PHOENIX — Ruben Gallego was sitting at a large dining-room table inside his house in South Phoenix, surrounded by half a dozen young political activists assembled for a strategy session, when he decided to let us in on a secret: the rules of his congressional campaign. “We got to do the PC version of this,” he tells Ellie Perez, one of his volunteers, who is seated at the head of the table. There’s a reporter in the room, after all.
“This is the most important rule of the campaign,” Perez, a local college student, said. “Don’t be a weenie, for lack of a better word.”
What she means is, forget about your personal life — vacations, friends, your health and the well being of your relatives — between now and the seventh congressional district’s Democratic primary this August. She says that canvassing the district on foot and talking to voters is paramount to anything else.
“Tell your parents that we're not going to go to your funeral if it’s Monday through Friday during walking hours or Saturday and Sunday during walking hours,” Perez continues. “We're not going to weep for you until after we win and we will cry tears of joy in your honor. One hour and then that’s it.”
Gallego laughs. He has a joking demeanor, but that belies the discipline and commitment the Iraq War veteran is hoping will translate into building a coalition that can elect him to Congress.
After spending three years in the state legislature, Gallego is running to replace Rep. Ed Pastor, Arizona’s first Latino congressman who is retiring after spending over two decades in Washington. The open House seat in this deep blue district is a political prize for Arizona Democrats; it could offer the winner ultimate job security and the chance to climb the rungs of power. And Gallego faces stiff competition from a seasoned opponent. An internal poll released Tuesday showed him with a narrow 38 percent to 32 percent lead over his chief opponent, former Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox.
But the implications of this race could echo beyond Arizona. Gallego could help invigorate a Latino electorate that has long been described as the state’s “sleeping giant.” For years, no one has been able to wake it up. Arizona has the fifth-largest population of eligible Latino voters in the country. But only 40 percent of them voted in 2012.
At the age of 34, Gallego represents a generational shift that could reshape the politics that have defined the state for the past several years, and win him the election in the process, his supporters say.
“We need someone who is young,” said Alexis Tameron, a Democratic operative in Arizona who backs Gallego. “You need someone who has a new way of organizing and someone who has the energy and outlook — sort of embodying the whole emerging electorate that’s coming in that’s kind of the future of Arizona Democratic politics.”
As far as the midterms go, this campaign won’t generate the same kind of national buzz that’s surrounding, say, Mitch McConnell’s reelection bid in Kentucky. But this race has clear national implications. Democrats have eyed deep-red Arizona as a state they’d like to turn blue in presidential elections, with the help of its increasingly diverse electorate. So far, they have not been able to do it. If Gallego can show that he can mobilize Latino voters this year, his campaign could be used as a model for success statewide.
To win the seat, Gallego will have to prevail in the Democratic primary election on August 26. No Republican is running in this district, where President Obama won over 70 percent of the vote in 2012. Even though Gallego’s poll showed him leading his main opponent, Wilcox, most observers believe the race will remain a close contest. Wilcox, 64, is Pastor’s preferred successor. And unlike Gallego, she is a lifelong Arizonan who is trying to use her name recognition and long record of service to tap into the district’s traditional political networks. But Gallego has a different plan in mind.
(Photo: Jonathan Gibby/Getty Images)
Arizona’s seventh congressional district is anchored in downtown and south Phoenix but also encompasses surrounding metropolises, like Glendale and Tolleson to the west and Guadalupe to the east. It’s population is mostly poor and Hispanic. The district’s median household income is $32,259, one of the lowest in the country. Hispanics, mostly Mexican-Americans, make up 64 percent of the population, making it one of two Hispanic-majority districts in Arizona.
All of the seventh sits in Maricopa County, and its residents have been subject to Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s infamous immigration sweeps for years. In 2010, there were massive protests in Phoenix against SB 1070, the state’s controversial immigration crackdown law that was partially struck down by the Supreme Court. The district has been ground zero for the constant battles between the state’s Hispanic community and its Republican political establishment.
Despite (or perhaps because of) that, the seventh had the lowest voter turnout of any district in the state during the 2012 elections. The district is emblematic of Arizona Democrats’ longstanding frustration: Latinos could hand them political control of the state, but they simply don’t vote.
Gallego is embracing that challenge. He moved to Arizona in 2005 but he quickly found his place within the state’s close-knit Democratic political circles. After leaving the Marine Corps that year, he got involved in a campaign to improve military healthcare benefits. He was elected to the state House in 2010, where he became assistant minority leader. He recently resigned his seat to focus full time on his campaign for Congress.
