Black Leaders in Phoenix Struggle to Retain Power in a District They've Historically Controlled

On a day in November, a cadre of African-Americans assemble at the First Institutional Baptist Church to discuss the uncertain future of black leadership in Phoenix.

Crisis hangs in the air.

They ponder how to hang on to the Phoenix City Council seat in District 8, which has been a stronghold for African-Americans for decades.

"It's more than important; it's imperative to have a black representative on the city council," stresses Luther Holland, a retired pastor who's ministered to the community for 45 years. "We need a seat at the table."

Councilman Michael Johnson, the city's only black elected official, won the seat in 2002, but he's barred by term limits from running again. Several black candidates have expressed interest in replacing him, and now long-established leaders believe they must coalesce behind a single candidate to improve their odds of victory in the August 27 election.

After all, they see unity as the cornerstone of the community's strength. They note that it was in a spirit of solidarity that blacks marched through Phoenix streets for civil rights, for an end to segregation, and for Arizona voters to adopt a holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr.

Their political tenacity forced obstinate white city officials to adopt anti-discrimination laws eventually and usher Morrison Warren, the city's first black councilman, into office in 1965.

After losing the City Council seat for two years, African-Americans took it back in 1972 by electing Calvin C. Goode and keeping him in office until 1994. Cody Williams, his successor, served as councilman for eight years before Johnson.

It's been many years since blacks have waged a revolutionary war for social change in Phoenix or have had to wring their hands over the community's representation on the City Council.

Black leaders are trying to figure out how to keep their collective voice from getting drowned out by a rising chorus of Latino activists, who themselves are reviving calls for civil rights and racial equality, this time for immigrants. These brown people are much more interested in ending draconian laws, like Arizona Senate Bill 1070, than helping blacks retain power in Phoenix.

It's not the state's growing population of Latinos that has put blacks at a disadvantage — they've always have been outnumbered by Latinos in the minority-filled pockets of the city. It's Latinos' increasingly unabashed efforts to take political control of school boards and council districts with large Hispanic populations.

The plan is simple: Register thousands of new voters, knock on doors, educate citizens about candidates and issues, and convince them of the power of casting a ballot.

In Arizona, 18.4 percent of the electorate is Latino, up from 14.3 percent in 2008. California, with a 4.4 percent increase, was the only state to surpass Arizona, according to Latino Decisions, a political-research firm.

This is the harsh reality that several dozen blacks wrestle with at the November mini-convention. As they weigh options, they ask those who intend to run for City Council to confess their ambitions.

Emerging as potential candidates are Cloves Campbell Jr., publisher of the weekly Arizona Informant newspaper and son of Cloves Campbell Sr., Arizona's first black state senator; Jarrett Maupin Sr., son of late trailblazing civil rights activist Opal Ellis; business owner Ted McClure; and Lawrence Robinson, adopted grandson of Phoenix's first black judge (Jean Williams) and recently elected member of the Roosevelt Elementary School District governing board.

There isn't a consensus at that meeting — or at any of the hushed gatherings in private homes and in coffee shops — over which candidate will earn the support of the institutional leaders.

It isn't until Councilman Johnson and others convene a closed-door, invitation-only meeting in January at the George Washington Carver Museum and Culture Center that self-appointed black leaders vote to anoint Pastor Warren H. Stewart — not in the mix originally — as the "consensus candidate."

At the end of the half-day meeting, delegation members stand, join their hands, and bow their heads in prayer to ask God to bless their candidate with community support and an Election Day victory.

The Lord, however, works in mysterious ways.

Just days after Warren Stewart, 61, is revealed as the chosen one, Lawrence Robinson, 31, makes it clear that he won't yield his candidacy as other African-Americans — Jarrett Maupin Sr. and Cloves Campbell Jr. — have done.

Both men stepped aside in deference to the old guard and the pastor who has shepherded his flock at First Institutional Baptist Church in Phoenix for more than 30 years.

Robinson, a gay professor at Phoenix School of Law, loudly is called treasonous by the community elders for staying in the race.

Two others also didn't drop out — McClure and Carolyn T. Lowery, 72, who's spent her life working with the poor in South Phoenix — but they have little support in the district.

