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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.

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.
Some Hispanic and African-American leaders say Trace Vencenza could draw a significant number of votes in the historic neighborhoods.
Kevin Scanlon
Some Hispanic and African-American leaders say Trace Vencenza could draw a significant number of votes in the historic neighborhoods.
State Representative Leah Landrum-Taylor says blacks sometimes feel invisible as the Latino population skyrockets.
Paolo Vescia
State Representative Leah Landrum-Taylor says blacks sometimes feel invisible as the Latino population skyrockets.
Michael Johnson, a retired Phoenix police officer, wants to fight the blight that has taken over many south Phoenix neighborhoods.
Kevin Scanlon
Michael Johnson, a retired Phoenix police officer, wants to fight the blight that has taken over many south Phoenix neighborhoods.
State Representative Carlos Avelar says Latinos have historically failed to get eligible Hispanic voters to the polls.
State Representative Carlos Avelar says Latinos have historically failed to get eligible Hispanic voters to the polls.
Gated enclaves like the Raven have sprung from the old orchards of South Phoenix.
Kevin Scanlon
Gated enclaves like the Raven have sprung from the old orchards of South Phoenix.

"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.

A split in the Latino vote between Vera and Fimbres could send the election into a November 6 runoff with Johnson and perhaps Trace Vencenza, an Anglo who is president of the Roosevelt Neighborhood Association and has strong support in the in the upscale historic areas on the edge of the district.

This upheaval would seem to favor Johnson because the black community usually votes as an overwhelming bloc. In the last council election in the district, in 1997, some heavily African-American precincts powered Cody Williams' win with 80 percent to 98 percent of the vote.

"What you've got in District 8 this year," says attorney Daniel Ortega, who's part of the coalition backing Vera, "is basically a free-for-all. Right from the beginning we felt that having two Hispanics run was going to cost the other. Now we've got a situation where they're clearly going after the same voters."

"You could potentially wind up with a situation where you don't have an Hispanic in the runoff at all."


From a trail halfway up the north face of South Mountain, most of District 8 lies within a single sweeping view. Down the dusty, scrub-covered hills and washes below the mountain, it extends north in patterns of red and tawny walls and rooftops toward the dry, sand-trap river that splits the district. It tilts uphill across the Salt and passes beyond the first rung of glittering high rises downtown. Off to the right, it reaches the easternmost end of the runways at Sky Harbor Airport.

On a map, the area seems a unified, if ragged rectangle stretching from the mountain to Thomas Road, and west from the Tempe border at 48th Street to 19th Avenue. But in the neighborhoods of south and central Phoenix that unity gives way to a jolting array of urban contrasts -- perhaps the most diverse in the city.

In some areas, expensive homes and pricey urban amenities are just across the street from landscapes of abject poverty, crime and neglect. In downtown itself, the gleaming commercial and governmental towers, theaters, museums, stadium and arena are just a short walk from the crack-fed blight of neighborhoods engulfed by homeless people -- many on drugs, many mentally ill -- drifting from one social service or splash of shade to another.

This alternating current of rich and poor, old and new, hasn't always fueled the district's image.

For many years vast portions of District 8 were dumping grounds for the unlucky or undesirable. In the era of more formalized segregation, discriminatory property deeds and banking practices, it was the only place where African Americans and Hispanics could own homes. For much of the past generation, its neighborhoods have been burdened by poor schools, poor commerce, lousy shopping, crumbling and non-existent infrastructure, a decaying stock of affordable housing and high rates of poverty and crime.

The banks of the Salt River, at the heart of the district, have been taken over by grimy car-crushing and recycling businesses, sand- and gravel-mining operations and toxic waste dumps.

These malignancies have kept property values preposterously low. Yet in what seems an inevitable turn of events in a city pressurized in the past decade by booming growth and a sound national economy, the low values have made the district one of the city's hottest destinations for an incongruous mix of impoverished immigrants, real estate speculators and developers.

Across the formerly rural southern breadth of the city, acres of cotton fields, commercial flower gardens and citrus orchards have given way to suburban-style boulevards lined with industrial parks and high-end housing developments, outfitted in a few instances with golf courses.

Cody Williams gets much of the credit for attracting this influx of private wealth and business, and for cheerleading the area's proximity and significance to a downtown that badly needs the abundance of low-wage service workers that District 8 has traditionally housed.

Still, some fault Williams for what they say are his cozy relationships with developers. They contend that this has prompted him to support wiping out poor and neglected areas, rather than providing them with the basic services and improvements that would help to reverse their decay.

Some even say he has forgotten his own deep roots in the area.

