Flipping Arizona: Hispanic Movements Flex Political Muscles

Arizona flipped from Republican to Democratic in presidential and US Senate races. This turnround was driven in part by a nearly 10% increase in voter turnout, a significant part of it in Hispanic vote

Yard signs at polling place in South Phoenix. Credit: Peter Costantini.

By Peter Costantini
PHOENIX, Arizona, Jan 12 2021 – The Valley of the Sun is a vast, flat stretch of Sonoran Desert, etched by arroyos and studded with small, jagged peaks. It spans about 50 miles (80 kilometers) west to east and 40 miles (64 kilometers) north to south in south-central Arizona (the state that borders southern California to the east). After cruising through southward on one of the tangle of freeways that vein the expanse, we can leadfoot it another 100 miles (161 kilometers) southeast to Tucson across much the same hardscape, only gradually gaining elevation. The saguaro cacti grow more thickly, but the higher cordilleras maintain a discreet distance most of the way.

Along Interstate 10, irrigated fields of alfalfa and cotton still unroll green corduroy out to the horizon. But if we could drive through time-lapse photography of the past half-century, farms and desert would be inexorably replaced by malls with supersized parking lots fed by seven-lane arterials.

Earth-toned subdivisions of single-story ranch houses with dirt or paved yards would sprout profusely, and in their driveways would throng hosts of one-ton, dual-rear-wheel pickup trucks with dazzling chrome grilles. Miles of warehouses and car dealerships would sprawl willy-nilly across the thorny aridity, leapfrogging over undeveloped tracts of sagebrush and gravel.

As the years passed, the flows of water in the irrigation canals that bring it to fields and houses and golf courses would dwindle, as the Colorado River and its tributaries were diverted to growing populations and agricultural valleys across the Southwest and California.

If we could watch the residents of those houses over fifty years, we might notice an increase in elderly snowbirds retiring southward to a warm place. More recently, refugees from California real-estate prices would appear. All along, we would see growing numbers of families who looked like they had come from south of the border – including quite a few whose ancestors had been here since before the border was there. (Of course if we could go back a few centuries, nearly all the residents would look a lot like them.)

Many of them would go out in the mornings to weed and harvest those green fields and build the houses and clean the hotel rooms and do the other back-torqueing work that turns the Valley’s wheels of commerce. If the time-lapse visuals had a soundtrack, their accents might migrate from sibilant norteño to Spanglish to Arizona twang. And in recent years, more of their kids would be going off to class at the University of Arizona, Arizona State University, or a community college.

The Valley of the Sun is still indisputably a warm place – that hasn’t changed. Phoenix, at its center, is the hottest city in the United States by some measures, with daily high temperatures averaging over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 Celsius) from mid-May through mid-October. Last summer, the mercury peaked at 118 degrees (47.8 Celsius), and it has previously hit 122 (50 Celsius). From the air, slot canyons look like deep cracks in the earth through which you can almost glimpse the glow of the infernal brimstone below.

The politics, too, is hot enough to fry an egg on. And it’s contentious enough that the egg would probably end up scrambled.

Arizona flipped from Republican to Democratic in presidential and US Senate races. This turnround was driven in part by a nearly 10% increase in voter turnout, a significant part of it in Hispanic vote

View of downtown Phoenix across South Phoenix. Credit: Peter Costantini.

 

Cowboy conservatism: riding off into the sunset?

This year, Arizona flipped from Republican to Democratic in presidential and U.S. Senate races, and the Valley of the Sun led the way. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden squeaked by Republican President Donald Trump by 0.3 percent, roughly 10,500 votes, to win Arizona’s 11 electoral votes. Trump had defeated Hillary Clinton by 3.5 percentage points in 2016, so the 2020 vote shifted nearly 4 points towards the Democrats. This turnround was driven in part by a nearly 10 percent increase in voter turnout over 2016, a significant part of it in Hispanic communities.

(Note: The U.S. president is elected by an electoral college system rather than by popular vote. Each state is assigned a number of electoral votes roughly proportional to its population. The candidate winning the most popular votes cast in a state, regardless of the margin, wins all of the state’s electoral votes – except in two states. In 2016 and 2000, the Republican candidate won the most electoral votes nationally and thus the presidency, but the Democratic candidate won the national popular vote.)

In the contest for a U.S. Senate seat, Democrat Mark Kelly comfortably defeated Republican incumbent Martha McSally by about 2.3 percentage points. In 2018, Democratic candidate Kyrsten Sinema had won Arizona’s other U.S. Senate seat, also against McSally.

Before that, Arizona had two Republican U.S. senators since 1994. This year, in another drift to the left with libertarian overtones, state voters legalized recreational marijuana by 60 to 40 percent. And by 3.5 percentage points, they approved a tax surcharge on high incomes to fund education, sponsored by the Democrats and teachers’ unions.

A big factor in this slippage of political fault lines has been the mobilization of the state’s growing Hispanic population and other communities of color by grassroots organizations, led by mostly young local organizers.

A time-lapse sequence of politics here would show Arizona’s leftward crossing of the electoral boundary this year as the culmination of a gradual trajectory away from cowboy conservatism towards political and ethnic diversity.

Before 2020, a Democratic presidential candidate had carried the state only once since 1948. In 1964, Arizona offered up as Republican presidential candidate Senator Barry Goldwater, a locked-and-loaded Cold Warrior well to the right of most of his party. His campaign was buried in a Democratic landslide by the incumbent president, Texan Lyndon Baines Johnson.

The old Arizona’s rock-ribbed right projected its hegemony into this century, often coalescing around racist anti-immigration policies. In 2010, Arizona passed Senate Bill 1070, known as “the show me your papers law.” It required local police to stringently enforce immigration laws, even though immigration enforcement in the U.S. is a federal function.

Polls showed that the law was popular with conservatives, and five other states passed similar laws. Unsurprisingly, this led to racial profiling and harassment of those who appeared to be “Mexican”, and 100 thousand undocumented immigrants reportedly left Arizona.

The long-time sheriff of Maricopa County, Joe Arpaio, became a national conservative celebrity by encouraging his deputies to harass anyone they suspected of being immigrants. He also confined jail inmates in tents in 100 degree heat, forced male prisoners to wear pink underwear, and put some of them to work on chain gangs. “He was our Trump before Trump came along,” one Arizonan told me. In fact, after Arpaio’s 2017 conviction on criminal contempt, for ignoring a court order to end racial profiling of immigrants, Donald Trump granted his first presidential pardon to the former sheriff.

Over the past decade, Hispanic groups have grown strong by pushing back against the free-range bigotry and nativism of the state’s Republican establishment. They began with sit-ins at the state capitol against SB 1070, and eventually litigation by civil-rights groups that reached the U.S. Supreme Court rolled back or restricted most of the law.

In the electoral arena, their organizers engineered the recall of state legislator Russell Pearce, the law’s primary sponsor. Community advocates and victims sued Arpaio repeatedly, turning him into an expensive political liability for the county, and finally sealed his electoral defeat in 2016. These groups have also worked to defend asylum seekers, Dreamers, and undocumented immigrants against deportations and the many other depredations of the Trump administration.

Each election, community organizations have sent growing brigades of high-energy, bilingual high-school and college students out into their own residential neighborhoods and shopping districts to mobilize voters. They’ve also developed creative ways to reach potential voters online: for example, the non-profit Arizona Center for Empowerment runs a web site called Votería AZ that uses images and names based on the popular Mexican game Lotería, similar to Bingo, to engage voters to register and vote.

“One of our biggest programs is voter registration – it’s been front and center since SB 1070,” explained Fred Oaxaca, Data Manager of One Arizona, a coalition of these groups. “Every year thus far has always been the biggest voter registration that we’ve done.” When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, he told me in a video call, they wanted to keep all their people safe, so their operations had to pivot suddenly from “everyone out in the field to phones, texts and online.”

Pandemic restrictions hurt their field work, he acknowledges, but he considers their efforts successful nonetheless. Scanning a monitor, he says that in 2018, there were 617 thousand total registered Latinx voters, some 294 thousand of whom turned out to vote, around 47 percent. This year, 802 thousand Latinx voters were registered – an increase of 30 percent – and 375 thousand had voted just by mail-in ballot when we talked. When the final tally is published in February, including in-person and drop-off voting, he expects to see a big increase in total Latinx voter turnout.

