How Undocumented Immigrants Helped Change Phoenix's City Council Race

In 2005, during an otherwise typical tour of his West Phoenix district, then-Councilman Claude Mattox turned to a City Hall reporter and casually announced that Maryvale, once a premier master-planned community, used to be nice "until the illegals moved in."

It was the kind of statement from a politician that you don't easily forget. But the folks who swept Mattox into office for years didn't care about such things — and the Latino population in his district, for the most part, didn't vote.

That changed last year. Last year, Phoenix voters — even voters in Mattox's own longtime district — passed him up for mayor in favor (ultimately) of Greg Stanton, a left-of-center politician who advocates for a more humane approach to immigration reform. They also elected a firefighter named Daniel Valenzuela to Mattox's old seat.

District 5 is changing. And that change is thanks, in large part, to some hardworking undocumented immigrants.

Ramona Olvera and her husband, Jorge, are among a new wave of Latino voters pushing for change in Phoenix City Council District 5.

In late August, the two sat at the dining room table in their modest Maryvale home, each with a city of Phoenix ballot before them.

Outside, the blistering heat characteristically blanketed the city, and an equally heated election was under way for the Mayor's Office and several seats on the city council, including one representing their West Phoenix community.

Sitting with her ballot and a pen in hand had a special meaning for the 46-year-old mother of two, who spends her days working in a medical office — it was her first time casting a vote in the city she has called home for more than 15 years.

A relentless team of student organizers, many of them undocumented immigrants who are all but lifelong residents of the United States, were behind her newfound civic awakening — and the awakening of several thousands of West Phoenix Latinos.

The students spent their summer knocking on doors urging people to vote and fighting against decades of apathy — from both Latino voters and politicians elected to represent the region.

Before last summer, no politician had ever knocked on Olvera's door or called her on the phone to express interest in her concerns or court her vote.

Student organizers say that during their daily knock-and-talk initiatives in the neighborhoods with the historically lowest turnouts, they found that Mattox lacked name recognition, particularly among Latinos.

Mattox declined New Times' request for an interview. "As of now, I'm done with all this," he said.

For the Olvera family and other Latinos in Maryvale and West Phoenix, it is just beginning.

Olvera's 19-year-old daughter, Betty, volunteered last summer in the organized movement to increase Latino voter turnout in Maryvale and surrounding pockets of the west side.

In District 5, her city council district, which stretches roughly from Northern Avenue to Thomas Road between 15th and 107th avenues, Glendale firefighter and city council candidate Daniel Valenzuela vied to be the second Latino on the current council.

Stanton made clear his opposition to rigid anti-immigration laws while his opponent, Wes Gullett, offered his public support to SB 1070, the controversial measure that, in part, mandates local cops to enforce federal immigration laws.

At the time, Olvera didn't pay attention to local politics. Yet immigration issues matter to her, just as much as crime in their community, neglected neighborhood streets, and businesses shuttering their stores and leaving behind vacant strip malls.

"I always voted for the president. That was my thing," she tells New Times, sitting at her dining room table on a Thursday evening, just home from work and still wearing her scrubs. "But this [was] my first time voting for someone I know."

Now, all four of the Olveras — first-time voters — likely will be lifelong voters with appetites for change.

Just a stone's throw from John F. Long Elementary, named for the late developer and philanthropist who created Maryvale — the west side's first planned community — in the early '50s, is an alley littered with garbage and dirty diapers. Nearby streets are peppered with vacant homes whose windows are covered with plywood.

Given persistent efforts to turn local cops into federal immigration agents, families aren't sure whether police officers will help them or hassle them about their immigration status.

Violence and property crimes have dropped in and around Maryvale over the years, and city officials have made strides to revitalize West Phoenix — but the Latino community remains saddled with feelings of neglect and distrust for the police.

Back in her dining room, as Ramona connected the spaces between the arrows on her ballot, she thought about how she went from being completely disconnected to hosting campaign gatherings with as many as 30 students in her home up to five times a week.

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo