Eighteen years is a long time to serve in public office. In Jennifer Eckstrom’s case it is about half of her life. This comes to an end, at least for the time being, this week, as the feisty South Tucson Mayor announced her resignation late last week.
Rumors abound as to why she submitted the letter. Such speculation naturally follows such things, particularly since it comes about two weeks after her allies on the Council were defeated in the Square-Mile City’s Democratic Primary. The truth is that her reasons are personal. She is getting married and is planning to move to the far west side to join her new husband. Besides, after nearly two decades, she deserves a rest.
Last week we saw an example of her consistent willingness to speak out on what she thinks is important to her community when she led a press conference on behalf of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. While local media featured Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, the truth was that he joined the event only after it was organized by Mayor Eckstrom, which was why it was held at the South Tucson City Hall. It may seem a minor, strictly symbolic thing to be sure, but it shows that she took initiative on this issue while others did not.
This was not the only issue on which she was outspoken. In a jurisdiction that could ill afford mere posturing about issues of poverty, she was not only sincere in her concern about economic justice, but she showed a willingness to do the work it took to accomplish something of real substance. She was active in the fight against payday lending, and her initiatives against slumlords are finally starting to bear fruit.
The Mayor and her allies had their detractors, and some of their grievances had merit. However, their complaints have always seemed to have more to do with personalities than policy, and the few policy solutions they have promoted on the council have been unrealistic. A few years back, for example, her opponents proposed pursuing a Wal-Mart as a panacea against all of South Tucson’s problems. This was a bad idea for many reasons, not the least of which was the retail giant’s noxious labor policies. Also, it would have been a problem for existing businesses, potentially leaving blighted, empty storefronts after substantial public investment in redevelopment.
More than anything, however, there was never any evidence that Wal-Mart was ever interested in South Tucson. This makes one wonder if the notion was ever sincere in the first place, or if it was just pushed for the sake of being contrary. At best, no one promoting this harebrained scheme seems to have taken the time to think it through.
So the critical question here is what is it that this new slate of councilmen intends to do? They seem to have no agenda other than opposition to the existing order. For instance, they have promised a housecleaning of staff (City Manager Enrique Serna has already announced his resignation), but it is difficult to see how they will easily find competent people to take these positions under these circumstances, particularly when the elected leadership seems to be capricious. This speaks to a certain naivete regarding the realities of governing.
Their rhetoric and attitude do not bode well in other ways. South Tucson’s successes as a community have largely depended on partnerships. The city actively participates in the Regional Transportation Authority to an extent they did not under the previous Mayor. Most of their initiatives as far as public health and economic development have been due to Mayor Eckstrom’s ability to effectively work with outside entities such as the University of Arizona and Pima County. The new slate has already made noise about taking on Supervisor Valadez. It is difficult to understand why anyone thinks such needless belligerence is going to be at all helpful or productive for a city that needs as many friends as it can find.
This being said, Mayor Eckstrom has much to be proud of. Business and even light industry are moving into South Tucson. Crime remains a problem, but it is generally in decline. Though things are far from perfect, South Tucson is improving by most measures. It is hoped that the new council will realize how much progress has been made and not, out of some sense of supreme crankiness, reverse the good work that has been done.
Meanwhile, I doubt that we have seen the last of Jennifer Eckstrom.