LIBERAL TO A FAULTA LONG-RUNNING POLITICAL FEUD HAS BROUGHT DEMOCRATIC SOUTHWEST PHOENIX LITTLE BUT INTRIGUE, PARANOIA--AND A GRAND JURY INVESTIGATION
The Fault Line
Earlier this year, a young man named Rudy Buchanan Jr. was shot to death by Phoenix police. Buchanan was brandishing a weapon at the time, but police officers fired 89 shots, hitting Buchanan at least 30 times, including several times in the soles of his feet.
Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox had known Rudy all his life. His parents, Molly and Rudy Buchanan Sr., are close friends. Molly works in Wilcox's office. Before Rudy Jr.'s final altercation with the police, Wilcox had written to the court in support of his release from jail on a criminal charge. "I've railed against police brutality. I've supported police programs, too," Wilcox says. "If I don't feel what we're doing is justice, I'm going to say something."
She and her husband, Earl, led a vehement and very public campaign against the Phoenix Police Department; it included press conferences, protests and demands for an independent civilian police review board that would have subpoena power to investigate police misconduct. The Wilcoxes also insisted that large numbers of police--what they called an "occupational force"--be withdrawn from minority neighborhoods.
Casual readers of the daily press could not be blamed for assuming that all of south and southwest Phoenix stood behind Mary Rose and Earl.
In fact, many residents--including Mothers Against Gangs founder Sophia Lopez and a large number of the people who make up the many Blockwatch organizations that have sprouted in the affected communities--were furious.
And that has more to do with history than with a shooting. The long-term residents of southwest Phoenix have a real relationship with the police.
Before there were catchy-named programs and task forces and committees and grants, there were cops. And when no one else gave a damn what happened on the bad side of town, there were cops. Minority teenagers kill each other on the streets of south and southwest Phoenix nearly every day. Lopez lost her own son that way, without the benefit of a public protest.
The law-abiding residents were not under siege by the cops. They were under siege by the gang-bangers and other criminals.
People in this community have slept on the floor so they don't get hit by flying bullets. They have met their children at the door of the school bus so that they make it to the front door. And the cops had been on their side. The cops were at the Blockwatch meetings and the barbecues. The cops knew residents by first name. And a large percentage of the people who live in Mary Rose Wilcox's district were fiercely loyal to the police. For Wilcox to launch this kind of public attack was, frankly, insulting to the residents who had worked so hard to forge a link to the police department. The attack could also be seen as shortsighted, an attempt to divide the community for short-term public relations gain.
The people who opposed the antipolice rhetoric showed up at the public hearings on police brutality. There, they and the Wilcox supporters glared at, intimidated and quietly insulted one another--a subtext generally missed by the outside world. The mutual antipathy is hardly limited to one issue, or one meeting. It is a long-standing feud, a political fault line dividing those who support Mary Rose Wilcox and her political allies--most prominently Phoenix City Councilmember Solomon Leija--from those who vehemently do not.
It is a line that marks the failure of liberal vision in Phoenix.
Southwest Phoenix should have benefited from Lyndon Johnson's push for a "Great Society." Johnson's antipoverty programs unleashed government spending in poor and minority communities and established policies that were expected to provide increased educational, financial and housing opportunities to the disadvantaged. Inherent to the Great Society was a belief that the participation of residents was crucial to the planning and operation of government programs. The Great Society included a racial component. The Voting Rights Act and other legislation led, increasingly, to the creation of districts that were all but certain to elect members of minority groups to public office.
Three decades later, it would seem that the Great Society is imploding. On a national level, a Republican-controlled Congress is attempting to dismantle its core programs. In southwest Phoenix, political activists are doing the dismantling themselves.
Three decades after LBJ, there are, indeed, minority elected officials on the southwest side. There are plenty of governmental and community-based programs.
But the overall quality of life has remained tragically stagnant. The only growth industry seems to be political paranoia and infighting.
Two years ago, this community was home to the first attempted recall of a city councilmember. Now, three school board members face removal petitions. Police reports are filled with allegations of harassment and violence filed by one side against the other.
Claims of fraud--leveled against a nonprofit organization with close ties to the Wilcox camp--have led to a grand jury investigation. Political cronyism runs rampant.
