PHOENIX—Rep. Ruben Gallego invites me into the Arizona House of Representatives, and I take a seat near the lobbyists. Half a dozen of them are in the well-upholstered lounge behind the floor where members work and vote. Gallego runs a quick errand, and while he’s gone I give up my seat to a lobbyist who wants to talk up a few Republican members. When he returns, my Democratic host ribs me for losing my chair. “Don’t listen to these guys!” says Gallego, motioning toward the lobbyists. “They’re a bunch of jokers.”
The freshman member from south Phoenix is joking. That’s his style. His Democratic colleague Daniel Patterson, a soft-spoken ecologist who represents part of Tucson, is a lot more somber. The access that lobbyists have is unseemly. Much too much about this job is unseemly.
“This capital has been really hijacked by extremists and out-of-state special interests,” he says. As we talk, his Democratic colleagues are trying to fix that on the House floor. They are aiming to amend a disclosure bill by requiring groups that write model legislation to register as lobbyists. It’s a shot at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a free-market group that flies state legislators to conferences and advises them on how to craft libertarian-flavored bills: How to end public campaign financing, how to desanctify sanctuary cities, stuff like that.
“The amendment’s not going to pass,” says Gallego. At least 50 of the 90 legislators serving in the Arizona legislature are ALEC members, and two-thirds of the state GOP leadership are on the group’s “task forces” that help draw up model legislation for state legislators elsewhere. Still, the Arizona Democrats think it’s a vote worth calling. “It puts people on the record. None of them are going to stand up on the campaign trail and say, “I’m against disclosure.”
Sure enough, the amendment fails. That is nothing new. Saying “Arizona Democrats failed to pass something” is like saying a unicycle-racing juggler failed to look serious. In 2010, as Gov. Jan Brewer was winning her first full term and two Democratic members of Congress were eating pavement, Republicans won 2-1 majorities in both houses of the state legislature. A Democratic source gives an example of how bad the year was: After Brewer muffed her opening statement in one debate, a focus group claimed they actually liked her more.
That, say Democrats, was rock bottom. My brief day at the legislature featured a bill, sponsored by the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, that would authorize “resistance against any international force infringing on the United States Constitution.” The day before, the Appropriations committee approved a bill ensuring that all students pay at least $2,000 for state college tuition—those freeloading scholarship kids have done enough damage already. As I talk with the Democrats, a retiring Republican legislator named Cecil Ash walks by to commiserate about the crowded schedule of occasionally silly bills; a “waste of time,” he says.
The votes come at the end of the day. The Democrats win an argument over modifying the “national sovereignty” bill, but apart from that, they have to pick their battles. Gallego takes his desk on the far left of the room and speaks up for a bill that would eliminate restrictions on the size of magazines for hunting rifles. “I support hunters,” Gallego says. “I’d just say that if you can’t shoot something after five tries, you shouldn’t be hunting.”
Gallego’s humor has been refined since he got to Phoenix. A year ago, as a very green freshman, he said that the legislature was embarrassing itself with a bill requiring birth certificates from presidential candidates. “You might as well change Arizona to Alabama,” he said. He apologized, and grew into a role as a top Obama campaign surrogate in the state. His bio was a dream: He met his future wife at a date auction to raise money for the Red Cross after 9/11. He graduated from Harvard. He served in Iraq, then earned a legislative seat by driving up Latino turnout.
This was not a fluke. In 2011, he helped elect a Latino city councilman in a district that had never had one. Latino turnout surged from 9 percent to 35 percent. “It was basic grassroots politics, but no one had done it before,” he says. “The problem with the Latino vote had been that our candidates were missing half of what they needed. We’d see somebody with money and no grassroots, or somebody with organizing skills and no money. That was the problem, and I think we figured it out.” This, plus the legislature’s antics, explain why the Obama campaign is opening its fourth Arizona office.
At 6 p.m., after the day’s session ends, Gallego grabs his Prius from the parking lot and gives me a tour of the district. He drives toward the South Mountains, where his district ends and a much richer one begins. In between is the barrio, the great untapped source of Democratic votes. “There aren’t many empty homes here,” says Gallego, gesturing toward rows of ranch homes. “If a house gets foreclosed on, it gets snapped up fast. A lot of times the buyers are immigrant families who pay cash. Some of these go for around $10,000.”
Gallego drives further south, into the lower lands where black people lived in segregation-era Phoenix. (It was vulnerable to floods, so it was all theirs.) There are massive supermarkets, closer in scale to flea markets, with owners that donate to Democrats. The politician’s first stop of the night is at Raptor Guitars, a Latino-owned shop that’s moved from a sleepy strip mall to a bustling one. Gallego speaks briefly to a small local crowd, mostly Latino, and explains how bad the current government is for them.
“We’re cutting, in my opinion, too much,” he says. “We’re cutting programs that were essential to making sure our kids were getting taken care of. We need businesses to step up, we need people to mentor kids.”
Gallego jumps back in the car and points out more landmarks. There’s an Italian restaurant owned by a Latino, there’s a plot owned by a family that’s been in the neighborhood for 100 years, there’s a fairly stately home owned by a guy who turned his local eatery into a franchise.
“People forget that the Latino community is very industrious,” he says. “I don’t just mean we work hard. I mean tons of people who own businesses.”
The Prius is headed next to a local union hall, where twentysomething Latino activists are meeting with U.S. Senate candidate Richard Carmona. The activists are members of the evocatively named “Team Awesome,” which organized the 2011 city council victories. The candidate was George W. Bush’s surgeon general, an independent who couldn’t stand the GOP anymore. This is the dream: More and more voters abandoning the GOP because they feel disrespected.
“The Republicans missed such big opportunities,” says Gallego. “They had a bill to end birthright citizenship. They had one to prohibit people from paying for college, even if they were paying with cash, if they didn’t have proof of citizenship.” The danger, for the majority party, is that they head into a presidential election, with new and unfamiliar local districts, having alienated the fastest-growing part of the state. “These Latino kids are paying attention, and when they vote, they’re never going to vote Republican.”