Politics

Fast Track

Marco Lopez does things any ambitious young politician might do--he just does them younger and better.
by | February 2004

In December, shortly after he'd been named director of the commission that oversees relations between his state of Arizona and the nation of Mexico, Marco A. Lopez Jr. showed up on the Arizona Republic's list of the state's notable young strivers. Asked what he hoped to accomplish by age 40, Lopez answered, "Become governor." Uttered by virtually anyone else, that would have been brash. Coming from Lopez, it sounded almost conservative. He isn't just a young man in a hurry. He's a young man whose ascent has come to seem all but unstoppable.

At 25, Lopez already has served three years as mayor of Nogales, a town of 21,000 on the Mexican border. Lopez grew up in Nogales, which shares the border with the better-known Mexican city of the same name. His parents, small-business owners who moved north from Mexico when he was young, taught him that "if you want to move ahead in life, you need to take responsibility for yourself and not complain, but actually do things."

Lopez started doing things very quickly. At 15, he applied to become a congressional page, and got the position. By age 22, he was working on the advance staff for Al Gore's presidential campaign, and preparing to plunge into elective politics on his own. Just out of college, he ran for mayor, waging an ambitious door-knocking campaign and explaining to voters that he had a sense of boundless expectation.

"I don't have experience," he admitted, "but I have a vision and the energy to see it through. That's your choice: energy and vision, or experience and everything that comes with that, good and bad." As he puts it now, "energy and vision won." He took 52 percent of the vote; the second time around, at age 24, he won with 76 percent.

At the time of Lopez's first campaign, his town was witnessing a pitched turf fight over control of the local public housing authority. "I thought there was so much potential in Nogales if we could sit down and work things out," he says, "rather than embarrass ourselves."

Working things out was, in fact, much of what Lopez had to do while in office. Although he was elected under a strong mayor system of government, voters two months later opted to switch to a council- manager form, in which the mayor is only the most visible member of the city council; administrative power lies in the hands of the city manager. For a city council accustomed to micromanaging affairs, it was not an easy transition. In an odd twist, though, Nogales' first manager was Sue Neilsen, who'd been assistant principal of the high school during Lopez's time there. The two worked smoothly together, and Lopez, despite his youth, proved adept at pulling differing sides together to arrive at a common plan. "He had a knack of making sure we got to the point," Neilsen says. "He'd bring it all together and say, 'It seems to me like this and this is what we should do,' and everyone would look at him and say, 'You know, you're right.'"

Lopez will undoubtedly have to call on this talent in his new post. Historically, the Arizona-Mexico Commission has focused on relations with the neighboring Mexican state of Sonora. Governor Janet Napolitano, however, has charged him not only with building Arizona's trade and economic ties to Mexico as a whole but also expanding them throughout Latin America. "We naturally place limits on ourselves," he says, "but I can guarantee you...limitations don't exist. If we can think it," he says, "we can do it."

That may seem a little over-optimistic. On the other hand, nothing has happened in Marco Lopez's life so far to discourage him from believing it.

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Rob Gurwitt  |  Former Correspondent
robg@valley.net  | 

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