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

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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.

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo