Had he wanted to do it, we would have had a Mayor LaMarr Billups administration over the last eight years instead of mine.
When I started to think seriously about running for mayor in 2002, there was only one potential candidate that would have kept me out of the race. It wasn't Paul Soglin; it was LaMarr Billups.
At the time, LaMarr was director of community relations at the UW, working directly for the chancellor. But that title didn't nearly cover LaMarr's good work. He was everywhere in the community, he knew everybody and he was liked and respected by everyone he touched.
When LaMarr chose not to run and threw his considerable name behind mine, I knew I had a chance.
When I won the election, I asked LaMarr to take a leave of absence from his work at the UW to help me set up my administration. For about six weeks LaMarr helped me through a tumultuous transition as we waited for one of his best protégés, Annette Miller, to return from maternity leave and take his place.
During that period, I remember one late evening conversation in my office when I was going on about how I just wanted to hire the best people I could get regardless of race or gender. LaMarr gently asked me to consider background and life experiences in that equation and I never forgot it.
Later when I took on the merging of two agencies to create a new Department of Civil Rights, LaMarr was right there with me through the bruising debate, acting as the voice of reason and of healing, explaining the motivations of each side to the other.
LaMarr was always about building and maintaining strong human relationships, always about listening to everyone, building bridges of understanding. He could do this because of his unquestioned personal integrity. And he was known by everyone, easily gliding from the mayor's office or the chancellor's office to troubled neighborhoods and soup kitchens and back to corporate boardrooms.
Later in my administration, LaMarr and his wife Sheryl with Dianne and I would take an annual December trip to Chicago because, as he explained it, I "needed to get some color in your life." He introduced us to his favorite jazz and blues haunts in Chicago, his sweet home. And I also got to meet his father, who LaMarr loved deeply and worried about constantly even as his own health was challenged again and again. I can't imagine a more devoted son.
Soon after I lost my election last spring, I found myself waiting for a delayed flight connection at O'Hare. I had not only lost but I was lost, totally unprepared for life outside of the mayor's office, and now stuck in a big, lonely airport with nothing to do for hours. So I got out my cell phone and called LaMarr. We talked through my new career options and I got caught up on what was going on in his life. At the end of the conversation I just felt better, more confident that things would be all right. LaMarr made you feel that way.
LaMarr Billups died at his home in Falls Church, Virginia on Friday. The legacy he leaves for Madison is a generation of "mentees" like Annette Miller, Johnny Winston and others who will live on well beyond his passing. And his example of good-natured leadership through relationship building is something our community should find a way to ingrain in our political culture. It would be the best way to honor a man who meant so much to our community.