A lawsuit brought by several community and civil-rights groups won a ruling obliging the state to move back its deadline for voter registration from October 5 to October 15. During this 10-day extension period, those groups registered an additional 35 thousand voters, according to Eduardo Sainz of Mi Familia Vota (My Family Votes), a national non-governmental organization headquartered in Arizona. If those votes hewed to the roughly two-to-one Democratic ratio of the statewide Hispanic vote, they would have provided an advantage of around 10 thousand votes, roughly the margin of Biden’s Arizona victory.

Over the course of the campaign, coalitions of community groups said, they rang 1.15 million doorbells and made 8 million phone calls to mobilize voters of color across Arizona. Turnout for Latinx, Black and Native American voters all increased substantially this year over 2016, a coalition spokesman told Rafael Carranza of the Arizona Republic.

Alejandra Gomez of Living United for Change in Arizona, a coalition member, summed it up: “All of this was, I think, the perfect storm for our communities coming together and beginning to center all of our communities that had been really left out of the process, especially in Arizona.”

 

Arizona flipped from Republican to Democratic in presidential and US Senate races. This turnround was driven in part by a nearly 10% increase in voter turnout, a significant part of it in Hispanic vote

Promise Arizona’s get-out-the-vote truck, Phoenix. Credit: Peter Costantini.

Riders of the purple wave

Driving these political shifts from deep red to a bluish shade of purple are broader demographic transformations. Hispanic people have become the second largest racial or ethnic group in the U.S. after non-Hispanic whites, with 18.5 percent of the national population in 2019. With numbers up by nearly one-fifth since 2010, they are the second fastest growing race or ethnicity, after Asian Americans.

Out of Arizona’s population of 7.38 million people, 31.7 percent – nearly one-third – were Hispanic in 2019. Roughly 84 percent of Hispanic people in the state were of Mexican national origin. Hispanic voters now represent around 24 percent of the state’s eligible voters, up from 15 percent in 2000. The important role they played in this year’s electoral changes was reflected in exit polls: Arizona’s Hispanic voters cast 19 percent of the vote, giving Biden a 61 to 37 percent advantage over Trump, and Kelly a margin of 65 to 35 percent over McSally.

“The community of Mexican origin gave Joe Biden the victory in Arizona. And now the bill is coming due,” asserted commentator Jorge Santibáñez in the Los Angeles Times. Many needs of the community have been neglected for years, he wrote. “Joe Biden must not repeat the error of Obama, who promised immigration reform in his campaign, but never even proposed it. Biden won Arizona because of this community, and he needs to remember that.”

Ironically, some of the growth of the Hispanic electorate over recent decades came as a result of growing restrictions on migration. When Oaxaca’s parents emigrated from Mexico, he says, they never expected to stay here. “Their main goal was get here, make money, buy some land back in México, go back, build a house, live their lives.” Going back and forth was the norm then for Mexican migrants.

But that changed, he said, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and the ensuing border enforcement clampdown. “9/11 placed a wall on the rotating door that was the border. It created a barrier to leap, so it became far more dangerous to travel here, to go in and out. So people stayed. And they wanted to keep building, to provide for their families that were still back there. That was a key factor for my family too.”

Some of those immigrants were able to become naturalized citizens and voters. Many of their children have now turned 18 and registered to vote. Quite a few have become organizers and leaders as well, as did Oaxaca. After going to college in California, he returned to Arizona to do movement work. “I grew up with a lot of these folks,” he said. “Politics is local: it starts with families. If you can’t change your home, why go elsewhere?”

“Ultimately,” Oaxaca said, “the goal here was eliminating the hateful policies from 10 years ago. It was a ten-year plan and we’re at 10 years. I’m excited to start proposing policy rather than preventing policy.” The point, for him, is to try to make direct changes in people’s lives to make them safer, “so folks don’t have to worry about whether or not they’re going to be able to pick up their kid from school. It’s a very big fear that people talk about, but it’s often a very simple thing.”

These days, One Arizona is looking beyond its Latinx base. “In the last 4 years,” Oaxaca explained, “we’ve been doing a very concerted effort on expanding our coalition. We’ve brought in Native American groups, Asian-Pacific Islander groups,” and organizations in the Black community.

Native Americans make up over 5 percent of Arizona’s population, one of the highest proportions of any state. “The tribal areas, especially the Navaho Nation, turned out at much higher rates, and we can clearly see that there was more enthusiasm and energy there. Being able to learn from them is really exciting, on how we do this work better, how we involve the community.”

“One of the things that makes us here in Arizona stand out is the makeup of the people doing the work and the leadership of it,” Oaxaca told me. “A lot of our staff are of color, and there’s a lot of younger executive directors.

There’s a wide mix that embodies a lot of what our communities look like. They continue to guide this ship, and continue to bring others into the fold. I started off as a 17 year old, now I’m a 25 year old who’s also in those rooms. It’s getting people engaged earlier, and those folks are going to be the next round of leaders who push new policies that they care about.”

These population tectonics are thrusting up a brave new political landscape: a majority-minority population in Arizona – with people of color outnumbering White people – by 2027, according to one estimate. For the whole U.S., the change is visible on the event horizon perhaps two or three decades out. This milestone is reportedly a bugbear of Trump’s immigration consiglieri, and it lights the tiki-torches of the ignorant armies of white supremacists.

Other changes in Arizona have put wind in the Democrats’ sails, including a fast-growing and increasingly progressive youth vote, much of it Hispanic, and increased support among suburban women. Another oft-cited local factor is the arrival of ex-Californians fleeing unaffordable rents and mortgage payments in the Golden State. Newcomers from other states also continue to arrive, often seeking year-round sun. Some conservative talk-show hosts fear that the newcomers carry viral loads of West Coast rad-lib tendencies.

Nevertheless, the old Arizona is not disappearing any time soon. Republicans held on to slim margins in both houses of the state legislature, and the governorship, held by a Republican, was not on the ballot this year. The Democratic shift in statewide races did not occur in many local contests.

How much of the presidential vote was against Trump, more than for Biden, remains an open question. Preliminary figures showed that Trump may even have gained a few percentage points among Hispanic men. Biden was boosted by an endorsement from Cindy McCain, the widow of John McCain – former Republican Senator from Arizona and presidential candidate – who often clashed with Trump. And the new Democratic U.S. Senator, Mark Kelly, ran as a moderate and was already personally popular as a former astronaut and the husband of another widely-respected politician.

“Yes, I think [the Latinx] population will continue to grow,” Oaxaca told me. “But the demographic shift doesn’t define the destiny of the political sphere. The Latinx community is not a monolith. There’s a difference between me as first-generation compared to a third-generation Arizonan who’s been here for a long time.

On the political side, there’s a level of maturity that’s happened in the community, but also in the way they’re being looked at, given their growing potential and political power.” Maturity, he said, means continuing to push their agenda no matter who’s in the White House: “Don’t let them take us for granted, hold them accountable.” Political machines are starting to take note, he said, and this time “the Republicans have been trying to do a lot more to make inroads, because of an understanding that it’s not ‘one size fits all’.”

Arizona flipped from Republican to Democratic in presidential and US Senate races. This turnround was driven in part by a nearly 10% increase in voter turnout, a significant part of it in Hispanic vote

Volunteer at polling place handing out water to voters, Phoenix. Credit: Peter Costantini.

 

Showdown at the AZ corral

The old political Arizona lives on as well in small groups of “Latinos for Trump” at city polling places. And outside the state elections office in downtown Phoenix, where votes were being counted, hundreds of Trump supporters demonstrated for days. A week after Election Day they were still occupying a parking lot there.

Big banners portraying Trump as Rambo carrying a grenade launcher were unfurled next to clusters of American flags, and a variety of Make American Great Again and other Trump-themed merch was on sale. Alex Jones, the prominent conspiracy theorist, had made an appearance, and his truck was parked nearby. Sheriff’s deputies kept the proceedings out of the streets.

Mingling with the crowd were small clusters of solid types in tactical gear, open-carrying hefty, military-looking guns. I asked a stocky man with a Van Dyke beard wearing camouflage what he was afraid of if Biden became president. He covered his head and howled “The world is gonna end”, then smiled and said he was just joking.

Taxes would increase, he believed: “I don’t want to pay more taxes. I don’t want it to be mandated that if I don’t have medical insurance that I have to pay a fine. And I’m not giving up my guns, I don’t care what they say. I’m not an illegal person, I don’t break the law.”

Gesturing at his long gun, he said “Americans, this is us.” If Trump won, he said, “I would like to see some changes in the immigration department. I would like to see heavy funding for the police departments, and massive amounts of training. That might lead us to a better selection of police.

