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Mayor James N. Corbett: He knew how to count

Sometime in 1979 a friend and I decided as we often did in those days to have lunch at El Dorado, a restaurant at 36th Street and South Fourth Avenue. It was known in those days for its outstanding red chile and a tapestry of John and Bobby Kennedy that hung on its east wall. We were about to sit down when we spied Jim Corbett — the former nationally known drunken, thigh-biting mayor of Tucson and newly elected clerk of the court. I went to his table and before I could say hello, he jumped up, grabbed my shoulders and gave me a wet kiss on the cheek, saying “I love you.”

And well he should have.

He had won his clerk of the court election by 10 votes. His opponent, a stuffed-shirt Republican by name of Bill DeLong, filed a lawsuit and demanded a recount. After the recount and a judgment by a Pinal County judge, Corbett was still the victor although his margin had shrunk to but five votes. The final count was 50,555 to 50,550. The Arizona Daily Star had endorsed Corbett both in the primary and the general elections. In high profile elections, newspaper endorsements don’t count for much and do not persuade voters. But in low profile races such as the clerk of the Superior Court, they do. It was reasonable to say, the Star’s endorsement made the difference.

Corbett was in my office first thing the day after the election. He thanked me sincerely, adding that if there was anything in the world he could do for me, all I need do was name it. He meant it. The Star’s endorsement of Corbett was a great surprise. His honor and the Tucson’s newspapers had a nose-tweaking, mutual dislike. Reporters from either newspaper could ask his honor a question and the reply was consistent. The mayor would announce the time and when the reporter said he or she did not understand, Corbett’s standard retort was that he did not want it ever said that he refused to give either newspaper the time of day.

Corbett’s populist streak ran long and deep, which provoked some nasty responses from the newspapers during his mayoral tenure, 1967 to 1971. The mayor struck back, declaring with great zeal that he would never submit to the “Downtown Power Structure,” by which he meant anyone who remotely resembled a Republican or member of the Chamber of Commerce. The pressmen and printers who produced the two papers at the time had fielded an impressive team that did well in the city softball league. The players called the team the “Downtown Power Structure.”

Despite the Republican opposition, Corbett was among the most productive mayors in Tucson’s history. He completely changed the  character of downtown, using urban renewal money to build La Placita. During his tenure, the city water utility also grew rapidly. If he had managed to win a second term, he might have persuaded voters to approve a bond issue to purchase Tucson Gas & Electric. He believed the power and gas companies should be owned and controlled by the people through the municipality. His vanity license plate said “ZAP-TGE.”

Corbett lost his reelection bid in 1971 to a tall Republican attorney, Lewis C. Murphy. Actually he did not lose that election in November of ’71. He lost in March of 1970 when he tried to bite the thigh of a 26-year-old woman. The mayor was in Washington, D.C. at the time. One evening he drank too much booze, which was his wont, and went a little crazy. The young woman was not a prostitute, but an employee of the National League of Cities and Towns. There was no sex involved. The incident was reported by Jack Anderson in his nationally syndicated column. The mayor of Tucson was thus portrayed as a drunken lout.

The Anderson column embarrassed the city and gave the three Republicans on the council enough nerve to call for his resignation. Maybe if his honor hadn’t tried to bite the thigh, he could have survived the trouble. But it was pretty much true that he was a drunk and only occasionally a lout.

By the time he ran for court clerk, Corbett had given up demon rum. He served in that job for 20 years. He died in 2007.

I would see him from time to time, and our first topic always was the Tucson Mayor and Council and its inability to confront city’s ills. The problem, said Corbett, was they could not count. The number was four, which would constitute a majority and thus pass whatever measures before them. Several mayors have come and since Corbett. With just one exception — George Miller — they all shared the inability to count.

December 11, 2011

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