Character study: Ed Moore leaves a legacy of vengeance, pettiness, smarts & decency

It feels weird calling Ed Moore just “Moore” on second reference.

He was always bigger than that to me. Neither does he seem like his given full first name: Edwin. Doesn’t fit. He was always “Ed Moore.” He was a towering figure defining Tucson-area politics for a while. He was always on the mind and always up to something.

Moore died last week at age 88. He’d been battling Parkinson’s disease. But Ed Moore was just larger than life for a good while. 

He’s the last great Tucson political character. It’s a term that is used too much to excuse the truly toxic malcontents. Ed Moore was venomous, but he was oddly chill about it and didn’t mean it personally.

Obituary: Former Pima County Supervisor Ed Moore dead at 88

It occurs to me that many people don’t remember one of the great dramas in Tucson’s political history. Ed Moore was front and center. Moore was part of my formation as a local journalist as he took vengeance and took names 31 years ago.

For the uninitiated, Moore was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1984 as a Democrat. He became a Republican when he started siding with developers in the growth wars of the 1980s and 1990s. Then he opposed direct delivery of Central Arizona Project water and ran afoul of the business community. Presto! he was an independent.

But there was more to Ed than shapeshifting. There was his holy crusade. His multimillion-dollar, career-ending crusade against the professional civil servants in Pima County.

Decades before anyone heard of the Deep State, there was the Ride of Big Ed Moore.

Big Ed Rises

My first job out of college was in Globe, where I was introduced to small-town newspapering. What I wanted, was to be a big city reporter. Tucson would suffice as a big city. I lived vicariously through one of buddy Rhonda Bodfield, the county beat reporter at the Tucson Citizen. This was during the era of Peak Ed.

I got the skinny on Big Ed regularly. Rhonda, being Rhonda, just described what he did and was inscrutable even to her friends about what kind of person he was.

But I’d seen enough and I was like a lot of people at the time. 

After gaining enough experience in local governance to know what I was talking about, I came to realize Moore wasn’t just a Black Hat. He was a contrarian and, as I’ve said before, every board and council needs one. They keep the staff honest and the rest of the governing body thinking. 

Just don’t put one in charge. 

Unchecked contrarianism leads to grudges and paranoia against anyone getting in the way — which Moore developed in great amounts. Then he got the chance to act on it.

In 1993, two new Republicans joined Moore on the county board: Paul Marsh and Mike Boyd. Both agreed to make Moore chairman and let him call the shots for a while. He went straight to work. Call it a vendetta ride. Call it a reign of terror. Whatever it was, it started on the first day the new board took over.

Because Moore couldn’t directly fire staffers he didn’t like from his perch on the Supes, he got his two new colleagues to side with him and fire the county manager, Enrique Serna. They replaced him with Manoj Vyas, and Vyas instantly fired a half dozen of Moore’s targets.

Reaction from the county staff, was swift. They were in full rebellion for a while.

A cadre of seven fired employees managed to win a multi-million dollar suit against the county over their dismissal. So, no that didn’t go particularly well.

Then Vyas began reorganizing the county into “superdepartments,” which never really went anywhere but chewed up a lot of time and money.

Moore also pulled a nifty little move where he would hold “caucus meetings.” Boyd, Marsh and Moore would huddle behind closed doors and discuss their plans for the agenda. 

Wait a minute. Isn’t that a minor violation of the Open Meeting Law? No. It’s a massive violation of the Open Meeting Law. Moore just honeybadgered it. He didn’t give a rip… until judges told them he had to stop.

No, Big Ed’s way was no way to run a railroad. Don’t just start with a decapitation strike. It’s much better to go slow first to move fast later. Arrange pieces. Select the battlefields. Make changes one at a time.

This was beyond and above Moore’s championing of unchecked development and urban sprawl. He never met a major rezoning he didn’t like. That unchecked growth created a backlash that lead to the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, which coincided with a serious drawback in homebuilding that Tucson is still dealing with today. I’m not blaming Moore or enviros for the increased housing costs. I am saying the issues of today have a history behind them that we often forget.

That’s one of the reasons history should be retitled “How we got here.”

Eventually, Boyd couldn’t abide Moore’s shenanigans and started voting with the board’s Democrats: Raúl Grijalva and Dan Eckstrom. Emil Franzi, another local legend of the day, suggested in Inside Tucson Business that it was the business community that pushed Boyd, but no matter.

I will honor Franzi’s memory with that attribution.

Boyd and the Dems decided to shove out Vyas, reduce the role of county manager to county administrator and hired just the kind of guy to come in and work with humility and subservience. Charles Henry Huckelberry. Ha, ha, ha. Huckelberry would prove to be a master of the inside game and supersize the role of county administrator.

Boyd would later tell me, on the record, that he came to regret empowering Moore. It was a mistake but one he owned up to making.

Not eating the homework

Here’s the thing about Big Ed. One of Moore’s great targets was Kino Community Hospital. There was once a time when counties in Arizona ran their own hospitals. He wanted out of that game and faced serious pushback.

At first he proposed shuttering it entirely. Then he agreed to look at other options. His basic point was the county couldn’t properly run the hospital but it tried for years.

Well, it turns out, the county came to realize that it couldn’t run a hospital and needed help from the private sector.  Providing hospital care for the poor is a tricky business and proved beyond the county’s ability, even for a guy like Dr. Richard Carmona, who went on to be U.S. surgeon general after failing to save the county health care system. That’s a whole ‘nother story.

Kino was basically privatized. In 2005, when the county turned it over to University Physicians. It’s since been swallowed up by the Banner amoeba.

And that’s thing about Big Ed Moore. I’m going to outsource this quote to its proper owner, long-time county reporter with the Citizen and Green Valley News, Garry Duffy: “Ed wasn’t always wrong.”

He just went about things in confounding ways.

An unlikely gentleman

I got back to Tucson in 1998, about a year after he left office, and the people around Pima County government somehow stopped short of hating him, despite the chaos. I was shocked his name could be said out loud in polite company.

It wasn’t like these people were incapable of hating each other. At one time or another Sharon Bronson hated Raul Grijalva, who hated Ray Carroll, who hated Bronson, and at different points everyone hated Huckelberry.

But Moore? No. “Eh, he’s a good egg.”

What? I would think to myself. Ed Moore? That Ed Moore? The Ed Moore who used to represent District 3 on the Board. That Ed Moore was a gentleman, you’re telling me. Heard it from Raul Grijalva, who served on the board with him. Dan Eckstrom, Sharon Bronson, and Mike Boyd said the same thing.

Here’s an example that I love.

Chris Limberis was a boss of a reporter at the Arizona Daily Star. He was the last of that breed who got their sources drunk at the bars and filed copy with drunken quotes those sources didn’t remember making but couldn’t deny. Limberis did a stint working in Bronson’s office and was a genuine trouble maker.

As a journalist, Limberis sunk his canines into Moore and didn’t let go. 

He once had this big piece on Moore ready to go just smacking him around from one column inch to the next. His last interview was, of course, with Moore himself. So the two chatted as adversaries for a while, and Limberis went back to the Star office to write his story.

He realizes – and it’s every reporter’s nightmare – he left the notes in the office of the target of, essentially, a hit piece.

So Limberis calls Moore at home. Moore doesn’t live close. He lived somewhere near North Sandario and West Hollywood Boulevard. He’s out there. And Moore got the message and drove Downtown to deliver the notes to Limberis so he could shellack him in the next day’s paper.

Limberis would later tell me that story, smiling in tribute to Moore.

I just picture that happening with Dan Eckstrom. “Oh that notebook? I think Ramon threw it away. Yeah, we did some cleaning after you left, Chris. We thought it was old.” That would be his way of saying “If you are stupid enough to leave your notebook in my office, I’m smart enough to make sure it disappears. It’s not like you can say I  refused to comment, now can you?” 

Steve Christy would probably do it. I’d just have to agree to buy a car from his back lot.

A staffer for another supervisor once told me about a run-in he had with Moore ,where he was so mad at the Big Boss that he threw a blow at him. Moore stood way over 6 feet tall. The staffer barely broke 5 feet and he instantly found himself in some kind of souplex Moore put him in, basically muttering, “We’re not going to do this.” 

It wasn’t an on-the- record conversation but it wasn’t off, either. So I’m not using his name.

The staffer didn’t tell the story like Moore was a violent jerk. It was more like “I deserved it. He probably could have killed me but didn’t.” That same staffer would often refer to Moore as a worthy adversary.

This reporter’s relationship …

My relationship with Moore grew to be a prosperous one for me, with a strange twist.

Every once in a while, my phone would ring and in the receiver I would hear “Hey Blake, Ed Moooore.” He would drag out his name into multiple syllables. He would give me a drop on a story and while doing so, it oddly sounded like he was stuffing a mailman into a wood chipper. There was this mechanical grinding noise. 

I betrayed my journalistic oath and didn’t ask too many questions about whatever the hell he was doing when he called me. The substance, though, proved golden.

A good source feeds a reporter leads that pan out a third of the time.

A great source delivers a story half the time.

Moore batted 1,000. Nobody bats 1,000 in feeding the press but Moore did. They were good stories, not for my edification, but that the public had a right to know about. He wasn’t running for office again, he was just trying to let the people know.

Writer’s note: Here’s where I curse Gannett Inc. for losing the Tucson Citizen archives because I flat can’t remember the specific stories he turned me onto. They weren’t earth-shattering. They were Page 1. I absolutely remember some busy days hearing “Hey Blake Ed Mooooore” and thinking “God, really? I’ve already got three stories and now I have to deal with this.” 

That was the point. When Ed called, a byline followed.

A lot of times, we’d chat for a while, and he’d be perfectly normal. He’d never bad-mouth anybody and always had a point that was valid. In the interest of full disclosure, he would also be sure to tell me that he was letting me know because I was the “only reporter covering the county who got it.” I wasn’t. I just suffered from the Trumpian malady of melting a little in the face of compliments.

He knew his way around the county. He knew policy. He knew people. He knew where the pressure points were and maintained close contacts for years afterward. So he’d engendered some respect.

The ages

Moore’s tale is a caution against treating every problem like a side of beef because the only tool is a meat cleaver.

Yet, there was more to the man than the headlines and chaos he created. He had a genuine humanity to him and that’s what made his act go down smoother than it should have.

It’s also what makes him a character and not a caricature.

No, Big Ed Moore wasn’t always wrong. He did let his self-righteousness get away from him and probably some pettiness.

He was, without a doubt, one for the ages he now belongs to.