Like a Navy Seal – they don’t just walk out and be a Navy Seal after 286 hours of training. That’s years. There’s a lot of freedoms that’s been removed for us the American people over time by politicians. And it needs to back up. Big government is not good for no country.”

Most of his concerns seemed squarely in the Republican mainstream of the past half-century, begging the question of why someone would feel the need to carry guns to express them. I asked him what he was packing. He smiled: “By definition of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Division, this is an AR-15 pistol.” The AR-15, though, is often categorized as a semi-automatic rifle. It has reportedly been used in several mass murders, and is a hot button in gun-control debates.

The pro-Trump demonstration was predominantly White, but two of the speakers were a young woman and a pre-teen-looking boy, both of whom could have been Hispanic or Native American. The young woman said she had worked in urban ministries in Phoenix, was very concerned about school choice, and had been a victim of human trafficking. The boy pumped his fist and yelled, “This is for the future generations! This is for the USA! We get to choose our future! And we vote Trump!” to loud applause.

On a corner across the street, a few dozen Biden and immigration-rights supporters, many of whom appeared to be Latinx, held a counter-demonstration with a Biden-Harris sign and a Mexican flag. Small groups of pro-Trump people crossed the street at one point to engage them, and a few camo-clad open-carriers shadowed them.

One MAGA supporter wearing a black motorcycle helmet brought over a bullhorn and harangued the opposing demonstrators point blank at full volume. Some other Trump supporters also seemed to be trying to intimidate the pro-Biden demonstrators. But most debated civilly, if heatedly, with people on the other side. The sheriff’s deputies watched but didn’t intervene.

At other times, however, Trump followers’ actions have reportedly been more menacing. At a previous demonstration there, a TV journalist said that she and her photographer had been threatened by Trump supporters and were filing a police report. A month after Election Day, the Arizona Republican Party reportedly asked on Twitter if its members were willing to die to overturn the outcome. And Katie Howe, the Arizona Secretary of State who ran the elections, announced she had received “escalating threats of violence” from Trumpists who believed the President’s spurious claims of electoral fraud. They picketed her home, chanting “We are watching you!” Howe, a Democrat, was widely praised for running impeccable elections despite the pandemic.

 

Faith in South Phoenix

Just a few miles from the political circus at the elections office, the new Arizona is flourishing in the predominantly Hispanic area of South Phoenix. To get there, we cruise down South Central Avenue, a main north-south drag currently hosting construction crews and orange barriers along parts of its median. A light-rail line from downtown will be transecting the heart of a very car-oriented community. Along with it could come a proposed big-box store, which is raising concerns among the neighborhood’s small businesses.

Along the avenue, a billboard hawks payday loans from “Tio Rico Te Ayuda” (“Rich Uncle Helps You”). Dollar stores rub elbows with Mexican restaurants and churches. Between Llantera Hispana, a tire outlet, and Annette Mayorga American Family Insurance, the storefront office of Promise Arizona greeted its community in October with a big sign in English and Spanish urging people to register to vote. It’s acronym, PAZ, means “peace” in Spanish.

Promise Arizona’s web site describes it’s philosophy: “We believe that building immigrant and Latino political power is key to bringing hope, dignity, and progress to our communities.” In pursuit of that goal, it has evolved into hybrid organization: community development group, cultural center, immigrant justice advocate, Latinx issues lobby, and voter mobilizer. Much of the group’s political effectiveness seems to derive from being embedded in the community and its culture with deep, multi-generational ties. Instead of an outsider from a political party knocking on your door, it could be the son or daughter of a friend, and the group may have helped a relative get a green card. Fundamentally, it’s community members working with community members to take care of their common needs.

Walking into its main meeting room on a given day, you might encounter an English class, a workshop on filling out citizenship forms, students learning how to navigate technology, a prayer vigil, or a voter-registration phonebank. Many of its meetings are conducted in Spanish. You might be welcomed warmly by Petra Falcon, the founder, executive director, and wise woman in residence. Earlier in life she was an organizer for the United Farm Workers Union. Now, besides serving as matriarch for five children and six grandchildren of her own, she has nurtured and mentored a new generation of up-and-coming leadership.

