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

The reversal of black political fortunes at the school board level was just one more reminder that Hispanic power is on the rise in District 8.

And now, after years controlling the local politics, blacks are talking openly about being left behind.

"People feel unheard and invisible sometimes," says Leah Landrum-Taylor.

City council candidate Abedón Fimbres wants the city to hire more minorities.
Kevin Scanlon
City council candidate Abedón Fimbres wants the city to hire more minorities.

Reverend Oscar Tillman, head of the Maricopa County NAACP, recently told a meeting of the state's redistricting commission, which is preparing new congressional and state legislative districts, that the new political maps are being drawn solely to benefit Hispanics.

"If you're talking about working together," says Tillman, "you don't stand there and talk about adding all these Hispanic groups and not talk about including other groups. That sent a message."

In this complex landscape, voters must decide who's best suited to get the district the attention it needs at City Hall.

At 25, Vera is the youngest candidate in the race. Opponents call him "the kid." But there's nothing kid-like in his grasp of district and city issues. A Harvard graduate, who was born and grew up in south Phoenix, he can't resist turning the discussion of every topic into an Ivy League oral report. He talks about "multi-modality," "unidimensional measures" "implementation perspective," "pro-active strategies" and "empowering relationships."

"I'm always telling him to use a nickel word," says Luz Gutierrez, who is part of the Latino Political Action Coalition that supports Vera.

Vera sees the totality of Phoenix. An irrepressible policy gadfly, in the past few years he's been a member of the South Mountain Village Planning Commission and a researcher and intern at the Phoenix City Manager's office. He's dived into community debates over illegal dumping, affordable housing, transit and homelessness in his own district as well as throughout the city. He was among the coalition of neighborhood leaders who fought the expansion of Innovative Waste Utilization, a toxic-waste facility in south Phoenix.

Vera is concentrating on creating a coalition of progressive Anglos, blacks and Hispanics. His prime issues include better affordable housing, essential services and economic development for the district's have-not neighborhoods, building on the progress that Williams made in attracting new development, and solving the bad land-planning and zoning patterns that have made a mess of many older neighborhoods in the district.

Fimbres, 33, is Vera's chief Latino rival, and he portrays Vera as the handpicked candidate of the older, washed up Hispanic leadership. He sees himself as the new voice of the district's rising Latino masses.

Born in the Golden Gate community that was erased by the expansion of Sky Harbor Airport in the 1980s, he studied at ASU in the 1990s. He served on the Arizona Board of Regents as a student, and now works for a social service agency administering state-funded anti-tobacco programs.

Fimbres has a parochial view of diversity and a generally poor grasp of city concerns.

Despite the booming cultural and religious diversity of the region, he sees and talks about a world and district devoted to "Judeo-Christian values."

His priorities are to develop more affordable housing, improve basic city services, pass a paid holiday recognizing Cesar Chavez, see to it that more minorities are hired at City Hall, and make sure the city's upcoming redistricting effort doesn't dilute minority power.

However, he knows nothing about two issues that matter not just to his district but to the city as a whole: the current Maricopa County proposal to consolidate downtown homeless services in a single campus, and efforts to revitalize the beleaguered neighborhoods around the Matthew Henson public housing project, west of Seventh Avenue at Buckeye Road.

Fimbres is campaigning hard to get out the vote in south Phoenix's Latino-dominated neighborhoods where the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project had such success last year. His signs have been visible all over the district for several months.

Yet Mike Johnson is counting on the African American bloc -- and the weakness of the two other blacks in the race, Carolyn T. Lowery and Charles Townsel -- to give him the advantage. If past elections are any guide, the 47-year-old Johnson, stands to gain from whopping majorities in heavily black neighborhoods, where turnout typically runs twice that of heavily Hispanic precincts.

Johnson's priorities don't differ much from those of his chief opponents. He cites the need to upgrade city services and infrastructure, add affordable housing and fight the blight that plagues many areas. His 22 years with the Phoenix Police Department, some of it in community affairs work, engrained in him the need for more comprehensive youth programs.

"We create problems," he says, "when we create programs that take kids only up until the age of 15 to 16 years old, then we just put them out there on the street."

Johnson, who now runs a security company, has lived in the district for three years. And he says that in his time on the force -- working from Maryvale to Buckeye to South Mountain -- he came to know the city and district well enough to understand the conflicts of its increasing diversity.

Though long considered the city's forgotten quarter, south and central Phoenix is hardly that now. If Census trends continue -- and there's no reason to think they won't -- District 8 is a preview of what more of Phoenix will look like in years to come.

"This district's got to be about looking at people as people," says Johnson. "Not trying to make one better than another, pit the old against the new. It's going to take a strong person to do that and be fair."

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