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Monday, June 21, 2004

Lease on life And not at public expense

Lease on life
Phoenix city government is breathing a collective sigh of relief. The day-labor center in northeast Phoenix will operate another year.

And not at public expense.

Whew!

A controversial, potentially divisive City Council vote on the issue has been avoided, thanks to the persuasive abilities of Mayor Phil Gordon and the public generosity of philanthropist Jerry Bisgrove. Bisgrove's Stardust Foundation will donate $55,000 to south Phoenix-based Chicanos Por La Causa to lease the land for the center on 25th Street near Bell Road for another year.

Bisgrove's gift is at once encouraging, promising and instructive.

It's encouraging because the day labor center is succeeding, despite the criticism it has generated from critics of immigration from Mexico and others who question whether this kind of social service should be financed by taxpayers.

But consider: If the day-labor center did not exist, where would the 150 workers who gather there every day find work? They would return to the private parking lots and busy street corners where they hung out before, disrupting businesses and creating traffic hazards.

If you ask most of the people and the merchants in the Palomino neighborhood, the day-labor center has helped restore their businesses, bringing order and a sense of normalcy.

The day-labor center isn't a cure-all for every neighborhood where day laborers congregate, but it has improved daily life in the Palomino area.

Gordon's efforts and Bisgrove's gift offer promise for the future. The one-year extension gives the four non-profit organizations that operate the center a one-year breather, time to figure out a long-term plan. Chicanos Por La Causa, Tonatierra, Valle del Sol and Friendly House hope to make the facility self-sufficient, to establish a retail and social services component, with language classes, job training, GED and other elements that could support the day-labor center.

The surrounding neighborhood, after all, is among the most densely populated areas in the city, with a large number of Spanish-speaking immigrants who would benefit from these services.

We don't know if all that can be accomplished in a single year. But it's a start.

Finally, the laborious process by which Gordon removed public funding while continuing the daily operations of the labor center is highly instructive. It reveals much about the mayor's nuanced political motivation and cautious style. As Arizona Republic reporter Yvonne Wingett detailed in a recent story, Gordon worked months behind the scenes to put this plan together.

Few people outside a tight circle of aides, City Council members and day-labor operators even knew what the mayor had in mind. Gordon's aide, Mike Bielecki, did much of the legwork. Council members Peggy Neely, Peggy Bilsten and Doug Lingner were consulted. But this was essentially a secret operation.

And, up until recently, not everybody thought the mayor could pull it off.

Why all the secrecy? Why not a straight up-or-down council vote on the continued use of city finds?

Because Gordon likes to avoid political confrontation and division. If he can find and finesse some alternative, he'll work patiently to achieve it.

In addition, Gordon and other elected officials, of both parties, are nervous about the immigration issue. Rightly or wrongly, the mayor sensed that publicly funding the day-labor center for a second year would subject the council members to the same kind of political backlash that Neely faced when a recall effort was mounted in 2003. That effort failed, but the electoral jitters linger.

Privately, Gordon believed the City Council would have supported the day-labor center again. But he feared the damage to the city's political harmony would be too great.

Gordon also worried that another day-labor vote might further fire up anti-immigrant sentiment and intensify efforts to place the Protect Arizona Now initiative on the November ballot.

Many Latino leaders and elected officials of both parties share that feeling. The concern: A volatile campaign on immigration will distract from other important state and federal issues this fall and usher in a corrosive political climate for years to come.

A few Arizona congressional leaders have proposed various immigration reform plans. So has President Bush. Those efforts have gained little traction. Such is the volatility of the immigration issue.

For many, immigration and what to do with the millions of immigrants already here has become like a third rail of politics. Touch it at your own risk.

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