African-American presence in Arizona politics

Rep. Dr. Gerae Peten (center, right) and Rep. Reginald Bolding (center, left) marching together at the March For Black Women In Phoenix on Sept. 30, 2017. (Photo: by Jenna Miller / Arizona Capitol Times)

Low population, high unemployment, low median income and a lack of representation in government has left many African-Americans in Arizona out without a voice.

“There are a lot of industries and areas that do not have a lot of people that look like us,” said Natalynn Masters, the second African-American to become University of Arizona student body president.

Rep. Reginald Bolding and Rep. Dr. Gerae Peten are currently the only two African-Americans in the Arizona legislature. On April 25, both were formally rebuked by Arizona house Republicans after giving an opinion on a published column by Rep. Maria Syms. Syms used the “n” word when citing lyrics from a rap song, although Bolding and Peten were offended, House speaker J.D. Mesnard chastised them for not following rules.

“It doesn’t matter whether you are white or black or brown or whatever the color the color of your skin is, you follow the House rules,” said Mesnard.

This incident shows even African-Americans who are in government must deal with being voiceless.

“We saw power and privilege abused in the Arizona Legislature,” Bolding said in a tweet.

Peten was the latest African-American to be elected into the Arizona House of Representatives in 2017. Peten was a part of a wave of African-American politicians who felt inspiration after the 2008 election of Sen. Barack Obama to be president of the United States.

“Historically, African-Americans did not think that their voice mattered, so why bother,” said Peten.

Not only did Obama make African-Americans think they could do it too, but the election of President Donald Trump brought a strong wave as well. For the next round of legislature elections, Peten is expecting for more than six African-American candidates on the ballot.

“If all of them won that would be wonderful,” Peten said.

Current UA junior Natalynn Masters was elected student-body president for the 2018-19 school year. (Photo by: Amy Bailey / The Daily Wildcat)

The next election could shake up the legislature. Peten hopes that one day the state can become Democratic. A shake up in the state can be seen with the election of Natalynn Masters this past March.

For an African-American woman to become student body president at the UA is rare and has only happened once before.

“You are talking and speaking on behalf of students and that is a huge privilege,” said Masters.

Masters sees politics as a space for advocacy. As a sociology and law major, she is interested in the intersections between social issues and the legal system.

“There are a lot of holes in it and how it is structured,” said Masters.

As of March 2018, African-Americans make up 14.2 percent of the Arizona state prison system, according to the Arizona Department of Corrections. African-Americans make up less than 4 percent of the Arizona population.

“How do we fulfill a prison guaranteed occupancy rate of 95 percent in this state, it is racial profiling,” said Peten.

Peten cites Republicans as a reason why Arizona prisons are always nearly full. She believes that Republicans are persistent in criminalizing non-violent offenses that should be no more than a warning.

“It just keeps stacking up, with all that it keeps the jails full,” Peten said.

African Americans make up 33 percent of the Phoenix state prison and 17 percent of the Tucson state prison. Neither city has African-Americans in its city council. For nearly 50 years, African-Americans dominated Phoenix’s district eight electing four during that time. That changed in 2013 when Michael E. Johnson’s term came to an end.

“The majority used to live in South Phoenix and we were able to at least dominate the District eight vote,” said Tremaine Jasper, the owner and editor of spotlights news and events that are prevalent to the African-American community in the Phoenix metropolitan area. As a resident of Phoenix’s 8th District, Jasper has advocated for more African-Americans to move back to South Phoenix. African-Americans are 15 percent of the eighth district, still the largest for any Phoenix district.

Phoenix’s 8th District covers much of South Phoenix, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and some of Downtown Phoenix. (Photograph from Monica Alonzo)

“We just don’t have enough black voters here,” said Jasper.

Jasper wants organizations like the Arizona Commission of African American Affairs to meet monthly with teens and young adults interested in politics. So far, Jasper believes the African-Americans community has done a poor job at creating a pipeline for aspiring African-American politicians in Arizona.

“We need to mentor our aspiring politicians of the future,” said Jasper.

Jasper said for the most part African-Americans lose badly when they run for high-profile offices like governor, mayor, county attorney or congress. For Jasper it is the simply lack of African-American population with a mix of non-blacks not wanting to see African-Americans in those positions.

“The black community has to own some of the blame too,” said Jasper, “We need to become more unified on political issues.”

Coral Evans was able to beat those odds in 2016 and become the first African-American mayor for the City of Flagstaff, which only has about a 2 percent African-American population.

The Arizona African-American Caucus assisted Evans. The group supports works with any democratic politician that will stand up for the African-American community.

“We help recruit candidates, provide training and where we can offer support financially or with volunteers,” said Quiana Dickenson, chair of the caucus since 2015.

Dickenson expects that over 25 of their candidates will run for local and state positions. To ensure a better possibility of winning in these elections, Dickenson said the caucus also works to get unregistered voters registered as Democrats.

“There’s a wise saying that, ‘if you’re not at the table, you’re on the table,” said Jasper.

Justyn Thomas is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at

One comment Add yours
  1. Outstanding piece of work, very informative about the issues that Black Americans face in Arizona. And plenty of info. That is much needed in regards to Black politics.

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