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The way we were

Removing Az politicians from office not unprecedented

Earlier this month, Arizonans were treated to the rare spectacle of the State House of Representatives voting to remove one of their own for misbehavior in office. The press was quick to point out that this was not an unprecedented act, but one would have to go back 70 years to see when it happened before. Clearly, this is an extreme measure.

The last representative to be expelled this way was in 1948. His name was Frank Robles, a Democrat whose district included the neighborhoods that now comprise the West Side of Tucson (which were then outside of city limits) and his own Barrio Viejo as well as the unincorporated farm communities of Cortaro and Marana. This constituency was largely Mexican-American, what the local English-language press patronizingly (and inaccurately) called "The Spanish Colony."

Though his fierce advocacy for progressive causes endeared him to his constituents in Tucson, he would offend the powers that be at the Capitol and make enemies among the local political establishment. The Board of Supervisors took special interest in the case, as the fate of Robles, and his seat, became tied to a piece of legislation critical to the future of Pima County.

Robles was born in Tucson in 1911. He had worked selling newspapers door-to-door before operating a service station. His work in the community included organizing Mexican-American participation in the YMCA and the Fiesta de los Vaqueros. He also managed Las Carlistas, the legendary Lalo Guerrero's first band.

In 1940, the Pima County Board of Supervisors appointed Robles to the State House of Representatives to fill the unexpired term of a legislator who had passed away. Robles quickly became known for his commitment to civil rights, labor, and social welfare, and earned enough respect from his colleagues to serve as a committee vice-chairman. However, in the face of rapid growth associated with war-era defense industrialization, Arizona's politics soon swung rightward, and the Capitol quickly became an outright hostile place for progressives like Robles. Robles became more strident in response.

In his third full term, Robles found a soulmate of sorts in Sidney Kartus, a newly elected Democrat from Phoenix. It is safe to say that the two tended to bring about the worst in each other, and they quickly developed a reputation for disruptive behavior and flouting legislative procedure. One newspaper alleged that between the two of them, their floor speeches and pointless parliamentary motions consumed about one-third of the legislature's time. In one spectacular incident, Robles tore up the House rulebook while defying the speaker's attempt to gavel him down.

Back home in Tucson, Robles faced criticism from the Arizona Daily Star, which characterized him as someone "who trades on race prejudice" and "antagonizes those he pretends to protect." However, El Tucsonense, the city's leading Spanish-language newspaper, continued to support Robles, saying that he was "always fighting for the interests of our people" and crediting the construction of La Reforma, Tucson's first public housing project, to his efforts. In the Sept. 7, 1948, primary, Robles faced Tony Rios, manager of the Spanish-American Club, whose candidacy was supported by the Pima County's Democratic establishment. Robles won by 49 votes out of 2,163 cast.

Characterized by one newspaper as "snarling, biting, sniping, fumbling, inconsistent, howling [and] sanctimonious," the 18th Legislature of 1947-1948 was the most difficult one in memory as the solons argued about a number of critical and contentious issues, including right-to-work and water management. The latter was complicated by Kartus and Robles' advocacy for what was then seen as a harebrained scheme to deliver water to Phoenix and Tucson directly from the Colorado River via a series of canals and pipelines. Gov. Sidney Osborn, a progressive Democrat, was in rapidly declining health, which only added to the tension and confusion. The Legislature met for a record 175 days and was called back for seven special sessions.

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The last such session was called for September 13 by acting Gov. Dan Garvey, who succeeded to the office after Osborn's death in May. Garvey's agenda listed a long list of issues left unresolved in previous sessions, including the authorization of local flood-control districts, a priority for Pima County.

Especially divisive were measures reauthorizing the state's welfare program, a series of bills that critics charged were burdensome to recipients and inadequate. The American Federation of Labor surrounded the Capitol with pickets and the halls were packed with vocal opponents of the legislation. Kartus and Robles, who played to the gallery in floor speeches, were accused of masterminding the commotion.

On Sept. 24, Robles brought a group of 15 protestors to the floor in blatant defiance of House rules. When Rep. A.R. Spikes, a conservative Democrat from Bowie, stepped in to tell them they were out of order, Robles reportedly told the group "Don't listen to him. He's a communist."

Spikes responded by punching Robles in the face. Robles briefly staggered back, but remained standing, taking another punch before getting Spikes in a clinch and landing a few body blows himself. The two were separated by their colleagues.

The Legislature took action, not against Spikes, who swung the first punch, but against Kartus and Robles, for having "incited, aided and abetted certain persons intending to coerce and intimidate members of the 18th Legislature." That one legislator cited Robles' work with a civil rights organization as evidence of his "subversive" tendencies seems to indicate that some of the animus was about his views as much as his tactics. With two separate resolutions, the Legislature voted to expel Kartus and Robles on Oct. 1.

Back in the Old Pueblo, the Board of Supervisors acted quickly. The fate of the flood-control legislation remained unresolved, so the county needed every vote they could get. The next day, they met to appoint Tony Rios, who had lost the Democratic primary to Robles just weeks before, to the seat. Rios was already at the Capitol, having been serving as an "attaché" to another member of the Pima County delegation.

In the end, this was moot. The critical flood-control district bill passed, but it was vetoed by Garvey. Robles, having already secured the Democratic nomination, would easily win the general election over token Republican opposition, and was back in the Legislature for the next regular session in January. He would serve three more terms, and even chair a committee. In 1950, the Star would endorse Robles, praising him for his experience. Robles' colorful career, like the Legislature itself, proceeded almost as if none of this ever happened.

Tom Prezelski’s column on some of the history behind the people and places of Pima County is featured in the Pima County FYI newsletter each month. Prezelski is a Tucson native and former member of the Arizona House of Representatives. His first book, “Californio Lancers: The 1st Battalion of Native Cavalry in the Far West” was a finalist for the 2016 Latino Book Awards.

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The statue of 'Winged Victory' atop the dome of the Arizona Capitol.