Skip to main content

New center for politics to engage students in civic leadership

Congressman Ed Pastor speaks at a NEA awards ceremony in July 2013.

Congressman Ed Pastor speaks at a National Education Association Human and Civil Rights Awards Dinner in July 2013 where he received the President's Award.
Photo by: NEA/Calvin Knight

July 24, 2015

Ed Pastor grabs a white board marker and begins to write on a conference room wall. For the majority of his 23 years in Congress, Pastor maintained an office on the first floor of the nine story building at 411 North Central Avenue in downtown Phoenix. Now, he’s on the building’s seventh floor, where the dean’s office of the College of Public Service and Community Solutions is located. The retired congressman has just returned from an interview at KJZZ, the local NPR station, and is awaiting a phone call from a reporter at the Arizona Republic.

Dressed in a blue oxford shirt and dark slacks, he writes an upside down exclamation point. It’s called a “punto/signo de exclamación” in Spanish, where punctuation marks are used before and after sentences ending in exclamation points and question marks. Pastor then writes in cursive “You can if you get off your can” and underlines the last word. He says the phrase out loud and chuckles.

He first heard the phrase in 1972 when he was working with the Rainbow Coalition. It was uttered by the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Pastor had used the phrase during the interview on KJZZ when the conversation turned toward getting people involved in the political process.

“We have a new slogan!” remarked radio host Steve Goldstein. 

“When you get off your can, you’re going to be more effective,” exclaimed Pastor.

The former congressman was on KJZZ’s "Here and Now" show to talk about a new Arizona State University endeavor he’s lending his name and one million dollars in leftover campaign money to: The Ed Pastor Center for Politics and Public Service.

The idea for the Center for Politics and Public Service came from Jonathan Koppell, dean of the College of Public Service and Community Solutions. As an undergraduate student at Harvard, Koppell was involved with the university’s Institute of Politics, where he had the opportunity to meet and speak with national policymakers and international heads of state. Koppell envisioned a similar program at Arizona State. 

“What we didn’t have was the right inspirational character to build our center around,” says Koppell. “So when congressman Pastor announced his retirement it just seemed like a natural to have a figure that has represented everything that public service should be in our state.”

A work horse, not a show horse

For the majority of his time in Congress, Ed Pastor served as a chief deputy whip for the Democratic caucus — responsible for getting members to vote for bills supported by leadership. The job required having the respect of peers and the ability to persuade others to vote for bills they may initially oppose. It was a task that suited Pastor well.

He preferred to work behind the scenes, building relationships across the political aisle. Pastor admits that was easier to do when he was first elected, as members would talk to one another at the dining hall, in the gym or at social events on the weekend. Not so much anymore.

“Members don’t spend a lot of time in Washington D.C.,” says Pastor. “They’ll show up the first day of voting and will be on an airplane as soon as the last vote has been cast.”

Pastor was old school when it came to communication. He never used email. He never carried a cell phone. He preferred to read up on subjects or talk to people in person. And if he talked by phone, if it wasn’t from a landline, it was from the cell phone of a staffer or friend.

Over his years in Congress, Pastor noticed a change in the people he served with. Many would play to the media, helping fill airtime for cable news channels and providing fodder for newspaper stories and internet blogs. Social media took it to another level with members or their staff monitoring and posting comments on Twitter and Facebook or images on Instagram.

Pastor shunned the limelight that many politicians seek. He rarely held press conferences, let alone give interviews. And he never got into social media. There’s a good reason why.

“I learned very quickly in politics when I became a (county) supervisor, you can be a show horse or a work horse,” Pastor told reporter Brahm Resnik on the 12 News show "Sunday Square Off." “A show horse — you did things to get on radio and television. A work horse — you did your job and people appreciated what you did.”

What Pastor did was focus on what he thought was good for Arizona. That meant supporting legislation that would help the state and securing earmarks for projects important to local communities.

“It didn’t matter whether or not it was his district,” says Art Hamilton, a former Arizona House minority leader who worked with Pastor on requests by local cities. “He would always give you his ear. And if he could help you, he’d help you.”

The congressman had a coveted seat on the House Appropriations Committee, which allowed him to secure funding for numerous projects, including the valley’s light rail system, Maricopa County’s homeless campus, and the restoration of wetland along the Salt River in south Phoenix. 

“As Arizona's first Hispanic Congressman, his passion and service to Arizona are reflected in his support for educational funding, the transformation of the Rio Salado (Salt River) into an ecological paradise for South Phoenix and the light rail system,” says Tommy Espinoza, president and CEO of the nonprofit Raza Development Fund. “These projects alone stand as testaments to his unwavering service and impact in Arizona.”

A career of public service

Pastor wasn’t the first in his family to serve in office. That would be his brother Robert, who was elected Justice of the Peace in South Phoenix in 1974 at the age of 26. At the time, he was the youngest person ever elected Justice of the Peace in Arizona. But Robert’s political career was cut short. He was killed in a car crash the following year.

Pastor was the oldest of three siblings. They grew up in the small mining town of Claypool 90 miles east of Phoenix where their father worked as a miner and served in leadership positions in the local union. Their parents, Enrique and Margarita Pastor placed an emphasis on hard work, education and helping others.

“His mom and dad were not only people he adored, but people he admired,” says Hamilton, who also knew Ed’s brother Robert. “They were very keen on the notion of public service. They did it themselves and they inculcated that in their children.” 

Pastor earned a scholarship to Arizona State University where he graduated with a chemistry degree in 1966. He became a high school chemistry teacher at North High School in Phoenix. At night, he taught adult education in Guadalupe, an unincorporated area bordering Tempe and Phoenix. His students were farm laborers. In 1969 became a deputy director for the nonprofit he taught classes for, Guadalupe Organization. It also ran its own credit union, was involved in community organizing and helped people solve everyday problems.

