Arizona Congressional Race Erupts in Bizarre Battle Over Hispanic Names

2014 AP

Remember the Arizona political candidate who changed his name to “Cesar Chavez”? Well, his candidacy has sparked a bizarre war of words over Hispanic surnames among the top contenders for the seat.

Slate’s Dave Weigel published a good account of the imbroglio today. Here’s what happened.

A perennial Republican candidate named Scott Fistler late last year changed his name to the same one held by Cesar Chavez, the late Hispanic labor leader. More recently, he switched his party registration to Democrat to run for the Arizona 7th congressional district seat. It was a clumsy, unserious attempt to gin up support in a district where the majority of voters, and both leading candidates, are Hispanic.

But the Arizona Democratic Party appeared worried that his presence on the ballot could siphon votes from the leading candidates, and said it was considering a legal challenge against “Chavez.” A lawsuit was filed this week from the real Chavez’s grandson, Alejandro. He’s represented by Jim Barton, an elections lawyer with ties to the state party as well as labor unions who have endorsed former state Rep. Ruben Gallego, one of the front-runners for the seat.

That didn’t sit well with “Chavez,” who criticized Gallego for changing his name from Marinelarena in 2008, before he was in elected office.

“When I change my name, [people act] like I’m stealing Pope Francis’ name,” the candidate known as “Chavez” told The Arizona Republic.

Gallego clearly had different motives for changing his name from Marinelarena, which, for what it’s worth, is also a Hispanic surname. As Geneva Sands and I reported last month, Gallego’s father left his family when he was 11 and he was raised by a single mother, along with his three sisters. He took his mother’s maiden name.

The “Chavez” story seemed like a odd sidebar to the race. But it got a lot bigger when an ally of Gallego’s chief opponent, former Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, filed a lawsuit this week accusing him of misrepresenting his name, and asking that it be changed or removed from the ballot.

Wilcox’s campaign said in a statement that “fully supports” the lawsuit. Here’s a portion of the statement, per Weigel:

My opponent has used the names Ruben Marinelarena, Ruben Gallego, Ruben Gallego Marinelarena, and Ruben Marinelarena Gallego at different times for various purposes since he moved to Arizona, a few years ago. A lot has happened under each of those names, and the voters have a right to know who a candidate really is.

My name is Mary Rose Wilcox, and this community knows who I am.

With the lawsuit, Wilcox’s team appears to be making effort to underscore her familiarity to the Hispanic community in Phoenix. Her campaign website stresses that she’s a “fourth generation Arizonan” who held office in Maricopa County for over two decades. By comparison, her statement notes Gallego relocated to Arizona “a few years ago.”

There’s more than a bit of irony in Wilcox’s statement though. As Weigel notes, she was born Mary Rose Garrido. And her name has appeared as Mary Rose Garrido Wilcox in official literature.

Gallego slammed the lawsuit, noting the family reasons behind his name change.

“I was raised by a single mom and changed my name to honor the woman who raised me. I have been very open about this decision and the circumstance behind it,” he said in a statement.

“My mom is an immigrant and struggled every day to raise four kids on her own,” he added, noting her last name is Gallego. “My father abandoned my family when I was young. His choice to leave made my life and the lives of my three sisters much harder. I slept on the floor until I went to college and my sisters and I had to rely on the free lunch program to make sure we ate. His last name is Marinelarena.”

Update, 2:40 p.m.:

The lawsuit against Gallego over his name change has been dismissed, according to the Arizona Capitol Times. Wilcox’s campaign said in a statement that the record of Gallego’s name change was “hidden from public view” due to a misspelling in court records and and it asked that the suit be withdrawn.

Don't miss out on any of Fusion's highlights -- get Fusion today.
comments powered by Disqus