Representative Ben Miranda, 1949-2013

It has been a hard week for the Mexican-American community in Phoenix and Arizona, as two irreplaceable leaders have been lost in the space of a few days. First, journalist and arts booster Ruben Hernandez passed away over Veteran’s Day weekend. Now, word comes that Former Representative Ben Miranda passed away on Friday morning.

We were colleagues and sometimes friends. I am not going to pretend that I always got along with him, or that he was easy to get along with. This is not a knock against him. He was difficult for the right reasons. This is a short way of saying that he may have been a pain in the ass, but he was a pain in the ass because he was a man of convictions who believed that it was necessary, a belief that was validated by what he managed to accomplish. Actually, I remember once having called him a pain in the ass, to which he replied “You know it, brother.”

Which brings us to another point, even when we disagreed, Ben recognized that we wanted the same thing, and we never lost respect for each other. He always called me “brother.”

When I first got to the capitol, Ben and I were both new. Ben, however, had a month of seniority on me and knew Phoenix, and the dynamics of the Mexican-American community in the Valley, more than I ever would. I would have been lost were it not for his efforts to mentor me and I am still grateful for his generosity.

Ben had a colorful and accomplished legal career. A colleague once noted that his last name was the same as the plaintiff in the landmark Miranda vs. Arizona, and Ben noted that Ernesto Miranda, while not a relative, was once a client. Ben even still had a signed Miranda card from the days when the destitute Ernesto sold these on the Maricopa Country courthouse steps. Ben lived history.

Ben attended at least a dozen different schools growing up, a consequence of his upbringing in a family of migrant farm workers. He sometimes told the story of how the farm worker kids in Gila Bend would have to walk to their dilapidated school, choking in the dust kicked up by the bus full of Anglo farmer kids who would taunt them on the way to their much nicer school. Majority legislators dismissed the story as fiction or otherwise irrelevant, though I am glad that he told it. Suburban conservatives needed to be reminded that their Arizona of tract homes and golf courses was not the reality for so many of us who actually grew up here.

Ben came back from Viet Nam with a Bronze Star, attended college on the GI Bill and went on to law school at ASU, where he was one of the few Mexican-Americans in his class. Having graduated with honors, Ben struggled to find work because he still did not have a proper suit. Nonetheless, once established, he gained a reputation fighting for causes in the community and for his pro-bono work, his activism informed by his own struggles.

Ben ran for the legislature multiple times before getting elected. He lost his first race to no less than Senator Alfredo Gutierrez. Heck, if you are going to lose, lose to the best, I suppose. Once in the legislature, he quickly became a thorn in the side to the Republican Majority, particularly on the Judiciary Committee, where he fearlessly pointed out the Chairman’s bullshit.

Ben’s came into the legislature at a time when Republican demagoguery on immigration was just starting, and he remained there through the culmination of this fever with SB1070. Though this was a defeat for the people and causes that Ben had been fighting for his whole life, he did not lose heart and remained the happy warrior.

Seeing that so many of the legislators who were attacking immigrants and Mexican-Americans were Mormons, Ben concocted a scheme to petition the church hierarchy in Salt Lake City directly, arguing that what was happening at the capitol potentially undermined LDS efforts to expand in Latin America. Though someone put the kibosh on this before it went too far, LDS involvement in the later successful bi-partisan effort to recall Russell Pierce (R-Mesa), the architect of 1070, seems to confirm that Ben was onto something.

Personally, my favorite Ben Miranda moment came in 2003, when he brought a imam to the floor of the House to do the opening prayer. This was apparently the first time a Muslim cleric did so in Arizona. The day that Ben chose to do this happened to be the day that the United States invaded Iraq. He was always a provocateur.

Folks have been lamenting that Ben will be impossible to replace. I see this as a good thing. Ben’s entire life was dedicated to making sure that others would not have to go through what he went through growing up. His work in the community including service on boards, his civil rights advocacy, labor organizing, and mentoring students, assured that there would be no more Ben Mirandas, and that was is greatest success.

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.


Dr. Henry “Hank” Oyama, 1926-2013

Dr. Henry “Hank” Oyama passed away on Tuesday.

The last time I saw Hank Oyama was about 2 years ago. I ran into him at an event Downtown and he asked me to walk him back to his car. It quickly became obvious that he really needed no particular help, but that he just wanted some company while he wandered around the heart of the city he loved to share some stories, and he was certainly someone who had more than a few stories to tell.

Hank was born and raised in Barrio El Hoyo. Though his parents were immigrants from Japan (via Mexico), Hank was Catholic and spoke plenty of Spanish growing up. He sometimes joked that he thought he was Mexican until the day in 1942 that he was sent, with his family, to a desolate internment camp for Japanese-Americans on the Colorado River.