His father, Travis, was a contractor who built homes -- many for African Americans -- in south Phoenix, laying some of the groundwork for communities that, despite periods of trouble, have remained some of the tightest in the city.

"These are people who have been here for a long, long time," says Mike Johnson. "They raised their families here. They stayed through the bad times. And they always stuck together."

The same is true of many older, predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods.

"There's always been a sense of community here," says state Representative Carlos Avelar, whose south Phoenix home is surrounded by generations of his family. "We don't all live on the same block. But a block directly west of me is the street where my sister lives. A block south of me another sister lives. My kids, my daughter and her husband are there. I like going to Fry's or Food City. Getting a gallon of milk isn't a 15-minute thing. Because you're bound to run into somebody you know."

About a year and a half ago, Avelar attended a swank reception at the Legacy golf community, a splashy new development between Southern Avenue and Baseline. He was standing by the pool, gazing southward past the golf greens and posh homes at the crag of mountains, when a woman sidled up to him and commented, "Now this is the kind of development we've needed down here for a long time."

Avelar agreed, but wondered aloud when south Phoenix will have had enough of high-end development:

"We've got the Raven [golf course]. We've got the Legacy. Thunderbird is going to be turning into another gated community. What's going to happen to those people who've been here for generations, what's going to happen to our senior citizens who are just paying taxes. Are they going to be forced out by assessment? And the cost of housing skyrocketing?

"Without blinking, she says to me, 'What about relocation?'"

The sentiment doesn't resonate well with longtime residents who drive past these glitzy new communities on their way to neighborhoods that have never had even basic niceties.

"One of the things that's happening," says Johnson, "is that the more people see these new places and what they have, they're going to start comparing that with what they don't have. They're going to want the little amenities like the sidewalks, the curbs, the real nice parks."

In a neighborhood near 20th Street and Broadway, he turns down a street of hardscrabble yards strewn with trash and broken beer bottles. He slows in passing the torched hulk of a house and an abandoned duplex, then points out one small well-kept white house with a yard of young trees.

"A lot of times, people living in places like this have just given up," he says. "They don't have no hope. But you've got good people over here who are trying to maintain and improve their property. But there's great odds against that."

A few years ago, Phoenix City Manager Frank Fairbanks attended a meeting at a central city neighborhood, near 7th Avenue and Buckeye, to talk about improving services. The area is one of the most beleaguered in the district, the product of years of public and private neglect.

"We were talking about development of things like street lights, stop signs, sidewalks, streets -- basic stuff that has been historically neglected in many of District 8's older neighborhoods," recalls Feliciano Vera. "And he said that south Phoenix is never going to be Paradise Valley. What struck me was how disconnected the idea of these basic needs was from the idea of Paradise Valley."

"Some of the problems our neighborhoods have," he says, "can be traced to the fact that too many people here just don't vote. They don't vote because they're not taken seriously."

Touring the blocks west of 7th Avenue, Vera pulls his truck to the corner of 11th Avenue and Pima, barely a 20 minute walk from City Hall. He stares through the windshield at an obliterated neighborhood of broken houses amid a trash-strewn expanse of dirt lots, the kind of scene he hopes to do something about if elected.

"This is pretty typical for down here. These neighborhoods languish because the decision over time has been to leave them be. There's not the political will to work at stabilizing them.

"There aren't many votes here. There's no money that comes out of these neighborhoods. Their median income is probably $10,000 a year. But they're sitting on prime real estate. So the owners of these lots are just sitting on them, waiting for the big bucks to come by.

"The investment hasn't been here," he continues. "The investment has gone to the outlying reaches of the city, to the newer developments where people haven't given up."

Voting trends help to explain why.

Though District 8's population has grown by more than 26,000, to nearly 152,000, in the past decade, its number of registered voters has declined by about 4,000, this despite a successful effort in south Phoenix last year by the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project that enrolled about 2,900 new voters.

Other inner-city districts suffer from similar disparities between population and voting: District 7 has gained more than 46,000 people while losing 4,700 voters; District 5, 52,000 while losing 7,000 voters.

Not surprisingly, predominantly non-Hispanic white outer districts -- 2 and 3 and parts of 6 -- have gained both population and voters.

In a system where money and votes are twin pillars of influence, this drain of votes has stunted the power of inner-city areas, which are booming with Hispanic-driven growth, to get the city's attention and services.

This growing powerlessness is compounded by the failure of politicians to discuss the impact these shifts are having on neighborhoods in and around District 8.

"There's not a lot of honesty about this," says Vera, "because politicians are looking to save their skins. They won't and can't talk about it because it is political dynamite."