Robinson, however, is running an organized and well-funded campaign that threatens to split the black vote and leave the seat vulnerable to Kate Widland Gallego, 31, an Anglo who's married to influential state lawmaker Ruben Gallego.

The district has 182,336 residents and the largest percentage of African-Americans — about 15 percent — of any of the city's eight council districts. It is the black community's best chance of hanging on to a nearly 50-year tradition. (City council elections also are under way in districts 2, 4, and 6.)

Blacks in District 8 are slightly outnumbered by whites, who make up nearly 20 percent of residents but are sharply overshadowed by a 60 percent Latino population. These demographics, coupled with a historically pitiful voter turnout in district elections, are fueling alliances, albeit tenuous ones, between blacks and Latinos.

"This is 2013; we shouldn't be afraid of competition," says Robinson, who was raised by a single mother, participated in civil rights marches as a child, and recalls chilling images of the Ku Klux Klan protesting his community's fights for justice.

Councilman Johnson stresses to New Times that Robinson had agreed to stay out of the race if he wasn't picked by the established leaders.

"He didn't [live] up to his word," Johnson maintains. "Integrity, to me, is huge. I think it's just not [Robinson's] time now."

For his part, Robinson says any agreement he made evaporated when the community's "consensus" candidate got selected through secret ballots by a members-only group behind closed doors. The black community's candidate, he declares, should've been named in a meeting to which the entire community was invited.

One of Robinson's campaign representatives wrote in February that the District 8 election is either about "keeping the old political bosses in place — the ones that have given us 12 years of no growth, no development, the rule of special interests, and political disengagement — or trying someone whose connections are with folks south of the [Salt] river and not developers."

Johnson countered the criticism in a letter to Robinson, noting that downtown Phoenix, some of which his district includes, now is home to an Arizona State University campus, the University of Arizona Medical School, entertainment venues, and bioscience developments. He also pointed to a new library at South Mountain Community College and new restaurants and businesses in residential areas.

But longtime residents like Carolyn Lowery aren't convinced there has been progress for average residents.

"Economically, we're still at the back of the bus," she says of the denizens of District 8. "[Established leaders in the district, like Stewart, have] their fine houses and cars, but the majority of us struggle and are scared to death about the future. We have no one to support or respect us. We're a joke, and we're tired of it."

She says she will use the candidate's pulpit to draw attention to the city's neediest residents.

Robinson agrees that change must come.

Though he has respect for the groundbreaking work Stewart and other members of the old guard have done over the years, Robinson says his neighbors have been neglected for too long.

"There's no reason to stand back and wait my turn," he says. "I'm standing up to advocate for this community. It needs help now!"

Much of the development in the district is taking shape at the foot of South Mountain, bypassing older, poorer areas. All the candidates concede that there must be more parks, a greater sense of community empowerment, safer neighborhoods, more viable transportation options, and more widespread economic development.

Lowery tells New Times that people are "worried about the [District 8] seat now because [Johnson and the old guard have] been sitting on their behinds too long, when they should have been sitting out here with the people."

She admits that she lacks the money and staff to mount a serious campaign, but she's staying in the race out of disdain for certain established black leaders.

"Just because they walk around looking black doesn't mean they think the same way as us," Lowery says. "They don't want to be bothered by us."

But Stewart says his church reaches out to the same "downtrodden" that Lowery references.

His résumé notes that he started fighting for equality in the 1980s when he became the face of a movement among black and progressive white Arizonans to honor Martin Luther King Jr. with a state holiday. The pastor led the fight until voters approved the holiday in 1992.

Stewart hasn't ignored the immigrant community. He's been outspoken about its mistreatment, serving as chair of the National Immigration Forum, a collection of leaders across the country who favor comprehensive immigration reform. He's also a board member of Promise Arizona, a nonprofit group that leads protests and prayer vigils for immigrant rights and immigration reform.

But he's also aligned himself with Republicans in the nonpartisan city race, Republicans who are proponents of SB 1070 and have inflicted on immigrants the very kind of injustices that he's fought against.