Though such an injustice would be enough to sour most folks on the American experiment, it seems to have had an opposite effect on Hank. His great faith in his country drove him to work to make things better. He joined the Army toward the end of World War II, where he was assigned to the intelligence corps for his language skills, though, he joked that he thought at the time that this was due to some sort of misunderstanding as his Spanish was better than his Japanese. Eventually, he became an officer as the Army Air Corps was spun off into a military branch of its own. He remained in the Air Force Reserve until his retirement as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1985.

Having returned to Tucson to earn a degree at the University of Arizona, he became a teacher at Pueblo High School, where his students included numerous Tucson luminaries such as Art Eckstrom, former State Representative Phil Hubbard, and my mother. My mother tells me that at Pueblo, Hank told the largely Mexican-American student body that the language and culture that they learned at home was just as important and valuable as what they were learning in school. To a woman whose mouth had once been washed out with soap as punishment for the high crime of speaking Spanish on the playground, this sentiment was heartening.

(An ironic note here: The Tucson Unified School District named a school for Oyama in 2003. There is also a TUSD school named for the aforementioned teacher who punished my mother. Tucson is a complicated place.)

It was in this spirit that Hank worked with fellow Pueblo teachers Adalberto Guerrero and María Urquides to create what became one of the first bilingual education programs in the United States. Their revolutionary work became a national model, gave rise to an entire generation of Mexican-American leadership, and turned the public schools away from the idea that culture should be embraced and integrated rather than actively suppressed.

It was at about the same time that Hank got involved in another fight of national importance, though it seems now like it should have been a minor thing. In 1959, he tried to marry his college sweetheart, Mary Ann Jordan. It turned out that it was illegal in Arizona for a Japanese man to marry an Anglo woman, so they sued. They won in Pima County Superior Court, but the state was eager to appeal. The legislature, however, being a saner institution than it is now, was not eager for what promised to be a drawn-out battle that would likely lead to the law being declared invalid at the United States Supreme Court, repealed the statute. Had the legislature not been so ambivalent in this regard, Loving v. Virginia would have instead been Oyama v. Arizona and might have happened a few years earlier.

In 1970, Hank became an administrator at the infant Pima College, where he spent the remainder of his career. By the time he retired it was one of the largest and most well-regarded community colleges in the country.

Though Hank slowed down considerably over the last few years, he remained active and visible with regard to the causes he cared about, such as when he spoke out against the very misguided new admissions policy at Pima Community College. He always remained a humble, very principled man who was always available to dispense wisdom, encouragement, or a joke. In my own career in politics, I was always thankful for his support during difficult times (we shared a taste in guayabera shirts), and I know that I am not alone in this sentiment. He was a hero and example to me and many others.

Hank lived to see much of his work, perhaps too much, reversed in recent years. This did not seem to faze him, though it was clearly a disappointment. There are generations of Tucson leaders who are where they are because of the work he did, and this was his real legacy. I think he was quite happy with that, and that is why he always seemed to be smiling.

Bill Konopnicki

Editor’s note: Yes, the blog is still dark for the time being, but my brother wanted to write a tribute to his friend and colleague (and according to Polish clan rules, shield brother), Bill Konopnicki

Last week came the sad news of the passing of my former colleague, Bill Konopnicki, Republican of Safford. He was a deeply thoughtful statesman in the long-standing tradition of earthy and pragmatic rural Arizona legislators for whom partisan considerations were secondary to the needs of their communities. It is a reminder of how quickly things in Arizona changed so radically that we speak of him as if he was part of some distant, bygone era, but we are talking about a man who was first elected in 2002 and served until 2010. This is not long ago at all, but it is difficult to imagine his like in the current legislature.

An alum of both Arizona State University and the University of Arizona, Bill brought to the legislature a long record of community involvement, including terms on the school board and the governing board of the Mt. Graham Regional Medical Center. Back in the early 1970s, he was, along with his future House colleague Phil Lopes, involved in the establishment of Pima Community College. He later moved to Safford to work in the administration at Eastern Arizona College. This experience proved invaluable during the many times that state’s community college system became a political football.

My brother met him before I did. Ted ran Marsha Arzberger’s successful campaign for State Senate in 2000, when her district included both Cochise and Graham Counties. Bill was a supporter, despite the fact that Marcia was a Democrat, and his presence would have been difficult to avoid anyway. He seemed to own every McDonald’s in rural Southern Arizona that was not owned by José Canchola.

