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Manuel ‘Lito’ Peña remembered as ‘godfather of the Senate Dems’

Manuel "Lito" Pena, Jr. (Photo from http://www.asu.edu/clas/hrc/POA/)

Manuel “Lito” Pena, Jr. (Photo from www.asu.edu/clas/hrc/POA/)

Former lawmaker Manuel “Lito” Peña, who served as an Arizona legislator for 30 years, died on Oct. 12.

Peña had been ill for several years, said Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, and died Saturday morning. He was 88.

The Cashion native served in the House of Representatives from 1967 to 1972 before representing south Phoenix in what was then District 22 in the Arizona Senate from 1973 to 1996, when he retired.

Peña’s roughly three decades at the Legislature came before Arizona lawmakers approved term limits in 1992.

Former Sen. Pete Rios, a Democrat from Pinal County, served with Peña and said he was “the quiet force behind the scenes.”

“Lito Peña was known as the godfather of the Senate Democrats in the 80s and 90s,” Rios said.

A Democrat and Army veteran who served in the Pacific theater in World War II, Peña played an active role with the American Legion at Phoenix’s Post 41, where in the 1950s he helped lead a fight to desegregate schools in Tolleson.

Following a November 1950 ruling that the Tolleson Elementary School District open its doors to students of all races, Peña helped get the support needed to force the school to follow through on an injunction issued by the courts demanding they desegregate.

“And they didn’t, they just kept right on doing it,” Peña said, according to an account in Faces of Post 41, a publication by ~Latino Perspectives Magazine.~ “So, I called (the judge) and told him that kids were still being discriminated. And he came into Tolleson and brought the United States Marshall with him.

Luis Gonzales, who served in the Arizona Senate from 1978 to 1986, called Peña the “‘king’ or the ‘champion’ of the amendment. He was an expert.”

“He was the one individual in the Senate who actually took time to talk to me about certain things and certain expectations and how to do certain things,” Gonzales said in a 2012 interview archived by the Arizona Memory Project.

In another recording, former Sen. James Walsh said Peña served as a mentor to young Latino lawmakers.

The Cartwright School District named an elementary school in Phoenix in Peña’s honor.

“He’s truly a hero, he really was. He was a very quiet man… but he has done so much for the West Valley as a member of the Legislature,” said Gallardo, who also serves on the Cartwright school board.

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