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

On a day in November, a cadre of African-Americans assemble at the First Institutional Baptist Church to discuss the uncertain future of black leadership in Phoenix.

Crisis hangs in the air.

They ponder how to hang on to the Phoenix City Council seat in District 8, which has been a stronghold for African-Americans for decades.

"It's more than important; it's imperative to have a black representative on the city council," stresses Luther Holland, a retired pastor who's ministered to the community for 45 years. "We need a seat at the table."

Councilman Michael Johnson, the city's only black elected official, won the seat in 2002, but he's barred by term limits from running again. Several black candidates have expressed interest in replacing him, and now long-established leaders believe they must coalesce behind a single candidate to improve their odds of victory in the August 27 election.

After all, they see unity as the cornerstone of the community's strength. They note that it was in a spirit of solidarity that blacks marched through Phoenix streets for civil rights, for an end to segregation, and for Arizona voters to adopt a holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr.

Their political tenacity forced obstinate white city officials to adopt anti-discrimination laws eventually and usher Morrison Warren, the city's first black councilman, into office in 1965.

After losing the City Council seat for two years, African-Americans took it back in 1972 by electing Calvin C. Goode and keeping him in office until 1994. Cody Williams, his successor, served as councilman for eight years before Johnson.

It's been many years since blacks have waged a revolutionary war for social change in Phoenix or have had to wring their hands over the community's representation on the City Council.

Black leaders are trying to figure out how to keep their collective voice from getting drowned out by a rising chorus of Latino activists, who themselves are reviving calls for civil rights and racial equality, this time for immigrants. These brown people are much more interested in ending draconian laws, like Arizona Senate Bill 1070, than helping blacks retain power in Phoenix.

It's not the state's growing population of Latinos that has put blacks at a disadvantage — they've always have been outnumbered by Latinos in the minority-filled pockets of the city. It's Latinos' increasingly unabashed efforts to take political control of school boards and council districts with large Hispanic populations.

The plan is simple: Register thousands of new voters, knock on doors, educate citizens about candidates and issues, and convince them of the power of casting a ballot.

In Arizona, 18.4 percent of the electorate is Latino, up from 14.3 percent in 2008. California, with a 4.4 percent increase, was the only state to surpass Arizona, according to Latino Decisions, a political-research firm.

This is the harsh reality that several dozen blacks wrestle with at the November mini-convention. As they weigh options, they ask those who intend to run for City Council to confess their ambitions.

Emerging as potential candidates are Cloves Campbell Jr., publisher of the weekly Arizona Informant newspaper and son of Cloves Campbell Sr., Arizona's first black state senator; Jarrett Maupin Sr., son of late trailblazing civil rights activist Opal Ellis; business owner Ted McClure; and Lawrence Robinson, adopted grandson of Phoenix's first black judge (Jean Williams) and recently elected member of the Roosevelt Elementary School District governing board.

There isn't a consensus at that meeting — or at any of the hushed gatherings in private homes and in coffee shops — over which candidate will earn the support of the institutional leaders.

It isn't until Councilman Johnson and others convene a closed-door, invitation-only meeting in January at the George Washington Carver Museum and Culture Center that self-appointed black leaders vote to anoint Pastor Warren H. Stewart — not in the mix originally — as the "consensus candidate."

At the end of the half-day meeting, delegation members stand, join their hands, and bow their heads in prayer to ask God to bless their candidate with community support and an Election Day victory.

The Lord, however, works in mysterious ways.

Just days after Warren Stewart, 61, is revealed as the chosen one, Lawrence Robinson, 31, makes it clear that he won't yield his candidacy as other African-Americans — Jarrett Maupin Sr. and Cloves Campbell Jr. — have done.

Both men stepped aside in deference to the old guard and the pastor who has shepherded his flock at First Institutional Baptist Church in Phoenix for more than 30 years.

Robinson, a gay professor at Phoenix School of Law, loudly is called treasonous by the community elders for staying in the race.

Two others also didn't drop out — McClure and Carolyn T. Lowery, 72, who's spent her life working with the poor in South Phoenix — but they have little support in the district.