PAZ and other parts of the Arizona movement for immigrant justice were born out of a 103-day sit-in at Arizona’s state capitol opposing the repressive Senate Bill 1070. The group was also active in the coalition that successfully recalled the legislator who sponsored the bill, and the series of efforts that threw out racist Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Many of Falcon’s alumni have gone on to organizing and political careers.

A young man with a gentle voice wearing an ASU cap showed me around the PAZ office. Twenty-year-old Alexis Rodriguez is PAZ’s field director, as well as a junior at Arizona State University. He was recruited to activism by a young state senator, Tony Navarrete, who had been deputy director of PAZ. The lawmaker came into Rodriguez’s mainly White high school with his team – “it was a lot of Brown people, people like me, Latinos.”

They exchanged ideas with the students about potential solutions for decreasing gun violence, which piqued Rodriguez’s curiosity. He ended up doing an internship with Navarrete’s campaign, registering people to vote and collecting petition signatures. The student learned from the legislator about working for his community, “building up the economy in our district, creating more opportunities for our families. And now with COVID, he was able to bring in so many drive-through testing locations.”

While still in high school, the young organizer was inspired by a 2018 teachers’ walkout and strike. Thousands of teachers from around the state marched on the capitol in a sea of red T-shirts. Their movement was dubbed “Red for Ed”. Rodriguez agreed with the teachers that the public education for which he was grateful was woefully underfunded.

He organized some friends and classmates to drive down to the capitol to show support. “I ended up packing my truck with about 7 seats, another friend took her car with 5, a different car with another 4. When we found them, our teachers started clapping and cheering. And I’m like, ‘What’s this? We should be clapping and cheering for you guys.’ They’re taking this huge risk to make positive change.”

The teachers’ demand for better school funding finally met with success this year when voters passed an initiative to raise the state income tax on high incomes and dedicate the proceeds to education.

Navarrete introduced Rodriguez to Falcon, who took him on as an intern. PAZ was doing transit-oriented development work, canvassing the community about the impacts of the coming light-rail line, and Rodriguez began by collecting assessments from community members in the transit corridor.

In one corner of the meeting room, Rodriguez showed me a traditional Mexican altar for Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), which fell just before Election Day. “We created an ofrenda, inviting our relatives who have passed away to celebrate their lives with us.

And we provided them with tequila, with what they liked to eat, with pan de muertos (bread of the dead). We have pictures of family members, and marigolds (a traditional flower for ofrendas).” PAZ people lit candles and said rosarios for their dead.

Next to the ofrenda was a mosaic of la Virgen de Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint. PAZ members often pray to it, Rodriguez said. Across the room was another Virgin, a small statue. PAZ delegations have taken her with them on trips to Washington, DC, and Texas. “All across the nation,” he recalled, “she’s been through so much with us, and has seen all of the struggles of our family, and all of our wins and losses.”

PAZ, said Rodriguez, is “a faith-based organization. We focus a lot on prayer, and going into the culture of things.” It is not officially connected with any particular church, but “a lot of our community of Spanish speakers are Catholic.” The group has affiliations with different churches around Phoenix, providing information and doing immigration clinics for them.

A cloth wall hanging in the meeting hall reads: “PAZ – Promise Arizona. Faith. Hope. Vote.” PAZ has been deeply involved in electoral and political work since SB 1070. “For the past 10 years, every election has been important: we get involved in all of them,” Rodriguez said. PAZ registers, organizes and mobilizes the community on social issues and specific electoral campaigns. And this organizing has had an impact on his own family as well.

“My mom, she’s now a resident, but she emigrated from Guanajuato, México,” Rodriguez told me. “She’s the reason why I’m here, and why I have so much opportunity, and why I have the right to vote.” For 35 years, he said, she’s worked hard, now as a housekeeper for Hilton and a janitor at Walmart.

“Now, every time she sees me on the news, she gloats to her friends at church. She’s so happy that I’m fighting for her and our immigrant community as well. She’s very, very proud.” Of her 6 kids, he’s the first going to college. “She never had the space to talk about politics before, my dad too. Now it’s how we bond: we talk about politics and laws. It’s a whole new conversation.”

The dynamism of astute young organizers is at the heart of the new Arizona. They’re crunching data, organizing text banks, riding herd on social media, and training their field people to use online canvassing apps.

But their movement is also grounded in old-fashioned political tactics of feet on the street, even though the pandemic has slowed this work down. PAZ has a campaign pickup truck, a white half-ton festooned with flags and signs exhorting people to vote. It accompanies canvassers into neighborhoods and shopping malls, broadcasting music and messages. Manuel Gutierrez, a volunteer, proudly lent his camioneta to la causa and decorated it as a get-out-the-vote-mobile.

Arizona flipped from Republican to Democratic in presidential and US Senate races. This turnround was driven in part by a nearly 10% increase in voter turnout, a significant part of it in Hispanic vote

Voters entering polling place in South Phoenix. Credit: Peter Costantini.

 

Hope in Maricopa

PAZ’s electoral efforts focus on the South Phoenix area. It’s one of the main concentrations of Hispanic people, who make up 43 percent of the city’s population – although their percentage of the electorate lags. With 1.70 million inhabitants, Phoenix is the nation’s fifth largest city. It’s also the capital of the state and the county, and is home to more than a third of the county’s population.

Maricopa County, with 4.57 million inhabitants, contains 62 percent of the state’s population. Encompassing most of the urban and suburban areas in the Valley of the Sun, it dominates the politics and economy of Arizona. The state, county and city populations and economies are all growing at healthy rates. Hispanics make up 31.4 percent of the population, slightly lower than the statewide figure. But in the county, according to the Morrison Institute for Public Policy, “more than two thousand Latinos turn 18 every month and become eligible to vote.”

In 2020, Maricopa flipped from Republican to Democratic in the presidential vote. Since 1952, it had voted Republican each year, except for Bill Clinton in 1996. Biden carried the county by 2.2 percentage points, a swing of 5 points from Trump’s 2.8 point margin in 2016. The victory was powered by an increase of 300 thousand Democratic voters. County turnout was a record 80 percent, a level unmatched in the past century. (National turnout in U.S. presidential elections usually runs 50 to 60 percent; this year it was 66.7 percent, and Arizona’s was 65.9 percent).

Some of the increased turnout may have been suburban and rural Republicans turning out for Trump. And several mainly middle-class White areas of the city and suburbs flipped from Republican to Democratic. But a decisive part of the Democratic turnout growth seems to have been newly motivated Hispanic and young voters in the city, notably those fired up by the efforts of community groups.

An under-reported geographical trend, Fred Oaxaca observed, was the strong Democratic advance in Pima County, the state’s second largest, and its seat, Tucson, the second largest and most Democratic city. Tucson’s population, like Phoenix’s, is about 43 percent Hispanic, and many of the Hispanic community groups have branches there. “Pima saw a considerable consolidation of the vote,” he said. Biden won Pima by 18.7 percentage points, a margin of 97 thousand votes compared to Hillary Clinton’s 57 thousand vote margin in 2016.

 

Saddling up for the future

As it catches its breath after the electoral sprint, PAZ is beginning to think about the next ten years.

At the national level, Rodriguez said, the top priority is immigration reform. “Hopefully, Biden invites us to the table and is like, how can we provide immigration reform? And how can we provide a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients and their parents, our immigrant community.”

In South Phoenix, he said, “we’re really invested in developing affordable housing” with local partners. “We’ve done assessments here in the South Central Corridor, so we know people’s annual incomes and how much they pay for rent.” PAZ is particularly focused on providing housing for mixed-immigration status families, “where they can pay the rent, but maybe also provide some savings, so all the paycheck doesn’t just go for rent and utilities.” For PAZ, affordable housing is key to preventing gentrification due to development around the light-rail line and the proposed big box store.

During the pandemic, PAZ has helped people deal with unemployment, access emergency funds, and avoid utility shutoffs. The organizing around these issues that have been so critical in mobilizing the community, he said, will not slow down.

Away from the political hurly-burly and the sprawl, the original Arizona persists in the dry wash of the Salt River just south of downtown Phoenix. There, creosote and mesquite, ponds full of turtles, monarch butterflies and birdsong go on weaving tenacious webs of life. On Piestewa Peak, within the city limits, palos verdes still thrust taproots deep into the fractured ferruginous quartzite.

If we could do time-lapse imaging of the coming decade, odds are it would show, in the strip malls and the cul-de-sacs, rich social ferment continuing to fertilize new Arizonas on the Sonoran hardpan of the Valley of the Sun.

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