Despite his support from the upper echelons of black and Latino leadership, and a rich personal history of activism, Stewart's campaign lacks momentum. For instance, he trails in fundraising, having collected about $30,000 during the initial leg of the race.

This as Robinson has pulled in more than $40,000 in contributions, plus some noteworthy endorsements, including one from Paul Penzone, the Democrat who challenged Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and forced the sheriff to spend more than $7 million to defend his county seat.

It's a meaningful nod because, although Penzone fell slightly short of beating Arpaio, his campaign infused the District 8 community with hope that someday its ongoing fight against intolerance in Arizona will prevail.

"I have confidence in him," Penzone says about Robinson. "He's committed to our [city]."

This is to say that Robinson doesn't have to cower to the black political heavies in Stewart's camp, further evidenced by his campaign team of established, energetic, and experienced community organizers.

Robinson has true believers surrounding him — Latino students and seasoned activists who want desperately to change the face of Arizona politics.

An advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights, Robinson and his supporters cross racial lines. Stewart, on the other hand, supports anti-discrimination measures to protect the LGBT community but, as a minister, opposes gay marriage.

But can Robinson win in District 8? Standing in his way and in the way of African-American hopes of retaining a black voice on the council is Widland Gallego, a union-backed white contender married to two-term state Representative Ruben Gallego.

(If no candidate wins a majority in the August 27 election, there will be a runoff between the top two vote-getters on November 5.)

Widland Gallego is supported by Michael Nowakowski, one of two Latino City Council members. Her husband ran Nowakowski's 2007 campaign and served as his chief of staff.

As for fundraising, her campaign has collected more than $70,000 since she entered the race, and she has the endorsements of several state lawmakers who serve with her husband. She's backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 99, and the Maricopa Area Labor Federation, the local arm of the AFL-CIO.

The unions give her an advantage because of the sheer number of campaign volunteers they can put on the streets.

She has taken a leave of absence from her job at Salt River Project, where she worked on economic-development projects and promoted renewable energy, such as solar panels, to corporations.

"Someone with my background can look at ways to bring new businesses into the community, to transform vacant lots into economic opportunities by filling them with technology or healthcare jobs," she says, stressing that the proximity of Sky Harbor International Airport to the district should be an incentive to potential job-creating businesses.

Widland Gallego dismisses her critics' claims that a white woman has no real understanding of average citizens' needs in District 8.

"There is no black or brown way to fix a pothole," she scoffs.

To which the Reverend Jarrett Maupin Jr., an Al Sharpton protégé and son of Maupin Sr., spits back: "Well, you're damn right there isn't a black or brown way to fix a pothole, but you have to be black or brown to know where our potholes are, because for 46 years, white folk haven't been able to find our potholes, our dirty alleys, our dilapidated public housing."

For as long as a significant number of them have been in Arizona, African-Americans have waged bitter battles against racial injustice, suffered the inequitable policies of disgraced politicians such as former Governor Evan Mecham, and fought for a political voice.

The passion that fueled the civil rights movements of the 1950s and '60s no longer rages. And for all their struggles, African-Americans have just a few elected officials in Arizona, including Councilman Johnson, state Senator Leah Landrum Taylor, and Tempe Councilman Corey Woods.

Pastor Stewart concedes that his generation hasn't done as good a job mentoring new leaders as did his predecessors, but he claims that he's ready to start.

Opal Ellis, a civil rights activist and teacher, was organizing student sit-ins in the 1940s at downtown businesses that refused to serve blacks. In those days, protests against segregation in public schools and public accommodations were starting to intensify, wrote Arizona State University history professor Matthew Whitaker in his book Race Work.

Black business leaders, including wealthy Phoenicians Lincoln Ragsdale and his wife, Eleanor, used their money and influence in a nonviolent movement for equality. Fellow activists lobbied for the Phoenix City Council to adopt laws to end segregation and discrimination.

"The city council finally relented on July 16, 1964, enacting a public-accommodation ordinance," Whitaker wrote. "The law made it illegal to 'discriminate in places of public accommodation against any persons because of race, creed, national origin, or ancestry.'"

In 1965, after years of protests by blacks and browns — plus forged alliances with sympathetic white leaders — an African-American made history when he was elected to the Phoenix City Council.

He was Morrison Warren, a black teacher who, Whitaker said, "broke the stranglehold affluent white men had on the council."

Warren paved the way for the next generation of city leaders, including Goode, Williams, and Johnson. Democrat Art Hamilton was elected to the Arizona House of Representatives in 1972, when he was just 25 years old, and he served as House minority leader eight years later.

Warren Stewart, a transplant from New York, came to Arizona in 1977. He led an expansion of his church's campus, its social-service programs, and its outreach to the homeless, ailing families, and teen mothers.

In the 1980s, he joined his political and pastoral colleagues who, since 1972, had called for a day to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s accomplishments.

It was in '72 that late Senator Cloves Campbell Sr. introduced a resolution for a statewide holiday, but it never made it out of a Senate committee. Three years later, a Latino senator introduced another failed MLK measure. And so it went: Lawmakers shot down similar bills in '76, '81, '82, and '86.

After Congress adopted a national holiday honoring King in 1986, Governor Bruce Babbitt signed an executive order establishing the state holiday because the national holiday only was observed by federal employees. Less than a year later, Babbitt's successor, Evan Mecham, repealed it.

In 1986, Mecham told Stewart that blacks didn't need another holiday. "What you folks need are jobs," the Arizona governor told Stewart, according to a 1989 New Times interview with the minister.

Stewart and local civil rights leaders led mass protests and put political pressure on Arizona lawmakers. The fight wouldn't end until voters statewide reinstated the symbolic honor in 1992.

The debacle cost the state the Super Bowl in 1993 and millions of dollars in tourism revenue, and it gave the nation an early glimpse of Arizona intolerance.

State officials' refusal to formally acknowledge King was an attack on its black population — just as the series of laws that unfairly target Hispanic-Americans and undocumented immigrants are attacks on its Latino population.

Will Latinos, through their larger segment of the population, gain the political clout that has eluded the smaller African-American population in Arizona? It's already happening, though Latinos have more work to do before their representation matches their numbers.

Yet the immediate question in District 8 is which candidate Latinos will support in the absence of one of their own — the white woman who's married to a big-name Mexican-American lawmaker or the young, gay African-American who's garnered an impressive amount of brown support already?

Because it's looking as though the old-guard civil rights leader and black preacher won't make the cut — making politicos wonder if Robinson should end his candidacy and throw his support to the upstart.

But do the black elders really want a black leader to win the seat if he's not their black leader?

For the better part of the past decade, Arizona politicians like Governor Jan Brewer, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, ousted state Senate President Russell Pearce, and County Attorney Bill Montgomery have shifted discrimination to the state's Latinos.

And Warren Stewart has been right there opposing such policies.

Which is why it was strange when New Times discovered that Stewart's campaign had landed the support of Montgomery, known for doling out to undocumented immigrants heavy-handed punishments that all but ensure their deportation ("Same as the Old Boss," February 7).

Despite several cleverly couched statements, the Stewart campaign finally denounced the endorsement.

"The Warren Stewart campaign appreciates Bill Montgomery's endorsement, but we are not accepting [it]," campaign consultant Mario Diaz said. "We are not accepting it because his philosophy of enforcing the law and his priorities are not parallel with those of Pastor Stewart."

A few hours later, Montgomery claimed there never was a formal endorsement, just discussions initiated by Stewart's camp.

But why was Stewart's campaign in a dialogue with his apparent political enemy?

Scott Phelps, once press secretary to former Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, commented on Stewart's behalf: "No campaign, in the history of campaigns, has ever relied only on the support of people who agree with the candidate 100 percent of the time. This one is no different . . . Warren stands where Warren stands, his integrity always intact."

But critics contend that Stewart also has consorted with the dark side in other ways.

Such as accepting a $430 campaign contribution from Jason Rose, a political consultant to the public official seen as the chief tormentor of Latinos, Joe Arpaio.

Such as the endorsement he captured from former Paradise Valley Mayor Vernon Parker, an ardent SB 1070 supporter and failed Republican candidate for Arizona's Ninth Congressional District seat.

