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

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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.

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo