WHEN THE PIMA County Interfaith Council (PCIC) meets Sunday, October 20, at the Tucson Community Center ballroom, you can bet plenty of local politicians will show up to demonstrate their well-honed ability to kiss butt.

Apparently they'd better, if they know what's good for them.

A loudmouth bully or a political powerhouse in our community, depending on who you talk to, PCIC's institutional membership is composed of nearly 50 churches, schools and education programs. More than 2,000 individual PCIC supporters are expected for Sunday's 3:30 p.m. meeting, which, organizers promise, will take the group's nearly seven-year battle for Tucson's poor and disenfranchised to a whole new level. The public is invited to the meeting, as are all candidates in the November 5 Pima County supervisors' race.

Frank Pierson, PCIC's lead organizer, warns the issues-oriented group is about to begin pushing hard for basic--and perhaps even painful--changes in the way powerful Tucsonans for years have conducted the Old Pueblo's public business.

For example: "We believe right now a major commitment needs to be made toward job training--a commitment that's simply not here in this town," Pierson says.

That issue--and the major community-wide expense it implies--is just one of many PCIC will be attacking in the months ahead. But the job-training issue is all the more important, PCIC supporter Debbie Johnson says, because it appears 5,000 impoverished Tucson families will find their welfare money cut off next year as part of the federal government's cynically named "welfare empowerment program."

"So where are these people going to work, and how are they going to get trained to do it with the paltry resources that exist here?" Pierson asks.

It's not a rhetorical question--PCIC has a very low tolerance for bullshit.

THAT LOW TOLERANCE was evident earlier this month in a northwest-side meeting PCIC held to grill candidates in the race for Pima County supervisor in districts 1 and 3.

With several salaried PCIC organizers standing watch unobtrusively in the back of a church fellowship hall, supporters rose to explain, in carefully scripted words, various social problems plaguing their neighborhoods in the city's exploding growth corridor.

The specific issues, as posted on large sheets of white paper taped to the wall, were: lack of community infrastructure such as parks' recreation centers and libraries; lack of access to adult education programs for single moms and others; lack of job training, lack of programs for the elderly; and, whether the candidates would attend PCIC's big October 20 Community Center extravaganza.

One by one the candidates--Sharon Bronson, Vicki Cox-Golder and Wayne Bryant (incumbents Mike Boyd and Ed Moore did not attend)--stood as requested before the audience of more than 50 people to address the issues. Afterwards, a PCIC volunteer marked the sheets to indicate the candidates' agreement with the organization's agenda. Not surprisingly, all three candidates eagerly pronounced themselves to be in full agreement with PCIC's goals.

At one point, a nervous, or perhaps merely eager-to-please, Cox-Golder quickly said "yes" to the idea of spending $550,000 in county funds for recreation centers. But the question had come from an audience member who misunderstood PCIC's originally stated goal--for that amount to be applied toward adult education. Upon being corrected by the session's moderator, Cox-Golder didn't miss a beat: "Right!" she blurted, even before he'd finished his sentence.

She was still in perfect agreement with all those potential voters.

POLITICIANS AND BUREAUCRATS who find themselves on the outs with this apparent grassroots Goliath have some unpleasant stories to tell. Tucson City Councilwoman Molly McKasson, whose sociopolitical agenda often closely resembles PCIC's, certainly got off on the wrong foot.

"They were so awful," she recalls of her first session in front of PCIC supporters in 1990. "Just awful. By the time I left that meeting, I felt so demeaned, insulted and just plain hurt. I was attacked the whole time. It was bizarre."

She should have walked out on the abuse, she says today, but she was relatively new to the Council at the time, and thought sticking it out was part of the job.

"It was so hostile," McKasson says. "There wasn't a shred of confidence in elected officials."

She tried to "still the waters" by pointing out what she was doing to help residents in several Tucson barrios--the focus of that meeting--but when she also explained she's responsible to citizens in other parts of town as well, she recalls the PCIC members "weren't at all interested." It's an observation echoed by other pols and government employees.

Pierson laconically dismisses McKasson's complaints of the treatment she got that night in 1990: "She was late to the meeting," he says. McKasson, however, recalls she was about three minutes late--due to complications from a death in the family--and the moment she walked through the door, someone was in her face scolding her.

