By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
She was in office during the single most memorable law enforcement event in southwest Phoenix history. On a rainy December day in 1992, there was a coordinated assault on the Long Rest Trailer Court on West Van Buren Street near 31st Avenue. The place was home to filth, squalor and enough drugs, prostitution and other crime to have gained a reputation that crossed state lines. At least five city and county agencies, along with the police, swooped down on the Long Rest, arrested some residents, relocated others, condemned the trailer park and closed it by the end of the day. Within a week, it was torn down. A handful of other area crack houses and run-down motels got the same treatment, ending up as vacant lots. "It could have been done before," Ortiz says. "Our babies from Sullivan [school] were being taken in there and used for prostitutes."
Angry over what she perceived as a lack of any real help from the Wilcoxes or the Leijas, Ortiz broke off all ties. "If Pat was in trouble, if she needed help, if one of her kids was in trouble, I would help her," Mary Rose Wilcox says. "But we don't talk. There's too many issues."
A few months later, Leija won the seat that Ortiz had occupied. But the race was far from being over.
The Power of Patronage
Solomon Leija is a scrappy politician, used to running campaigns as a game in which someone wins and everyone else loses. He's far from suave--former campaign workers say he can be a hothead whose buttons are easily pushed on the stump--but he is a savvy strategist.
His experience lies in winning the election, not doing the job.
Leija worked as an aide to Morris Udall until he retired from Congress and then taught adult education at Friendly House, a nonprofit immigrant-assistance organization. He ran three of Mary Rose Wilcox's campaigns for city council and her bid for the Board of Supervisors. His wife, Terri, has worked for Wilcox for the last six years, both at the city and the county. Solomon Leija had waited for this scenario, this strategic moment, this perfect opportunity--an open council seat--for a very long time. And now, it was his turn. "In the back of my head, truthfully and honestly, I thought that I would be a candidate someday, but I always had the feeling that I probably wouldn't until I had experience in life," says Leija, who was 38 when he first ran for council. "Sometimes politics is a game of timing, and this was an excellent one because there was an open seat. So I went for it."
In little more than two years, Leija endured and won three elections, leaving him, by his own description, in "campaign mode" more often than not. After his original council bid, he had to win a run-off election to get into office. Six months later, he was back on the campaign trail again, in a recall election.
None of the three elections garnered more than a 9 percent voter turnout. Leija's brand of politics is a mixture of grassroots organizing and campus-style radical, a holdover from his days in politics at ASU.
There has always been a portion of his constituency that is lukewarm toward his political, almost umbilical connection to Mary Rose Wilcox. That segment of voters felt chilled when Leija hired Earl Wilcox, Mary Rose's husband, on the day the new councilmember took office. Leija and the Wilcoxes still defend the move as making perfect sense. After all, Earl Wilcox had served 14 years in public office, and Leija was new to elective life. "Earl did a good job," Leija says. "I thought it was an issue that I have the right to choose whomever I want to. Traditionally, those spots have gone to people who are close to the council person and who had had experience with the community, and Earl fit the bill."
But it was more than Earl. It was the plethora of governmental Wilcoxes that rankled many southwest-siders.
Earl had served both as state representative and Maryvale justice of the peace. His brother Danny Wilcox is a constable in Tolleson. His sister Linda Abril sits on the Phoenix Union High School District Board. On top of that, there have been myriad friends, supporters and campaign workers named to multiple government committee positions. The sheer number of Wilcoxians felt like a festering sore for the people who were not in the loop. In many ways, the Wilcox-Leija machine mimics an old, Chicago-style brand of politics that is particularly effective in low-income and blue-collar neighborhoods where jobs are needed and sparse. People are elected based on what they bring to the community. Loyalists are elevated to beef up the voice. "I appoint people who I feel will do a good job. I'm not going to appoint people I don't know," explains Mary Rose Wilcox. "I got here because Earl and I had the support of the community in Arizona."
The patronage isn't necessarily fair, but neither is the political system as a whole. And in Arizona, where both Democrats and minorities are perpetual underdogs, the development of a machine of sorts might almost have been inevitable. But this particular appointment--now Earl Wilcox worked for Solomon Leija at the city council office, just as Terri Leija worked for Mary Rose Wilcox at the Board of Supervisors--seemed to be the proverbial last straw. Critics began to feel like they were living in a nest in the Wilcox family tree.