Love where you live!
LA MESA -- Art Madrid, still mayor, walked inconspicuously into the Panera Bread cafe at Grossmont Center and many in the crowded restaurant looked up and recognized the very familiar face.
After nearly 40 years in public life, this is one thing that an election defeat can't change. Hizzoner is part of the fabric of La Mesa life and will remain for years far more recognizable than office holders who succeed him.
And on this Thursday, with his days in office dwindling down to fewer than a half dozen, Madrid wasn't acting as if anything had changed.
"Just got done with two meetings,'' he said. "I'm still the mayor.''
These last words were uttered and accompanied by a look, as if to make sure they were believed. The City Council will meet Tuesday night, validate the election results and that will be it. A piece of cake all around and Madrid will leave City Hall as a citizen only.
Regardless of what you thought of La Mesa's long-serving mayor, there is no denying the impact of his long service to the Jewel of the Hills.
As he leaves office, he was reluctant to look back and evaluate his own last, unsuccessful campaign.
"No regrets,'' he says simply. "The voters decided to make a change and that was their decision. Now we move forward. I congratulate the elected.''
No second-guessing his low-key campaign. No lamenting a turnout so low that it had to hurt the better-known incumbent. No pot-shots at political opponents whose year-long opposition to All Things Madrid related clearly hurt the mayor. And above all, not too much planning for a life that, after nearly four decades, will not include city meetings.
"I re-joined the Bonita Men's Club,'' he said, referring to a golf course association. "I belonged years ago, but had to give it up. No time. I plan on playing more every week.''
That -- and finally cleaning his garage so he can get two cars in -- was all the mayor had thought about future plans at this point.
He said he is not worried about La Mesa in his absence. The city has a great staff and the new council will have a good city to maintain. Madrid's worries, such as they are, remain focused on state and national trends that have posed more of a challenge to the city.
"The impact of this drought, dealing with it,'' Madrid listed. "Environmental issues the state and federal governments aren't dealing with. Those things make me worry. La Mesa is alright.''
In some ways, that has been the paradox of the latter part of Madrid's long run in office. He spent years working in intergovernmental corporate affairs at the state and regional level and he tried for higher office and failed to move up to a county-wide seat and never made a run at Sacramento, but he remains a big booster of local government even as he criticized state elected officials for hurting local governments like La Mesa.
"Local government is where all the action is,'' Madrid says at one point. "We deliver more services day in and day out than any other level of government.''
Yet, the biggest challenge to local government success clearly, in Madrid's view, rested at a level of elected government he never quite reached.
Madrid did engage heavily in state, regional and national associations, something that will be missed unless some of his successors take up that interest. But Madrid worked virtually full-time in the mayor's role and it is not clear his successor, City Councilman Mark Arapostathis, will have the time or inclination to keep up this small city's presence in those larger arenas.
Madrid says he doesn't expect to quit public service cold-turkey. He hopes to remain engaged with the Interfaith Council and will look for ways to continue what was a deeply-ingrained family tradition of service.
"My father was in the Knights of Columbus and a scoutmaster,'' Madrid said. "We always had to be doing something.'' Madrid lost a wife and a son to cancer during his time in public life, but he rarely dwelled on the private challenges while living a very public local life. His role as mayor clearly defined his public life, but his private life was largely just that.
What is clearest is that Madrid is proud of the city he is leaving his successors. He says he is glad he greatly expanded the city's board and commission system that has led to greater civic engagement for so many and produced a number of City Council members. He willingly gets down in the governmental weeds and points out that development in La Mesa has continued unabated without losing the small town character that so many people cherish.
"When a developer proposed something here, I'd go out to look at his other projects and we'd make sure the finishing touches, the same quality they built elsewhere, got built here too,'' he said. "It's the little things that can make a difference in a city. It's what distinguishes us from some of our neighbors I won't name. You have to pay attention to the details.''
If Madrid is angry or at all discouraged by his defeat, he is not showing it. Entering his 80s, there has to be some relief in knowing the second and fourth Tuesday of each month won't be dominated by tension and wrangling any more. But for someone who always relished tough choices and seemed to like taking on a fight, he may go through withdrawals as well.
"I was never the kind of guy who had to be from the right party or was willing to compromise my ethics,'' he said in one of his few moments of introspection. "I was the guy who was willing to do for people what they weren't in a position to do for themselves, represent the interest of those with little power and couldn't do it for themselves.''
Still the mayor, Madrid evoked Robert Frost's poem in encapsulating his willingness to mix it up on tough issues.
"I was like that guy who came up to those two roads more than a few times in life,'' he said. "I didn't always take the easy road.''
The council meets Tuesday at 4 p.m. in the Allison Avenue. Click here for the full agenda.