He’s also proven adept at fundraising. Gallego raked in $162,000 in just over a month after jumping into the congressional race, outpacing his more established colleague in Wilcox, who raised $92,132.
The candidate believes that old-fashioned campaign tactics are the most effective at getting people who have never voted to the polls in this urban district: trained volunteers going to the homes of potential voters and having conversations with them.
This district hasn’t seen an aggressive, door-to-door congressional campaign in years, which might be a reason why voter participation has been so low.
“For decades, right, Hispanic voters, every time they went to go vote for their congressional candidate, it was Pastor versus some no-name Republican,” said Arizona State University political science professor Rodolfo Espino, an expert on the state’s Hispanic politics. “Now, you’re actually going to have a competitive Democratic primary.”
In the past, Gallego has been involved in successful grassroots efforts to turn out Latino voters. And he says he wants to bring that same strategy to his congressional race.
In 2011, he helped lead a group of young activists, many of them undocumented, to elect a Latino candidate to a city council district in West Phoenix. Latino voter turnout increased by 400 percent. That same group also played a key role in Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton’s victory over a candidate who backed SB 1070. Stanton was vocally opposed to the law.
A small group of activists from the efforts in 2011 is now working on Gallego’s congressional campaign to develop a sophisticated canvassing plan. They intend to go door-to-door to talk to voters through the summer months, when the high temperatures can surpass 100 degrees.
“I’ve always believed in turning out my district and the Latino community and now people are starting to get that mindset and in other parts of Arizona,” he said. “If you could do that in other parts of the country, you could be turning over districts from Republican to Democrat overnight.”
(Photo: Jonathan Gibby/Getty Images)
The candidate has a charisma that gets people to pay attention, but it’s not evident at first glance. His appearance isn’t the square-jawed visage you would expect from a former Marine combat veteran. Over a lunch at America’s Taco Shop in midtown Phoenix (which he’s quick to tell us was founded by an immigrant from Mexico) he jokes that his beard is there to cover up his double chin.
Instead, he’s a brash, unapologetic voice in support of liberal causes like immigration reform, marijuana legalization and gay rights. During the debate over Arizona’s so-called “religious freedom bill,” which would have allowed businesses to discriminate against LGBT individuals, Gallego held up a sign on the House floor that read, “No Gays Allowed.”
His messages are often like that. Short and to the point. When Pastor announced his retirement in late February, the timing surprised almost everyone in Arizona politics. But Gallego long had designs on running once the seat came open, and he announced his candidacy right away — with a tweet.
“I rarely am subtle and it’s because at this point I am that person and in politics subtlety gets you in trouble, it really does, right?” he said.
Gallego wants to bring an in-your-face style of leadership to Phoenix. That style was never Pastor’s. But as a member of the House Appropriations Committee, he was effective in steering billions of federal dollars for projects in his Phoenix-area district. Most recently, he helped secure assistance for a $91.8 million light-rail system.
Pastor opposed Arpaio’s immigration sweeps and SB 1070. But he suffered criticism for not taking a more vocal stance against them. During an interview at the Latino Arts and Cultural Center downtown, Gallego made it clear he believes that the older generation’s quiet style helped fuel voter apathy, especially among younger Hispanic voters in his district.
“We all look around to what's happening in Arizona; all these laws that are being pushed that are anti-immigrant, anti-education or anti-LGBT, we get frustrated because we know that there are people who can do things about this but they don’t,” he said. “They just sit there quietly on the sidelines.”
“We're going to put people in leadership that actually were there for us and we’re going to protect our community,” he added.
Gallego’s brashness has made him an effective political activist, and many heavy hitters believe it will make him a good congressman too. He’s won several high-profile endorsements, but none bigger than that of Rep. Raúl Grijalva, who represents Arizona’s other Hispanic-majority district near Tucson. Grijalva is known as an outspoken liberal in Washington and back home. In 2010, he encouraged a controversial boycott of Arizona businesses to demonstrate against SB 1070.
In a race where all the serious contenders are Democrats, there’s little that distinguishes them in terms of policy. The differences are mostly stylistic. And Gallego’s critics cite his youth and cocksure demeanor as evidence he won’t be able to govern effectively. In his endorsement of Wilcox, Pastor praised her “31 years of hard work and experience of public service” as her best asset. By contrast, no one on Gallego’s campaign staff is above the age of 31.
Gallego touts that he’s the youngest candidate in the race, but that “can be a knock against him,” said ASU’s Espino.
According to Espino and others, the candidate’s chief weakness is “that he may not have the experience, that he may not have the political connections, the knowledge of the district and what the voters want.”