There is little gray here, only black and white. People are either with folks or against them.
Some politicos will take factionalism over apathy any day of the week. Anger is the ultimate political motivator, and, in an area with pathetically low voter turnout, anything that increases participation is difficult to discard.
But the discord has been costly.
Badly needed federal money has been lost while community leaders fought. Precious local funds have been used on special elections. Private capital has been distanced.
And now old friends no longer even speak.
The Old Gang
Pat Ortiz and her husband, Joe, have lived in or near their home on West Monroe Street, a stone's throw from the heart of West Van Buren, for at least three decades.
In 1979, she joined the Murphy School Board, where she became one of the handful of folks who had a hand in cleaning it up. The schools were tragically in shambles, closed down more than once by the health department, and it was the general feeling of city leaders that the southwest part of the city would give way entirely to industry.
More than a decade ago, a tall fellow named Earl Wilcox came to Ortiz's house to explain why he should be elected state representative. Wilcox left not only with her vote, but with a new office manager for his campaign headquarters. It was the beginning of a long friendship.
Mary Rose Wilcox stood behind her husband's campaigns until 1983, the year that the city council's district system was introduced. She became the first representative of District 7. Back then, she was a strong will behind a shy smile and a quiet voice--but a far cry from the state's most powerful Hispanic woman, which she has become.
When Wilcox ran for city council, Ortiz helped her win. She believed in the Wilcoxes, believed they were good people. They were old friends. They were from the community. A fall left Ortiz confined to a wheelchair some years ago, but that has never slowed her down. Over the years, she's served on the boards of various neighborhood organizations, private agencies and police committees. Mary Rose and Earl Wilcox used to stop by the Ortiz house for coffee and to chat and catch up on the news in the neighborhood. They knew each other's children and watched them grow up to have their own children. In 1988, Pat and Joe Ortiz celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary with a big second wedding. Both Earl and Mary Rose Wilcox were in the wedding party. It is of little surprise, then, that when Mary Rose Wilcox left the council seat she had held for nine years to run for the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, Pat Ortiz came to mind as a replacement. It was 1992. Wilcox and her then-campaign manager, Solomon Leija, who is also the husband of Wilcox aide Terri Leija, sat in Ortiz's living room. They asked if she would like to serve out the remainder of Wilcox's council term. At the time, such interim appointments went only to people who agreed not to be candidates in the next election. Ortiz assented. "I didn't understand city politics," Ortiz says. "I had no idea I would even be considered. Everyone was making sure I would agree not to run. I didn't think I'd like it."
Leija sat at Ortiz's kitchen table and wrote her rsum. Wilcox rallied the votes from the council. Ortiz was sworn in July 3, 1992. "We put her in there, and we hoped that she would keep my wife on during that period, that she would support us and that she would help us raise funds for my campaign," Leija says. There was a party in the Ortiz front yard to mark the occasion. Earl and Mary Rose came over with tables and chairs and food. At some point during the evening, the conversation turned to Leija's campaign to become the next elected councilmember from District 7.
Ortiz told him she would not support him in the race. "I made some commitments to city people that I wouldn't support a candidate," Ortiz says. "He was very unhappy with me about that."
That was just the beginning. When Mary Rose won her election to the Board of Supervisors in November 1992, her former staffers, including Terri Leija, followed her into county positions.
Solomon Leija was busy running a hot race for the council seat. Earl Wilcox was busy with a court battle--one that he eventually lost--over invalid signatures on his petitions to be put on the ballot for reelection as the Maryvale justice of the peace.
Ortiz was, effectively, on her own for the first time since taking office four months earlier. "It was a challenge. It was very difficult," Ortiz says. "Terri took over everything when she was there."
Ortiz learned fast. And that, she says, was a turning point. "I began to realize how much you could really do in this office," she says. "And how much wasn't being done.
"It made me very angry. I got very hostile after that. I didn't want to talk to them after that."
Ortiz became popular quickly, partially because of timing. The Phoenix Police Department began a 90-day program of increased enforcement activity, scheduled to dovetail with a federally funded school and community improvement program started by the Murphy School District. Having lived at the center of one of the highest crime areas in the city, Ortiz was more than ready to help clean it up.
