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Home / Articles / · Archive / News & Columns /  Westside Showdown
News & Columns

Westside Showdown

State representative David Litvak walks the walk, but that doesn’t cut it with some Latinos.

By Katharine Biele
Posted // June 11,2007 - Westside

The northern lakes had frozen in the blue-white winter of Minnesota, solitary but for a small swarm of skaters speeding around a spinning puck. This was Saturday in David Litvack’s young life, a dizzying blur of religious school, hockey camp and soccer.


“You be the first one on the ice and the last one off,” his father chided. The message was clear: “Don’t tell anyone how good you are—show them.”


He didn’t really need much encouragement. “My parents raised me to be a student of life,” says Litvack, Brooklyn-born but a show-me Midwesterner at heart. What with his father being a salesman, they’d moved around a little, to Florida for a few years and then back to Minnesota.


Living there, Litvack always took for granted a certain connectedness—being part of the Jewish community. It was his sophomore year of high school when his father told him they’d be moving to Utah. He wasn’t sure what he’d be facing here.


He established himself on Salt Lake City’s West Side and eventually won election to the state Legislature two years ago. Through it all, Litvack never imagined it would be his friends and supporters who would turn against him. He couldn’t know that in his search for justice, his soul might suffer. No matter how good he became, it would be good only through the ethnic fiber of his own history. It was Litvack who would become the ironic catalyst that set off a growing and newly powerful Latino community in Salt Lake City and charged the debate that would divide it.


Maybe it’s just so much politics, pretty local stuff. Democratic, because that’s the party of Salt Lake City’s choice these days. Litvack, now a legislator, has the peculiar distinction of being the only Democratic lawmaker in the state to face a primary election. His opponent is a Latina who represents a lot of what he stands for. For Litvack, and perhaps for his district, this is a primary that bleeds. It bleeds because Litvack has dedicated himself to diversity and rights for minority groups, but is now being challenged because he is white.


“In Minnesota, I was never forced to get involved in Jewish youth groups; I didn’t have to,” he says. In Utah, however, he found himself deeply involved in the synagogue. It served more than a religious purpose. And Litvack became interested in aspects of life that went far beyond religion.


Studying psychology and sociology at Westminster College, he became intensely interested in prejudice and stereotypes. He liked to study hate crimes because the subject is so compelling, such an insidious part of human nature. And so it was no particular surprise that Litvack gravitated toward work that somehow dealt with hate, like it was a commodity.


In Chicago, he wrote his master’s thesis on whether the conservatism of the Reagan era emboldened groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Back in Utah, Litvack began working for the National Conference for Community and Justice (formerly the National Conference of Christians and Jews), and he began lobbying—behind the scenes—against issues that had smatterings of hate in them. Things like “English Only” and the prohibition of adoption for unmarried partners.


Ultimately, he got sucked in, and ran for the state Legislature where last year he co-sponsored what has become the annual ritual of regenerating Utah’s hate-crimes bill. Litvack was side by side with Alicia Suazo, who took up both the Senate and the hate-crimes bill after her husband, Pete, died in an ATV accident.


Pete Suazo’s Legacy


Pete Suazo had been a beacon in a largely disenfranchised Hispanic community. Partly because people of color were virtually invisible among Utah’s elected officials, Suazo took on the added burden of all minorities, becoming a real political force while giving the majority a token to point to.


Jim Gonzales was only 17 when he met Suazo in the early ‘80s, but he knew this was a man who could change his life. Suazo helped Gonzales get a leadership scholarship to the University of Utah. “He made it possible for me to get an education,” says Gonzales, who went on to become a major behind-the-scenes player in Utah politics.


When the Suazos moved to New Mexico, Gonzales lost his mentor, but not his motivation. He was a watcher, a calculator who began attending Hispanic caucus meetings with more of a mind to learn the ropes than become a star.


There was a lot going on back then, plenty to get involved with, and Gonzales witnessed powerful people rise and fall to widespread public indifference. He watched the popular Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson get crushed in his 1988 bid for governor; he saw David Watson rise to a county commission post, then fall precipitously when he was pulled over with cocaine in his pocket. And he’d met another activist, Robert Gallegos, a federal worker determined to run for state Senate against incumbent Rex Black. Gallegos monitored federal community development programs, which disqualified him from running, under the Hatch Act. He not only lost his chance at the seat, but eventually lost his job as well.


“He stuck his neck out, and it probably cost him his job,” said Gonzales, who was beginning to see just how unforgiving the democratic process is. “I don’t think people recognize him for his sacrifice.”


Indeed, it’s been all these years before Gallegos again was moved to run. This year, he’s one of the candidates chosen by executive fiat to run for State School Board.


There were some tough lessons from the ‘88 conventions, and Gonzales felt lucky that Suazo had returned, that there was someone to strategize with, to look at the long haul. Suazo began talking about running for the House or the Senate, and the two spent the next three years figuring out how to make it happen. Of all he’d learned, the most important thing was to start early and look for the decision-makers at the most basic levels.


“I’ve never seen myself as one who wants to run for public office,” says Gonzales. “But you tell me what needs to get done, and I’ll find a way.” Today he is one of Utah’s most sought-after Democratic political consultants, founder of the Target Group.



Hate Crimes Repercussions


In 1992, House Minority Leader Frank Pignanelli pushed through the state’s first hate-crimes bill. It was also the year that Suazo beat out fellow Democrat Ted Lewis at convention for a seat in the House.


Pignanelli had carried the banner for society’s easy targets—minus gays and lesbians—and there were obviously delegates who felt Lewis hadn’t done enough to further the cause. “Ted had lost touch with his neighborhood,” says former Democratic County Chairman Joe Hatch. “And he’d lost touch with the changing dynamics within the Democratic Party. He’d become increasingly more conservative on core economic issues and was playing ball with the Republicans.”


Suazo, however, was taking nothing for granted. He lined up support from organized labor, from the gay community and from other liberal activists in the party. Then he took Lewis out with 70 percent of the convention vote.


“It was a huge victory for the Latino caucus,” says Gonzales. And it was significant for Gonzales, too, who moved on professionally as a political mechanic, helping people like Janet Rose, Randy Horiuchi and Sherry Swenson.


It was only fitting that Pete Suazo would take up the hate-crimes bill when Pignanelli left office. It was his issue, his political foundation, and he thought maybe he could improve on the law, help make it work for everyone who might be victimized.


By 1996, Suazo had decided to make the run for Senate, and it would be for Rex Black’s seat. A cosmic payback of sorts for Gallegos’ loss.


“God love Rex Black, he was a stalwart for the party,” Gonzales says. “But by ‘96, Pete decided that it was his seat. Pete had the persona, the charisma, and Rex understood that. He would not run in ‘96 in deference to Pete who finally said, not only do I want it, but I’m fully prepared to take it. It took eight years of planning and preparing, and he won handily. In 2000, they didn’t run anyone against him.”


After the ‘96 campaign, there was a sense that things were moving well. Suazo had anointed Duane Bourdeaux, who easily slipped into the vacant House seat. The Latino caucus was instrumental in helping Lee Martinez get appointed to a Salt Lake City Council seat, and even though Martinez later lost the election, “there was a moment there that suggested all the planning and all we’d gone through had been successful,” says Gonzales.


You had to have a plan. Suazo began talking about a run for mayor. It was possible. Imagine a Latino at the helm of this conservative state’s largest city. Bourdeaux could move up to the Senate. A game of chess. But so much hinged on the hate-crimes legislation and the support of the people behind it.


After four years of failed attempts on the Hill, Suazo was close, really close to something. He’d put in language about protecting “groups,” a mild-sounding word that set off the likes of the Eagle Forum. Conservatives knew it was an open door for adding sexual orientation to the list, and they kept fighting.


Suazo’s bill lost again in 2001, but there was a feeling that if he just kept trying, maybe. … And then he died.


His death sent shock waves through the community. “Pete had always been the flagship of the Latino community, setting direction and really making a lot of decisions that other people weren’t willing to make,” says Gonzales. “And he did a lot in a private way. It was so staggering; it meant so many things that needed to be done and so much we didn’t understand needed to be done.”


Alicia Suazo felt that burden, and took up the standard. So much of it was wrapped up in hate-crimes law that she had no choice. The legislation, to her, was a memorial of sorts, while Litvack saw it as a logical extension of his personal philosophy and professional focus. A lot of people thought it would pass this time for sure—for Pete.


But somewhere along the line, both Litvack and Alicia Suazo became convinced that the language had to change. And somehow, the change besmirched the memorial.


Pete had modeled his legislation after a Texas law that used “groups” to mollify the anti-gay forces in that state. Litvack pushed another model, from the Anti-Defamation League, which actually listed all the groups. Including gays and lesbians. It was just so in-your-face for Utah, and it failed in an Olympic way in the 2002 session.


The whole thing broke into flames recently during the May Democratic Convention. Gallegos, as part of the Hispanic caucus, lashed out at Litvack for pushing the ADL version and losing the fight. There was a feeling that Pete’s weaker version would have made it.


“Do we say the major barrier is sexual orientation?” asks Litvack. “We cannot proceed and leave that out. It sends a horrible messages that it’s open season on that community.”



New District, New Day


Sure, it was a big issue, but not the real one. Litvack had found himself in a convention battle for the nomination in a newly redrawn District 26. The Republican majority redrew districts, leaving Litvack with only three of his 22 former precincts, and then doubled him up with another Democratic representative, Fred Fife. Fife, a longtime Poplar Grove advocate, ultimately decided to step down in favor of Litvack.


“He did a good job,” says Litvack. “I was actually surprised when he said he wasn’t running.”


But the real surprise came on filing deadline. Ana Archuleta is a community activist who has decided it’s her turn. Litvack had talked to her before, but he thought she was interested in being precinct chairwoman and maybe organizing the district.


Archuleta has always felt she was the chosen one. In her family of 10 kids, she was the one who’d be the politician. It was a strong family, but a tough one to navigate with seven brothers.


Her father, orphaned at 10, came to the states from Mexico with his uncle after World War II. It was easier to find work here, and the mines were hiring. Immigrants were shock absorbers for a booming economy, and those jobs eventually brought Archuleta’s parents to Utah where her father became a chef.


He’d never finished high school, but was determined his children would get a higher education. Archuleta remembers a wall in their Central City home devoted to college degrees.


Archuleta talks about history as though it were today. Like the Mexican Conquest was yesterday instead of centuries ago. It’s that important, she says. It’s key to everything in sociology. “You can’t push forward without knowing history,” she says.


If you know the history of various racial groups, she says, you can understand why so many are not involved. The Southwest was part of Mexico long before American troops marched in. It took time for those left in the minority to learn the rules of the voting booth, the rules of survival.


Archuleta grew up on Denver Street when Central City was the hub of the War on Poverty. She got involved in the neighborhood youth program, hanging out and organizing, always organizing. In 1985, Archuleta decided to move to Colorado where she worked under contract to Federico Pena, the first Hispanic mayor of Denver. There she had a daughter, became a single mother and still managed to work on her growing political avocation.


It was a learning experience for her—and not all good. “Don’t work on a campaign unless you get some guarantees for the community,” she says. “What happens is that candidates go out and make commitments and later don’t deliver.”


Ten years later, Archuleta returned to Salt Lake to care for her mother, who’d fallen ill. It was a good point at which to finish her sociology degree and reconnect with her community. By the time she began pursuing a master’s degree, she had taken on the additional burden of interim director for JEDI Women. “They thought we were a bunch of low-income radicals,” she says of the Legislature. “But they’re making policy on so many women and children.”


Empowerment became a goal for her. Today, she works with high-risk children and serves as Central City Community Council chairwoman. “I’ve always been one to volunteer,” she says. “That’s been my social life.”


And her power base, the minority population in Central City, has grown some 120 percent in the last decade. Whoever can coalesce those forces wins.


It just seemed like the timing was right. Even if it was wrong for Litvack. “David’s a sweet guy, but this is going to invigorate a new district,” Archuleta says. “It will get people off their couches.”


A Community Divided?


No longer is it just any election. This has become something of a Waterloo. “The entire community is being forced to look at it,” says Litvack. “I want the community to continue to look at it. Ultimately, I think the strength of my alliances and the skills I bring will help me win.”


And alliances are everything. The Hispanic Caucus has been divided on the contest ever since the convention. Litvack came within four votes of an endorsement from the caucus. “They’re feeling torn because I walk the walk,” he says. “The question is, what can she provide that I can’t?”


The answer is pretty strictly racial. James Yapias, who heads the caucus, ticks off a list of 12 Hispanic candidates statewide, many of whom the caucus has fielded.


