Latinos in Arizona can show how it’s done.
by Alejandra Gomez and Tomás Robles Jr.
First there were seven. Then 50. Then thousands of people, mostly Latino and many undocumented, who held a vigil on the lawn outside of the Arizona State Capitol in the spring of 2010, praying that Gov. Jan Brewer would not sign an anti-immigrant bill, the most punitive in generations, which had sailed through the Republican-controlled Legislature.
A dozen undocumented women, the “vigil ladies,” set up tents and a four-foot-high statue of the Virgin Mary, borrowed from a church. Students walked out of their classrooms and marched for miles to the Capitol. Abuelas put out traditional Mexican food: pozole, tamales, frijoles. At night, around 50 people slept on the lawn. In the morning, they pulled grass out of their hair, clasped hands and prayed.
The two of us were part of these protests, and we had good reason to be angry — and afraid. One night, Ku Klux Klan hoods were placed near where people prayed. Anti-immigrant groups patrolled close by. Such menaces had long found a haven under Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who ordered his deputies to target Latinos in traffic stops, workplace raids and neighborhood sweeps. Some were later deported.
Despite the enormous opposition to the “show me your papers” bill, which essentially turned the state’s police officers into immigration agents, Governor Brewer signed it. Arizona Republicans no doubt hoped the law would chase out every immigrant, documented or undocumented. Some did leave. But many more stayed, determined to turn their fear and anger into political power.
In less than a decade, many organizers who first cut their teeth fighting that bill are now lawmakers, campaign managers and directors of civic engagement groups like Mi Familia Vota and the Arizona Dream Act Coalition. While it’s easy to dismiss mass protests as short-lived eruptions of anger, Arizona offers a model for how this energy can become real electoral power: It happens when people learn to work with one another, build deep connections and create something bigger than themselves.
In the wake of the vigil, we built an organization called LUCHA, short for Living United for Change in Arizona, that serves as a political home for people of color. We talk to working-class families about the issues important to them and how to get involved in politics. Civic groups and political parties used to do more of this work, but they have become disconnected from real people, too focused on donors and elite influence.
While the anti-immigrant bill was propelled into law by Republicans, Democrats were also to blame. They have long treated communities of color as instruments of someone else’s power rather than core progressives who should be instruments of their own power. This neglect created the space for the bill to pass so easily.
The vigil stretched into the early summer, 103 days in total. It was a training ground for novice organizers like us who would stop by the snack table, gather clipboards and then head out to laundromats and convenience stores to register neighbors. Since then, activists have brought hundreds of thousands of voters into the political process, increasing turnout among Latinos in Arizona from 32 percent in 2014 to a whopping 49 percent in 2018.
With this power, people of color have ousted racist lawmakers and passed statewide legislation that helps low-wage workers, among a string of surprise victories. Activists accomplished what was unthinkable in 2010: Arizona is a battleground state in 2020. Progressives who obsess over white swing voters in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania should pay close attention to Arizona because it’s a model for how to mobilize Latino people nationally.
Here is the story of how, under Joe Arpaio’s reign of terror, Latinos built progressive governing power.
The first order of business was to dismantle the anti-immigrant law. Undocumented people like Maria Jesus drove all across the state to register voters. A vigil lady, Paty Rosas, set up tables with voter registration materials every morning at the vigil. One of us sold his plasma for $105 each week to pay his bills so he could knock on doors in Maryvale, a Latino neighborhood in Phoenix. Students registered partygoers outside bars and nightclubs on weekends.
By Election Day 2010, hundreds of volunteers had registered 13,000 new voters. The law had also set off a nationwide boycott, costing the state some $140 million in tourism and convention revenue. But it was not enough to prevent a Republican supermajority in the Legislature where a state senator, Russell Pearce, the chief sponsor of the bill, became the Senate president.
Veteran activists like Randy Parraz knew that the long-ignored Latino voters in Mesa, Mr. Pearce’s district, could help unseat him. So organizers gathered signatures there to have Mr. Pearce recalled, ignoring Democratic elites who warned this was impossible — no state legislator in Arizona’s history had ever been removed that way.
This strategy of bringing in new voters of color, rather than trying to change the minds of frequent voters, paid off. Mr. Pearce was recalled in a special election in 2011 and replaced with a more moderate Republican.
Then, a number of groups turned their attention to removing Sheriff Arpaio, who had been in office since 1993. He ran a sprawling outdoor detention center he once referred to as a “concentration camp” where he subjected detainees to cruel theatrical practices like chain gangs.
Jacqueline Garcia, a young leader whose father was deported in 2012, registered hundreds of voters and trained new volunteers. Despite efforts like this, Mr. Arpaio won another term in an election that was marked by irregularities. The Maricopa County recorder’s office sent out Spanish-language fliers to Latino neighborhoods that misstated the date of the election. Officials called it a clerical error. Voters reported being denied provisional ballots and turned away at the polls. Joe Arpaio won again.