“It probably had a bigger impact on my life,” Pastor says. “I basically saw there was a lot of need in my community--need for education opportunities, need for economic development, need for more political participation.”

In 1971, Pastor became vice president of the Maricopa Legal Aid Society and enrolled in law school at ASU. After Raul Castro became the first Latino elected Governor of Arizona in 1974, Pastor became an assistant on his staff focusing on civil rights enforcement. Two years later he entered politics as a candidate for the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors and won.  Pastor won re-election three times, but resigned from his county office in 1991 to run for an open Congressional seat. Arizona congressman Morris Udall was retiring before his term expired. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease more than a decade before, but a fall causing a serious injury precipitated the decision to leave Congress.

“You can never replace Mo Udall. He is such an icon in Arizona and national politics,” Pastor points out. “So we were very sensitive about using the word ‘replace.’ It was always to ‘succeed’ Mo Udall.”

Pastor continued Udall’s tradition of protecting the environment, supporting local efforts to clean air and water and federal efforts to protect wilderness. He also looked out for Arizona’s economy by supporting the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 with the rest of the Arizona delegation. The majority of democrats in Congress were opposed.

Pastor was one of the first members of Congress to advocate on behalf of children who were brought to the U.S. by their parents who lacked legal status. The DREAM Act, as it was called, would never get the support it needed to pass. Pastor also advocated for immigration reform, but despite a bipartisan plan, a bill never made it through both chambers of Congress.

One of the most notable bills that Pastor voted for is the Affordable Care Act of 2010. It was opposed by all 178 Republicans and 34 Democrats. It still had enough votes to pass on a simple majority with six votes to spare in the House.

But the votes Pastor cast in Congress are only a small portion of what the Congressman did to make a difference in the lives of Arizonans says Jonathan Koppell.

“It’s about how he connected important constituents with the services that they needed,” Koppell notes. “It’s about how he brought together different interests to work together instead of against each one another. That’s the kind of thing that people in politics do. They work to create change through political and government structures that many people never hear about.”

And that’s what Koppell wants ASU students to learn. They will get that opportunity a number of ways.

What the center will do

The Ed Pastor Center for Politics and Public Service will host election forums and debates aimed at races and issues that may not get the most attention. Last fall, the college hosted a town hall with candidates for Arizona Secretary of State that was also streamed live online. The center will also host post-election forums where the goal is to examine recently concluded elections to learn how they will impact future campaigns and public policy.

The center will sponsor campaign workshops in non-election years. Campaign managers and professionals involved in statewide and congressional campaigns will be asked to participate in workshops that explore past campaigns and the latest strategies and tactics employed. These frank discussions will help students better understand the nature of modern elections and what it takes to run a successful campaign.

Students will also be introduced to key political and policy figures through a distinguished visiting fellows program. These individuals will be invited to share their knowledge with students in settings that allow for individual give and take. Pastor knows he can play a role in getting noteworthy policymakers to participate. 

“I want students to get as many resources — seminars, workshops and internships — so when they graduate, they have a better understanding of how policies affect their careers,” Pastor says. “And hopefully, they may decide to get involved in the political process to make a difference.”

He already has an idea that could make for an insightful seminar for students. State lawmakers recently passed a law signed by Governor Doug Ducey that limits the amount of time individuals can receive help from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Family Cash Assistance program. Federal law allows individuals to collect payments for up to five years total. Arizona’s law had a two year limit, but the new law reduces that to one year.

“I think it would be interesting for the students to hear from the policymakers about why this policy came about,” Pastor says. “The students can also hear from people who are going to be affected so they know what kind of impact it’s going to have.”

Linking college students involved in leadership programs across Arizona will be a goal of the center. Connecting like-minded students and their projects can help maximize their impact on the community and improve their ability to collaborate. The College of Public Service and Community Solutions has achieved this with its Spirit of Service Scholar program where members partnered with Flinn Foundation Scholars to organize seminars and broaden networks.

The college will also leverage the links it enjoys with the community of practitioners through the Morrison Institute for Public Policy, Bob Ramsey Executive Education Center and other centers.  Students involved in the Ed Pastor Center will have numerous opportunities to learn from experienced public servants and elected leaders. 

People who have a lasting impact on public service and public policy will be recognized through annual public service awards given out by the Pastor Center. The awards will acknowledge individuals who have distinguished themselves for their work in politics and public service. 

Student involvement

The Ed Pastor Center for Politics and Political Service will be student driven. Meaning students, themselves, will propose the kind of events it will sponsor.

Emily Barney hopes to be a part of it. Barney chose ASU because of its highly-ranked criminology and criminal justice program, but once she saw the role that politics played in creating policy, Barney switched majors to public service and public policy. 

“I felt it more accurately reflected what I wanted to do with my career after graduation, which is to work in government and politics and run for public office one day,” says Barney.

She’s got a good head start. Barney and a classmate serve as ASU ambassadors for Harvard University’s Institute of Politics and its National Campaign for Political and Civic Engagement. ASU is one of 24 colleges and universities affiliated with the Harvard program. It allows ASU students to attend an annual conference where they learn how to affect change at the local and national level. Students are also tasked with developing projects for their local communities.

“My partner, Lauren Bacon, and I chose campus sexual assault as our issue to focus on,” Barney says. And our time in the program helped us understand the dynamics of bringing different organizations together on campus and in the community to address this widespread problem.”

Barney thinks the Ed Pastor Center for Politics and Public Service will help students become more aware of the issues that directly impact them. More importantly, she expects students will learn how they can help make a difference in the community.

“Our generation will soon be the ones who are going to be tackling these emerging social problems,” says Barney. “The Ed Pastor Center will help to educate these leaders in public service and leadership.”