Such alliances make Stewart a hard sell in most Latino circles — grassroots groups tend to make it their mission to elect candidates with staunch immigrant-friendly agendas.

For example, Rise of South Phoenix volunteers knocked on more than 41,000 doors in 2011 and 2012 in support of black, brown, and progressive white candidates who favor humane immigration reform.

They were directly responsible for turning out 3,500 new voters in 2012 — individuals who hadn't voted in the 2008 presidential election.

These may not register as major political gains statewide, but in Phoenix City Council districts, where voter turnout traditionally is low, such new voters can make the difference between winning and losing.

Robinson's campaign operatives are interested not only in getting their candidate elected, but in overall change in Arizona, and they believe that persuading people who traditionally have felt disenfranchised to go the polls is the way to do it.

"If I can convince someone to care about a City Council seat, [he or she] will most likely come back to vote in a governor's race or for another statewide race," says Stanford Prescott, a Robinson field director.

All three major candidates in District 8 have attracted dedicated teams of political volunteers, community organizers, and political figures.

Team Awesome, a group of student activists who led District 5 Councilman Danny Valenzuela into office in 2011 by bringing in new Latino voters, is officially staying out of the District 8 race, which features no actual Latino candidate. But some of its members have peeled off to work for Robinson while others are working with Widland Gallego.

A few Rise of South Phoenix members support Widland Gallego, but the organization squarely is in Robinson's corner.

Joseph Larios, who helped inspire Team Awesome about three years ago, says he chose to sign up as Robinson's campaign manager because Robinson had Rise on his side.

"They've earned respect because they've shown they could do the work and get people involved," Larios says of Rise volunteers.

Larios says there isn't bad blood between him and Tony Valdovino, a young man he brought into the fold in 2010 who's now working as a field director in Widland Gallego's campaign.

Indeed, this new generation of activists and organizers appears more tolerant of dissension than the old guard of black leaders grappling to hold on to at least a modicum of political power.

Consider that in January, the Black/Brown Coalition of Arizona met to, among other things, endorse a District 8 candidate.

When the young organizers — black, white, and brown — showed up for the meeting, they were met by a who's who of political heavyweights: community leader Norma Munoz, Councilman Johnson, attorney and activist Danny Ortega, state Senator Leah Landrum Taylor, County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox and husband Earl, Pastor Stewart, former Councilman Goode, and Carlos Garcia, head of the human rights organization Puente Movement.

Stewart was the coalition's clear choice from the start. The meeting took place in the basement of his South Phoenix church. And some of the same African-Americans who already had selected Stewart as the "consensus" candidate during the January closed-door meeting served with him on the B/BC board.

Robinson didn't stay long at the meeting because, he says, he had to work. One by one, his supporters stood up and expressed gratitude for the doors opened for minorities by the pastor, but they qualified their comments with their support for Robinson.

Some of the established black leaders then took their turns, verbally lashing the absent Robinson, outraged by what they saw as his betrayal of the community.

"They just bashed him," recalls Larios. "It was awful! They said he had no integrity — and how dare he decide to go against the black leadership's decision of who was going to run!"

Robinson's campaign volunteers stood in the church's parking lot after the meeting, shocked at the visceral display.

"We didn't think it was going to go in our favor, but we just wanted to be heard," Larios says, adding that he was disappointed because no one at the meeting even addressed Stewart's stance on gay rights and gay marriage.

The team lamented that despite all their organizing over the past three years, no one from the B/BC ever reached out to them about their opinions.

Larios, who (like Robinson) is gay, says he previously had sat down with Supervisor Wilcox and discussed the "awful" May 2012 letter that Stewart wrote in response to President Barack Obama's publicly supporting gay marriage.

"I was very disappointed in the president's statement in support of same-sex marriage," Stewart stated. "I believe his support of same-sex marriage goes against God's word and the laws of nature. I believe that supporters of same-sex marriage are contributing to the widespread dysfunction of marriage and family . . . and that the legalization of same-sex marriage will eventually lead to the legalization of polygamy."

Larios says it was an "offensive letter."

