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Pastor’s quiet leadership style crossed party lines and cultural barriers

By: - November 29, 2018 11:02 am
Ed Pastor

Former U.S. Congressman Ed Pastor speaking with attendees at the 2017 National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Annual Conference at the Phoenix Convention Center in July 2017. Photo by Gage Skidmore | Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

They are flying flags at half-mast in Arizona again for a felled political icon.

Unlike the late Sen. John McCain, this long-time public servant was not known for a maverick pugnaciousness but for a low-key and almost old-fashioned behind-the-scenes style of leadership.

Former Congressman Ed Pastor died Tuesday. He was 75. The first Mexican-American elected to Congress in his home state, Pastor was born in Claypool, Arizona, a community sandwiched between the once-bustling mining towns of Miami and Globe, about an hour’s drive east of Phoenix. He served 23 years in Congress before retiring in 2015.

Despite growing up in the days of tumultuous Chicano Movement, Pastor built a reputation over nearly four decades in elected office – he was a Maricopa County supervisor prior to being a congressman – as someone who preferred working within the system to get things done. It’s a trait he may have absorbed from his one-time mentor, Gov. Raul H. Castro, Arizona’s only Hispanic governor. Pastor served in Castro’s administration in the mid-1970s.

Esther Lumm, a community activist and close family friend, met Pastor as a campaign worker during his first run for the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. He was elected to the board in 1976 and served until his run for Congress in 1991.

“He was never looking to bring praise to himself,” Lumm said. “He was really very quiet, but in his own quiet way, he got things done.”

What Pastor got done was reflected in his knack for bringing federal public project dollars to Arizona’s 7th Congressional District in the urban areas of Central and South Phoenix. In a lot of circles, that’s called pork-barreling. In Pastor’s world, it was called bringing home his constituents’ fair share of the federal taxes they paid.

Pastor was known as a unifier who abhorred wedge politics.

“The lynchpin of his success as a leader in Congress was his great skill at bringing people together, despite differences, despite disagreements, despite party identities,” said Alberto Reyes Olivas, director of the Pastor Center for Politics and Public Service at Arizona State University. “His focus was on solving the problem.”

In an era of breathless, around-the-clock news coverage and vitriolic hyper-partisanship, the image of Pastor as the kind of person who was willing to work across the aisle almost sounds fantastical.

Who does that? Pastor did that.

It’s a philosophy of governance and public service that played out in his relaxed, open camaraderie with Republican leaders like Sens. McCain and Jeff Flake, no matter that he usually disagreed with them on a broad range of issues.

In an era of incivility, Pastor was quintessentially civil. The D.C. newspaper, Roll Call, wrote: “Pastor was never the most visible member of the House, but the Progressive Caucus member was quite an effective appropriator, eventually becoming cardinal of the Transportation-HUD subcommittee.”

Pastor didn’t march in the streets. He rarely held press conferences. He was the furthest thing from a cable news darling. There’s room, of course, for all of that. Congressmen Raúl Grijalva and Ruben Gallego are among my favorite Arizona politicians because of their willingness to speak truth to power vociferously in defense of our country’s most principled ideals.

But our political system also needs the Ed Pastors of the world. The so-called servant leaders who approach the job of representing us in Congress with a journeyman’s patience. Journeymen spend their lives honing their craft and almost always work for someone else. In Congress, that “someone else” is supposed to be us, not the extremes of a partisan base, and certainly not high-priced lobbyists.

Pastor lived by example. The son of a miner, he was a de facto role model for many Latinos both in Arizona and nationwide. But in the same way that he crossed partisan bridges, he worked hard to traverse cultural barriers.

Olivas says of Pastor’s concept for the ASU center that carries his name: “He explicitly did not want it to be seen as a center advancing Democratic or liberal causes, or a center for Latino public policy. He wanted it to be a home for all students to learn how to work together and get involved in an effective way in their communities.”

In a statement, his daughter Laura Pastor, a member of the Phoenix City Council, wrote: “Congressman Pastor will be remembered for his commitment to his family, and his legacy of service to the community that he loved, the state of Arizona and the nation.”

Yes, he will.

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James E. Garcia
James E. Garcia

James E. Garcia is a Phoenix-based journalist, playwright and communications consultant. As a journalist, he has worked as a reporter, columnist, editor and foreign correspondent. He was the first Latino Affairs correspondent for KJZZ, and the first Latino editor of a major progressive news weekly in the U.S., The San Antonio Current. James has taught creative and non-fiction writing, ethnic studies, theater, literature and Latino politics at ASU. The founder and producing artistic director of New Carpa Theater Co., James is the author of more than 30 plays, including the upcoming “The Two Souls of Cesar Chavez.”