We hear all the time from politicians who cite their business experience, but a little bit of digging reveals that their records in this regard are problematic. This was not the case with Bill. He was an exemplary community-minded businessman. Once, during one of those marathon budget sessions, Bill took time out to drive to Safford and back to deal with a payroll problem which would have prevented his employees from getting paid on time, something that others might have let slide. This spoke not only to the special problems that rural legislators face, but also to Bill’s sincere concern for the people who worked for him.

Bill was usually labeled a “moderate Republican.” While this label does not seem unfair, it couches his approach to public policy in terms of some sort of ideology. The truth is that Bill recognized, as did his colleagues from his district, Senators Jack Brown (D-St. Johns) and Jake Flake (R-Snowflake), that the underserved rural communities that they represented could ill afford grand partisan gestures and crusades. To this end, he was willing over and over again to work across the aisle and focus on policy rather than politics.

I do not remember if he was a member of the faction that the capitol press corps dubbed the “Cellar Dwellers,” a group of dissident Republicans who met in the basement to hammer out a reasonable budget at a time that the majority leadership was concerned chiefly with exercising a petty and unproductive feud with Governor Janet Napolitano, but Bill was always a solid voice for reason when it came to the budget. Not only did he recognize the long term needs of his district and the state as a whole, but he also knew that a strictly Republican budget would never survive the closely divided House or the scrutiny of the Democratic Governor. Again, results were far more important than talking points.

It was not unusual to find Bill hanging out in Democrat’s offices, including mine, especially that of his seatmate Jack Brown and his old friend Representative Phil Lopes (D-Tucson) when the latter served as the Democratic Leader. It was not always about business, he was a genuinely friendly guy. We often hear about the collegiality of the legislature, but such geniality too infrequently crosses party lines.

One of the things I worked on at the capitol was trying to fix Health Care Group, a sort of state-chartered insurance pool for small businesses. The legislature had, over the years, very intentionally thrown sand into the gears of the program at the behest of the insurance industry. I was surprised one day to find out that Representative Konopnicki had scheduled my bill for a hearing in front of his committee. It failed, as we both knew it would, but he thought that it needed to be discussed. Afterward, he pulled me aside to tell me that he wanted to work with me on it next session, but, unfortunately, I did not have a chance to do so.

Bill often found himself at odds with his caucus’ leadership, something which got him branded a “RINO” by an increasingly doctrinaire clique of party activists. He was openly critical of Senator Russell Pearce (R-Mesa), whose ascent to near-total dominance occurred largely during Bill’s tenure. It should be remembered that, while Pearce’s rise was due largely to the craven behavior of so many who knew better, he also made use of some despicable tactics, and Bill was one of his targets.

At first, Bill took this with a modicum of humor. Once, when he got a rude email from a Pearce supporter, he recognized the address as being on his way between the place he stayed at while he was in Phoenix and the capitol, so he decided to stop by the writer’s house for a friendly visit. The man’s strident convictions failed him once he was confronted by the fact that his bile was directed at a real person.

However, dealing with this sort of thing this way eventually became impossible. Bill’s opposition to whatever it was that Pearce was pushing at the time made him the target of personal attacks which bordered on actual threats. Though Pearce himself maintained a veneer of plausible deniability, it was clear that he was a little more than indirectly responsible for provoking his most dedicated followers. Finally, Bill rose up to speak out against what Pearce was doing, breaking down into tears on the floor as he voted his conscience. Bill was very careful to stay within the bounds of legislative decorum and not attack Pearce directly, but we all knew who he was speaking of. It was ballsy, and could have been a Joseph Welch moment if a few more of his colleagues had shown this kind of courage.

I will admit that there were times that Bill did things that, at the time, disappointed me. However, in retrospect I understand and even sympathize with why he did what he did. Once, an abortive bipartisan effort to elect him Speaker fizzled before it even started when too many of the Republicans who would have joined Democrats in voting for him proved to be squishy. You cannot accomplish anything at the legislature without steady support from your allies. The reasonable middle is sometimes a lonely place to be, and it seems unfortunate that we have a political environment where governing from consensus is an act of conspicuous bravery.

It was that kind of courage that made Arizona lucky to have Bill. I am proud that he was my colleague and friend.

Sam Steiger

[It is] an irrefutable fact of life that the elected official is regarded by those who elect him as capable of the most flagrant dishonor. – Rep. Sam Steiger

Sam Steiger died this week. Steiger served in Congress from 1967-1977, and also did time in the legislature as well as a term as Prescott mayor later in his life.

His career in federal office ended with a race for the United States Senate. As gawdawful ugly as Arizona politics is these days, it would be hard to equal the naked anti-semitism thrown Steiger’s way by John Conlan’s campaign in that primary.

