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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.

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