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Perhaps History Will Be Kinder To Madrid
LA MESA – If politics were truly like boxing, when a campaign ends – or in this case when a long, political career ends – the combatants could meet in the middle of the ring, embrace and acknowledge the brotherhood of mankind.
Politics, however, is not like that. The end comes not with a tremendous punch, but with a long, slow realization that public sentiment has turned against you. History, in time, may more accurately assess your worth, but in the days after an election defeat – like the one Art Madrid experienced Tuesday – there is little perspective.
Madrid, professionally born and raised in the political circles of corporate government affairs and tempered in electoral politics, was throughout his career a polarizing figure. Folksy and charming, a Latino Republican in a town of mostly white conservatives, he managed to win over a strong majority of locals by the strength of his ubiquity and caring for this small town. He won people over one deed at a time and the political capital that that engendered helped Madrid survive both his famous drunken episode but also his often crotchety almost combative manner when tensions rose.
Ernie Ewin, who spent many years jousting with Madrid as much over his style as his substance, acknowledged that Madrid’s energy and adamancy about his view forced a generation of politicians in La Mesa to be ready and work hard.
“Giving credit where it is due, I had to be on my toes,’’ Ewin said, “because Art is not a willing compromiser. That is a challenge because you may think a professional, civil, quiet discussion may take place then find out he has filled the chambers with supporters for only one outcome. Right or wrong, he has been part of many accomplishments in La Mesa.’’
In fact, Madrid could trace in a timeline of his service a steady stream of successful efforts to keep La Mesa a distinct and financially healthy city. The redevelopment of Fletcher Parkway, the maintenance of a vibrant health sector, a slow but steady increase in, and diversification of, the city’s housing stock, a complete rebuild of fire and police facilities. On his watch, the city maintained professional management that is far more sophisticated than most cities of 60,000 can boast.
Still, Madrid’s approach to governance often had him jousting with fellow council members, many of whom felt eclipsed by Madrid’s strong presence and, perhaps, by the fact that for much of the last two decades he worked virtually full time at this part-time position.
Technically, La Mesa has a “weak mayor’’ form of government, but it seldom seemed that way as Madrid extended his reputation by working extensively with the San Diego Association of Governments and state and national government associations as well. Madrid lived in a world in which longevity produced expertise and authority, well beyond what was statutorily expected of his position.
In the end, he was probably done in by that longevity. At 80 and with more than three decades of handling tough decisions, a coalition of interests gathered to oppose his continuation. Over the last two years, virtually the only predictable aspect of the La Mesa City Council has been that a majority could be garnered to oppose Madrid on issues big or small.
A few years ago, Madrid had the kind of terribly public scandal that would have ended most political careers. He said he had run into friends of his deceased son and simply drank too much while reminiscing. When police found him literally on the street with another city employee, he was driven home, but not spared the public shame of such an event.
Rather than slink off, Madrid soldiered on and won re-election again. The concomitants of a 40-year political career do not include, it seems, the stuff that resignation is made of. And the locals clearly could weigh his years of dedicated service against the inexperience of opponents who brought little beyond complaints about Madrid’s style to the table.
After that drinking episode, a number of his closest allies told the mayor they would stand by him so he could oversee the city’s long-planned for centennial celebration. He was owed that, they said. But they expected him to give up the job after that and groom his successor.
Even as an octogenarian, Madrid didn’t have quit in him. He declared a desire to win one more term and see a new City Hall rise above Allison Avenue before he would leave office.
Mark Arapostathis, perhaps the only person in this city who could match Madrid’s resume of public service, found a coalition of his own supporters who joined with Madrid’s detractors and sent the city’s longest serving mayor into retirement.
With the benefit of some years of perspective, it is likely that Madrid’s reputation will grow over time. Perhaps he’ll come to be seen as this city’s Fiorello La Guardia. Perhaps after some future terms of drab or milquetoast successors, locals may find themselves missing a mayor who had the chutzpah to support his position with no holds barred.
Maybe in time, when the city gets around to refurbishing the Centennial installation being built at La Mesa Boulevard and Allison Avenue, the city will think of some presence for Madrid. He certainly did more for this city’s first century than a snail – cute as it is.