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Replacing Raúl

When Grijalva resigns to run for Congress, who will get his county seat?

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Raúl Grijalva is on the line, talking on a cell phone to reschedule an interview appointment he has blown off three times. Anything less, he cheerfully admits, would diminish his reputation as a stand-up artist.

It is just a few days from a stop he made at the Arizona Inn for a Hispanic Political Action Committee party that became a congressional promenade he shared with Jaime Gutierrez and Elaine Richardson.

Times, they are a-changing.

Through his three and one-fourth terms on the Board of Supervisors, Grijalva was the rare Pima County boss to travel untethered by cell phone. Those were the days when Grijalva, in his office or while having a smoke in the county's subterranean diner, would lampoon HPAC and other "High-Spanics."

Now he is four to six weeks away from an expected announcement that he will leave the county's District 5 office after 13 years to plunge into a crowded Democratic primary for Congress in a district 51 percent of which is Pima County, and a political territory that remains particularly well suited to him.

Nonetheless, he faces formidable competition from state Sen. Elaine Richardson, who is wooing backers and money here and in Washington, D.C., and Gutierrez, Richardson's predecessor, who now operates at the University of Arizona under the squishy title of vice president for community relations. There is a long line of other, potential opponents, including former Mayor Tom Volgy, a Democrat; Republican/ Independent Dr. Rich Carmona; and Republican Yuma City Councilman Ross Heib.

Back on the Board of Supervisors, who will be the next Raúl?

A surprise or dark horse, most likely.

The successor, who must face voters in a special election in the fall to retain the seat through 2004, must by law be a Democrat. And, by political morals, a Mexican-American. Grijalva succeeded David Yetman, a thoroughly bilingual Democrat who ousted Joe Castillo in 1976 and held the District 5 seat for 12 years.

The choice is left to the remaining supervisors: Democrat Dan Eckstrom, the only person to serve longer than Grijalva; Democrat Sharon Bronson; and Republicans Raymond Carroll and Ann Day. Board Clerk Lori Godoshian is the tie breaker, an act she was forced to perform for Grijalva to get Carroll to the board in 1997.

As successor, the usual suspects are Salomon Baldenegro, the Chicano activist; José Ibarra, a former Grijalva aide now in his second term on the City Council; and Frank Felix, a former state senator and UA functionary.

Bronson, according to staff, favors a woman, and that leads us to the dark horses and surprises.

Irma Yepez Perez lost to Ibarra by only a handful of votes in a crowded Democratic primary in westside Ward 1 in 1995. She had served as an aide to Ibarra's predecessor, Bruce Wheeler. Her candidacy sprang, at least partially, out of rumor-planting that backfired on Grijalva and his political aides. They dissed her when she went to speak in favor of the Cesar Chavez holiday (like Chavez, she is from Yuma) and grumbled that she was not on their roster of speakers and was only seeking a profile because of an alliance with Carroll's aide Scott Egan, also a former Wheeler aide.

She initially laughed the rumor off, but has since expressed interest in the seat.

State Rep. Debora Norris, a Sells Democrat, has also expressed interest. First elected in 1996, Norris is a Stanford graduate and a Navajo who also is exploring runs for Congress in either a northeast Arizona district that includes Navajo lands or in the new district Grijalva hopes to represent. She now lives in Bronson's District 3.

Margarita Bernal, a Tucson magistrate for 16 years, also has been listed as a Grijalva successor. She said she told Bronson aide Leslie Nixon, however, to count her out.

"I'm honored, but not interested," she told the Weekly.

She also expressed concern about that a conflict would arise because her brother, John Bernal, is a deputy county administrator in charge of public works.

Another Grijalva ally is Isabel Garcia, an activist for Mexican-American civil rights and the head of the county's Legal Defender office. She did not return calls.

Nixon said she "would love" to see Garcia on the board, but that it is unlikely. "I don't think she's interested in making that jump," Nixon said.

Garcia's southwest-side precinct 23 is in Bronson's district but is being moved under county redistricting to Grijalva's District 5.

Another Bronson surprise could be Virginia Yrun, the onetime Republican and current Democrat who was appointed by the Board of Supervisors in the spring to fill the state Senate vacancy left by Andy Nichols' death. Now redistricted out of her state territory, Yrun would have plenty of time to move into Grijalva's district, which includes affluent Sam Hughes and El Encanto.

Yolanda Herrera La Fond, a southside community leader, is another possibility.

But all of this is setting the table for a move by Eckstrom, who masterfully maneuvered Vic Soltero past a Grijalva soldier and into a vacant state Senate seat 10 years ago.

Ramon Valadez, an Eckstrom disciple who swapped his House of Representatives seat with Soltero, is registered to vote not only in District 5, but in Grijalva's home precinct, 49, south of Ajo Way and east of South 12th Avenue.

Don't be surprised.

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