Manuel “Lito” Peña

Iconic state Senator Manuel “Lito” Peña, who served in the legislature from 1967 to 1997 passed away today at 88.

I did not have the opportunity to serve with Peña, though his young protege, Representative John Loredo, was the Democratic Leader during my first term. I knew him mostly by reputation.

A press release from the Arizona Democratic Party today sums up his legacy:

Arizona lost a true pioneer with the death this weekend of Manuel ‘Lito’ Peña who served with distinction for 30 years in the Arizona State Legislature. Lito was one of those rare individuals who had the vision to see society’s inequities and the courage to do something about them. He was a proud Democrat and one of the architects of the early voter registration projects targeting Mexican-Americans in the valley. That led him to become involved in the court case which ultimately led to the end of segregated schools in Arizona. Mr. Peña was a long time supporter of a Martin Luther King Holiday in Arizona. He also backed legislation protecting working families, the homeless and the disabled. Lito was one of the strongest legislative voices advocating the elimination of the state sales tax on food.

Lito served on numerous boards and commissions including the City of Phoenix Human Relations Commission, Movimiento Unido Mexicano, American Legion Post 41 and the Phoenix Catholic Labor Society.

Lito Peña leaves a proud legacy of service, integrity and honor. Our hearts go out to the Peña family. We share their profound sense of loss.

Funeral services are pending.

Update: From Tucson attorney Barry Kirschner comes this remembrance which is here presented in full:

Manuel “Lito” Peña has died at age 88.  He played a great part in advancing political advocacy and involvement for Hispanics and poor persons in Arizona.

I met Lito Peña in 1972. I was writing for New Times, covering HB 2134, the Arizona Agricultural Employment Relations Act (AERA). It was an anti-labor law circulated in about 16 states by the Arizona Farm Bureau. Lito Peña was the strongest and most vocal opponent of the bill in Arizona’s legislature.

Lito was a decent man who tried to help poor people. He was friends with Cesar Chavez and Gustavo Gutierrez who organized farm workers in Arizona’s fields. He hired feminist Madeline Van Arsdell as his secretary when elected to the Senate in 1972 and entitled to one staff member. He caught a lot of hell for his anti-abortion position.

We had the honor of Lito leading the procession in the traditional Mexican wedding dance at our wedding in 1975. We weren’t Mexican, but we adopted some of the culture and dress. Lito was willing to be recruited.

As stated in the linked article below, he gave energy and insight to bringing the idea of registering voters in communities on the southwest side of Phoenix. That was not done before Lito.

Lito was a real Democrat. In 1974 the Watergate scandal irrigated our desert to give us an 18-12 majority in the Arizona Senate. Lito ran for Majority leader against (I recall) Bob Stump.  Stump won his majority. A few years later Stump won a seat in Congress, and switched to the Republican Party when Reagan was president.

Local Tucson talk show host John C. Scott, then known as John Scott Ulm, was elected to the Senate in 1974 as a progressive with Labor’s support.  I remember learning that Ulm had the courage to vote “present” in the contest between Pena and Stump the Blue (soon to be red) Dog.

Lito was a fine man who was devoted to many good causes.  He will be missed.


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