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A Phoenix City Council race is pitting Hispanic hopes against black history

Carolyn T. Lowery -- African-American neighborhood gadfly, city council candidate and ice pick in the toes of just about every authority -- has a penchant for sometimes spouting outrageous candor. So while others attending a June forum for candidates at the Saint Catherine's School on south Central Avenue aired platitudes about the richness of the district's ethnic diversity, she reached into a damp cove of community psyche and vented the angst aroused by the surge of newcomers to District 8, in south and central Phoenix.

Peering out from under the wide, shadowing brim of a straw summer hat, she wagged a microphone at her chin and intoned soulfully from the stage: "I remember the times we could ride down funky funky Broadway. And I could drive in there and flirt with some of the men and get a hamburger without even paying."

She drew a breath without breaking her preacherly flow.

"Then I would go on down to the service station and let the men fix my tires, just show 'em a little leg and that was all. Now I don't have nowhere I can stop, because I don't see my people nowhere, man, you know what I'm saying?"

A scattered chorus of "uh huhs" from the African Americans and ripples of uneasy laughter from the Latinos in the crowd of about 100 confirmed that everyone knew exactly what she was saying. And they didn't need an official U.S. government census to know it.

In the past 10 years, the Hispanic population in District 8 has jumped from 48 percent to 64 percent; it's even higher in some parts of the district. Numerous older Latino and African-American neighborhoods are filled with young Hispanic families, many of them recent immigrants.

In a city accustomed to fretting about historical divides between whites and every other human color, these changes have exposed significant rifts between African Americans and Hispanics, and among diverging groups of Latinos themselves.

"We have a big conflict with the new," says state Representative Leah Landrum-Taylor, an African American who has represented part of the district since 1999, "and it's not just new Hispanics coming in here. It's the new people. How do you mix in the new without feeling like you're knocking out the old and established?"

"It's a pressure cooker right now," she adds. "And we've got to find a way to release some of that air."

Nowhere is this pressure more apparent than in south Phoenix politics.

For more than a generation, District 8 has been the only African-American seat on the Phoenix City Council, a secure bully pulpit for the city's relatively small black population. Cody Williams has held the seat for the past eight years, and Calvin Goode for 21 years before him.

The spot has been theirs even though the black population in District 8 has been slowly falling off, from 17.7 percent to 13.6 percent in the past decade.

Now, the boom in the Latino population, the drop in the number of blacks and Williams' forced departure due to term limits are giving Latinos their best shot in years to put one of their own on the council.

A Hispanic voice on the governing body of the nation's sixth largest city is long overdue. Latino population has exploded citywide, especially in core districts. Since 1990, the number of Hispanics has tripled to 32 percent in District 4, which covers a swath north of Thomas Road in the heart of town. It has doubled to 21 percent in District 6, an area that dog-bones down from east Phoenix to Ahwatukee. It's jumped from 19 percent to 48 percent in west Phoenix's District 5, and from 50 percent to 72 percent in southwest Phoenix's District 7.

Despite these dramatic gains, Hispanics have not held a seat on the Phoenix city council in five years. The last Latino city councilman was the ineffectual Salomon Leija from District 7. He lost the job in 1996 to Doug Lingner, who has since beat back a strong Hispanic challenger despite his district's overwhelming Latino majority.

Some observers attribute Lingner's survival to his political savvy in dealing with the Latino community. Others contend he's marshaled the dwindling number of Anglo voters into an effective minority bloc.

The likelier explanation is that Latinos are a mess politically, their power sapped by pitifully low numbers of registered voters, abysmal voter turnouts, and -- within their communities -- profound social and cultural differences which belie the notion of ethnic unity.

That's clearly the case in District 8, where nine candidates -- two Latinos, three African Americans and four Anglos -- are vying for the council seat.

In an attempt to prevent the fracturing, a coalition of some 50 Latino community leaders earlier this year endorsed Feliciano Vera, a Harvard-educated community organizer who grew up in the district.

But the coalition's efforts to unify Latino support haven't produced the intended solidarity. A significant number of coalition members split off and, along with some Hispanic elected officials, are backing Abedón Fimbres, a social-services administrator.

In recent months, the two campaigns have become mired in political finger-pointing that reveals more about fundamental rifts and differences among Hispanics than it does about common ground.

The wedge being driven into Latino solidarity could leave an opening for Mike Johnson, a retired city police officer and strong black candidate, to squeeze through. Even though he's also a political novice, Johnson has been endorsed by outgoing councilman Williams, county supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox (one of the city's more prominent Latinas) and a number of other established leaders. Wilcox is friends with Johnson, but she's also never won an election without solid black support.

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