“Litvack, you know, I believe he’s a young man who has worked hard, who tries to do the best he can in his community,” says Yapias. “But this isn’t about him. This is a democratic process. If you find somebody better, you run them. It goes for any district. Ethnicity is only one aspect of the race.”


But it’s a big one. There’s been some talk that Archuleta is in essence payback for the defeat of Loretta Baca’s by Litvack two years ago. Baca lost at convention following some personally difficult publicity in an ongoing domestic dispute. “Loretta Baca—everybody wants to make an issue about that,” says Yapias. “It has nothing to do with that. Our community wants to grow.”


There have already been a few bumps in the road. Alicia Suazo’s last-minute pullout of the Senate race, for instance. Gonzales took a big hit from the caucus on that one, getting blamed for a sneak attack by Nisa Sisneros, who filed her candidacy on the last day as Suazo withdrew.


“I did everything but move mountains to get her to run again,” says Gonzales, who left the decision up to her. “It would be a huge mistake for people to think somehow that Alicia is a vulnerable, naïve person.”


Alicia Suazo wanted to give Bourdeaux a chance to run for Senate, so she waited, and waited. Until he declined. The problem was that there were other Hispanics chomping at the bit to run. People like John Renteria. You’ll still see Renteria on the ballot this November-but under the Green Party.


“John Renteria has the right to do anything he wanted to do,” says Gonzales. “If he’d wanted to run against Alicia, he ought to have done it. Anybody can do anything they want, but wanting and getting are two different things.”


It hasn’t taken long, however, for the focus to switch from Sisneros to Archuleta. “We need to be real cautious and try to work within the caucus,” says Yapias. “Anything that separates the community would not be welcome because we’re trying to make the best primary and may the best candidate win.”


The overarching strategies, however, are taking the hardest knocks. Where Pete Suazo found his strength in disparate coalitions, the Hispanic Caucus appears to be flexing its muscle as a body. And it’s been a long time coming.


When Frank Cordova grew up in Glendale, there were only three Mexican families living there. His was one of them. Cordova part of a pre-hippie faction called the Greasers, as opposed to the straight-laced Betas. They hung out with Anglos who didn’t fit the mold, smoothed pomade on their hair, and wore their shirts unbuttoned to the navel. It was all about image then, because the reality was so bleak.


Now Glendale is some 80 percent Hispanic, and Cordova’s almost establishment. Almost. “It’s hard for people to understand,” says Cordova, long a member of the caucus. “I think that David is a good representative. I don’t know historically his background on the West Side or Central City, but for the most part, Ana has grown up here. Ever since I remember, she participated with organizations for the betterment of the Hispanic community.”


The whole thing makes Latino activist Rebecca Chavez-Houck feel like Marie Antoinette. “It saddens me that we can’t strategize a little better. I and a lot of other people don’t like being put in this Solomonistic position of splitting the baby.”


As a former caucus vice-chairman, Chavez-Houck wonders why Latinos would target an ally when there are so many worthy adversaries in the state. “We have people who are definitely antagonistic to having Latinos be part of the process, but instead of targeting those races, we target a bright, articulate and progressive legislator.”


Archuleta would be a good choice, she says. But why sacrifice Litvack unnecessarily? “You have two good people to choose from, and you don’t want to quash the enthusiasm, since Latinos are so few and far between,” Chavez-Houck says. “But there should be some other way. Conservatively, we’re 20 percent of the statewide population, and we can’t just depend on ourselves. We have to cultivate allies who are not Latino. I think Ana would do some wonderful things in a public policy position-just not this one.”


Gonzales feels just as conflicted. Litvack is a personal friend, and an ally to the Democrats. “I’ve taken out incumbents before, but it was because they have not done what they should for their constituents,” he says.


Litvack has bled for his. A new father, he looks at his son Gabriel and thinks of the non-traditional couples who are being denied parenthood. He remembers the tears of pain on their faces at the Capitol.


Archuleta believes she can do just as much for the whole community, and yet she’s acutely aware of her power base. “I’m a Chicana and I know it,” she says.


Litvack, one of two Jews in the Legislature, takes pride in a different heritage of suffering.


On June 25, voters will be forced to weigh pride against pride, and look their prejudices in the eye.

 
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