Ariz. candidate brings green agenda to el barrio -- and beyond

PHOENIX -- Former Arizona state Rep. Ruben Gallego (D) is just wrapping up a pep talk to about three dozen volunteers on a recent weekday afternoon when he reminds the group to drink water -- after all, an hour after they head out the temperature on this day will peak at 104 degrees.

"Drink water!" Gallego calls out to the group of young volunteers. Then, riffing on a half-joking mantra the campaign has adopted, he adds: "If you die of dehydration, we won't cry for you until after the election."

Gallego, 34, is competing in the Democratic primary that will effectively decide the successor to Rep. Ed Pastor (D) here in the 7th District. No Republicans have entered the open-seat race -- not surprising in a district that went 72 percent for President Obama in 2012.

But that doesn't mean there isn't a fight for this Phoenix-based seat that Pastor has held for 23 years: Four Democrats are vying for the nomination.

When Pastor unexpectedly announced his retirement in February, Gallego jumped into the race immediately -- about 20 minutes after Pastor's decision went public, by Gallego's own estimation -- posting to his Twitter account, "I am in for Congress."

"We'd always felt there was a void in terms of a lot of the leadership we needed. I'd always thought about running for this seat because I didn't think he would retire anytime soon," Gallego said in an interview earlier this month.

Still, other Democrats had likewise been mulling bids, including the woman who is Gallego's most formidable opponent, former Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox.

A former Phoenix councilwoman and longtime fixture in the city's political scene, Wilcox claimed an advantage in the race out of the gate.

Pastor blessed her bid to succeed him, and she has claimed support from fundraising groups like EMILY's List and nabbed the endorsement of the Arizona Republic, which cited her long tenure in local politics. Wilcox replaced Pastor on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors in 1992.


But recent survey results suggest despite Wilcox's establishment support, Gallego has taken a lead in the Democratic primary.

A Public Policy Polling survey released earlier this month showed Gallego ahead with 41 percent to Wilcox's 31 percent, but another 27 percent of voters were still undecided. The poll did not include the primary's other two Democratic candidates.

The July 22-24 survey of 500 likely voters had a margin of error of 4.4 points.

Back in a conference room at the local United Food and Commercial Workers International offices recently, Gallego's staff touted the PPP poll numbers to volunteers at its canvass operation, at the same reminding the group that their campaign had several weeks to go.

"Having a lead is nice, but 90 percent of the vote is left to come in," campaign manager Ruben Alonzo told the volunteers.

But it's Gallego's massive get-out-the-vote operation that is largely credited with powering his uptick in the Democratic battle.

In an interview, the Iraq War veteran explained that the operation -- which sends out around 40 volunteers into Phoenix neighborhoods each day -- is the product of previous grass-roots campaigns he has organized in Arizona and elsewhere.

"When I first moved here, the emphasis on face-to-face communication was almost nonexistent," said Gallego, dressed in a dark suit but devoid of the necktie he'll put on before a young professionals fundraiser later in the evening.

A limited budget also forced Gallego to consider the alternatives when he orchestrated his first campaign in Arizona in 2008, running Democrat Michael Nowakowski's underdog bid for a city council seat against Pastor's daughter.

After winning that race and serving as Nowakowski's top aide at City Hall, Gallego would go on to pitch his own uphill campaign for the state Legislature using many of those same tactics.

Gallego, a Harvard alumnus, described a canvassing effort in that cycle in which "young Latino politicos" like him were inspired to target lawmakers who refused to oppose a strident anti-immigration measure that many in the state simply refer to by its bill number, S.B. 1070.

"It got me from last place to first place," he said of his canvassing operation in that 2010 election.

It also may have helped to significantly raise turnout in the district overall -- boosting Latino voters who typically skip the ballot box, contributing to the district's regularly low turnout -- according to statistics provided by Gallego's campaign.

In the 2010 cycle, his Phoenix-based state House district saw nearly 49,000 ballots cast, a significant increase from 2006 -- another year in which voters decided a gubernatorial race in the state -- when 32,000 ballots were submitted, an increase of nearly 52 percent.

"Traditionally, if you're running in a primary, you focus on your traditional primary voters that vote all the time, but we've never really thought that way," Gallego said. "We think there's always more room to grow."

