After 23 years, Rep. Pastor to retire

Dan Nowicki and Daniel González
The Republic | azcentral.com;

U.S. Rep. Ed Pastor, Arizona’s first Hispanic member of Congress, whose low-key style obscured his behind-the-scenes effectiveness in directing federal money to local projects, will leave a legacy as a hardworking lawmaker who was well-respected on both sides of the aisle.

The Democratic congressman unexpectedly announced Thursday that he will not seek re-election after 23 years on Capitol Hill.

Pastor, 70, is the most senior member of Arizona’s House delegation and serves on the powerful House Appropriations Committee. Unlike some Arizona Republicans he has served with, Pastor has never hesitated to use his position to secure funding for local priorities, such as Maricopa County’s light-rail system and improvements at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

His decision to exit Congress is a blow to the state’s stature on the Hill and is expected to trigger a heated race to replace him in the solidly Democratic and Latino 7th Congressional District.

“This was a surprise to many people,” said Mario Diaz, a Phoenix Democratic political consultant who was one of Pastor’s first hires when he joined Congress in 1991. “He is leaving of his accord, and he’s leaving on the top of a congressional career that puts him at the level of (late former Sens.) Carl Hayden and Barry Goldwater for what he has done for Arizona.”

President Barack Obama was among the national leaders who saluted Pastor on Thursday after the announcement.

“The first in his family to graduate from college, and the first Hispanic congressman ever elected from Arizona, Ed Pastor has spent his life fighting to give every American the same chance to work hard and get ahead that this country gave him,” Obama said in a written statement.

“Ed has devoted his 23 years in Congress to helping hardworking families, fighting to fix our broken immigration system, and guaranteeing access to quality, affordable health care for all. As one of the most senior members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Ed also has served as a mentor and role model to young Latinos and Latinas throughout Arizona and our country, and his leadership will be missed.”

A former longtime member of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, Pastor was sworn in to Congress on Oct. 3, 1991. He had won a Sept. 24, 1991, special election for the seat that had been vacated by Rep. Morris Udall, D-Ariz., who stepped down because of declining health.

In an interview with The Arizona Republic, Pastor said there are no health or family issues behind his decision, just a desire to move on and do something different.

Pastor recalled a conversation he once had with the late, long-serving Rep. Sidney Yates, D-Ill., who counseled him to either leave Congress while he was young enough to do something else or “stay and go out on a gurney.” His thinking about retirement further crystallized, he said, while watching late-night comedian Jay Leno’s final appearance on NBC’s “The ­Tonight Show.”

“Any politician wants to get re-elected, and I’ve done it, what, 11 times,” Pastor said. “For me, I figure I’ll be 71 years old, and it will be 23 years (in Congress) in October. There’s another chapter in my life I want to do, so I figure I better do it now.”

Pastor said he doesn’t expect to pursue other political office, but he may try to teach at a community college or assist non-profit organizations in some way. His final House term officially ends on Jan. 3.

Taking a cue from U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Pastor wants to use his leftover campaign war chest — more than $1 million — to start or help some sort of non-profit organization.

McCain used some money left over from his 2008 presidential run to start the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University. Retiring lawmakers have the option of giving their unused campaign money to charity.

Looking back, Pastor pointed to several key Arizona projects that he played an instrumental role in funding. He also said he is proud of the work he has done to help people become citizens and to stop deportations, as well as other constituent-services work.

“I don’t know if there’s one great accomplishment. I don’t know if one is greater than another,” Pastor said. “But the reputation I am leaving with, I think, is when people needed something, they called on me, and the probability was that we were able to help them.”

Pastor said his low-profile style dates to his campaign to succeed Udall, who had unsuccessfully run for president in 1976 and was viewed as a Democratic giant.

“When I announced back in ’91, I said I hoped I didn’t disappoint anybody, but my philosophy was I was going to be a workhorse and not a show horse,” Pastor said. “My 16 years as a county supervisor showed me that people respected a politician, respected a person, if they accomplished something rather than just talked about it.”

Ronnie Lopez, who grew up with Pastor and is a close political adviser, said, “It was always our intention to leave on a high (note) and on nobody else’s terms.”

He called Pastor a role model because he rose from humble roots to Congress.

Lopez noted that the street Pastor grew up on in Claypool, a tiny community near Miami, was really no more than an alley, but it has been renamed Avenida de Ed Pastor in his honor. An elementary school in San Luis, a border city in the southwestern part of the state, also bears his name.

“What it said to a whole lot of folks, in particular from the Mexican-American community, was you, too, can be a ­congressman,” Lopez said of Pastor.

He said Pastor’s retirement will be a big loss to the state because of his influence in Congress as a member of the House Appropriations Committee and as the ranking Democrat of the panel’s transportation subcommittee.

“You can just take a look around (Arizona), and you can see his handprint,” Lopez said, noting that Pastor played a key role in securing federal funding for Tempe Town Lake, Sky Harbor’s air-traffic-control tower and many other Arizona projects.

Edmundo Hidalgo, president and CEO of Chicanos Por La Causa, said that as the first ­Hispanic from Arizona to be elected to Congress, Pastor was a role model for Latinos. “He opened a lot of doors for a lot of aspiring elected officials,” ­Hidalgo said.

Pastor helped CPLC grow into the third-largest Latino social-services agency in the nation by helping the agency tap into federal funding.

“He was always someone you could go to, to understand where the trends were to help identify funding,” Hidalgo said.

Despite shying away from the limelight, Pastor didn’t completely avoid media scrutiny over the years. He was criticized after The Republic revealed in 2007 that he had steered millions in federal dollars to a scholarship program for at-risk high-school students headed by his daughter.

He also took flak when the New York Times showed in 2012 that, in his two decades in office, he had gone from having a middle-class net worth to becoming a millionaire, joining nearly half of the members of Congress who are millionaires.

Alfredo Gutierrez, a former state lawmaker and legislative leader who grew up with Pastor in eastern Arizona, said Pastor also has been a strong supporter of immigration reform, but has been criticized by some Latinos for not taking a more vocal stance against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s immigration sweeps and in urging Obama to suspend deportations until Congress passes an immigration bill.

“He’s supportive” of those ­issues, Gutierrez said, but “not outspoken.”

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who crusaded against earmarks while serving with Pastor in the House, disagreed with Pastor on parochial congressional spending but hailed him as an old-style Arizona statesman whose goal was to better the state.

“I don’t think it’s possible not to like Ed Pastor. He’s a good man,” said Flake, who was elected to the Senate in 2012 after serving six House terms.

“We had a different philosophy on earmarks and a number of other things,” Flake said, “but we worked together on clean-air rules and regulations and on resource and mining issues. Those issues cut across party lines, and he was always willing to work with Republicans on those issues.”

One longtime observer of Arizona politics likened Pastor to former three-term U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who did a lot of work for the state but didn’t ­always need to be the center of attention or claim the credit.

In Pastor’s case, it likely had at least something to do with the fact that he represented a politically bulletproof district, said Bruce Merrill, a veteran political scientist, pollster and senior research fellow at ASU’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

“Ed has been a fixture for a very long time,” Merrill said. “I was surprised. He could have stayed in that district for as long as he wanted to. You have to wonder why he would retire, because the Appropriations seat that he has is one of the most powerful in the Congress, and you don’t give those up lightly.”

Republic reporter Rebekah L. Sanders contributed to this article.