Valley Interfaith

Valley Interfaith to launch "action agenda"

Goal is to create political force

April 27, 1997

By Michael Murphy and Chris Fiscus

The Arizona Republic

A coalition of ministers and church members has vowed to create a new chapter  of aggressive grass-roots politics in Arizona by signing up 100,000 voters to  push its "action agenda."

The Valley Interfaith Project will launch its Sign Up and Take Charge  initiative today with an afternoon convention at the Phoenix Civic Plaza. it is  expected to attract 3,000 VIP members and political and religious leaders.

Organizers envision Valley Interfaith becoming a formidable force in Arizona  politics, with a sophisticated organization and enough voting power to make or  break candidates in the 1998 elections, keying on legislative races.

But the state's political establishment wary of the group's sometimes  confrontational approach appears to be only mildly concerned.

Rep. Mark Anderson, R-Mesa said the Valley Interfaith Project is attempting  to become a "Christian Coalition of the Left".

Yet Anderson, who worked with the group on welfare reform this year, doubts  it will be able to create a shift in political power in a solidly conservative  state.

"Thepeople that are organizing it are people coming out of the  old-style leftist tradition of in-your-face, more protest type of politics, and  they're not used to organizing people to vote and getting them to lobby elected  officials," Anderson said.

The group's agenda, aimed at helping lower-income Valley residents, ranges  from creating affordable housing to promoting a dedicated source for mass-  transit funding.

Valley Interfaith is tied to sister organizations like the Pima County  Interfaith Council in Tucson, and others throughout Texas, in cities such as  Houston, Austin and Fort Worth.

VIP is a spinoff of the Industrial Areas Foundation founded by Chicago  radical activist Saul Alinsky. The foundation believes in grass-roots  organization, and it isn't afraid of using confrontation to achieve its  goals.

In Arizona that approach has rubbed some GOP lawmakers the wrong way,  particularly during recent haggling over welfare reform at the Legislature.

But leaders of the group say they aren't a militant leftist organization.

"There's probably some people out there that think that way," said Janet  Valder, an executive co-chairwoman of the group. "But if anything, we are  bringing the community together."

The iron rule, she says, is the reason she's in the group. The rule: Don't do  for others what they can do for themselves.

That message is central to the group.

But Valder says, 'Our issues are very grass roots. They come out of the  churches, the schools, the community. If they're coming from the people, I don't  know how they (politicians) can dispute the issues are real. There are people  that don't have a voice and are being left by the wayside. We aren't lobbyists.  We do have power in organization."

Yet when it comes to this year's welfare-reform debate, some lawmakers say,  the group seemed to fumble.

Republican architects of welfare reform said VIP leaders entered the debate  at the 11th hour and then accused legislators of trying to shut them out.

Rep. Carolyn Allen said the group first showed up at the state Capitol in  early March to demand meetings with GOP leaders and Gov.Fife Symington.

"The terminology used by the guards here was, they tried to storm my office,"  Allen said.

The Scottsdale Republican wasn't in her office. VIP leaders also reportedly  had a heated encounter with House Speaker Don Aldridge.

'That didn't go as well as we would have liked," Valder said. "It was  not as cordial a visit as it could have been."

She acknowledged that some elected officials have been offended when the  group demanded time with them.

'Maybe a couple of visits didn't sit well" Valder said.

We don't want to be put off. When we gather a lot of people around us, I  don't think it's too much to ask to come down and speak to us."

Allen and Anderson said that approach may have backfired.

"They came very late to the table," Allen said. "I wouldn't say they had  a

a great impact."

Allen, who plans to appear at today's rally, gave the group some stem advice.  She said she told them:

"If they intended to be players, if they intended to have an impact, they  would have to conduct themselves in a less confrontational manner. They could  not come down and appear to be getting in peoples' faces.

"After that, my intention with them was very fine."

Anderson and other lawmakers huddled with the group's members in late March  but by then, the welfare debate was all but over.

'If they really wanted to have as much input as they wanted to have, they  should have started contacting us quite a bit earlier,"'Anderson said. "If you  just start meeting withpeople two weeks before the (legislative) session  is over on a mayor issue like welfare reform, it's kind of late."

Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza, who is expected to attend todays convention, has  encountered determined VIP members in recent years when it comes time to make  annual budget decisions.

The city, under pressure from VIP, agreed last year to provide $2 million for  after-school and summer jobs programs for youth. About the same amount is  expected in the new city budget.

I think they would be very frightening to elected state officials," Rimsza  said, saying the group's approach is far different from that of lobbyists.  "There'sno question that Valley Interfaith is very direct in what they  want"

Rimsza applauds VIP's efforts, saying the group takes people who ordinarily  would have no voice in decisions that affect them and 'gives them ownership in  an issue so they can feel like they made it happen, and they did make it  happen."

Added Phoenix Vice Mayor Peggy Bilsten, "All these people are coming  together, and they're finding out how much power they have collectively. They're  part of the whole neighborhood movement. I love 'em."

Valder sees today's rally as key to the organizations development as a  powerful political force.

"You could say it's taking it to another level," she said.

The group will use the day to launch Sign Up and Take Charge, an ambitious  initiative to sign-up 50,000 registered voters in metropolitan Phoenix in the  next 18 months. The Pima County Interfaith Council and the East Valley  lnterfaith Sponsoring Committee, who, with VIP, make up Arizona Interfaith, plan  to sign up an additional 40,000 voters and 10,000 voters respectively.

Eventually, the group plans to conduct "candidate accountability" sessions,  where candidates will be asked whether they will follow the group's agenda.

The organization won't make endorsements of candidates or make campaign  contributions, Valder said. But nonpartisan voter registration and participation  programs are planned for statewide elections starting in 1998.

Today's convention she said, is 'like an commencement."

"It's developing the will and the way of the organization," she added.

We're reaching more people, we're deepening the relationship with city  government and the state government."

Part of the convention is to have a naturalization ceremony. One of the  group's projects is to naturalize immigrants and have them registered to vote in  time for the 1998 election.

Though the organization touts itself as nonpartisan, Arizona Democratic Party  officials acknowledge that they view the VIPs registration effort as a potential  registration windfall for the party.

"That's why we're so enthused" said Melodee Jackson, state Democratic Party  executive director. 'I think they're looking at a very underrepresented group of  voters ... and I that's a proper target for them.

"They're disenfranchised by what is being done to the social network and  they're disenfranchised by not participating electorally."