But with scores of young people turning 18, Joe Arpaio’s empire was shrinking. In 2016, the leaders of LUCHA, Puente and Poder in Action created a campaign called BAZTA Arpaio, featuring neighborhood canvasses that were more like block parties. Mary Ramirez, a powerful señora originally from Hidalgo, Mexico, invited women to “Zumba vs. Arpaio” before they knocked on thousands of doors. The goal was not to reach the entire electorate, but to continue to prove that investing in communities of color could make the difference in a close race.
The thing is, people want community. They want to belong to something that helps them make sense of the political world. But they don’t trust politics or Democrats because both have failed them. They can be persuaded, however, by a neighbor or a friend that they can work collectively to solve problems.
On Election Day 2016, Joe Arpaio lost to a Democrat, and the Maricopa County recorder was replaced by a champion of voting access. Around that time, the “show me your papers” law was diluted in the settlement of a lawsuit brought by civil rights groups.
Election Day 2016 held another victory that had been in the works for a while. We learned at listening sessions with our 2,600 members, whom we’ve cultivated through neighborhood teams and high school civics clubs, that they wanted us to fight for higher wages and family leave. Such sessions are where we and our members commit to standing with one another. Because we could not ignore their needs — even when our donors or party leaders pressured us to do so — we decided to try it ourselves through a ballot initiative.
Some influential progressives doubted the ability of a grass-roots organization, led by us, two young Latinos, to organize and pass a statewide ballot initiative. One person said its failure would set back progressive politics in Arizona for a decade. But we knew the signature-gatherers, most of whom were working for low wages in their regular jobs, would pound the pavement. In July 2016, activists delivered 275,000 signatures to the secretary of state to place the minimum wage increase on the ballot that year.
To build support, organizers talked to small businesses and found that most of them were already paying their employees far above the minimum wage. So about 350 small businesses endorsed the campaign, effectively countering the argument that the ballot initiative would hurt them.
On election night that year, Proposition 206 passed with 58 percent of the vote. The new law provides up to five days of paid sick time for all workers and will raise the minimum wage to $12 per hour by 2020. Contrary to opponents’ fearmongering, economic forecasters found that Arizona’s wage increase benefited the state’s economy, especially food service employees.
The 2016 victories allowed the movement to get stronger. In 2018, local organizations started the MiAZ campaign, knocking on one million doors and adding new tactics to contact voters by text, billboards and TV and radio ads. All of this helped elect a community organizer, Raquel Terán, to the Arizona Legislature and Kyrsten Sinema to the Senate, succeeding a Republican. In addition, the noted political scientist Hahrie Han and her colleagues found that since 2010, Republican legislators in Arizona have been less aggressive in pushing through harmful immigration-related bills.
The “show me your papers” law was intended to destroy Latino families who make up one-third of the state, but it had the opposite effect. Since 2010, organizers have registered more than half a million new voters in Arizona. Continuing to expand the electorate could tip the state to the Democrats next year. Donald Trump won Arizona by fewer than 92,000 votes in 2016. An estimated 271,000 more Latinos may cast ballots here next year, according to Latino Decisions — but only if local organizations have resources to conduct robust voter mobilization.
Of the billions of dollars the political industry will spend before Election Day, a negligible amount will go to grass-roots groups. But for the left to achieve 2020 electoral victories and long-term governing power, the entire political industry — donors, party elites, campaigns, voters — must invest in authentic grass-roots political organizations.
Early investment allows voter-engagement programs to be bigger and more effective. Year-round investment lets groups prepare for the next election cycle, rather than suffering through the boom-and-bust of last-minute get-out-the-vote funding.
Presidential candidates are spending tens of millions of dollars on TV ads that communities of color either won’t see or won’t pay attention to. They should put this money toward face-to-face voter contact instead. And they would be wise to hire local people to do this engagement who know sending a message in Spanish using Google Translate isn’t going to cut it, but canvassing with cumbia and banda music just might.
If the Democratic Party’s old guard learns nothing else, it must stop using a majority of its resources to chase white swing voters and instead pay more attention to the millions of voters of color. For too long, they have treated us like cheap laborers who can knock on doors to deliver them 51 percent of the vote. In exchange, they run candidates who are out of touch with Latinos. In Tucson’s mayoral primary, the old boys’ club endorsed a white man over Regina Romero, a popular and highly qualified Latina who eventually won, even though the city is almost half Latino.
The story of Latino political power is playing out across the country. Latino voters had a bigger increase in turnout than white or black ones between the 2014 and 2018 midterm elections. They will be the largest minority group in the electorate next year. But demographics are not destiny, so groups like the Texas Organizing Project, the New Florida Majority and the New Georgia Project are building the electoral power of communities of color. And LUCHA now travels to Texas and other states to teach others how to create ballot initiative campaigns and help everyday people become elected officials, as well as leaders of campaigns and nonprofit groups.
Defeats did not destroy this movement and victories will not end it. At the vigil in 2010, Latino people found safety in numbers. Since then, they have proven that their power will always be in rooted in their community.