Without prompting, he added: "If we're wrong, then I don't know what happens, to be honest. We really do believe in this kind of method of winning campaigns."

Gallego also had a chance to sharpen his canvassing skills in 2013, when his wife, Kate, a former head of the state's League of Conservation Voters, sought and won a seat on the Phoenix City Council.

"It raises the stakes because we have to," Gallego said of his effort to boost voter turnout. "Arizona does not change in terms of being more progressive or more blue unless this district performs. What we've always said, my campaign especially has always said, is it is the responsibility of this district to basically lead the state."

'Nobody wants to talk about' climate

In a state like Arizona, it can be difficult to avoid discussing immigration reform in any contest, even a Democratic primary in a heavily blue district where support among voters is a given -- much less in a race where one of the candidates, Wilcox, 64, won a legal victory against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio (R) after he was found to have harassed her with indictments when she spoke out against his anti-immigration policies.

Gallego lamented that the issue, while important, often drowns out other topics, including his support for U.S. EPA's proposed rules for greenhouse gas reductions at existing power plants.

"We can't even have a conversation because every time I bring it up, nobody wants to talk about it," Gallego said.

He recalled that during a recent meeting with the Arizona Republic's editorial board, he raised the issue of energy policy but was told the newspaper wasn't interested in discussing it.

"We have the Navajo Generating Station right there up north, we have Palo Verde [Nuclear Generating Station], one of the biggest nuclear power plants in the state, we have a lot of coal generated up at the Four Corners area, and the biggest newspaper didn't even want to have a conversation about that," Gallego asserted.

He later added: "I think there's a certain bias among a lot of press that believes that the Latino community only cares about immigration reform. It is one of the most important issues we care about, but we care about a lot of issues, and the environment is one of them."

Gallego has good reason to raise environmental policies: His efforts have won him the support of various groups, including the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters and Climate Hawks Vote, as well as the progressive group VoteVets, which often weighs in on topics like the renewable fuel standard.

In his campaign, Gallego promotes climate change as an economic and public health issue that could affect poorer residents in his district.

"We are going to be, the Latino community especially in Arizona, are going to be disproportionally impacted by climate change," said Gallego, who has vowed to support cap-and-trade legislation, as well as a carbon tax.

He added that higher electricity costs could force poorer constituents in the district to choose between energy bills and other needs, or prevent people from pursuing energy efficiency measures like better home insulation. Gallego also promotes solar development in the state as a way to create additional jobs.

"It's a moral imperative for us that truly believe in taking care of the poor and people that are disadvantaged in this world that we need to take care of climate change and mitigate the eventual problems we're going to have," he added.

Still, Gallego acknowledged it's not common for voters to seek him out on environmental policies, even as he promotes his proposals on the campaign trail.

"We hear about it, but we don't hear about it in the grand scope of the environment. What we hear about is dirty air and heat," Gallego said. "They're not communicating in the grander scope of the environmental movement. For them it's more of the personal, day-to-day issues they deal with."

While whichever Democratic candidate wins the primary is all but guaranteed to land a long career in Congress, the victor is expected to land in the minority: both the House and potentially the Senate will be under GOP control next year.

That means it's unlikely the future lawmaker will be able to push through any kind of climate change policies. Given that bleak scenario, Gallego nonetheless asserted, "You have to be there to stop rollbacks that are happening."

'He wants to work'

Later in the evening, as dozens of Gallego's volunteers spread out throughout the city to knock on doors and attempt to collect early ballots, the candidate heads a short distance down the street to a fundraiser at the Pizza People Pub.

Having added a tie to his ensemble, Gallego mingles with a crowd of his contemporaries, pausing to make a brief pitch for additional funds midway through the evening.

"My fight and your fight is to fight for the future," Gallego tells attendees as he stands in front of an oversized painting of a peacock in bright blues and purples.

Gallego's efforts appear to be working. According to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, he leads the money chase with nearly $300,000 in the bank at the end of June, after raising $435,000. Wilcox reported $221,000 in cash at the end of June after raising $336,000 at that time.

Among the attendees at Gallego's fundraiser is Brian Davidson, an Arizona-based environmental professional who previously held posts with both EPA and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

Davidson, who is seeking a seat on the Osborn School Board, says of Gallego: "Usually, safety equates to candidates who don't work as hard, and that's not who Ruben is. He wants to work."

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