Despite Gallego’s disciplined campaign team and enviable resume, he very well may walk away a loser in August.
His path to victory was made easier when state Sen. Steve Gallardo ended his candidacy early last week, pitting Gallego directly against Wilcox, the county supervisor.
But Wilcox always posed the bigger challenge. She is well known to voters, having served on the Board of Supervisors since 1992. She’s also fought against Arpaio; in 2012 she was a awarded nearly $1 million in a legal settlement stemming from claims that the sheriff and county attorney targeted her for prosecution because she spoke out against his immigration sweeps.
In addition to Pastor’s endorsement, she received the backing of EMILY’s List, a political action committee that supports Democratic female candidates. That could help rev up her fundraising and organizing activities. Above it all, she says her experience would make her a better choice for voters.
“The question is who has actually been doing the work,” she recently told the Washington Examiner. “You’ve got some relative newcomers … who have not proven that they can get into the trenches and be the advocates we really need.”
At the taco shop, Gallego dismissed that notion between bites of his carne asada burrito, rattling off his legislative accomplishments, like his work ushering through a Medicaid expansion that Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law.
“There’s a time to fight and there’s a way to fight and there’s a time to compromise and come up with a deal that works for everybody,” he said. “When I need to shout from the loudest mountain to get attention for some kind of abuse, I’ll do it. Or when I need work behind the scenes to get something done, I’ll do it. But I’m not going to be afraid of pushing that envelope.”
(Photo: Ruben Gallego/Facebook)
Gallego has a dream biography for a political candidate, but that came at the expense of a tough upbringing. He was born in Chicago to immigrant parents — his mother is Colombian and his father is from Mexico. Gallego’s father left the family when he was 11, and his mother struggled to provide for him and his three sisters. At one point, the family lived in his aunt’s basement in the Windy City. Even though he’s not from here, Gallego says he can empathize with many of his poor constituents.
“He knew that he was pretty much man of the house, so that was a big burden for him,” his mother Elisa said. “He had to give up stuff. When he had to [go to] prom or something he sold lollipops. He worked making hot dogs and no job for him — like I told him, no job is a bad job. You know as long as it’s an honest job.”
He showed an interest in school, particularly history. He was admitted to Harvard, becoming one of the first in his family to go to college. His tuition was mostly covered by student loans, Pell grants and scholarship money. And he made up the rest through working odd jobs, including one at a meatpacking plant, over the summer.
But his grades suffered and he felt he didn’t fit in on campus. So he decided to enlist in the Marine Corps, and he served a tour of duty in Iraq. He eventually would return to Harvard finish his degree.
Before he left for the Marines, he met his future wife, Kate, at a post-9/11 charity auction on campus. It’s been a political family ever since. Ruben Gallego proposed to Kate at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, and Kate won a seat on the Phoenix city council in 2013. This year, they bought a house out of foreclosure at the foot of South Mountain, which Ruben says is “three times the size” of the apartment he grew up in.
When he first returned from Iraq in 2005, however, Gallego had little appetite for politics. He served in the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, Lima Company, a reserve infantry unit that suffered heavy casualties during his time in the country. Between February and September, the company lost 22 Marines and a Navy corpsman; most were killed in action by IEDs.
Wiping away tears, he recalls how he lost his best friend in combat. He was disgusted by the substandard equipment his unit had in the field. And he grew frustrated by the lack of services veterans had when they arrived home.
But Gallego said his experience working on veterans issues showed him that government can be used for good. His first legislative success in the state House was a bipartisan bill that granted veterans in-state tuition in Arizona, even if they lived in the state for less than a year. On April 2, he spoke at a rally in front of the State Capitol in favor of authorizing a study of whether medical marijuana could help PTSD patients.
This year, Gallego is applying the discipline and commitment he learned in the military to his campaign team. Going door knocking during an Arizona summer, when heat stroke is a real possibility, is a lot harder if you don’t believe in your cause. For Gallego and his team, the goal is to teach Republicans a lesson by awakening the so-called sleeping giant.
If Gallego, or any of the candidates, can ignite Latino voters’ enthusiasm here in Phoenix, the rest of the country should be watching.
“Here in Arizona, the birthplace of SB 1070, Latino voters have been turned off by Republicans, been turned off by Democrats,” Espino said. “I think it’s going to give a template for other campaigns, here in Arizona, but across the country, about how you can mobilize Latino voters.”
Video produced by Geneva Sands; reported by Jordan Fabian and Geneva Sands; and edited by Patrick O'Gara and Geneva Sands.