District 5, Civility 0

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.

In fact, the Wilcoxes believe Gutierrez recruited Espinoza to run as a form of revenge.

Mary Rose Wilcox says that in 1994, Gutierrez, who now runs his own consulting and lobbying firm, had convinced Bank One Ballpark contract manager Huber Hunt & Nichols, Inc., to hire him to recruit other minority subcontractors. But Wilcox says she told HHN she had put together an advisory committee to do just that at no cost. So HHN dropped Gutierrez. Wilcox estimates it cost Gutierrez as much as $250,000.

Gutierrez, however, points to a March 1994 letter which shows he pulled himself out of the contract when it became likely that his earlier work for Jerry Colangelo to promote the stadium would look like a conflict of interest. And he says his percentage in the deal was nowhere near that much money.

When Espinoza announced his intention to run for Wilcox's seat on the Board of Supervisors, Wilcox interpreted it as payback from Gutierrez.

Gutierrez did send a strongly worded letter to business leaders announcing his support for Espinoza early in the campaign, but he says he's done little else and was neither behind Espinoza's decision to run nor has a hand in the running of the campaign today.

Critics of Wilcox, and some in her own camp, say they believe Espinoza when he says it was his decision to run for office. They also say Wilcox is using the story about Gutierrez to deflect thornier campaign issues.

"These are two Hispanics with totally different world views," Gutierrez says. "The real issue here--count them up--are dead kids. These are the real issues, and we're talking about whether I got a contract at Bank One Ballpark? I find that offensive."

One thing is certain--there's no love lost now between the Wilcoxes and their former friend.

"Alfredo is making us the bad guys, and a lot of white people eat it up," Earl Wilcox says.

Gutierrez counters, "Respond to Earl? Give me a break. Life's too short."
As for Espinoza, Earl Wilcox says, "Tommy's a nonentity, man. He's a pimp for the Phoenix 40."

Pretty strong words, coming from the husband of a politician who voted to give Jerry Colangelo $238 million to build the ballpark.

Mary Rose Wilcox says Gutierrez's support of Espinoza has backfired in ways he did not expect. She says some of his clients have been "shocked at the way he has attacked me."

The doctors at Maricopa Medical Center, for example, canceled their contract with Gutierrez and hired another lobbyist recently. So did the Fort McDowell Indian Community. Both, Wilcox says, occurred because of the election squabble. (She insists she had nothing to do with Gutierrez's loss of business, a claim supported by Jim Valenzuela, spokesman for the doctors at the medical center.)

Gutierrez wouldn't talk about present or former clients.
As she criticizes Gutierrez for what she says was his attempt to cut a "slimy deal" with Huber Hunt & Nichols, however, Wilcox loses sight of the fact that her advisory committee has put her into a position of arranging lucrative work for minority contractors.

And despite her position of power--the stadium literally could not have been built without her support--she exacted little in return. Although her committee set a goal of 20 percent minority-contractor participation, the project has struggled to meet a fraction of that. In one phase, only 0.4 percent of $23 million worth of work went to businesses owned by women or minorities. Overall, minority participation has hovered around 6 percent.

The Espinoza/Wilcox imbroglio has roughed up some bystanders as well.
Tony Tercero has been the subject of New Times articles about his journey from Vietnam War hero to convicted marijuana smuggler to a successful career in Latino public relations. In 1995, he planned to leave a post at Spanish-language TV station KTVW, Channel 33, and had submitted a resume to the Arizona Diamondbacks for a job in Hispanic-community public relations.

He thinks he might have had a good shot at the job, too, if he didn't also happen to be a nephew of Alfredo Gutierrez.  

Mary Rose Wilcox had been asked by the Diamondbacks to help find candidates for the position. Earl Wilcox says she rejected Tercero without so much as an interview because he simply wasn't as qualified as the other applicants.

But Tercero, who had submitted his resume with letters of recommendation from several heavy hitters, including an officer of Bank One, says he was simply caught in political crossfire.

"That's the Wilcox mentality. If you're not kissing ass, they're going to fuck you over," he says. "Mary Rose is turning this into a campaign against Alfredo and avoiding the issues with Tommy Espinoza."

But the Wilcoxes aren't neglecting Espinoza.
Earl Wilcox's notebooks, it turns out, have already accumulated considerable mileage. He complains that he'd turned them over to the Arizona Republic editorial board weeks before and the paper had done nothing with them. He suspects that the Republic is about to endorse Espinoza and doesn't want to embarrass him. (The next day the paper recommends Espinoza in the race.)

He hopes New Times will use the notebooks to take a harder look at the man running against his wife.

Tommy Espinoza is a 48-year-old Chicano who, like Mary Rose Garrido Wilcox, emerged from a generation of politicized ASU students that produced a number of the state's officeholders, including U.S. Representative Ed Pastor. Unlike Wilcox, however, Espinoza has never run for office.

He helped found Chicanos por la Causa and served as its president and CEO, and later chairman, for ten years, stepping down in 1984. He then followed a career in business and today works as a consultant in public relations. Like Alfredo Gutierrez, Espinoza has become more businessman than activist as he's aged.