Steiger was considered pretty far right when he was in office, even getting called a bomb thrower by Stewart Udall. He earned a zero from Americans for Democratic Action, but his support for reproductive rights and the ERA would likely earn him the RINO designation these days.

It would be silly to button hole the guy as anything though, except if “curmudgeonly” is considered an ideology. His trip through Arizona politics led him to a run for governor as a Libertarian, a tumultuous time as Evan Mecham’s chief of staff and a surprisingly conservationist term as mayor of Prescott.

Go figure.

Oh, don’t forget those burros he shot. It was self defense. Can’t let anyone forget that.

Larry Toledo

I heard this morning about the death of Larry Toledo.

Toledo’s most tangible contribution to our community came when he was part of the group that helped start Pima Community College back in 1970. He eventually became athletic director and served in that position until his retirement in 1997. After that, he worked with his sons producing films.

He was an accomplished athlete; he was even drafted by the San Diego Chargers at one point. He thought that athletics was important, and worked hard to make sure that young athletes from the South and West sides got the attention from the press and colleges that he felt they deserved.

It was a small part of his broader vision: he wanted to make sure that our youth, no matter what neighborhood they came from, had opportunities and were successful.

His advocacy for young athletes and youth in general was only one part of his social activism, but it’s one I’ve seen the effects of all the time. I’ve always thought the word “mentor” gets used too much, but it’s amazing how many people I meet that name Toledo as a major influence when they were growing up. He gave them a chance, and they now feel it’s their responsibility to give a chance to others.

I spoke to Supervisor Richard Elías this morning and he remembered one line from a talk that Toledo gave back in the spring. Toledo talked about the advice he gave to youth: “Stay away from haters.” If people were willing to disparage their neighbors and their community, they aren’t worth being around, he told kids.

He’ll be missed, but his proteges are everywhere.

Lorenzo Torres

I recieved an e-mail today informing me of the passing of Lorenzo Torres.

Torres made several runs for office, beginning with a tilt at a South Side senate seat in 1978 (he placed last out of four candidates). The following election, he made a run for US Senate against Barry Goldwater. He followed on with two runs against liberal icon Mo Udall. In 1990, he finished off his electoral career pretty close to where he started: a run for a South Side seat in the legislature.

Aside from quixotic runs for office, he was a fixture in far left circles in our community for decades. So, what gave this guy cred among the radicals? You ever seen the movie Salt of the Earth? Torres was a participant in the 1950 strike that that movie was based on.

After the strike, he came to Arizona and became one of those “community organizers” so derided on the right.

Oh yeah. He was also a Communist. Card carrying and everything.

I’ve never figured out if it’s true or just an urban legend that you can’t actually run as a Communist in Arizona. In any case, Torres never appeared on the ballot as one: he used a variety of ballot lines including People Before Profit and Martin Luther King Party.

His politics were notably to the left of mine, but his passion for equality was admirable.

Donna Wangler

Long time Democratic activist Donna Wangler passed away earlier this month. She wasn’t always the easiest to get along with, but her commitment to Democratic causes couldn’t ever be doubted.

The Pima County Democratic Party came together to raise money for Donna’s final expenses.

There will be a memorial service next Tuesday at St. Francis Cabrini Church, 3201 E Presidio Road at 11:00 AM.

Andy Rooney

CBS News reports that Andy Rooney has passed away.

Most of us think of Rooney as the crotchity old man complaining about doorknobs and Kurt Cobain at the end of 60 Minutes, but he started his career as a reporter for Stars and Stripes during the Second World War.

He spent his time with the Eighth Air Force, at their base and even flying on the occasional mission. He was there when a certain Staff Sergeant Maynard “Snuffy” Smith returned with his crew. Sgt. Smith was a ball turret gunner whose bomber was hit near Brittany. He managed to keep firing at the still attacking German planes, put out the fire, and bring six of his comrades to safety. Rooney was on the ground and the first to interview Smith. Rooney’s reporting was a big part of why Smith was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the only Air Force enlisted man so recognized in the war. Rooney considered his part in this story one of his proudest achievements.

He talked a bit about it in a segment on 60 Minutes. I was unable to find his reporting on Smith, but Smith is mentioned in a 1943 Stars and Stripes article that Rooney wrote on the Eighth Air Force.

Judy Burns

Long time friend of local education Judy Burns has passed away. She was 63.

Burns ran for the TUSD school board and lost. Then, she ran again. And again. And, yep, again. Finally, she was elected in 2000 on her fifth try.

Even her detractors have to have admired the tenacity.

Burns was in the thick of it in the fight over ethnic studies, but also worked tirelessly on keeping neighborhood schools open.

School Superintendent Linda Arzoumanian is the one responsible for appointing a replacement.

UPDATE: The original post had the wrong age for Burns.