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After 23 years in Congress, Arizona’s Ed Pastor savors victories big, small

WASHINGTON — Jack Lunsford says Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Phoenix, will be remembered for countless legislative contributions to Arizona, but the memory that best sums up the long-term congressman for Lunsford has nothing to do with politics.

It was the mid-1980s and the two had just finished lunch at Oaxaca Restaurant when Pastor was approached by a man asking for money to buy food.

“Are you really hungry?” Lunsford remembers Pastor asking. “Because if you are, I’ll take you inside and put you on my tab.

“And they went back inside and Ed bought him something to eat,” said Lunsford, who calls it a life lesson he tried to teach his children.

It is typical of the recollections shared as Pastor prepares to give up the seat in Congress that he has held for 23 years. In conversations with politicians and political observers, Pastor is described as a friend as often as he is lauded for his achievements during 40 years in public service.

Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, dealt with Pastor in her roles as a state legislator, Maricopa County supervisor and governor. She said in an emailed statement that she has “had the pleasure of calling Ed a friend for more than 30 years.”

“He’s a devoted public leader who has honorably served his fellow Arizonans, and his country,” Brewer’s email said.

That service included time on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, where Pastor helped secure federal funds for projects like Maricopa County’s light-rail system and a new traffic-control tower at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

But when asked what stands out as his proudest achievement after 11 terms in the House, Pastor said it was hard to choose. The bricks-and-mortar projects were important, he said, but, “More important, I think my accomplishments were where I helped individuals.”

“If you go to a family whose dad was not deported, that was a great accomplishment. The thousands of people that I helped become citizens, that’s a great accomplishment,” he said during a recent interview in his Washington office.

Whether assisting a constituent or bringing federal dollars to the district, Pastor said the cornerstone of his personal brand of politics was mutual regard.

“You’ve got to treat every individual with respect,” he said. “I believe that you respect people, regardless of who they are, and they’ll respect you.”

Pastor, 71, announced in February that he would not seek re-election, closing out a political career that began in 1976 on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.

A former high school chemistry teacher, Pastor went back to school for a law degree before turning to public service. After 15 years on the Maricopa County board, he won a special election on Sept. 24, 1991, to fill the seat vacated by an ailing Rep. Mo Udall, D-Tucson. The election made Pastor the first Hispanic to represent Arizona in Congress.

Once in Washington, he became known for a spirit of bipartisanship — a rarity in Washington today – that led to his success getting funds earmarked in the federal budget for projects that local officials say have been a boon to Arizona’s economy.

“We would not have light rail in the city of Phoenix if it weren’t for Congressman Pastor,” Mayor Greg Stanton said.

Stanton said Arizona has a history of sending influential leaders to Congress, but that Pastor’s achievements put him in a class by himself.

Lunsford, a longtime lobbyist for Maricopa Community College District, said Pastor also secured funds for bilingual nurse training and college attainment for low-income youths.

Former Arizona Secretary of State Betsey Bayless, who was a county supervisor with Pastor in the 1980s, said he took the lead on creating a clinic for people with HIV. That was at a time when many elected officials were reluctant to get involved with what was then a new and controversial disease.

In recent years, Bayless said Pastor has been critical to the financial survival of Maricopa Integrated Health System, the state’s public health care system that serves the poor.

“He’s been an absolute lifesaver,” said Bayless, who led the system until 2013 and is its president emeritus.

Pastor’s colleagues in Arizona’s congressional delegation cite that focus on constituents as an important part of his legacy.

Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Mesa, said in an email that Pastor “never let partisan politics get in the way of standing up for the issues that mattered to his constituents.” Rep. Ron Barber, D-Tucson, said Pastor’s role as dean of the state’s House delegation let him bring lawmakers together on issues of importance to all Arizonans.

“Ed gave voice to members of our communities who too often were not heard in the halls of government,” Barber said in an email.

Ruben Gallego, the Democrat who hopes to succeed Pastor in office, survived a bruising primary in which Pastor endorsed Gallego’s opponent, Mary Rose Wilcox. Gallego said Pastor would be difficult to replace.

“I’m going to have to work twice as hard to do a lot of the things that he did,” Gallego said.

Pastor said the decision to retire came at the end of yet another delayed flight home from Washington, as he and his wife, Verma, watched former “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno’s final show.

“Jay said, ‘It’s hard to say goodbye, but it’s time to say goodbye,’ ” Pastor said. “I told my wife, I said, ‘You know what, why don’t we do that?’ ”

Seated in his almost-empty office in the Rayburn House Office Building, Pastor was relaxed and upbeat as he took a break from packing boxes on an October afternoon to reflect on his years in Washington.

His office window, which overlooks the National Mall, is popular with visitors for its view of sunsets and trees that change colors with the seasons.

“This is what seniority will get you,” Pastor said with a chuckle.

Pastor now looks forward to returning to his roots as an educator, hoping to work on a project with Arizona State University that will help students understand how policymaking affects their professional careers.

While he had trouble selecting his proudest achievement, Pastor did not hesitate when asked what he hopes will be his legacy in Congress.

“I hope that my legacy is, ‘If I went to Ed, and I had a problem, he helped me with it and I’m better off today with him helping me,'” said Pastor, sitting by a credenza full of still-unpacked family photos.

He said he will miss the view from his Capitol Hill window in the moments before the sun sinks behind the Washington Monument.

“But, hey, I’ll see sunsets at home,” he said.