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A New Breed of Politician

Mayor Lopez--age 24--runs Nogales, Ariz., in a different way.


Marco A. Lopez, Jr., is the 24-year-old mayor of Nogales, Ariz., but the INS agent beside his car doesn't know this, and Lopez won't tell him. To eyes at the Nogales border crossing, Lopez appears to be a young Hispanic male who put on a tie before trying to enter the United States.

"American citizens," say Lopez and his press secretary, Juan Pablo Guzman.

"American citizens?" the agent says. "All of you?" The agent, with ample build, fair skin, Texas twang and Alan Jackson mustache, could be mistaken for a good ol' boy. "Where are you coming from today?"

"A radio station in Nogales," the mayor says evenly.

"Radio station?" the agent repeats, quizzical.

Lopez declines to mention he gives interviews there, in fluent Spanish, because it's a popular news station in Arizona and Sonora.

The agent notices Lopez's car, a white Ford Crown Victoria owned by the city.

"What government agency do you work for?"

"City of Nogales."

He declines to mention he was elected mayor in September 2000, when he was 22.

Lopez's answer satisfies the agent, and the mayor is allowed into his city. "When they don't recognize me," Lopez says, "I like to see how they treat the regular people."

This is how Arizona's youngest mayor treats his job. Idealism comes before expediency. Principle comes before power. "Absolute refreshing and irrepressible innocence, combined with political sophistication," is how he's described by Glenn Olds, one of his former professors at the University of Arizona.

Lopez has plans for this town of 21,500, whose biggest problems are far older than he is. He will bring jobs to a county with 20 percent unemployment; he will erase the image of a lawless "tunnel town" and he will streamline and secure the border crossings until this is NAFTA's prototypical town of tomorrow.

He also plans to listen to the people, in two languages, and keep his integrity.

"You just have to be honest," Lopez says. "You have to treat politics almost like your family, because it's something that can embrace you one moment and eat you the next." He pauses. "If you're not good."

He plans to do all this, provided he's re-elected Sept. 10, provided the town likes Lopez's professional, by-the-book style better than the scratch-my-back patronage politics of the not-so-distant past. His opponent for mayor, city councilwoman Rosa Elvira Padilla, claims Lopez's inexperience remains a concern. "We lost ... a whole year on him trying to get him that experience and learning," Padilla says.

Olds says Lopez's potential far outweighs his inexperience. "I've been around, and I've seen a lot of students, and he's one of the best," says Olds, who taught at Yale and Cornell, helped President Kennedy found the Peace Corps and served the United Nations for President Nixon. "I don't want to hurt him with my extravagant evaluations. He's destined for very large responsibilities. We'll leave it at that."

On a recent Wednesday, Lopez's schedule stretches from 7 a.m. until sunset. With 10 minutes free between morning meetings, he grabs a pencil and legal pad and jots a script for a campaign advertisement to be filmed at lunchtime. ("Let's continue to build on our progress," becomes the theme.) Then he grabs a file to check how much a TV ad cost during the last campaign.

"Fifteen hundred dollars?" he says. "That's a lot of money." He won a three-candidate race in 2000 by spending $5,571.67. His opponents combined to outspend him 5 to 1, but Lopez compensated by using the media. Sonoran radio and press closely cover Nogales, Ariz., for an audience in Arizona and their friends and relatives in Sonora. Lopez regularly deals with six radio stations and four newspapers; in all but one instance, interviews are in Spanish. He won the 2000 election with 53 percent of the vote, twice that of his closest rival.

Lopez has finished his script when he receives a visit from Albert Kramer. Kramer, serving his fifth term on the Nogales city council, is nearly old enough to be Lopez's grandfather. Lopez introduces Kramer to a reporter "He's an up-and-coming governor, or senator, or congressman," Kramer says, not entirely in jest. The mayor knocks on a wooden corner of his desk.

Nogales elected another young mayor in 1994, 23-year-old Louie Valdez, who welcomed an MTV reality series to town, then canoodled on camera with a cast member. Valdez was not re-elected. During Lopez's first campaign, an interviewer asked if he would be an "MTV mayor." No, Lopez said. He would be a CNN mayor.

Politics have long been serious for Lopez. In third grade, he offered his principal advice on how to run the school. At Nogales High School, he visited daily with assistant principal H. Sue Neilsen (now the Nogales city manager) to ask questions about management and administration. He was active in student politics at UA, and part of Al Gore's advance team for the 2000 presidential campaign.

When the mayor steps out for a moment, Kramer turns serious. Lopez is a gifted communicator-- in two languages. "He's got it," the councilman says. "You can't learn that, even at Harvard. You gotta be born with it."

Lopez's professional approach agrees with city charter reforms enacted just before his inauguration. City jobs and contracts, once offered to elected officials' buddies and big donors, are guarded by new rules and committees. The upcoming election might hinge on whether Lopez is too professional for Nogales. "A lot of people approach the city as they did in the past: 'I voted for you, so I need you to do a job for me,' " city manager Neilsen says.

The city's previous mayor, Cesar Rios, worries that the city is headed for financial disaster. Lopez and Neilsen overspent on raises for city employees, he says, while city services lose money. "Whether they admit it or not," Rios says, "they're nearly bankrupt right now."

And there's the pressure from one's own idealism. During an afternoon break from filming his TV ad, Lopez is asked to name his biggest challenge as mayor. "I think the biggest challenge is being true to yourself," he replies.

The TV ad is followed by a photo opportunity with a fellow Democrat, Arizona Attorney General--and gubernatorial candidate--Janet Napolitano. As Napolitano holds an oversized check for a food bank, Lopez gives an intent, unforced, camera-friendly smile, and the check and the smiles are held for the cameras until everyone gets what they came for. In a two-minute introduction, he calls Napolitano "our friend," "my friend," "a friend of the city" and "a friend of everyone here." Napolitano opens by saying, "I always love coming to Nogales."

Two hours later, Lopez, Napolitano and a few others visit the Nogales home of former Gov. Raul Castro. Pleasant small talk ensues. Somebody asks Lopez if he enjoys being mayor. At times, he says, although it can be a lot of work.

Wait until you're governor, he's told, not entirely in jest.

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