It never came up in a vetting of Stewart by the B/BC.

Wilcox did not return New Times' calls for comment.

"You talk about social justice, inclusiveness, and you're going to leave out an entire segment of our community?" Larios asks.

Gay rights doesn't have to be the most important issue, he says, but "if you're going to leave it out altogether, then I can't trust you to lead me."

In an effort to stifle the criticism, Stewart admits that he draws the line at gay marriage but says, "I have a history of standing up against injustice, I will continue to do that. Without a doubt! Look, I don't have horns, I'm not a devil, and I'm not out there as a right-wing fanatic."

Warren Stewart's finally refusing County Attorney Montgomery's endorsement demonstrates just how crucial the Latino vote is in District 8.

Stewart's team knows that it must get Latino voters on the pastor's side, and it's using the tactic of appealing to the brown community's sense of justice. Stewart's people argue that there must be diversity on the decision-making body that already has two Hispanic representatives in councilmen Nowakowski and Valenzuela.

Depending on the outcome of the election in neighboring District 4, which also has a majority Latino population, there could be an unprecedented third Latino elected to the council.

The Stewart campaign is pleading with Latino voters that a single black seat isn't too much to ask.

The odd thing — or so it seems if you don't consider the way church-based black leadership in Phoenix has operated historically — is that Stewart's campaign seems to dismiss the gay Robinson as even a black candidate.

Stewart's candidacy has the support of the Black/Brown Coalition, which includes the likes of established Latino leaders like Mary Rose Wilcox. But, beyond that, the brown community is splintered.

For instance, Nowakowski, whom blacks backed in 2007, isn't returning the favor and supporting a black candidate in District 8.

Nowakowski touted the importance of having Latinos on the council five years ago, when he first ran, and also during Councilman Valenzuela's run for office. This time, he says, black interests can "absolutely" be represented by a candidate of any race.

Nowakowski's stance is an affront to Luther Holland, the retired United Church of Christ minister aligned with Stewart.

"For him to become a winner, he found himself in black churches every Sunday," Holland says of Nowakowski. "He hasn't been back since."

Holland says Nowakowski's lack of support for an African-American candidate drives a wedge between the black and brown communities because "he knew damn well what he was doing" when he was courting the black vote.

When asked why brown representation was vital in the past but black representation isn't this time around, Nowakowski sidesteps the question, saying he supported Cloves Campbell Jr. until he dropped out of the race.

"Now there [are] two good African-Americans. Who do you go for?" he says. "I'd rather go with someone I know."

Widland Gallego has supported him "from day one," Nowakowski says, "and happens to have experience and [involvement] in the community."

Nowakowski's failure to back a black candidate, namely Stewart, also pains Johnson, who says he's stood by his fellow councilman on many occasions and considers his endorsement of Widland Gallego a betrayal.

Minorities in Phoenix historically have found themselves at odds with each other — or repeatedly trying to repair their fractured alliances.

In Race Work, Whitaker details that the collaboration occasionally forged between African-American and Mexican-American leaders during the 1960s was less evident by the '70s.

"Chicano activists were primarily interested in justice for their people, not integration with white or black Phoenicians," the author wrote, adding that the approach continued to "undermine the ability of Mexican-Americans and African-Americans to work together effectively."

Despite the changes in the political landscape — much of it because of the battle over illegal immigration — the Reverend Jarrett Maupin Jr. says the essential point in District 8 is that African-Americans must hold fast to their power base at City Hall.

"Black power" is what the community demands, the younger Maupin says, which "is simply saying that black people in District 8 don't want anything more or won't accept anything less than what everybody else has."

The Reverend Holland laments that it will be a "rude awakening" if the African-American community loses the representation it fought so hard to win nearly 50 years ago.

And, by that, he means if Pastor Stewart doesn't replace Johnson — since the election of the gay, black candidate who refuses to wait his turn would be the rudest awakening of all to Holland, Johnson, and the rest of the black political establishment.

If Widland Gallego wins, the elders can go on believing that they control black politics in Phoenix. But if Lawrence Robinson gets elected, they're finished as a force in local government.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo