"We don't want any niggers and Mexicans out here." Duane Pell didn't think he shocked easily. But then, he didn't think that being a politician meant he had to listen to crap like that. He remembers thinking, so that's why I'm getting so much grief from this neighborhood. I'm just trying to get a community facility built in a park and they're acting like I'm cutting their throats. They've got all kinds of rumors going that we're trying to do them in. And then, I stand here and listen to this guy say that?
He had enough composure left to suggest, "Why don't you come down and say that at the council meeting? I think Mrs. Wilcox and Calvin Goode would love to hear you say that." But he knew they would never dare say those words out loud in front of the city's Hispanic and black councilmembers. Hell, he thought, the whole council could be white and they wouldn't own up to their real reasons. These were the words of backyard rumors and behind-the-hand whispers. And they made Duane Pell sick.
If anybody's puzzled about his surprising decision not to run for re-election on October 3, listen to the strange stories that helped convince him this job was worth shoving.
A lot of people won't like what Duane Pell has to say on the way out the door. Some will be shocked at how things look from the other end of the council chambers. His words are particularly stinging because they come from a man who entered office six years ago as "one of us." Here was a firefighter, union leader and civic activist who spoke the language of all those who'd felt shut out of City Hall. Here was a guy who'd never even been invited to lunch with the downtown power brokers. Here was a guy whose word meant something.
Now, he's made a private vow that he'll never again have to stand there and listen to a racist dress him down.
IT SOUNDED EXACTLY like the kind of neighborhood amenity you'd expect a good district councilmember to bring home. It was called a multigenerational center--a place with a gymnasium, meeting rooms, a kitchen for senior citizens and young people. It was going to sit in Cactus Park at 35th Avenue and Cactus in the heart of Pell's northwest District 2.
As a wanna-be politician six years ago, Pell assured one senior citizen group after another that if they sent him to City Hall, he'd fight for the center. They did, he did, and the next year, voters approved about $4 million in bonds to build the facility. But City Hall dragged its feet until Pell went to the folks at the Parks and Recreation Department in 1987, pushing them to get a move on. "I'm getting a lot of heat out there [from the district]," he told them. "This is a high-priority item to them."
It also had become a high-priority item for other councilmembers who saw the park department's inaction as a signal that the facility was up for grabs. So Mary Rose Wilcox from central Phoenix said she wanted it; so did John Nelson from the Maryvale area; so did Bill Parks from the Paradise Valley section. "So rather than get into a big public deal over who's got the most votes to get this [facility] we all sat down, which is, I think, the way you resolve a lot of these things," Pell says. "So the bottom line, we ended up going to the council and got more money appropriated and we come up with three of these facilities, one in west Phoenix, one in northwest Phoenix and one in northeast. And everybody signed off, we got the architects. I'm pushing for groundbreaking.
"So then I started getting calls from some neighbors out there by the park. There were two women and they were just incredible. They started a campaign to stop this facility."
For months, he was getting fifty calls a day from people in his district saying the center would destroy Cactus Park. "Save Our Park" banners were everywhere in that neighborhood. "It's a big park, like fifty or sixty acres, and this facility was going to be in one little corner; it wouldn't have had any impact on the park. But I'm getting calls saying the soccer field would go. It absolutely would have no impact on the soccer field whatsoever. But it got out of hand. So we called a meeting."
The meeting in a neighborhood school is remembered as being "nasty." "There's standing room only, probably three or four hundred people. It went on for three hours or so. There were people there that were in favor of it, but they were so intimidated and afraid to speak that they didn't."