It survives today as KRQ with obviously a different format. The group then sold the AM station KCEW two years later.

After three and a half decades in Tucson radio, Ernesto still was not finished. Neto joined the well-known restaurateur Diego Valenzuela of Gordo’s Mexican Restaurant, whose TV commercials were ubiquitous — “If you really like chimichangas, if you REALLY REALLY like chimichangas — to form another investor group. This one included Macario Saldate, a retired UA professor and currently a member of the Arizona Legislature, and Raul Grijalva, formerly a Pima County supervisor and now a U.S. congressman. This was the start of KQTL, which began broadcasting in October 1985.

This group sold KQTL in 2000 to a company with a chain of stations.

The radio business, like most media enterprises, has changed. Sharp decreases in  advertising revenue has led to consolidation of radio companies. “Two or three companies own about 98 percent of the stations,” said Neto. “It’s a different world. Local ownership, group ownership representing your community is a thing of the past.. It’s big business now.”

The Costa Brava is not a big business. It remains a sort of sideline for the wholesale seafood business, which was founded by Levi Rodriquez. He was a shrewd businessman, developing relationships with fishermen up and down the Baja Peninsula and the Sonora and Sinaloa coasts. At one time, he had a couple of store-fronts. Levi died a few years ago. His sons run the operation today.

Gloria Hugues, Levi’s daughter-in-law, has managed the restaurant for decades. She is the hero of the kitchen.

The restaurant stands out in at least one other respect — its décor. It includes some amazing Seri carvings, nautical paintings and prints, lots of parrots, nets, an enormous pocket-watch clock and tillers. At one end is a huge stuffed marlin caught by Nick Paulos of the now extinct Paulos Restaurant and a marvelous, hand-carved bow sprit at the front of a divider.

I invited the well-known auto dealer Jim Click to join me for camarones rancheros. Levi and Gloria went all out and brought out an enormous skillet. The shrimp was by far more than we could eat. Click, who will be known as one of the most generous men this town has ever known, picked up the pan and served all the other patrons in the restaurant.

It’s that kind of place.


William Manchester: The humiliation of John Wayne


There was a small story this month that someone had finished William Manchester’s third volume of his Churchill biography. I read the first two, and was among the thousands, if not millions, who were disappointed that Manchester — one of the giants of 20th-century journalism and biography — could not finish the job.  I’m not sure I could handle a substitute for Manchester. A few years ago, I went on a Manchester kick, reading almost everything he has written. There was one essay that appeared in The New York Times Magazine June 14, 1987 that I think about still.

Manchester was a Marine in the Second World War. He was wounded in the battle for Iwo Jima, returned to combat and almost killed in the furious fighting at Okinawa, among the bloodiest of the war. The piece for the magazine was prompted by a meeting of the Japanese and American soldiers who faced each other on Okinawa. Here are two excerpts from that article.

This was the lede:

“ON OKINAWA TODAY, Flag Day will be observed with an extraordinary ceremony: two groups of elderly men, one Japanese, the other American, will gather for a solemn rite. They could scarcely have less in common.

“Their motives are mirror images; each group honors the memory of men who tried to slay the men honored by those opposite them. But theirs is a common grief. After 42 years the ache is still there. They are really united by death, the one great victor in modern war.”


Here is an unforgettable scene:


“Once we polled a rifle company, asking each man why he had joined the Marines. A majority cited ‘To the Shores of Tripoli,’ a marshmallow of a movie starring John Payne, Randolph Scott and Maureen O’Hara. Throughout the film the uniform of the day was dress blues; requests for liberty were always granted. The implication was that combat would be a lark, and when you returned, spangled with decorations, a Navy nurse like Maureen O’Hara would be waiting in your sack. It was peacetime again when John Wayne appeared on the silver screen as Sergeant Stryker in ‘Sands of Iwo Jima,’ but that film underscores the point; I went to see it with another ex-Marine, and we were asked to leave the theater because we couldn’t stop laughing.

“After my evacuation from Okinawa, I had the enormous pleasure of seeing Wayne humiliated in person at Aiea Heights Naval Hospital in Hawaii. Only the most gravely wounded, the litter cases, were sent there. The hospital was packed, the halls lined with beds. Between Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the Marine Corps was being bled white.

“Each evening, Navy corpsmen would carry litters down to the hospital theater so the men could watch a movie. One night they had a surprise for us. Before the film the curtains parted and out stepped John Wayne, wearing a cowboy outfit – 10-gallon hat, bandanna, checkered shirt, two pistols, chaps, boots and spurs. He grinned his aw-shucks grin, passed a hand over his face and said, ‘Hi ya, guys!’ He was greeted by a stony silence. Then somebody booed. Suddenly everyone was booing.

