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Carlos Garcia with his wife, Alexis, at his election night watch party on May 21, 2019.EXPAND
Carlos Garcia with his wife, Alexis, at his election night watch party on May 21, 2019.
Elizabeth Whitman

UPDATED: Carlos Garcia, Betty Guardado Win in Phoenix Special Elections

UPDATE, 5:20 p.m. Wednesday: Carlos Garcia is Phoenix’s new city council member for District 8. He edged out Mike Johnson with 51.5 percent of the vote, a margin of about 400 votes, on Wednesday evening. Election-day results had been too close to call.

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego tweeted her congratulations to Garcia on Wednesday night, saying she was “[e]xcited to serve with you and lead Phoenix into the future together.” A few minutes later, Garcia declared victory.

Original story continues below:

Phoenix is on the verge of having a very different city council.

On Tuesday night, local union organizer Betty Guardado won a runoff election for the city's District 5 seat over incumbent appointee Vania Guevara. Civil rights activist Carlos Garcia held a slim lead in District 8 over former city councilman Michael Johnson.

In a Facebook post Tuesday night, Guevara conceded to Guardado and wished her luck as the District 5 Council member. Guardado trounced Guevara, taking home more than 62 percent of the vote to Guevara's nearly 38 percent.

In the final but still unofficial results Tuesday, Garcia had 51 percent to Johnson's nearly 49 percent, with a lead of about 257 votes. About 1,800 ballots remained uncounted in both races, according to city spokesperson Matt Hamada. Both Garcia and Guardado took home the plurality of votes during the first round of elections in March, and so Guardado's victory and Garcia's lead were, in that sense, predictable.

But their backgrounds in organizing and activism — especially Garcia's, should he win — set them apart from current council members, and now observers are waiting to see how their presence, presuming Garcia maintains his lead, will change the dynamics of a governing body whose recent years have been marked at times by utter chaos (sparked, reliably, by flame-throwing District 6 councilman Sal DiCiccio).

“I think it’s going to be kind of unpredictable. I think you’re going to see more dissension,” said Bill Scheel, who was chief of staff to former Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon and is now a political consultant. “The mayor [Kate Gallego] is going to have a tough time keeping a coalition together.”

Both Garcia and Guardado are “unknown quantities,” added Scheel, who is not involved in either council race. “I think we can see another year or two of fireworks.”

Garcia is an outspoken civil and human rights activist who was instrumental in ousting Maricopa County’s notorious, racial-profiling sheriff, Joe Arpaio. Garcia immigrated to Arizona from Mexico when he was 5 and has advocated fiercely for migrants and refugees, especially in his capacity as the executive director of Puente Arizona. Last year, the grassroots organization was among several plaintiffs filing a lawsuit against the very city on whose council he could soon hold a seat, and against its police for their crackdown on anti-Trump protesters a year earlier.

His opponent, Mike Johnson, is an establishment figure in Phoenix city politics, whether as a councilman or on the other side of the city council chamber, as a lobbyist. He raised a little over $83,000 in this campaign, far less than Garcia's $185,934. If he wins this race, he'll serve a fourth term on city council.

Guardado is a union organizer who started off as a housekeeper at a hotel in 1996, according to a resume submitted with her campaign filings. In 1999, she became an organizer with Unite Here Local 11, a union of hospitality workers headquartered in Los Angeles, and rose through the ranks to become director of organizing at Unite Here. She is now the vice president of Unite Here Local 11.

Guardado was the only candidate to have noticeable backing from independent expenditure groups, which mailed fliers in support of her. In stark contrast to Garcia’s protests against unjust law enforcement, PLEA, the city's controversial police union, endorsed Guardado, and she has called for more police patrols in neighborhoods.

Both bring their divergent backgrounds in organizing and activism to under-resourced minority districts with high rates of poverty.

District 5 is home to 205,000 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest American Community Survey, and District 8 home to just under 200,000. In District 5, 25.6 percent of families live below the poverty line; in District 8, 24.7 percent do, the data show. Those numbers are far higher than the state average of about 15 percent.

Each district is roughly 60 percent Hispanic, and the seat for District 8, which is 14 percent black, has historically been held by an African-American.

How Guardado and Garcia’s backgrounds and priorities could play out — the alliances they forge, the deals they strike — remains to be seen. The City Council is just getting back in shape, with an elected mayor rather than an interim, appointed one, after Kate Gallego won against Daniel Valenzuela in March.

The new council members are poised to keep their seats for two more years, at least. The next elections for council members in odd-numbered districts are in November 2020; those in even-numbered districts in November 2022.

To Scheel, Garcia’s unpredictability, should he win, is that “he hasn’t really been in a governing position where he’s had to collaborate with people who don’t necessarily agree with him all the time.”

Guardado, on the other hand, he called “a practiced and seasoned politician.”

“You don’t get to be the head of one of the largest private-sector unions in the state by being an outsider,” Scheel said.

This special election was relatively small for Phoenix, encompassing two districts with a total of just over 400,000 people and coming on the heels of a special mayoral election in March. The four candidates’ campaigns raised a total of $658,000, their campaign finance filings show. Usually, for a council hopeful to be considered successful, they have to raise around $250,000.

“A remarkably low-key affair,” Scheel said of the district campaigns.

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