Despite her allegedly rude treatment, McKasson admires individual PCIC supporters. "There are a lot of wonderful people, truly wonderful. They're members of church groups, they're people who work for the betterment of their neighborhoods--so it's not all negative," she says. "But they've tried in every way, it seems to me, to make it impossible for us to work in a partnership."

City Councilwoman Shirley Scott echoes that criticism. "Their attitude seems to be, 'Play ball with us, or you'll have trouble,' " Scott says.

But Councilman Steve Leal says he thinks PCIC's alleged rudeness can be chalked up to "growing pains. They've modified their style over time. They're not as confrontative today as they were."

Leal, a strong PCIC supporter, adds this wry observation: "Of course it's so much nicer when people are rich and powerful enough to afford high-powered attorneys and lobbyists who can come in and be smooth and polite in the process of robbing the citizenry."

Meanwhile, controversial Republican Pima County Supervisor Ed Moore--the polar-political opposite of Democrat McKasson--has nothing but disdain for PCIC, whose meetings he refuses to attend.

He's called them "subversive," among other things. Oddly, that's a term McKasson has come close to using as she discusses how such an apparently powerful group tends to warp the normal processes of governmental decision-making.

"Their leadership seems to be saying, 'You can't trust elected officials, but you can trust us. So don't work with the elected folks, work with us,' " McKasson says. "And it's tended to divide the City Council members a bit. There are those who'll work hand-in-glove with PCIC and those who feel it's merely one group of people--a very large membership--but it's not everybody."

As an elected official, she adds, "I can't just decide I'm going to work with one group and insist that everyone I work with on an issue become part of that group." She suggests PCIC leaders take part in a counseling program to help them become more amenable to cooperation with local elected officials.

But Councilman José Ibarra says he's never heard of the group using threats or intimidation. Ibarra calls PCIC a "solid advocacy group. At least they go out in the community and get things done."

In response to the criticism, David Kimball, PCIC associate organizer, asks, "Are you against being partisan and having an agenda, and caring about it, and working toward it?"

And when it comes to influencing local government, Kimball claims PCIC still isn't as powerful as the city's traditional, entrenched power structure. Even on a good day, he suggests, PCIC probably lacks the clout of legendary local land speculator Don Diamond.

Mauri Bratt, another PCIC supporter, says pressuring government is all part of how it's done in America. "Like it or not, Don Diamond is part of our democracy. I don't like that aspect of it, but it's there. And we're part of democracy, and some people aren't going to like it and they're going to call us a shadow government, but that's a misnomer."

THE INTIMIDATING TACTICS apparently are not limited to elected officials. In an internal report several years ago, PCIC identified mid-level bureaucrats in local government as a major power center in our community.

Given that belief, and PCIC's aggressive stand on the issues, as well as what critics and supporters alike say is the group's continuing need to demonstrate the ability to achieve its goals in order to maintain enthusiasm among its thousands of supporters, it's perhaps understandable PCIC would come down hard on bureaucrats who get in its way.

And, in one case at least, bureaucrats--who asked not to be identified, saying they feared reprisals--allege PCIC supporters overstepped the boundaries of mere lobbying last year when they attempted to exert their influence upon the City of Tucson's chronically under-funded Emergency Housing Program. It's a charge PCIC officials strongly deny.

In all fairness, the bureaucrats credit PCIC lobbyists with convincing the City Council to provide an additional $200,000 for the program, which, until last year, had never received more than $300,000. In fact the program seemed more like a sick joke than a sincere attempt to help the poor--some people had been waiting for "emergency" home repairs for as long as eight to 16 years, according to PCIC and bureaucrats alike.

Nevertheless, the bureaucrats complain of PCIC harassment and intimidation in the matter.

"They'd call a meeting and they'd say it's their meeting and the ground rules would be whatever they said," recalls one mid-level city official. "Their position was, 'We do all the talking, unless we ask you to speak, and you speak only to respond when we ask you.' It's very much a dictatorial philosophy."

Early in their lobbying process, PCIC officials "started dropping hints about wanting a role in how this program was managed," claims another bureaucrat. "They convey the attitude that somehow their organization has more power and a legal right to become involved in the actual management of the program."