“This man was a symbol of the fake machismo we had come to hate, and we weren’t going to listen to him. He tried and tried to make himself heard, but we drowned him out, and eventually he quit and left. If you liked ‘Sands of Iwo Jima,’ I suggest you be careful. Don’t tell it to the Marines.”


Everett S. Allen: Great White Father of Iambic Journalism

Everett S. Allen of The Standard Times, New Bedford, Mass.

Everett S. Allen once wrote a lead for his paper, The Standard-Times of New Bedford, Mass., in iambic pentameter. You don’t typically find poets writing news copy. But he was unusual from the start. Even in his later years, he sported a dazzling head of  shoulder-length curly white hair, flaring mutton chops and sailor’s craggy face, looking for all the word as he had just stepped out of 1968 and the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. It was for this reason that Roy Peter Clark called him the Great White Father of Iambic Journalism.

He won the first column-writing competition sponsored by the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1979. When I read these magnificent pieces, I sought to put his work in The Arizona Daily Star. I called him to see if I could buy the column. The column was not available through major newspaper syndicates. In fact, he said, his column appeared only in The Standard Times and the Raleigh News and Observer. I asked if he would send us a third copy, and we agreed on the price: $15 per column.

The column appeared Sundays. No other than the three newspapers ran his column. We spoke often by phone and finally met at conference in New England. He wrote twice as long as most columnists, about 1,500 words. He was certainly worth the space. Four of his books are still available and listed here along with a biography.

The columns here from the ASNE competition are in pdf format. Just click on the link.



Richard Aregood’s ‘Hot Squat’ editorial

Richard Aregood was an editorialist for the Philadelphia Daily News when this was published, November 21, 1975. He has since moved on to other pastures, reportedly in Jersey. It struck a chord at the time. Some said it was extreme. I thought so. That’s what made it memorable. As an experiment, place it next to the typical bowl of pabulum and bushwa newspapers call an editorial. Then consider which one sticks out.

Yes, the Chair

It’s about time for Leonard Edwards to take the hot squat.

Edwards, for those of you who haven’t been following his worthless career, has been convicted of two murders. He’s awaiting trial on another murder and the rape of a 14-year-old girl.

He’s 29 years old. Hopes of rehabilitating this piece of human crud are doubtful. It’s even wildly optimistic to use the word doubtful.

The last time Edwards was freed, it was on bail pending an appeal of an overly generous third-degree murder conviction. He had just stabbed somebody to death and justice, in all its majesty, had found him guilty.

Edwards then went out and killed somebody else.

His second murder jury was right. He’s not worth the upkeep.

Fry him.



El Indio, 3355 S. 6th Ave.


I order one of two dishes on El Indio’s menu. Usually, it’s a red chile burro enchilada style. Extra sauce please, Josefina. Just to mix it up, I’ll order the cocido.

The red chile is consistently excellent. The beef is tender. The red chile gravy is superb, a celebration of the red with a small bite and flavor. How they do it is one of the vexing mysteries of the ages, conundrum that eludes me still in old age.

The red enchilada sauce — of which there can never be too much — soothes the soul.

There are other dishes that include the red chile. Fried eggs on the side, a sort of red chile salad dish and the red chile plate with beans and rice are all rewarding choices.

The cocido is as it should be, a flavorful cabbage-broth reduction that requires a great deal of time to cook down. Hence the name of this vegetable-beef soup: cooked. The great length of time required to make this soup as a rule destroys the corn-on-the-cob pieces. But it also forces the other vegetables, zucchini, potatoes, green beans and such, also to meld the flavors.

The beef needs only be chunks of chuck roast. It also is cooked until it is forced in submission and becomes tender. A word about fat in this soup: If you are Jack Sprat, order something else or go elsewhere. There should be some fat in this soup because it is necessary to round out the flavor. It does not mean that it should be excessively laden with fat. There is a balance, and El Indio’s kitchen strikes it well.

I have heard that the chile relleno and carne asada are very good at El Indio. I am inclined to believe these reports. Moreover, there are daily lunch specials that include three courses. But I have never tried them. I know I should vary the routine, but I can’t resist the red.






William R. Mathews, the Star’s curmudgeon editor and gifted editorial writer

Mathews plaque

The Arizona Daily Star today (Nov. 22) ran an editorial (read it here) that first was published on Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 23) 1961. The newspaper did not say who the writer was, but I think I recognize the direct clarity of style and thought as being that of William R. Mathews.

Mathews was a professional curmudgeon, otherwise engaged as editor and publisher of The Arizona Daily Star from 1930 until his death in 1969. It was said one could not get elected dog catcher without Mathews’ approval.

It might have been true. He played politics full time, locally, statewide and on a national basis. He seemed to have a direct pipeline to the State Department. He predicted the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor two weeks before it happened. He was aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo harbor when the Japanese surrendered.

