In the more than three decades he spent in politics - first as mayor of South Tucson and later on the Pima County Board of Supervisors - Dan Eckstrom developed both a powerful political machine and a reputation as a tough, free-wheeling politician who knew how to bring home the bacon to his constituents.
Dec. 11, he'll be taking time out from his busy retirement to pass on what he learned in the rough-and-tumble world of southside democratic politics to Marana's water director, police chief and other department heads.
Eckstrom's visit is part of a new program in Marana intended to have those who have made a mark in local governments teach innovative leadership skills to Marana's leaders.
The department head seminars are the brainchild of Marana Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat, himself a former politician who served as the town's vice-mayor before eventually becoming Marana's top administrator in July.
"It's a form of staff development," Reuwsaat said. "The goal is to get them looking at different approaches and viewpoints, to help them be innovative thinkers and see how others have looked at issues and come up with creative solutions."
Last month, Reuwsaat brought in William "Wade" McLean, the former superintendent of the Marana Unified School District, to lecture the town's administrators on formal concepts of leadership and decision making.
Reuwsaat said he's scouting for other local leaders who have proven themselves to be innovators and developed track records of success in public service.
"We're looking for other people who can add value to what our department heads can learn. We've set aside a monthly meeting to do this. My feeling is that if we can help develop and mentor the department heads, they'll do the same with their people and we'll be able to raise the town another notch," Reuwsaat said.
McLean was paid for his mentoring, but Eckstrom is sharing his knowledge gratis, Reuwsaat said.
Eckstrom said he plans to focus part of his discussion on the importance of serving constituents, something he grew famous - or infamous - for during his years in power.
Public works projects, including some that bear the Eckstrom name, dot South Tucson and the district he represented on the Board of Supervisors for 15 years before he announced his retirement Sept. 12. The city of Tucson and Pima County are still squabbling over 1997 bond election funds that Tucson wanted to earmark for widening 22nd Street and that eventually ended up in Eckstrom's supervisory district as neighborhood improvements.
"I'll probably share with them some unconventional leadership skills I've learned along the way," Eckstrom said. "A lot of people don't understand the importance of establishing relationships. In my political career, whether people liked me or not, the whole thing to me was about customer service and the importance of serving your constituents."
Eckstrom built a reputation as a political powerhouse in county and state politics and his supervisory district has become somewhat of a dynasty. He was appointed to his seat on the county board in 1988 after serving as the protege of Sam Lena, who held the District 2 seat for 13 years before him. Eckstrom's own protege, Ramon Valadez, was appointed by the Board of Supervisors to replace him last month.
Eckstrom's daughter was elected to the South Tucson City Council while she was still a student at the University of Arizona. She shares the council dais with South Tucson Mayor Shirley Villegas - Dan Eckstrom's cousin.
And while some may think South Tucson is a long way from Marana, Eckstrom's clout and long tenure in politics make it easy to rattle off a litany of connections to Marana. They range from his having gone to Pueblo High School with Marana Mayor Bobby Sutton Jr.'s mother-in-law to his introducing Marana Finance Director Roy Cuaron to his wife.
"When I went up to Marana to talk to Mike Reuwsaat about speaking to his department heads, I ran into (Councilmember) Ed Honea, (former Marana Mayor) Ora Mae Harn and (Marana Water Director) Brad DeSpain. It was like all-home week. I've known these people for years," Eckstrom said.
As a teen-ager living in South Tucson, the now 56-year-old Eckstrom recalls catching a bus up to Marana on Saturdays to earn extra money picking cotton. He was South Tucson's mayor when Marana incorporated as a town in 1977, and the two tiny municipalities formed an alliance to counter Tucson's political weight. Eckstrom was instrumental in getting Marana a seat on the Pima Association of Government's Regional Council.
The two struggling towns also formed a kind of ad hoc mutual aid society that led to close relations between Eckstrom and early Marana mayors such as Don Frew and Billy Schisler.
"There's some stories that I can tell now because the statute of limitations has passed," Eckstrom said, only half jokingly. "Like the day I was the mayor of South Tucson and we didn't have a formal IGA (Intergovernmental Agreement) with Marana and Don Frew was organizing a town clean up in Marana. They needed an oil truck and I told Don I would talk to our public works guy and if he can get it out there it will be there and I know nothing about it. We'll cover up the (South Tucson) town seal and take the back roads."
Eckstrom said he was relaxing at home later that night when he saw the oil truck - with its South Tucson logo clearly visible - on a television news segment about the Marana clean-up. He also noticed Frew had managed to finagle a number of South Tucson public works employees to work in Marana.
"It was clearly in violation of how we should have done it, but it was in the spirit of working together and that's important. Can we do that now? I don't think so. There would have to be a formal intergovernmental agreement in place. But that's the kind of thing that I would tell the folks when I go to Marana - it's about the importance of relationships and working together," Eckstrom said.
Even Eckstrom's critics, and he admits there are plenty, are hard pressed to take issue with his political knowledge and experience.
Mary Schuh, a member of the Pima Taxpayers Association who has frequently lambasted the Board of Supervisors at its meetings, said even she respects his leadership skills.
"Mr. Eckstrom has always been a leader on the board of supervisors, particularly with the budget. He would always step in at the last minute with the solutions. And there's no doubt he watched out for his constituents and he was always a gentleman to me," Schuh said.
DeSpain, Marana's water director, said he believes the seminars for department heads are useful and McLean's discussion was particularly well received. He's looking forward to Eckstrom's appearance.
"He's been a friend of Marana's and helped us out many times in the past," said DeSpain, who's known Eckstrom for more than 30 years. "And he definitely knows his way around government and politics."
The Tao of Eckstrom
A philosophy that former Pima County Supervisor Dan Eckstrom said he plans to impart to Marana's department heads later this month is the "four Fs," which helped see him through 32 years of politics:
"The first step is fun. A lot of people seem to think that when you do things in government it all has to be serious. And while being serious is important, you also have to have fun in what you do. I do a lot of work with the faith-based organizations and I've even invented a new Beatitude: 'Blessed are those who laugh at themselves, for they will never cease to be amused.' I like to tell people when they're dealing with the public to smile, to be courteous, enjoy your work …
"When you look at me, you know I do a lot of the second F, and that's food. Food gives you sustenance and it gives you energy. The whole idea of breaking bread together is the notion that fellowship and meeting with people is important. It's a way to meet people and it's how you get to know them. In Marana, they have outings together, they have staff picnics and things like that. And that's as important as it comes. When you break bread with someone, you can find out what they're really all about …
"The third F is Family. Being Hispanic, that's something that's important in our culture. We call it 'familia.' And basically, family is nothing more than when you have people get together for a common purpose. In this case, if you're working for the town of Marana, you're part of a family. As a department head, you may be the children of the decision makers, but when you do things you think about it as a family …
"I tell people that this fourth F is real important because without it, you can almost forget about the other ones. And that's faith. Faith in what you're doing. When you define faith, it's all about thinking, expecting and not seeing. I tell people that the faith that you have has to be first, faith in yourself that you can get the job done. And you have to have faith in the people around you and what you're doing …