The bureaucrats allege PCIC leaders, flush with their funding victory, subsequently attempted to put the names of PCIC supporters at the head of the city's repair eligibility list--ignoring accepted procedures as well as simple fairness to non-PCIC members who'd been on the list for years.

"They (PCIC) would allude to their relationship with the Mayor and Council," recalls one bureaucrat. "They told us they had weekly meetings with council members, and they threatened to exert political pressure on folks above us if we didn't listen to them."

PCIC Co-Chair Angie Quiroz, one of the leaders of the home-repair funding effort, denies the group sought preferred status for PCIC supporters. Instead, she says, they merely pointed out that people with real emergencies--say, an elderly couple with a broken cooler trying to make it through the dead of summer--should take precedence over a $7,000 request to repair kitchen counter tiles, replace doors and patch drywall.

"We were saying, 'Wait a minute, this is emergency home repair, it's not rehab,' " Quiroz says.

PCIC claims a victory in the housing repair fight, pointing to a waiting list that has been trimmed considerably--from 800 projects to 130--and prioritized in favor of real emergencies.

Of the bureaucrats' complaints of alleged bullying, Jim Haag, the other PCIC co-chair, notes the lines of communication and responsibility in the city bureaucracy are often ineffective and muddied. "And those folks who're comfortable in muddy waters don't like to see it cleaned up and cleared up and spoken to directly."

Haag's words are calm and direct, but one can sense a well-controlled anger, even the hint of outrage, behind them.

AND THERE HAS always been plenty to be angry about in Tucson. In fact, the issues are as concrete as the Tucson Community Center, where PCIC plans to meet October 20.

It's an undistinguished complex that, when all is said and done, remains deserted much of the time. But where the Community Center now squats was once part of Barrio Viejo, a neighborhood rich with tradition and family ties stretching well back into Tucson's 200-year history.

Incredibly, more than half of Barrio Viejo was bulldozed--except for the temporary home of Arizona's first territorial governor, the morose John Charles Fremont--when Anglo city fathers, in the heat of 1960s optimism, decided "progress" was more important than people. Especially poor Mexican people.

So for many of Tucson's most deeply rooted residents, the Community Center, bland as it may be architecturally, now stands as a hated reminder of arrogant and uncaring officialdom.

"People's grandmothers died because of those buildings," complains Pedro Gonzales, a PCIC activist, referring to the wrenching relocation.

And these days, when it comes to dealing with a local power structure that still seems to think nothing of ignoring--or worse, steamrollering--the little guy, PCIC is clearly trying to become the ordinary citizens' juggernaut against bureaucratic intransigence and official, stone-cold arrogance.

Unfortunately, a juggernaut can be difficult to control.

In Barrio Viejo, understandably perhaps the most chronically embittered duchy in PCIC's empire of influence, some residents have complained the group's Hispanic supporters seem angry about the growing Anglo presence. Viejo has been ripe for gentrification for years because it's close to downtown and because its old-adobe and turn-of-the-century architecture is, ironically, a rarity in one of the nation's oldest cities.

Eye-witnesses recall one PCIC activist standing up at a Viejo neighborhood meeting several years ago to claim responsibility for burning down a trendy straw-bale house once under construction in the neighborhood. While even the owner of the house doesn't believe that particular person and PCIC were responsible for the arson, the message was clear.

"They're not nice to white people who live here" says one Hispanic Viejo resident of Hispanic PCIC supporters in that barrio. "But they're real nice to white people who aren't involved around here."

Apparently PCIC can also come on strong against rival organizations, even minority organizations.

Tom Bahti, of the Tucson Indian Center, complains PCIC has refused even to meet with his group after PCIC and the Indian Center locked horns over some crumbling adobe housing near Tenth Street and Osborne in Barrio Historico. For years, the Indian Center wanted to preserve the structures, a move PCIC opposed, saying people were more important than buildings. The Council eventually voted to preserve the property and awarded the contract to rebuild and manage it to the Indian Center and its associated contractor.

Unfortunately for the Indian Center, after its officials convinced the City Council to save the property, the balance of power on the Council shifted toward PCIC with the election of José Ibarra and Michael Crawford. In an unusual move, the Council withdrew its previous vote in favor of the Indian Center, and gave the contract to PCIC and its contractor.

