District 5, Civility 0

Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox and her husband, Earl, have come out swinging against her challengers--real and imagined

Earl Wilcox, the lanky husband of Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, walks into the offices of New Times carrying two notebooks. He'd called earlier to say that he has incriminating information about Tommy Espinoza and wanted to deliver it in person.

He sits down at a table and opens the notebooks. They look professional. Documents are chronological and are summarized in neatly printed narratives. Someone has spent a lot of time on them.

He turns pages quickly, describing them faster than they can be read. He seems on edge, like he's about to jump out of his seat. "We spent a month researching this, going from place to place, putting this together," he says. "We knew that this guy was dirty."

Wilcox says the documents--all public records--portray Espinoza as a businessman without ethics, an opportunist with friends in high places. It's elite backers like Alfredo Gutierrez and Arizona Republic spokesman Bill Shover, Wilcox claims, who are really behind Espinoza's candidacy for the supervisorial seat held by Mary Rose Wilcox.

"From the information we got," Earl Wilcox says, "he can walk into damn near any bank downtown and get what he wants."

That Espinoza is a Phoenix version of J.P. Morgan may be a stretch, but he does know what he wants: to unseat Mary Rose Wilcox in the September 10 Democratic primary.

Even before Espinoza formally announced his candidacy in June, wags pegged the race as the most intriguing of the primary season. Wilcox is perhaps the most powerful Latina in the state; her challenger helped found the activist organization Chicanos por la Causa and served for a decade as its president.

The race pits two popular leaders in heavily Democratic and Latino District 5, which includes South Phoenix and extends south and west to include Buckeye and Gila Bend. Before Wilcox, the supervisor's seat was held by Ed Pastor, another Chicano leader who's gone on to Congress.

Some (mostly Anglo) observers lamented that Latino voters faced a heartbreaking decision. "Vote Dividing Hispanic Community," announced the Republic in May. It was a take that irked some: Tight races between Anglo politicians rarely produce headlines like "Vote Dividing White Community."

More to the point were observations that the campaign had less to do with ethnicity than with a long-anticipated challenge to an entrenched politician.

Mary Rose Wilcox, a former Phoenix city councilwoman, and her husband, a former state legislator and justice of the peace, have been lauded for their commitment to constituents and their Chicano-activist style. They're the sort of politicians who use the word "community" in nearly every sentence.

But they've also been dogged by accusations that they hold South Phoenix politics in a virtual headlock, selecting minor candidates and handing out jobs like an old-fashioned political machine. "It's like Old Chicago in South Phoenix," says Espinoza supporter and former Carl Hayden High School principal Kino Flores.

Flores chose to endorse Espinoza even though he's now superintendent of Tolleson's high schools and a firm believer in public education. Wilcox is a public school advocate; Espinoza has been a vocal supporter of charter schools.

Like other prominent residents of District 5, however, Flores acknowledges Mary Rose Wilcox's accomplishments while saying it's time for a change. He seems to know that his endorsement comes with some risk. "I've taken a back seat in this because both have a lot to offer the community," he says. "I'm just looking forward for the fireworks to start."

They already have. Both sides went for the pyrotechnics early. Espinoza has been firing salvos where Wilcox is perhaps most vulnerable: dissatisfaction over her criticism of police after officers killed Rudy Buchanan Jr. in January 1995. The son of a Wilcox friend and employee, Buchanan had fired a shotgun wildly and was killed when officers blasted 89 rounds at him, hitting him 30 times. The Wilcoxes have also complained about intense police crackdowns that have targeted gang members. (Espinoza notes that he, too, was saddened by Buchanan's death--Buchanan was his godson--but he calls Wilcox's reaction a mistake.)

The Wilcoxes have shot back by attempting to discredit Espinoza. They say he's made mistakes in his business and would do the same in office. But mostly they question his motives for running. They characterize his candidacy as 1) a shortsighted act of betrayal by one Chicano who dares run against another and 2) an act of revenge by Alfredo Gutierrez, a former state legislator who the Wilcoxes claim is really behind Espinoza's candidacy.

Seasoned observers from both camps say that the truth is less melodramatic: Only a well-known figure with activist credentials like Espinoza could possibly unseat the entrenched Wilcox machine. Whether it makes for a close race will depend largely on how prevalent anti-Wilcox sentiment has become.

Some say it's never been more widespread.
And if the hardball election tactics the Wilcoxes are using are any indication, they've come to a similar conclusion.

The Wilcoxes justify their aggressive campaign style by pointing to the man who introduced them to it: Alfredo Gutierrez, who once was the most powerful Democrat in the state Legislature.

"Alfredo's the best, man. He taught us," Earl Wilcox says, adding that he expects his wife to retain her seat, "but when we go into a campaign, we don't take anything for granted." The Wilcoxes say that's more true than ever now that they find themselves campaigning against their old mentor, who backs Espinoza.

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