By Rubén Gallego, Arizona State Rep. District 16
Phoenix, Arizona — My first racist experience in Arizona was when my mother told me about the rude call she had received. Like any other good Latina Mom, mine jumped in and volunteered for my first campaign here. My family has lived the ups and downs of the American Dream and has, for the most part, been successful. The feisty, 4′ 10″ Colombiana is proud that she raised four kids on her own, sent them all to college and they all now have great careers. On that day she heard someone take all her hard work and throw it to the ground. Some insensitive voter told my mother that, though her son many have joined the Marine Corps and fought in Iraq, he was undeserving of his vote because he was “a Mexican.”
To quote him, “I don’t care what he has done, I am not voting for a Mexican.”
How did Arizona get to this point? Everyone would like to point to SB 1070 as the beginning of the problems — but in reality is that this bill was the culmination of our problems. Arizona had been lurching towards xenophobia for a while. For many years, Republican politicians used anti-illegal immigrant rhetoric to mask their actual fear of the growing Latino population. Election after election, their dog whistle politics were rewarded with re-election. Soon, even moderate Republicans had to get in on the act — or else be primaried. The winning streak seemed to continue, even in Latino areas where anti-immigrant Republicans got elected. It all seemed hopeless.
But things are changing in Arizona.
Yes, the home of SB 1070, Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Governor Jan Brewer seems to now be on the cusp of moving from a solid red state to a swing state — and precisely because of the anti-immigrant rhetoric that forced Latinos and others to come together and organize to change their state.
In 2008 Arizona Senator John McCain took about 54% of the vote — hardly a thumping for now-President Barack Obama, who came away with 45%. Just a few years later, and more than a year after SB 1070 became law, this slim margin may just swing the other way.
President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder denounced the SB 1070 before it even became law. A federal court injunction prevented parts of the law from even going into effect and several lawsuits questioning the law’s legality remain alive in the courts. As part of the backlash against SB 1070, former Senate President who authored the legislation, Russell Pearce, was recalled largely with the help of Latinos.
In West Phoenix (a race where I was more intimately involved), for the first time a Latino city councilman was elected. The councilman he replaced voted against allowing the City of Phoenix to join a lawsuit to stop SB1070. This election cycle, Latino turnout increased by 350%. For the first time in city history, Phoenix has two sitting Latino Council members.
Also, the Latino vote doubled city-wide, helping to elect a more progressive mayor. How much influence did Russell Pearce’s, Sheriff Joe’s or Governor Jan Brewer’s endorsement have on those races? The best we can tell, those endorsements actually hurt candidates. No one took Sheriff Joe’s endorsement or Russell Pearce’s. Governor Brewer endorsed the Republican running for Mayor, and that seemed to have not helped, but actually stalled his campaign.
That’s not even pointing out that recent changes in redistricting may favor the Democrats in Arizona. All of which is to say that, it’s been the xenophobia and hatred towards Latinos by Republican in Arizona that is now spurring their downfall. Latinos here have decided they’re not going to take it anymore, and Arizona may now in 2012 be blue.
When I think back to that caller, it seems like a million years ago. Yet, there’s something sweet about the way an attempt to divide Arizonans via SB 1070 has ultimately brought them together, meaning that in 2012 voters here may be able to powerfully alter the political course of the country.