Manuel “Lito” Peña


By Tom Prezelski

Re-blogged from Rum, Romanism and Rebellion

Iconic state Senator Manuel “Lito” Peña, who served in the legislature from 1967 to 1997 passed away today at 88.

I did not have the opportunity to serve with Peña, though his young
protege, Representative John Loredo, was the Democratic Leader during my
first term. I knew him mostly by reputation.

A press release from the Arizona Democratic Party today sums up his legacy:

lost a true pioneer with the death this weekend of Manuel ‘Lito’ Peña
who served with distinction for 30 years in the Arizona State
Legislature. Lito was one of those rare individuals who had the vision
to see society’s inequities and the courage to do something about them.
He was a proud Democrat and one of the architects of the early voter
registration projects targeting Mexican-Americans in the valley. That
led him to become involved in the court case which ultimately led to the
end of segregated schools in Arizona. Mr. Peña was a long time
supporter of a Martin Luther King Holiday in Arizona. He also backed
legislation protecting working families, the homeless and the disabled.
Lito was one of the strongest legislative voices advocating the
elimination of the state sales tax on food.

Lito served on numerous boards and commissions including the City of
Phoenix Human Relations Commission, Movimiento Unido Mexicano, American
Legion Post 41 and the Phoenix Catholic Labor Society.

Lito Peña leaves a proud legacy of service, integrity and honor. Our
hearts go out to the Peña family. We share their profound sense of loss.

Funeral services are pending.

Update: From Tucson attorney Barry Kirschner comes this remembrance which is here presented in full:

Manuel “Lito” Peña has died at age 88.  He played a great
part in advancing political advocacy and involvement for Hispanics and
poor persons in Arizona.

I met Lito Peña in 1972. I was writing for New Times, covering HB
2134, the Arizona Agricultural Employment Relations Act (AERA). It was
an anti-labor law circulated in about 16 states by the Arizona Farm
Bureau. Lito Peña was the strongest and most vocal opponent of the bill
in Arizona’s legislature.

Lito was a decent man who tried to help poor people. He was friends
with Cesar Chavez and Gustavo Gutierrez who organized farm workers in
Arizona’s fields. He hired feminist Madeline Van Arsdell as his
secretary when elected to the Senate in 1972 and entitled to one staff
member. He caught a lot of hell for his anti-abortion position.

We had the honor of Lito leading the procession in the traditional
Mexican wedding dance at our wedding in 1975. We weren’t Mexican, but we
adopted some of the culture and dress. Lito was willing to be

As stated in the linked article below,
he gave energy and insight to bringing the idea of registering voters
in communities on the southwest side of Phoenix. That was not done
before Lito.

Lito was a real Democrat. In 1974 the Watergate scandal irrigated our
desert to give us an 18-12 majority in the Arizona Senate. Lito ran for
Majority leader against (I recall) Bob Stump.  Stump won his majority. A
few years later Stump won a seat in Congress, and switched to the
Republican Party when Reagan was president.

Local Tucson talk show host John C. Scott, then known as John Scott
Ulm, was elected to the Senate in 1974 as a progressive with Labor’s
support.  I remember learning that Ulm had the courage to vote “present”
in the contest between Pena and Stump the Blue (soon to be red) Dog.

Lito was a fine man who was devoted to many good causes.  He will be missed.