She was in office during the single most memorable law enforcement event in southwest Phoenix history. On a rainy December day in 1992, there was a coordinated assault on the Long Rest Trailer Court on West Van Buren Street near 31st Avenue. The place was home to filth, squalor and enough drugs, prostitution and other crime to have gained a reputation that crossed state lines. At least five city and county agencies, along with the police, swooped down on the Long Rest, arrested some residents, relocated others, condemned the trailer park and closed it by the end of the day. Within a week, it was torn down. A handful of other area crack houses and run-down motels got the same treatment, ending up as vacant lots. "It could have been done before," Ortiz says. "Our babies from Sullivan [school] were being taken in there and used for prostitutes."
Angry over what she perceived as a lack of any real help from the Wilcoxes or the Leijas, Ortiz broke off all ties. "If Pat was in trouble, if she needed help, if one of her kids was in trouble, I would help her," Mary Rose Wilcox says. "But we don't talk. There's too many issues."
A few months later, Leija won the seat that Ortiz had occupied. But the race was far from being over.
The Power of Patronage
Solomon Leija is a scrappy politician, used to running campaigns as a game in which someone wins and everyone else loses. He's far from suave--former campaign workers say he can be a hothead whose buttons are easily pushed on the stump--but he is a savvy strategist.
His experience lies in winning the election, not doing the job.
Leija worked as an aide to Morris Udall until he retired from Congress and then taught adult education at Friendly House, a nonprofit immigrant-assistance organization. He ran three of Mary Rose Wilcox's campaigns for city council and her bid for the Board of Supervisors. His wife, Terri, has worked for Wilcox for the last six years, both at the city and the county. Solomon Leija had waited for this scenario, this strategic moment, this perfect opportunity--an open council seat--for a very long time. And now, it was his turn. "In the back of my head, truthfully and honestly, I thought that I would be a candidate someday, but I always had the feeling that I probably wouldn't until I had experience in life," says Leija, who was 38 when he first ran for council. "Sometimes politics is a game of timing, and this was an excellent one because there was an open seat. So I went for it."
In little more than two years, Leija endured and won three elections, leaving him, by his own description, in "campaign mode" more often than not. After his original council bid, he had to win a run-off election to get into office. Six months later, he was back on the campaign trail again, in a recall election.
None of the three elections garnered more than a 9 percent voter turnout. Leija's brand of politics is a mixture of grassroots organizing and campus-style radical, a holdover from his days in politics at ASU.
There has always been a portion of his constituency that is lukewarm toward his political, almost umbilical connection to Mary Rose Wilcox. That segment of voters felt chilled when Leija hired Earl Wilcox, Mary Rose's husband, on the day the new councilmember took office. Leija and the Wilcoxes still defend the move as making perfect sense. After all, Earl Wilcox had served 14 years in public office, and Leija was new to elective life. "Earl did a good job," Leija says. "I thought it was an issue that I have the right to choose whomever I want to. Traditionally, those spots have gone to people who are close to the council person and who had had experience with the community, and Earl fit the bill."
But it was more than Earl. It was the plethora of governmental Wilcoxes that rankled many southwest-siders.
Earl had served both as state representative and Maryvale justice of the peace. His brother Danny Wilcox is a constable in Tolleson. His sister Linda Abril sits on the Phoenix Union High School District Board. On top of that, there have been myriad friends, supporters and campaign workers named to multiple government committee positions. The sheer number of Wilcoxians felt like a festering sore for the people who were not in the loop. In many ways, the Wilcox-Leija machine mimics an old, Chicago-style brand of politics that is particularly effective in low-income and blue-collar neighborhoods where jobs are needed and sparse. People are elected based on what they bring to the community. Loyalists are elevated to beef up the voice. "I appoint people who I feel will do a good job. I'm not going to appoint people I don't know," explains Mary Rose Wilcox. "I got here because Earl and I had the support of the community in Arizona."
The patronage isn't necessarily fair, but neither is the political system as a whole. And in Arizona, where both Democrats and minorities are perpetual underdogs, the development of a machine of sorts might almost have been inevitable. But this particular appointment--now Earl Wilcox worked for Solomon Leija at the city council office, just as Terri Leija worked for Mary Rose Wilcox at the Board of Supervisors--seemed to be the proverbial last straw. Critics began to feel like they were living in a nest in the Wilcox family tree.
Seasoned veterans categorized Solomon's choice of Earl as naive, bad judgment or just plain dumb.
The law prescribes that an elected official must serve in office at least six months before citizens may attempt to remove him through a process known as recall. On the day that Leija hit six months in office, Mack Cole took out petitions to recall him. Cole is a retired military man and a former truck driver who speaks with a folksy, semi-Southern twang. He says exactly what's on his mind and generally doesn't trust politicians.
Cole remembers his first experience with Leija well.
They met, he says, during an event organized to paint over graffiti in Cole's neighborhood near 51st Avenue and Thomas Road.
"Leija approached me and asked me if I would vote for him, and I asked him why I should. He gave me the regular politician song and dance. "I told him what I expect from a councilman is to get with the community leaders, get some meetings going, discuss the problems in the neighborhood and draw up some priorities and goals and take them one at a time. He assured me that he would do that.
"I told him, 'I will assure you that if you do that, I'll vote for you. And if you don't do it, I'll recall you.' "I gave him what I thought was adequate time to get settled in."
Cole and Lloyd Love, who headed a Blockwatch covering the area near 31st Avenue, south of West Van Buren Street, led the attempt to recall Leija. Love was a big fan of Ortiz and wanted her back in office.
They approached Ortiz. She agreed to run against Leija.
Wilcox and Leija maintain that it was Ortiz who orchestrated the recall effort, so she could get back into office.
"Pat Ortiz wanted to get back into office, and the only way she could get back into office was to get me out of office," Leija says. "They figured they had to attack me early."
He and Mary Rose Wilcox were angry at Ortiz for not being honest, not just saying that she wanted to run for the seat from the very beginning. To them, it was a slap in the face.
The first recall election for a Phoenix city councilmember was going to be very ugly.
Recalling the Recall
Most political events in Council District 7 are referred to as either "before the recall" or "after the recall."
The election became a nasty campaign of public attacks, intimidation, threats of violence and courtroom drama. Leija was greeted at community meetings by groups of people spread through the audience waiting to ask the button-pushing questions--questions Leija says were designed to disrupt business.
"Why haven't you returned phone calls?"
"How much time do you spend in the office every day?"
On at least one occasion, he tried to throw them out. The hecklers refused to leave until a city attorney rendered an opinion that the meeting did not legally qualify as "public." Cole and others began a routine of demanding budgets and phone logs and other records from Leija's office. Leija challenged the signatures of people who circulated petitions for his opponents, but lost.
During the campaign, Cole claims shots were fired at him while he was in his front yard and his fence was set on fire. He told police that Leija or his supporters were behind the violence, an allegation the councilmember scoffs at.
On a separate occasion, Love also filed a report against Leija for harassment. Leija says they were just talking. Both sides made a variety of other allegations, ranging from the obscene phone calls that Leija says frightened interns on his staff to the death threats that prompted police to trace incoming calls to Ortiz.
Two other candidates entered the election, splitting the anti-incumbent vote. Leija won.
The Leija opposition challenged the election in court because Leija did not win with more than 50 percent of the vote.
That challenge failed. But the fighting did not end. Vicky Chriswell is president of the Westview Manor Blockwatch and not one to shy away from anyone. She's faced off with gang members who paint graffiti on neighborhood walls, entrepreneurs who want to bring more liquor into the community and, repeatedly, her city councilmember.
She worked against him in the election. He worked against her, afterward. This spring, a neighborhood cleanup was planned by the Westview Blockwatch. Chriswell ordered Dumpsters for the event. She says Leija's office called the supplier, canceling the Dumpsters. The reason? Chriswell says it was retaliation, because she had appeared at a public meeting where Ortiz and other Leija opponents held a banner in support of the Phoenix Police Department.
Leija says Chriswell canceled the Dumpsters herself. Chriswell immediately circulated a flier through the neighborhood, announcing that Leija had deep-sixed the cleanup event. This prompted a phone call from Leija. A tape of the April 12 conversation, produced by Leija's office, documents their less-than-politic conversation. Leija: "You better stop spreading these lies."
Chriswell: "Oh, kiss my butt, bud."
Leija: "I'm gonna counter your lies. You won't get away with it this time. I'm going into your community, and I'm gonna expose what you're doing, gal."
Shortly after that chat, various neighborhood organizations and community groups applied for city grants that support neighborhood safety and improvements. In a council subcommittee meeting, Leija suggested a change to recommendations made by a citizens' advisory group. Leija's proposal would have taken money from two groups--one of them being Chriswell's Blockwatch--and given it to two others.
Even though Leija's proposal failed, Chriswell calls it retaliation. Leija says that there was a duplication of services in Chriswell's neighborhood.
The Big Whistle
Mercy Gomez got involved in politics because she was afraid. She got out for the same reason. A decade ago, Gomez needed help. The gangs that had always been a way of life in her corner of the world near Hayden Park in South Phoenix began dealing drugs. And then they started shooting each other. And one of them was her son.
"He was 13 years old. He was into the gangs. He had a substance-abuse problem. I couldn't get help. I couldn't handle him. The cops couldn't help. He got kicked out of school. "I was telling everybody, 'I don't want to lose my son.'"
She started a Blockwatch organization, and then the Hayden Park Neighborhood Association, of which she is still the president. The association serves a particularly rough neighborhood surrounding Hayden Park, just a few blocks west of Central Avenue.
In 1983, Gomez began serving on the board of South Mountain Youth Development Association (SMYDA) in South Phoenix. The organization sponsors annual Cinco de Mayo and Fiestas Patrias celebrations at South Mountain Park to raise funds for young people in South Phoenix. It was through SMYDA that Gomez first met Mary Rose Wilcox, Solomon Leija and a handful of other politicians. "I cherished Mary Rose," Gomez says, smirking under round, rosy cheeks. "I wanted to be like her. She worked hard to get to her position. She was a mother working for the community and an adviser to SMYDA."
Gomez worked on various Wilcox campaigns. She also worked to get Leija elected, and, two years ago, to help him win the recall election against Ortiz. This year she decided to run against him. And Ortiz was her campaign manager. For a while.
In early August, Gomez announced that she was dropping out of the race because of threats against her and her programs. She feared that the government money that funds the various programs under the umbrella of the Hayden Park Neighborhood Association would be cut in retaliation against her candidacy. Wilcox and Leija supporters, she said, told her, "Don't bite the hand that feeds you."
Both deny having ever heard such a thing.
"Those are really cool remarks, but I never made them," says Wilcox. But Gomez may have reason to be afraid. She has blown the biggest whistle in recent South Phoenix history. Nearly two years ago, Gomez went to the Attorney General's Office with allegations that SMYDA, a nonprofit organization, had misused funds intended for kids.
"When I started the Hayden Blockwatch, I did an incorporation, and I learned the rules of a nonprofit and the money and what a board is supposed to do," Gomez says. "I started asking questions [of SMYDA], about where are the books, and the money. "We would raise money. I worked very hard to raise this money because it was supposed to go to the kids. They would say that we owed money from the last fiesta, but next time we'll have money. And then we would have another fiesta, and it was the same thing. "
The allegations resulted in a grand jury investigation that is still under way. Representatives of the Attorney General's Office have declined to comment on that probe.
Jimmie Muoz, head of SMYDA for about ten years, refused to release the organization's financial records and declined to comment when asked whether the group had filed tax returns with the IRS, as required by federal law.
Arizona Corporation Commission records indicate that the organization has lost its corporate standing for not filing required reports.
Exactly how much money came and went through SMYDA remains a mystery. Where it went is an even larger riddle.
SMYDA's annual reports to the Corporation Commission and fund-raising letters from the nonprofit organization state that its purpose is to raise money for scholarships given to local Hispanic high school and community college students. The group's 1989 articles of incorporation are vaguer, stating that its purpose is to "organize, inform and motivate South Mountain disadvantaged youth in the areas of education achievement, leadership development and community participation and responsibility through filtering monetary funds to targeted South Mountain activities." Officials at South Mountain High School have never heard of SMYDA and have no record of scholarships from the organization.
Renee Hernandez was a member of the Cinco de Mayo pageant--one avenue for scholarships--in 1988 and 1989. Each member of the court had to secure a sponsor to pay for dresses and other pageant expenses, former participants say. In addition, Hernandez says, she sold about $100 worth of raffle tickets and worked at the fiesta. She received a $50 scholarship as a senior in high school. The queen, she says, got from $100 to $200. Even Muoz says the organization never gave out scholarships. "There were not scholarships, we just helped kids in the community," he says. The group appears to have taken in enough money to help someone.
Attendance at SMYDA's fiestas varied greatly over the years. Phoenix Parks, Recreation and Library Department reports as many as 30,000 people at the Cinco de Mayo Fiesta at South Mountain Park during the years between 1989 and 1991. In 1990, when radio station KKFR-FM (Power 92) was a co-sponsor, the event drew so many people that the fire marshal closed down the park. A 1992 SMYDA fund-raising letter to potential sponsors claims attendance as high as 40,000 in one day. Other years averaged 20,000 or less.
While there was no admission fee, the organization sold booth space to local vendors of food and wares and sold advertisements in an annual program for the event. One year, public records indicate, a full-page advertisement cost $300. Much of the cost of the festivals was underwritten by big-name sponsors, including Pepsi, Coors and KSUN Radio. Gloria Cavacos, marketing manager at KSUN, says the station provided as much as $40,000 a year in entertainment, security, staging and advertisement. Pepsi refused to disclose its SMYDA contributions, other than to say that they were both in cash and in product and that SMYDA kept part of the profits from the pop sales. Alex Avilas, a sales representative for the Zeb Pearce & Son distributorship of Coors, says his company both donated cash and sold beer at the fiestas. He refused to disclose how much. Avilas says he doesn't believe the allegations of wrongdoing. The fiestas, he says, did not raise large amounts of money. "If they cleared over $15,000, it was a good year."
But former board members estimate the take at more than $30,000 during peak years. Prior to KSUN's involvement, KPHX Radio co-sponsored the event, dropping about $15,000 in entertainment and advertising. But none of the sponsors ever saw a financial report on the proceeds.
"I didn't know much about the organization," says KPHX marketing director Freddie Morales. "They came to the station asking for help. I decided to do the festival. I thought it was the right thing to do for the community."
If most of SMYDA's finances seem murky, it is clear that the group conducted many transactions in cash. Phoenix police officers, contracted for security, were paid in cash at the end of each shift. Other people associated with the fiestas over the years also remember things being handled in cash. Gomez says that local merchants also received envelopes of cash. Muoz refused to discuss SMYDA's finances, other than to say that the records for previous years were with an accountant and could not be reviewed by New Times for weeks. "I want to make sure that she's in the total, total wrong about this," Muoz said of the charges. Gomez went to Wilcox about SMYDA before going to the Attorney General's Office, but did not get any action. "Mercy has talked to everyone about that," Wilcox says. "SMYDA and her had a fight. I told her, 'Mercy, I think SMYDA is a real good organization.' Quite frankly, I didn't believe it. They're all good people."
Wilcox appointed Muoz to the county citizen's committee that oversees Cactus League baseball in 1994. Most of the directors of SMYDA happen to be campaign contributors and supporters of Wilcox and Leija.
Reaching Into the Schools
In a weird sort of way, Bob Donofrio, superintendent of Murphy Elementary School District, may have created the political spark that set the fire around him. School is the center of the universe on the southwest side, both for lack of anything else and because of the large numbers of children here. Thus, it's a billboard of what's going on in the community at any given time. In this corner of the world, Donofrio is best known simply as "Bob," a familiar figure with a nest of red hair and a purposely unpolished style. And he is not one to refrain from speaking his mind to public officials, cops, parents, teachers or anyone else he thinks needs to hear it.
During the past few years, Donofrio has created offices for social service agencies at his schools and participated heavily in trying to improve the neighborhoods where they stand.
In 1991, Donofrio wrote the grant application that would become Project Care, a $2 million federally funded project to change not only his schools, but the neighborhoods that surrounded them.
The money hired a staff, set up an office and launched after-school programs, neighborhood cleanups and Blockwatch organizations. The southwest corner wasn't begging, hat in hand, anymore, it was coming to buy. The new dollars paid for extra police, city services and staff time.
But more than anything else, Project Care educated a community of people, many of whom didn't even know where City Hall was, let alone how to negotiate the bureaucracy to obtain streetlights and sewers or report a crime.
In relatively short order, people who didn't previously leave their homes to talk with one another were standing together at hearings, opposing liquor-license applications and demanding more from city officials.
Progress seemed to bring with it the confidence to stand up and fight in every direction. But within two years, the money was all used up. Only the fight was left.
For a long time, the schools were immune from the political struggles that mostly played out in the community. Education was something everyone could come together on. That changed this year when the school board voted not to renew Donofrio's contract, usually an annual event.
The official reasons include low student achievement and the fact that Donofrio is the only Murphy administrator with a multiple-year contract.
But every superintendent in the state has a multiple-year contract. And if Murphy test scores are among the lowest in the city, they have been there since the beginning of time. The district contains one of the highest-risk populations of kids in Arizona. More than 90 percent of Murphy students live in poverty. Nearly 80 percent come from families who do not speak English. More than 40 percent will change schools during any given year. Murphy parents have reason to be concerned about their children's academic success, or lack of it. But nearly everyone in or around the district is quick to say that the move against Donofrio has nothing to do with children or education.
That move was about his friendship with Pat Ortiz, who served on the school board for 16 years and then ran against Solomon Leija in a recall election. A majority of the board was on the opposite side.
"This is a way to get back at me," Ortiz says. "It makes me sick."
Donofrio refused to comment on the matter.
A group led by Ortiz has taken out recall petitions against the three board members who voted not to renew Donofrio's contract. They are still circulating.
The Price of Politics
Solomon Leija sits behind a table at the union hall that serves as his campaign headquarters and ticks off all the money lost to District 7. It's an odd recitation; most politicians would avoid admitting they had hurt their constituents for political purposes.
Not Leija. He blames his opponents for the losses.
For starters, he notes, there's the Community Development Block Grants, federal funding provided to organizations and agencies that focus on improving the standard of living in poor neighborhoods. The program is administered by the city, and applicants are funded by a committee of people appointed from various council districts. Traditionally, south and west Phoenix are big recipients, but it's a get-in-there-and-grab kind of process.
"In the CDBG process that year [during the recall], my district lost out on millions. I could have been more vigilant to make sure that District 7 was receiving the funds that it was intended for.
"Look at the Economic Enterprise Zone [another federal target program]. Those boundaries were formed during my recall. They excluded four or five neighborhoods in my district. They should have been included, and they were not, because I was out here fighting for my political life," Leija says, even though the enterprise zone program was compiled by a committee separate from the city council. "The money that we're going to be losing as a result of those boundaries is incredible. The federal government requires to combine funds around goals and boundaries of the enterprise zone," he says. "So even in the future, we're going to be losing millions, and we can't go back and redo the past."
Coming together to work for the community's future doesn't appear anywhere on the southwest horizon, either.
Leija still has a challenger for his council seat--Doug Linger, who inherited most of Gomez's supporters when she left the race. And Leija has no time to play nice with the opposition.
"Last time I was not reacting to it," Leija says. "Now, my campaign is running smooth, and I feel like I can counter their lies."
If it is authorized, a recall of three school board members will cost the Murphy School District some $8,000. Ortiz says the price for not pushing for recall would be much higher. "We can't let these people, who are so power hungry, come in and take over something that so many people have worked so hard to build," she says. Politics are important in southwest Phoenix, because government is important there. It matters who's in charge, not as much because of who wins, but because of who loses.
"People who think that the city council, or rather that the services that they receive from the city, are just going to come anyway don't know how the process works," Leija says. The people in the Great Society of southwest Phoenix appear to know very well how the process works.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.
- Bernie Sanders Gets More Endorsements From Arizona Latino Leaders
Mon., Feb. 15, 7:00pm
Thu., Feb. 18, 7:00pm
Thu., Feb. 18, 7:00pm
Fri., Feb. 19, 7:30pm
- Phoenix City Councilman Getting Butt Plug Following Satanist Scrap
- Scottsdale Firefighter Disciplined Over Off-Duty Melee