"It was a blatant political power play," says one observer. "PCIC wanted to move its own people into that project. Of course, the Indian Center would have done the same."

Pierson says PCIC was merely concerned the Indian Center may have lacked the resources to complete the project. Nevertheless, Bahti says his written requests for a dialogue between the two groups, sent to PCIC in March and April, have been ignored.

In response to criticisms of racism, PCIC officials are quick to point out the broad, multi-ethnic base of support their organization enjoys.

PCIC co-chair Haag says, "I've never heard the organization make any kind of racial remark, or that kind of thing, other than how do we become more diverse, how do we be inclusive, as opposed to exclusive."

And charges of threats and intimidation go both ways. PCIC co-chair Quiroz recalls that when she was signing up children for employment in front of San Agustine Cathedral as part of a PCIC project, she was called a "communist" by a Barrio Viejo resident.

PCIC WAS CREATED in 1987 out of the now-defunct Office of Hispanic Affairs for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson. Before that office died of inadequate funding, its supporters initiated the idea of building an organization of religious institutions to deal with issues of youth, crime and drugs, primarily in south central Tucson.

"But that led to talks with clergy in other parts of the city," Pierson says. "Which, in turn, led to a national search for who knows how to build these kinds of organizations. And that, in turn, led to a conversation with Ernie Cortes, of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF)."

Cortes founded Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) in San Antonio in 1974. Credited by Henry Cisneros, U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary, with changing the balance of power in that Texas community, COPS is an organization PCIC is trying to emulate. Cortes learned his trade under another legendary American activist, the late Saul Alinsky, who created the IAF in 1941.

Pierson, who developed an interest in social activism while in divinity school, was associated with the IAF at the time, and was eventually chosen to organize PCIC in Tucson.

This year the group is operating on a $214,000 budget. Salaries for Pierson, Associate Organizer Kimball and an office manager total about $100,000. The bulk of the organization's funding comes from membership dues ($69,000), foundation grants ($20,000) and contributions from business ($59,000).

BUT THE REAL value in an organization like PCIC, says Pierson, is its ability to create activist citizens.

"Far and away our biggest accomplishment so far," he says, "has been helping a lot of people learn how to engage more effectively in public life. Today there's a much, much deeper cadre of people from different parts of this town who now take public life very seriously, and who want to make changes in their own and in the community's interest."

Councilman Leal agrees, noting, "When more people participate and are given the encouragement, training and information to participate in public life in an effective way, we all necessarily benefit."

An active, involved citizenry may be the biggest threat to Tucson's entrenched power structure, which, critics have repeatedly charged, seems perpetually focused on promoting the area's low-paying tourist industry and in general pushing the town's K-Mart image as a great place to find low-wage workers. It's a system, PCIC supporters complain, that has done little over the years to help the poor and working classes.

Take the issue of education--PCIC sees it as the gateway to a better life. And PCIC Co-Chair Haag notes the Arizona Board of Regents is asking for $50 million to give raises to tenured UA professors, some of whom make $75,000 a year and more. "But you should see some of the numbers we've found regarding scholarships and access from the poor side of town," he says.

Adds, PCIC's Kimball, "The chances of a kid from Cholla High School actually finishing high school are poor, and the chance that he'll go on to the UA is even poorer. The absolute number of kids from Pima County enrolling at the UA has been declining, while the high-school dropout rate here is increasing. And so there's this infusion of funds to the UA and Pima Community College, but where's the accountability?"

Expect to see a bunch of angry, committed people demand that accountability in the months and years ahead.

"Our team is growing," says Pierson. "We're growing in depth and resourcefulness as well as reflective capacity."

It's been an evolutionary process--PCIC started out fighting for youth programs and neighborhood facilities, housing projects for the poor--things the groups' critics often dismiss as "minor victories."

"Of course, there are no minor victories for the people who win them," Pierson points out, adding he feels PCIC is now ready to tackle the broader issues of economic development and education--issues, he says, that will be brought up at the big October 20 powwow.

If Pierson and other PCIC supporters are sincere about the group's shift in emphasis to the broader problems plaguing our community, the big question is this: Are they ready to step on some powerful toes?

If, indeed, they are, life could get pretty interesting around the Old Pueblo in the next few years. And, after all, isn't it about time? TW

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