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

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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.

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo