How Undocumented Immigrants Helped Change Phoenix's City Council Race

Jamie Peachey; New Times photo illustration

In 2005, during an otherwise typical tour of his West Phoenix district, then-Councilman Claude Mattox turned to a City Hall reporter and casually announced that Maryvale, once a premier master-planned community, used to be nice "until the illegals moved in."

It was the kind of statement from a politician that you don't easily forget. But the folks who swept Mattox into office for years didn't care about such things — and the Latino population in his district, for the most part, didn't vote.

That changed last year. Last year, Phoenix voters — even voters in Mattox's own longtime district — passed him up for mayor in favor (ultimately) of Greg Stanton, a left-of-center politician who advocates for a more humane approach to immigration reform. They also elected a firefighter named Daniel Valenzuela to Mattox's old seat.

District 5 is changing. And that change is thanks, in large part, to some hardworking undocumented immigrants.

Ramona Olvera and her husband, Jorge, are among a new wave of Latino voters pushing for change in Phoenix City Council District 5.

In late August, the two sat at the dining room table in their modest Maryvale home, each with a city of Phoenix ballot before them.

Outside, the blistering heat characteristically blanketed the city, and an equally heated election was under way for the Mayor's Office and several seats on the city council, including one representing their West Phoenix community.

Sitting with her ballot and a pen in hand had a special meaning for the 46-year-old mother of two, who spends her days working in a medical office — it was her first time casting a vote in the city she has called home for more than 15 years.

A relentless team of student organizers, many of them undocumented immigrants who are all but lifelong residents of the United States, were behind her newfound civic awakening — and the awakening of several thousands of West Phoenix Latinos.

The students spent their summer knocking on doors urging people to vote and fighting against decades of apathy — from both Latino voters and politicians elected to represent the region.

Before last summer, no politician had ever knocked on Olvera's door or called her on the phone to express interest in her concerns or court her vote.

Student organizers say that during their daily knock-and-talk initiatives in the neighborhoods with the historically lowest turnouts, they found that Mattox lacked name recognition, particularly among Latinos.

Mattox declined New Times' request for an interview. "As of now, I'm done with all this," he said.

For the Olvera family and other Latinos in Maryvale and West Phoenix, it is just beginning.

Olvera's 19-year-old daughter, Betty, volunteered last summer in the organized movement to increase Latino voter turnout in Maryvale and surrounding pockets of the west side.

In District 5, her city council district, which stretches roughly from Northern Avenue to Thomas Road between 15th and 107th avenues, Glendale firefighter and city council candidate Daniel Valenzuela vied to be the second Latino on the current council.

Stanton made clear his opposition to rigid anti-immigration laws while his opponent, Wes Gullett, offered his public support to SB 1070, the controversial measure that, in part, mandates local cops to enforce federal immigration laws.

At the time, Olvera didn't pay attention to local politics. Yet immigration issues matter to her, just as much as crime in their community, neglected neighborhood streets, and businesses shuttering their stores and leaving behind vacant strip malls.

"I always voted for the president. That was my thing," she tells New Times, sitting at her dining room table on a Thursday evening, just home from work and still wearing her scrubs. "But this [was] my first time voting for someone I know."

Now, all four of the Olveras — first-time voters — likely will be lifelong voters with appetites for change.

Just a stone's throw from John F. Long Elementary, named for the late developer and philanthropist who created Maryvale — the west side's first planned community — in the early '50s, is an alley littered with garbage and dirty diapers. Nearby streets are peppered with vacant homes whose windows are covered with plywood.

Given persistent efforts to turn local cops into federal immigration agents, families aren't sure whether police officers will help them or hassle them about their immigration status.

Violence and property crimes have dropped in and around Maryvale over the years, and city officials have made strides to revitalize West Phoenix — but the Latino community remains saddled with feelings of neglect and distrust for the police.

Back in her dining room, as Ramona connected the spaces between the arrows on her ballot, she thought about how she went from being completely disconnected to hosting campaign gatherings with as many as 30 students in her home up to five times a week.


The busy mother also carved out time to make campaign calls for Daniel Valenzuela's race and make chicken taquitos, chorizo burritos, and spaghetti for his army of volunteers.

"It was an amazing experience," she says. "I'm definitely going to keep on voting."

Valenzuela and Stanton won their races in runoff elections on November 7, by large margins, and were sworn into office on January 3.

While their political campaigns benefited from the grassroots movement spurred by a volunteer corps of about 100 student organizers, the movement wasn't about the politicians. It was about activating new voters, getting Latinos engaged in their community and teaching them about the value of a vote.

"They walked for me because they knew I was walking for them," Valenzuela says.

Their success proved unprecedented.

In the November election, Latino voter turnout in District 5 jumped by nearly 500 percent from four years earlier in that same part of town, according to an analysis of post-election data.

Earl de Berge, a longtime political pollster in the Valley, says there are several forces driving greater participation among Latinos.

"Young activists are willing to get out in the streets and do the work, and, frankly, some of the old guard doesn't do that anymore," he says. "Part of it is pure anger. There is a lot of anger in the Latino community about the political system and how they are being treated like second-rate citizens. They're sick and tired of it."

The Latino vote is going to be pivotal in the presidential election. "I think that it could be very important in 2012 and continue to grow in importance with the population," Gary Segura, a principal in the polling firm Latino Decisions, tells New Times.

He suggests it could possibly decide the election.

Given the "spasm of anti-immigrant sentiment, I'm not surprised you've got this huge increase in Latino voter registration, and that will eventually come home to roost."

Student organizers say they no longer are waiting in the wings for federal lawmakers to pass comprehensive immigration reforms like the DREAM Act, a measure that could give undocumented students a path to citizenship through college or military service.

"My heart is here. My all is to this country," says Tony Valdovinos, a DREAM Act student and one of the unpaid organizers who joined the immense effort last summer. The animated 21-year-old has tightly curled light brown hair that jumps off his head, piercing blue eyes, and a voice that exudes conviction laced with defiance. "We have this division between community and government, and we're here to make sure everyone is counted."

The division largely is driven by politicians like Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and former state Senate President Russell Pearce, men who use anti-immigrant rhetoric to score points with supporters.

Four years ago, about 900 Latino voters showed up at the polls in District 5. That compares with more than 4,400 in 2011. This trend has picked up momentum citywide.

Voter turnout among the Hispanic community throughout Phoenix tripled since the 2007 city elections, when only 7,760 Latinos cast ballots. In 2011, the number of Latino voters jumped to 22,744.

For Stanton, increasing participation among Latinos signals a "bright future" for the nation's sixth-largest city, which is expected to have a majority population of Latino residents as early as 2020.

"I think this marks a permanent change in city of Phoenix politics," he says. "This isn't just about turnout during elections, but we're going to see more Latino involvement in city issues and a lot more activism among young Latino leaders."

The ethnic landscape in Phoenix has changed drastically in the past three decades. In 1980, Latinos accounted for 14.8 percent of Phoenix residents. Two decades later, the Latino population, at 34.1 percent, had more than doubled. By 2010, Hispanics made up nearly 41 percent of Phoenix residents.

Although Latinos remain the minority citywide, they do account for the majority in half of the city's eight council districts. In District 4, primarily Central Phoenix, 64 percent of the residents are Hispanic. In District 5, it's 58 percent. In Districts 7 and 8, which span across southwest and South Phoenix, Latinos represent 66 percent and 59 percent of the population, respectively.

DREAM Act student organizer Viri Hernandez, a reserved but gutsy 20-year-old leader, simply is programmed to work hard. Before mobilizing Latino voters in West Phoenix, she already had organized and taught English classes in her community and led protests and marches against anti-immigrant policies.

There also is Aldo Gonzalez, who arrived in the United States when he was 5 years old and became a citizen at 17. Gonzalez, with short, dark hair swept upward into a mini-Mohawk, is proud to be part of an "underground movement" to empower Latinos and neglected communities.


Though student organizers did the heavy lifting in the 2011 Phoenix election, they are part of a greater movement that started years ago in the Valley. Political and labor-based nonprofit organizations, like CASE (Central Arizonans for a Sustainable Economy), Promise Arizona (PAZ), Mi Familia Vota, Unite Here, and the César Chávez Foundation, long have sponsored voter registration drives, get-out-the-vote initiatives, and recruitment of a new generation of leaders.

Joseph Larios is one of those leaders, and his roots run deep in community organizing. In the West Phoenix initiative, he was at the core of recruiting student volunteers, mentoring them, and teaching them how to recruit and train new leaders themselves.

Councilman Michael Nowakowski, also a grassroots Latino leader, was the first Latino elected to the Phoenix City Council since the mid-1990s.

Using the same strategy of repeatedly knocking on doors, connecting with Latino voters, getting them registered and making sure they sign, seal, and deliver their ballots, Nowakowski and his team handily defeated the daughter of high-profile Latino Congressman Ed Pastor four years ago.

"We outworked them," Nowakowski says about his 2007 victory. That year, Latino voter participation tripled in his southwest Phoenix district and helped him get re-elected in 2011.

Student organizers aimed higher, and by daily pounding the pavement, they recruited more than 3,000 new voters. But first, someone had to recruit them.

Viri Hernandez, at her fearful family's urging, kept secret her immigration status for nearly two decades. She graduated in the top 2 percent of her class at Maryvale High School, receiving awards for her scholastic achievements and honors for her community service. But financial aid was out of her reach.

She was forced to turn down a full-ride college scholarship because she isn't a legal U.S. citizen. The prospect of attending college without a scholarship, and eventually becoming a teacher, was too expensive.

Arizona voters in 2006 approved Proposition 300, a measure that requires Arizona students without lawful immigration status to pay much higher out-of-state tuition rates and bars them from receiving state-funded financial aid.

Her family pushed her not to give up and promised to scrape together money to pay for her to attend Grand Canyon University, a private college in West Phoenix.

The experience moved her to action.

She joined the DREAM Act Coalition, declared her undocumented status to the world, and started organizing protests and marches.

When people started turning to the young woman for help, she decided to clear out her bedroom, replacing her bed and dresser with tables, chairs, and poster boards, to teach English classes.

Although she was juggling the English classes she was teaching in the morning and evenings with her own courses at Grand Canyon University, she and a handful of friends also founded the Latino Student Union, a campus organization to highlight diversity.

It was during an LSU meeting in February 2011 that Larios, who constantly was searching for new leaders, spotted Hernandez.

The two met at El Taco Tote, a restaurant in West Phoenix, and he helped her understand that if the politicians in power weren't satisfying their community, they would have to get people to vote for politicians who would.

The plan included reaching a rich but untapped resource of potential Latino voters in West Phoenix. He told her about Daniel Valenzuela, the man running for a seat on the city council who grew up in the community, worked as a firefighter, and understood and cared about Latino issues.

Larios invited Hernandez to be part of the movement to activate Latino voters.

"We met everyday, but there were only two of us," she says. "The numbers were against us, but from there we started building."

In May, Hernandez and Larios, still searching for recruits, attended a Maricopa Community College District meeting where board members planned to hike tuition rates for undocumented students. Previously at community colleges, students without legal status had been able to pay the lower in-state tuition of $96 per hour — despite the voter-approved Prop 300 — by taking only six credits or fewer per semester. The board was considering immediately closing the gap, bumping rates to $317 per credit no matter how many classes a student signed up for. Hordes of students pressed for a delay in the decision.

Among them was Valdovinos.

"At that point, I could barely afford the classes I was taking, and I thought this was the end for me," he says.

Valdovinos works construction and demolition jobs with his father to earn money. He toils outside doing backbreaking work while his classmates work at fast-food joints.

During a brief break at one of the governing board's meetings, the young man bumped into a board member in the hall.

"He asked me what had me all revved up, and I told him that I was about to be pushed out of school by his decision," Valdovinos recalls. "He said, 'Look, son, life goes this way or that way . . .' And I said, 'No, it doesn't. I decide my future. Not you.'"


He says the board member laughed and told him that the governing board had lawyers who assured them their actions were legal.

"It might be legal, but it isn't right," Valdovinos fired back.

He shakes his head as he sits in the outdoor patio of Lola's coffee shop on Roosevelt Street, sharing his story with New Times on a chilly day in December.

"This man — elected to represent students, education — laughed at me," he says. "That experience challenged me to put my words into action."

Larios and Hernandez approached the fiery student after the meeting and invited him to join their team.

He says he had to work up the courage to tell his father that he wouldn't be working with him that summer because he wanted to devote his all to carry out their plan to take back West Phoenix.

"We all made a lot of sacrifices. We gave up jobs, internships, school. We put our lives on the line for this. But I began to love it," he says. "People were happy that someone was looking out for them. I was hungry to do more."

Aldo Gonzalez, 25, never really liked politics, so when a friend of his — someone who had been recruited by Viri Hernandez — asked him to volunteer to turn out the vote in Maryvale, mostly among Spanish-speaking residents, he politely declined.

"She asked me three times, but I was busy working and going to school," he says. Her persistence paid off, and Gonzalez finally agreed to attend a group meeting.

"They were talking about how bad Latino voter turnout was, and I thought it was just ridiculous. It blew my mind," he says. "But then something clicked. Until people come out to vote, though, nothing is going to change."

And he believes change is long overdue.

In 2011, aside from community colleges hiking tuition rates for undocumented students, Sheriff Joe Arpaio proudly continued his racial-profiling raids and roundups of illegal immigrants.

Latino and civil rights activists continued their fight in court to overturn SB 1070, a measure that essentially makes local cops enforce federal immigration laws. Parts of the measure, which is still being challenged in court, also criminalizes anyone who drives with an undocumented immigrant in his car.

Former state Senate president Russell Pearce was pushing several other laws to ban undocumented immigrants from attending Arizona schools, going to hospitals, or obtaining birth certificates for their U.S.-born children.

The anti-immigrant views that initially brought him rabid and nationwide popularity became too extreme even for Arizona, and Pearce was booted from office in a November recall election.

DREAM Act students in Mesa, including some who left the West Phoenix campaign to lend their muscle to the Pearce recall, also played a significant behind-the-scenes role in booting the once-powerful Senate president.

De Berge says that the ousting of Pearce in Mesa has demonstrated to Latino leaders that the Latino vote can be mobilized and "even in a hardcore Republican district, they can make a difference."

Valenzuela hired Larios to lend experience on grassroots outreach to his campaign.

Larios started organizing community groups for the AFL-CIO and CASE, a nonprofit that advocates economic equality for working families. Larios now works as a field coordinator for the Maricopa County Democratic Party.

The first step in any successful "ground game" is finding people who care about and have a stake in the community, like students. The next step is teaching them how to harness and focus their passion to yield effective results.

Getting disenfranchised Latinos to vote en masse is what will get politicians' attention.

"What started with six people turned into a group of 96 volunteers," Hernandez says. "We were very strategic about how we did things."

As Nowakowski figured out in 2007, the key to reaching Latino voters is repeatedly and personally reaching out to them. While political fundraising, direct mail, websites, and phone calls are important, nothing comes close to a personal visit from a candidate, one of his family members, or a passionate campaign volunteer.

Traditionally, politicians go after the tried-and-true voters. In the West Phoenix race, the idea was to create new voters.

After analyzing post-election data, political operatives found that 70 percent of first-time Latino voters in the 2011 election were contacted at least twice. Some, many more times. Most of the remaining Latino voters — 90 percent — who did not show up at the polls had been contacted only once.

Student organizers started by breaking up the west side into sections, each taking responsibility for an area. They recruited friends, family, and students from area colleges, high schools, and middle schools.


They persuaded casual volunteers to become members of the group, members to recruit their own teams and become team leaders, and team leaders to become neighborhood organizers by inspiring their recruits to create their own teams.

"Our core team was not made up of casual volunteers," Larios tells New Times. "These guys were hardcore. They took full ownership and responsibility of their areas and of bringing in more people."

Although they were short on cars and drivers with licenses, they crammed into the few cars they did have, sweating in those without air conditioning, sipping on bottles of warm water, and toting clipboards and backpacks stuffed with voting-related forms that residents could fill out on the spot.

"These guys were ready," says Gonzalez of his fellow organizers, especially those without legal status. "They're dying to get out there and make a change. They've been empowered."

It wasn't an easy task they agreed to undertake. Some residents slammed doors in their faces, and angry homeowners yelled at them for their frequent visits.

The resistance they encountered wasn't at every door. Some friends and family members criticized their efforts, saying they were wasting their time or that opportunistic politicians were taking advantage of them.

"Some people said, 'Oh, it's just a council seat or one mayor. It's not a big deal.' We understood that what we were building was power from the bottom up," says Valdovinos, adding that when Stanton's opponent, Wes Gullett, started talking about his support for SB 1070, the teams kicked it into high gear for Stanton.

"We were, like, no! That's why we fought even harder for the mayor's seat," he says. "We were begging for those damn ballots."

As the November election drew close, their days grew longer.

"We went from meeting two times a week to six times a week, working from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m." Hernandez says. "My mom started having a real problem with that."

It wasn't until a heated confrontation that her mother grasped the reason her 20-year-old daughter was not going to let up.

"One day she told me that they had survived like this for 20 years, and that I would survive, too. I told her I was tired of surviving — surviving and hiding. She said things could be worse. We always hear that. I say: Why can't they be better?"

The arduous, summer-long journey not only engaged five times more Latino voters in Maryvale and West Phoenix, it gave life to students who discovered the power of voting — even if that means voting vicariously through others.

"Back in May, we were just unimportant consumers," says Valdovinos, thinking about his experience with the Maricopa Community College District. "This summer, I was holding ballots, something that I couldn't do. I probably voted 300 times with all the people who turned out after I knocked on their door."

Nearly two months after the election, the students are still engaged, still meeting regularly, and still learning.

In December, the group again started recruiting volunteers and organizing them, this time at Starlight Park to launch a West Phoenix food drive. As they went door-to-door collecting food for St. Mary's Food Bank, they also registered voters.

"We got a lot of people to vote, and that's amazing," Hernandez says. "But now we're talking about what we're going to bring back to the community. There are so many issues they want to be educated on — housing discrimination, domestic violence, robberies. My automatic response is to call the police, and they say, 'No, please, don't do that.' They're afraid because they've had a bad experience with them, or heard of someone else who did."

She says they all have to learn how to deal with those community concerns and then start organizing meetings to pass the knowledge to residents.

This month, they met with Valenzuela's staff to figure out how to start delivering on the service needs of the community — whether neighborhood cleanups or establishing trust with the police department.

"All of the people who voted . . . trusted us," says Gonzalez. "And now we have to deliver. We to have keep working to make sure that Daniel [Valenzuela] delivers. We want to reward the voters, prove to them that their vote was worth it."

Valdovinos says he feels a responsibility to do this again, "even bigger next time."

"This is our story, and it's an open invite for students who also want to take this on. We need new leaders. We can't do this alone."

Larios says that their fight "against apathy" will continue.

"We're building political power to take the community back. For too long, government has been something that happened to people instead of something that people are a part of and own," he says.


He says electing the right people, like Valenzuela and Stanton, matters because "rhetoric and speeches translate into policies and discussions. We already see a shift happening."

But he is realistic about the disconnect that exists and knows "there is still a lot of work that has to be done."

Community organizers also are looking to breathe life into Latino voters in the two other predominantly Latino council districts in Central Phoenix (District 4), and South Phoenix (District 8), as well as beyond Phoenix city limits for congressional seats and other cities, such as Glendale, Mesa, Chandler, and Avondale.

"We can blame Arpaio, Russell Pearce, or [Governor] Jan Brewer," Nowakowski says. "But until we blame ourselves and go out there and vote, nothing is going to change."

Student organizers have an eye on seats on the Maricopa Community College District's governing board and on the office of Arpaio — recently fingered by the feds for his blatant acts of racial profiling and human and civil rights violations — but they aren't going to allow the West Phoenix Latinos to slide back to being occasional voters.

"The reason we were so effective is not because we wanted to make a name for ourselves, but because we wanted to make a difference," Gonzalez says. "People kept talking about this giant that was going to wake up. We hadn't seen it, but now it's starting to happen."

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