HISPANIC SURE TO WIN SEAT ON CITY COUNCIL
November 4, 2007
More than 4 of every 10 Phoenix residents is Hispanic. But on the Phoenix City Council, the number of elected Hispanics is zero -- and has been for years.
That all changes Tuesday, when Phoenix is guaranteed to elect at least one candidate with Hispanic heritage: Michael Nowakowski, whose mother is from Mexico, or Laura Pastor, whose father, Rep. Ed Pastor, is Arizona's first representative in Congress.
Pastor and Nowakowski are running to replace Councilman Doug Lingner in his seat representing southwestern Phoenix.
In north-central Phoenix, candidate Maria Baier is one-quarter Hispanic. Baier faces Jon Altmann in the race to replace Peggy Bilsten.
That means the new council will include its first Hispanic member or members since Jessica Florez was appointed to an open seat in 2003, and the first Hispanic elected to the council since Salomon Leija won a special election in 1993.
The runoff is Tuesday.
The Hispanic candidates are quick to say they are running to represent their entire districts, not just an ethnic group to which they happen to belong.
But the prospect of representation on the council comes as a relief to members of the city's fast-growing Hispanic community, who say they should have more input on key decisions.
"This is a historic event for the Hispanic community," said Michelle Alvarez-Kassi, a Phoenix social worker who attended a recent debate between the candidates sponsored by Latino community groups. "The Hispanic community is in great need of a voice -- and, I believe, an advocacy. The new council member would do that for us."
Among the city issues of particular concern to Hispanic residents:
* A Phoenix policy that prevents police from inquiring about a person's immigration status in most cases. Pastor and Nowakowski support maintaining the policy, which has been the subject of controversy in recent months.
* Printing city documents in Spanish and English. Pastor and Nowakowski both support bilingual printing and said they would hire Spanish-speaking staff to speak with constituents. Nowakowski speaks Spanish.
* Day-labor centers. Pastor's campaign said she supports non-profit day-labor centers in Phoenix; Nowakowski said he would like to brainstorm new solutions with workers, businesses and affected neighborhoods.
Lydia Guzman, who organized the debate last week that focused on issues of concern to the city's Hispanics, said the need for a more diverse council is a matter of demographics.
"Phoenix is the fifth-largest city in our nation, with an over 40 percent Hispanic population," Guzman said. "It's important we have someone on the City Council to represent our needs."
The guaranteed arrival of a Hispanic council member has been a cause for celebration among those who ran unsuccessfully for council in the years since one was elected.
"Praise the Lord! That's all I have to say," said Rosie Lopez, who challenged Lingner in 1999, with a laugh. "We need people from all walks of life on the council."
Mary Rose Wilcox, who served on the City Council for nine years before becoming a Maricopa County supervisor, used a Spanish phrase to describe her feelings on the issue.
"Ya lo basta," she said, an expression that translates to "Enough already." "We don't have somebody who comes from 40 percent of the population -- that's a big, big flaw. We really should have two!"
Pastor is the front-runner in her race, earning about 8 percent more of the vote than Nowakowski in the Sept. 11 election. She subsequently won the endorsement of Ruth Ann Marston, who finished third in the race, and who has been campaigning for Pastor.
Pastor raised more than $300,000 through Oct. 1, compared to $146,000 for Nowakowski.
Both candidates have spoken of their Hispanic heritage in recent debates, saying they have experienced discrimination for their ethnic backgrounds.
Nowakowski said his upbringing by a Mexican mother and Polish father uniquely qualifies him to build consensus.
"We need to embrace individuals that don't like us for the color of our skin, for our gender preference, or for our religious preference," said Nowakowski, general manager of the non-profit radio station Radio Campesina, KNAI-FM (88.3). "We need to bring neighbors together ... We need to start that conversation."
Pastor, a community-college administrator, said Hispanics' time on the council has arrived.
"I represent everybody," she said. "But it's just very important that there is some diversity sitting at the council."