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  • Ronstadts’ local contributions go well beyond the music

    The way we were
    By Tom Prezelski

    Last year’s acclaimed documentary about Linda Ronstadt brought renewed attention to one of Tucson’s most storied families. While the Ronstadts’ considerable contributions to the Old Pueblo’s business and cultural life are well-known, their contributions to Pima County’s political development are not as frequently discussed. One scion of the family, José María Ronstadt, better known as “J.M.,” “Joe” or “Pepe,” was involved in local politics at a critical time in Arizona’s history, and served a single, eventful term on the Board of Supervisors.


    A great-uncle to the famed Linda, Pepe Ronstadt (pictured here) was born in Altar, Sonora, 55 miles south of the border at Sasabe in 1879. His mother, Margarita Redondo, was from a family who was prominent in business and politics in both Arizona and Sonora. His father, Fredrick Augustus Ronstadt, was a mining engineer who immigrated to Mexico from the Kingdom of Hanover (later a province of Germany). The elder Ronstadt’s work took him all over Sonora and Baja California, and he was even involved in the early development of the mines at Ajo in the 1850s. Later, as an officer in the Mexican Army, Frederick Ronstadt visited Arizona in 1864 to appeal for help from north of the border as Sonora was threatened by the forces of the French-backed Emperor Maximillian.

    Pepe’s older brother Federico was sent to Tucson in 1882 to apprentice in a wagon-maker’s shop, establishing the family’s permanent presence in the Old Pueblo. As the wagon business grew and expanded, Federico became prominent in the economic and political life of the community. In the 1890s, Federico actively Pepe Ronstadtcampaigned against the American Protective Association, a Republican-allied group that advocated for discriminatory legislation targeting the Mexican-American community. He also joined a movement to abolish gambling in Tucson.

    This activism earned Federico the attention of the Democratic Party, who recruited him to run for office. Reluctantly, he accepted a nomination for County Supervisor in 1902. He did not personally campaign, but was elected on the strength of the party organization and his own good name. He did not run for reelection and turned down subsequent calls to run for office, focusing instead on his business and charitable work.

    Politics seems to have been much more of a calling for Pepe, who came to Tucson with his father in 1885. As a boy, he and his friend Francisco “Pancho” Moreno worked as typesetters on the Tucson Citizen and edited El Trueno, an early Spanish-language newspaper. Later, he worked in the family wagon business and was invested in mining and ranching. Like his brother, he was involved in the Democratic Party, serving in various capacities on the party’s central committee starting in 1904. In 1910, he was nominated as a candidate for delegate to the Arizona Constitutional Convention, but the party in Pima County was divided and the Republican slate was elected.

    Ronstadt was chair of the Pima County Democratic Party in 1912, the year that Arizona became a state. For Arizona’s first two United States senators, the Democrats nominated two very different candidates: Henry Fountain Ashurst, a favorite of the party’s progressive faction, and Marcus Aurelius Smith, a conservative in the tradition of Grover Cleveland. Supporters of each of the two candidates did not necessarily get along, and there were accusations that each campaign was trying to undermine the other. Ronstadt stepped into the dispute, pledging to pay $100 to anyone who could prove the accusations true. This did much to settle things. Though the party’s success in Pima County was mixed, Ronstadt’s organizing efforts were given credit for Democrats’ success statewide. President Woodrow Wilson rewarded Ronstadt with a plum appointment as postmaster for Tucson.

    With the change in administrations in 1921, Ronstadt returned to private life, expanding operations at his ranch in the Altar Valley. Remaining active in politics, Ronstadt was elected to the Pima County Board of Supervisors in 1926, and once sworn in, was made chairman.

    Ronstadt presided over an expansion of county government. Rural roads such as the road to Old Fort Lowell and the old stage road to Ajo were incorporated into the county’s system and would now be improved and maintained by the county. The 1881 county courthouse had outlived its usefulness and needed to be replaced with a modern building, and the board contracted with prominent Tucson architect Roy Place to design a new one, though construction of the iconic 1929 courthouse would not be completed until after Ronstadt’s tenure.

    Local Republicans were particularly bitter about Ronstadt’s leadership. They accused him of being fiscally irresponsible, alleging that the new county roads and even the courthouse were frivolous expenses. The Citizen, then a Republican organ, regularly editorialized against him, even going so far as to call for a grand jury to investigate the County’s acquisition of land for the new courthouse, among other things. Nothing came of these accusations, but the criticism damaged Ronstadt’s reputation. The 1928 election, the first where machines would be used for the balloting, would prove to be a sweep for the Republicans in Pima County. Ronstadt lost by eighteen votes.

    Pepe Ronstadt remained prominent in local affairs, and may well have re-entered politics at some point, but was diagnosed early on with a heart ailment that at times limited his work. He passed away in Tucson in May 1933, after a long illness related to his heart condition. His older brother Federico passed away in 1954.
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