"You've got multiple communities in the same physical space," he says, "but they don't interact with each other. You've got immigrant communities that exist in a shadow world. They support our real estate industry. They support our service sector. They have largely supported the growth, but they're not citizens. They don't have the full rights. We're a city in denial about these kinds of issues."

But immigration is a major issue facing the city of Phoenix, and in the neighborhoods of District 8, it is the most basic of debates, affecting the living conditions of immigrants and citizens alike.

Immigrant families are doubling and tripling up in houses and apartments built to hold fewer people. Alleys mount with trash. Shacks are added to already dilapidated houses, and detached garages are closed in to accommodate more newcomers.

The failure of city officials to meet these pressures has only heightened frictions between old timers, who see their neighborhoods going down the tubes, and newcomers who are scrambling to get a foothold.

Yet the divisions go beyond those separating the old and new.

"As Latinos, Chicanos, or whatever you want to call us," says Carlos Avelar, "we are as different from the newly-arrived Mexican in terms of our linguistics, our culture and our religion as a Mexican is from a Colombian, or an Argentinean. We may have some of the same roots, some of the same likes and dislikes. But we're very different. There are differences between Americans and Englishmen. The myth is that we're one monolithic group."

"It's nice to be united but get real," says immigration attorney Emelia Banuelos, a Vera supporter. "I say something and the Salvadorans get pissed off at me. I say something else and the Cubans get pissed off at me. Guatemalans, it's another matter."

That makes it hard for Hispanics to line up behind a single candidate.

And Avelar notes that unnecessary rifts have arisen from too many Hispanic candidates running in the same race.

That occurred in 1996 when Tommy Espinoza challenged Mary Rose Wilcox for the County Board of Supervisor's slot now held by Wilcox.

"People are still feeling the pain over that race," says Luis Ibarra, president of Friendly House, a Latino-oriented social-service agency. "Here we had two people who are pretty high in esteem in the community and they're running against each other."

The larger Latino failure is getting eligible voters to the polls. The black community is much more successful.

"The reality is, if you look at voter turnout, it's very low in Hispanic communities," says Avelar, who is backing Fimbres.

In the last District 8 election, in 1997, turnout in some largely Hispanic precincts was a paltry 5 percent. Key black precincts reported voter turnout of 15 percent. The city's average turnout that year was 20.5 percent.

Hispanic leaders say this weakness at the polls is a combination of apathy and a sizeable contingent of recent immigrants, legal and illegal, who cannot vote. The Hispanic population also tends to be younger.

African Americans are far more politically entrenched.

Though they amount to less than 20 percent of District 8's residents, blacks have flexed their political might by voting more consistently and more often as a unified bloc than any other group.

"We've been effective because we communicate well," says Heather Jenkins, a young African American who serves as Feliciano Vera's campaign manager. "It's been proven over time that African Americans can put certain personal issues and differences aside when it comes to these elections. We know how to come together."

Still, Jenkins is a friend of Vera's and says she is helping him because she believes he is a young leader who isn't bogged down by the profound differences at play in the district.

She and others say the effectiveness of black voters stems partly from the involvement of clergy and churches. Churches historically have been the centers of African-American political and social action, nurturing leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Reverend Jesse Jackson. That role comes alive in the weeks leading up to elections as churches gear up to turn out the vote.

"You have every preacher in African-American churches the Sunday before the election telling them that it's their duty to go out and vote," says Avelar. "That has a tremendous impact."

But in the Hispanic community, he says, "about 90 percent of Latinos are Catholics. The Catholic Church is scrupulous about not getting involved. So, if we're lucky, they'll make an announcement that Tuesday is an election day."

Hispanics also lack the shared crucible of the civil rights movement and the struggle to gain the right to vote.

Leah Landrum-Taylor, who supports Mike Johnson, says the diligence of black voters was forged by that experience.

"It was so important in my family," she says, "that one of the rites of passage when I turned 18 was we got our voter registration form. This was a major major thing."

"On the way down to the polls," she says, "my mom and dad explained to me the history of how we got this right, that when I was born, this was something that was still being fought."

The emerging political competition between African Americans and Hispanics in District 8 is also playing out in other arenas.

The Roosevelt Elementary School District, located within city council District 8, was for years controlled by African Americans. In the past five years, the struggle for control of the school district has been a well-publicized donnybrook.

Latinos rose to power on the school board following the 1996 dismissal of administrator Charles Townsel, an African American. Townsel, who is now running for the city council seat, had misued school district funds. Ward-style political infighting continues, particularly among the Latinos, including board member Carlos Avelar.

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.

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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