Espinoza made a brief and unsuccessful foray into the construction field. And the documents Earl Wilcox has retrieved all date from that period, 1992 to 1995. They're lawsuits over unpaid bills.

One of the businessmen who sued Espinoza is willing to talk to New Times, but only on condition of anonymity.

"Espinoza rented equipment from me. It started out real good. But then he stopped paying us. We had to get our equipment and we had to fight to get our money," he says.

He's supporting Mary Rose Wilcox in the election, but he didn't want to become a part of the campaign itself, even if he was being encouraged to do so.

"He [Earl Wilcox] asked me to write up a letter, but I said no," the businessman says. "Espinoza heard about it and thanked me for not doing that, but I told him it wasn't out of loyalty to him.

"Mr. Wilcox was on a fact-finding mission with one purpose: to throw mud. And I didn't want to have anything to do with it," the businessman says.

Two other former litigants who filed claims against Espinoza, R.W. Proper and Lee Ball, were willing to sign such a letter. The letter includes a list of complaints filed against Espinoza without explanatory details. At the top of the list is a hefty $448,000 complaint filed in 1992 by Valley National Bank.

What the letter--printed and distributed by the Wilcox campaign--doesn't say is that the lawsuit involved an office building Espinoza and his partners constructed before the bottom fell out of the Phoenix real estate market. The bank foreclosed on the building, which was later purchased by nearby Chicanos por la Causa, the organization Espinoza had served as president, for $250,000.

"Okay, I took a $200,000 hit. So what?" Espinoza says of the lawsuit. "The asset wasn't worth what we paid for it. This happened to everybody. The market fell apart, and the building was devalued. So the lender called the loan."

Espinoza says that he eschewed bankruptcy and has settled all his debts with the exception of the office building's, which he is still paying his share of. He admits that his development experiment was a big mistake. As for accusations by the Wilcox campaign that Chicanos por la Causa bailed him out by buying the building, Espinoza says he didn't pressure his former colleagues to go through with the deal.

To Earl Wilcox, however, the failed building venture is a political opportunity. He briefly pulls out a brochure he plans to send out days before the election. On it, a head shot of Espinoza is placed next to one of Governor J. Fife Symington III. On the opposite page, there's a check list of items comparing the two men. Both get checkmarks in categories like "Got loans for failed real estate projects."

Next to the item "Indicted 23 times," only the governor gets a checkmark.
Wilcox knows the piece could have some limited punch. That's why he's saving it for the last minute.  

"I can't let you have this yet," Wilcox says as he slips the brochure back into a folder.

In contrast to the Wilcoxes and their dossiers, Espinoza and Gutierrez, in several interviews with New Times, failed to bring up anything particularly negative about Mary Rose Wilcox, other than her rocky relations with law enforcement.

And they could have found plenty to talk about just by picking up local newspapers. The Wilcoxes have provided numerous colorful incidents in their years as officeholders.

Mary Rose Wilcox made news as Jerry Colangelo's most sycophantic ally in a scheme to levy a sales tax to pay for a baseball stadium while bypassing a public vote.

Two other supervisors joined Wilcox in enacting the tax increase. Jim Bruner left his supervisor's seat to run for Congress in 1994 but couldn't even win the GOP primary; his drubbing was generally considered a payback for the tax vote. The third stadium supporter, Supervisor Ed King, meanwhile, faces a difficult reelection bid in a district where antitax sentiment runs high.

Espinoza has refrained from making political hay of Wilcox's role in the stadium tax. That, however, may have less to do with courtesy than that the issue has less bite in District 5--and, perhaps, the fact that his friend Gutierrez was a consultant to Colangelo.

"People in my district know my [stadium] vote was about jobs," Mary Rose Wilcox tells New Times.

Her husband has a less vague response. "We [District 5 residents] don't buy boats," Earl Wilcox says. "The sales tax doesn't really hit us like the people buying boats and expensive cars."

Besides the stadium vote, there's other ammunition the Espinoza campaign has declined to use.

There was the time in 1993, for example, when Earl Wilcox slugged another Chicano who disagreed with his plans for which park would be renamed to honor Cesar Chavez. Mary Rose Wilcox told reporters her husband was protecting her honor, which she claimed had been besmirched.

That year, the Wilcoxes also made news when Earl was hired to work for newly elected Phoenix City Councilman Salomon Leija, who had run Mary Rose's City Council campaigns. The Wilcoxes fended off charges of political patronage by saying the hiring made "perfect sense."

The most serious allegations about Wilcox have been raised by district residents who have dared to oppose the Wilcox machine.

Mercy Gomez, a former Wilcox supporter, created a stir in 1993 when she blew the whistle on the South Mountain Youth Development Association, a nonprofit organization advised by Wilcox that was supposed to be raising money to benefit high school students. But Gomez, who sat on SMYDA's board, became concerned when she saw there was little accounting for large sums of money the group was raising at Cinco de Mayo festivals.