He was a gifted writer as the editorial shows. It surprises me that he was so good. He also was incredibly productive; his editorials appeared everyday even when he traveled so extensively. I imagine he never dreamed he would write editorials for a living.

Mathews fought in the Great War, and was a hero, capturing Germans and winning the Croix de Guerre. He was the business manager of a Santa Barbara newspaper when fate beckoned, and he accepted a position at the Star for 2 percent ownership. In return for the small interest in the paper, Mathews was to watch over the paper’s business affairs, a sort of ballast to Ralph Ellinwood who was editor by virtue of the fact his father bought the paper for him. His father, E. E. Ellinwood, was an attorney for Phelps Dodge.

Medical School entrance

Ralph Ellinwood was by all accounts a good editor. He was a graduate of Columbia’s School of Journalism and had worked for the Sacramento Union. He, too, had fought in World War I and spent time in a German prison camp. Ellinwood died young in 1930 after only a few years in charge of the Star. Ownership fell to Ellinwood’s widow, Clare, and Mathews. He ran the editorial operations. Mrs. Ellinwood played a part in management.

There’s very little to commemorate Mathews’ contribution to the city. There’s a small plaque with his bust in relief outside the entrance to the UA School of Medicine. He was the driving force behind the UA medical school, having campaigned personally and in print to bring it here.

Mathews carried out Ralph Ellinwood’s desire to establish the liberal tone to the Star’s editorials. Thus he is among the first to blame for the Star’s alleged reputation as The Red Star.

Ed Abbey’s ‘The Monkey Wrench Gang’

The Arizona Republic reports that the Department of the Interior this week started releasing millions of gallons of water from Glen Canyon Dam. The purpose is to restore ecological balance to the Grand Canyon. It is the fourth such flooding.

My first thought after reading the article was: Hayduke lives!

George Hayduke is the protagonist of Ed Abbey’s little romp into wishful thinking and delicious anarchy, The Monkey Wrench Gang.

The plot consists of Hayduke’s effort to blow Glen Canyon Dam to smithereens. Because it, ahem, altered the ecology of the Grand Canyon. Actually, it changed the ecology of the river. I seem to remember at the time, it took a month before the water began to back up behind the dam to create the reservoir.

“Hayduke Lives!” became a rallying cry for rabid environmentalists. I recall drawings that showed the great fissure in the dam and the water spewing in a great gush. I think Abbey was quietly amused by all the fuss.

I got to meet him and know him just a little. We discussed the state’s growth for an article he was writing for The New York Times Magazine (“The Blob comes to Arizona”). He told me he could not make it as a journalist because he got basketball scores wrong. He did not laugh when he said it, only smiled. I did not believe it.

I asked him once which of his books he liked best. “The next one,” he said pointing to his temple. I still like that answer. It certainly stayed with me. My favorite is Desert Solitaire. It’s lyrical, well-worth reading.


Flake and McCain, the anti-porkers

Jeff Flake


John McCain

Arizona should be bursting with pride.

The state has elected a second U.S. senator who believes he should seek NO MONEY for the state. Jeff Flake, Republican senator-elect, campaigned long and loud against earmarks, those little do-hickeys at the end of bills that provide federal money for pet projects championed by state delegations in the House and Senate. To the enlightened right-wing conservative, earmarks and pork are the root of most all evil.

John McCain has made a successful senatorial career by refusing to bring home any manner of bacon[*] to Arizona. He is the longest living anti-porker. The right honorable Sen. McCain will tell you: The notion that federal pork provides roads and other infrastructure, jobs and lights a fire under a state economy is just hogwash, a lame excuse to hide the fact that it’s just money down a rat hole.

Let all that gravy and cash go elsewhere. Arizona’s senators stand four-square against federal money no matter how many jobs it creates, no matter how much infrastructure it builds,no matter how much prosperity it might generate. It’s rathole money as far as Flake and McCain are concerned.

Now we have two anti-porking senators. McCain is proud. Arizona is proud. And really, really poor.

[*] Was it bacon or pork that paid for the Central Arizona Project, that engineering feat that created a canal from the Colorado River all the way to Tucson?

Words that laugh and cry

Many years ago I came across an editorial that was a celebration of language and contained one of the briefest and best lessons on writing I have ever read. This is from the March 16, 1890 edition of The Sun, a New York City newspaper made great by one of the greatest editors of American journalism, Charles Dana.

Words that laugh and cry

 Did it ever strike you that there was anything queer about the capacity of written words to absorb and convey feelings? Taken separately they are mere symbols with no more feeling to them than so many bricks, but string them along in a row under certain mysterious conditions and you find yourself laughing or [Read more…]