The accusations led to an attorney general's investigation. New Times has repeatedly requested access to the association's records, which were seized under a search warrant, but Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Ronald Reinstein kept them sealed at the attorney general's urging.

Recently, New Times made another request to see those records. Last week, Reinstein agreed to unseal the affidavit the AG's Office filed to obtain the search warrant. But before he could, he was approached by another attorney who informally asked that the documents be kept sealed.

That attorney represented Mary Rose Wilcox.

Paperwork related to the search warrant was unsealed on the morning of Friday, August 30. The warrant authorized investigators to search the house of SMYDA president Jimmie Munoz and to seize SMYDA's financial records. The search occurred July 15, 1994.

The attorney general requested the warrant based on information given to an investigator by Gomez and two other SMYDA insiders.

Gomez told the investigator she saw Jimmie Munoz hand large amounts of cash that had been raised by SMYDA to a soft-drink representative and later to a former SMYDA president. Gomez claimed she heard Munoz tell one of them, "'We'll get you more next time.'"

"Ms. Gomez told me," the investigator continues, "that Munoz had looked at her smiling and, in what appeared to her a bragging tone told her, 'I also pay Mary Rose Wilcox a kickback.' Ms. Gomez told me Mary Rose Wilcox, a Maricopa County Board of Supervisors member, helps SMYDA a lot by assisting in obtaining police security or park reservations for any of the fiestas and other activities sponsored by SMYDA."

Munoz could not be reached for comment.
When she was informed by the Attorney General's Office that release of the affidavit to New Times was imminent, Wilcox not only sent an attorney to see if the judge could be dissuaded from releasing the documents, she also asked the Attorney General's Office for help.  

Grant Woods' office obliged by releasing a terse statement on August 29: "The allegation made against Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox in connection with an ongoing criminal case has been investigated by the Attorney General's Office. We found no evidence to support the uncorroborated allegation, and thus consider the matter concerning Supervisor Wilcox to be closed."

Despite repeated requests by New Times, however, the actual materials seized by the attorney general--materials that the AG's Office says clear Wilcox--still haven't been released. Attempts to review those materials by press time were unsuccessful.

Wilcox says she knows nothing about the documents seized in the search, and insists that she only knows the attorney general has told her the accusation by Gomez hasn't been corroborated.

In an interview at her office, she says she tried to derail New Times' request because she thought Tommy Espinoza was behind it and that she didn't want Espinoza to be able to use Gomez's accusation in the election. (Espinoza has said nothing to New Times about the SMYDA allegation.)

Wilcox says the Espinoza campaign is ruthless and will use anything to discredit her.

Then she hands over a document that she says proves Gomez is a liar.

If the Espinoza campaign has failed to attack Wilcox over some of the more notorious events in her political career, it has gone full force at what may be her biggest blunder: Her criticism of police after the death of Rudy Buchanan has left a smoldering resentment among many voters and, perhaps more significantly, won Espinoza some important endorsements.

"Tommy is someone we think can restore our trust in an elected official," says Mike Petchel of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association. "Our whole problem with Mary Rose was brought to a head when she and Earl had their news conference after the Rudy Buchanan incident, where she started shooting from the hip without any information from the police. We understood that she was a good friend of the Buchanans, but we felt she had stepped over the line."

Petchel says the Buchanan incident wasn't the only reason for their decision. "Mary Rose and Earl have been quick to file complaints against officers who have contact with gang members. They are more apt to stand up for a gang member than they are for the police. . . . I think there are a lot of hardworking, honest voters out there in the district who are fed up with the Wilcoxes. Many of them, I think, have been hesitant to speak out against the Wilcox machine. Well, we're not afraid of the Wilcox machine," he says.

And Petchel says that animosity toward the Wilcoxes has translated into more dollars for PLEA's political action committee. He says the PAC has raised $30,000, more than it ever has before, and he attributes it entirely to opposition to Mary Rose Wilcox. "More police are coming forward than any time in my 20 years with the organization," Petchel says.

The heat generated by the campaign has meant more money for Wilcox as well. She says Gutierrez's letter of support for Espinoza was the best thing that's ever happened to her fund raising. Shortly after Gutierrez announced his support for Espinoza, the Wilcoxes say they raised $25,000 at Oaxaca restaurant in a single night. That's as much as they normally spend in an entire campaign. This time, Wilcox expects to spend $100,000.

Most observers say that if Wilcox survives Espinoza's challenge, it will be because she was able to get more endorsements early. Many of her most important endorsements came before Espinoza even entered the race.

And it's rumored that some of her most significant supporters might have gone differently if they'd been given a choice earlier.

"Tommy started late. It is true that there are people who might have gone differently if they hadn't already given their support to Mary Rose," says Danny Ortega, chairman of Congressman Ed Pastor's reelection campaign.

When he's told that he's one of those people rumored to be sorry Espinoza hadn't announced earlier, Ortega answers in a flat, emotionless tone.

"I told Mary Rose that I was going to support her. And that is what I am going to do," he says.

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