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Unassuming but rarely underestimated, Sen. Jorge Garcia dies

Jorge Luis Garcia

Jorge Luis Garcia

Senate Minority Leader Jorge Garcia had an aura of almost monkish austerity. You saw it in what he wore – earth-colored trousers and a drab polo shirt. And you saw it in how he spoke – plain and direct.

In an environment that lends itself to grand gestures and big speeches, Garcia avoided grandstanding and delivered even simpler speeches. He was unassuming. You wouldn’t know he was a legislator if you saw him walking to his office.

He once showed up in jeans and a familiar polo shirt for an end-of-session interview — even after he was explicitly told photos of him would be taken.

His wife of 38 years, Maria, once took a pair of scissors and cut his old shirts to pieces so he’d be forced to wear newer clothes.

“I used to buy him clothes when we first got married,” she said. “Afterward, I couldn’t even do that because he wouldn’t wear them. He would pack them. They would sit there.”

Garcia collapsed in the family car Oct. 15 after a medical appointment in Tucson. His wife was driving. The longtime lawmaker and Senate minority leader died of heart complications spurred on by a rare disease. He was 57.

At a young age, Garcia learned to jettison anything that was glamorous. As a boy, he peddled candy and gum on the Mexican side of the U.S. border in Nogales, Sonora. It was his father’s way of teaching him and his siblings the value of hard-earned money.

He brought that work ethic with him when his family crossed over to the United States, the same industriousness he showed to pull himself out of poverty and displayed later in life, when he became a legislator and leader of the Democratic caucus in the Senate.

All men are products of their time, and Garcia’s political views were molded by his working-class upbringing and by a unique Mexican-American experience.

As the grandchild of a Mexican miner who was deported to Mexico when he was no longer needed in the U.S., and raised mostly by his mother, Garcia understood the struggles of poor people and what it was like to straddle two cultures.

But it was his mother who influenced Garcia’s political views the most.

“Basically, my mom said you got to do the right things in life and you got to work hard. That’s her politics,” Garcia once said.

Garcia was born in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, on Sept. 10, 1953, to Jorge Cabado and Concepcion Garcia. His dad owned a store that sold purses and other items to tourists.

As a kid, he was the “bossy one” among the siblings, a sister said.

Life dramatically changed when his mother, a U.S. citizen, decided to return to America. She wanted to give her 11 children a shot at a better life, especially the chance to be better-educated. His father stayed behind in Mexico. Garcia was 7 years old at the time.

Garcia’s mother had no work experience prior to moving back to her home country. Now suddenly, she had nearly a dozen children to feed.

Rosario Campo, Garcia’s older sister, said their mother learned cooking and found a job at a restaurant, earning about $20 to $30 a week.

Campo remembers when their mother would bring home a loaf of bread, and it was the youngest half of the siblings who got to eat first.

“If there was enough for the oldest children, then we’d all split it,” she said, otherwise they waited until the next meal.

The older children, including Garcia, worked to augment the family income. Garcia delivered newspapers, waking up before daybreak to do his rounds. He picked fruit, even in his first year of college.

Garcia showed great promise even in high school. A newspaper clipping showed a picture of him in his teens wearing thick-rimmed glasses and smiling broadly. The article said he excelled academically and spoke French.

Republican Sen. Thayer Verschoor said he was impressed with how well Garcia understood subjects he talked about.

And former Sen. Jonathan Paton, a Tucson Republican, said, “He was a very shrewd, smart guy and I think because he had that sort of unassuming air, people kind of thought they could, you know, pull one over on him. He was a guy that you underestimated at your own peril.”

Garcia married young — right after high school.

“My first impression was, ‘Oh my God. He’s got red hair’,” his wife said, adding it was “coppery red.” They met at a dance the night before, but it was dark and she only had the chance to take a good look at him the next day.

He chased her in their freshmen year; she fell in love with him in their sophomore year.

The couple got married on Dec. 15, 1972. In addition to daughters Yvette and Dominique, they also had Rolando.

Garcia completed sociology studies at the University of Arizona and earned a master’s at Arizona State University. He was frugal even in college – he never bought textbooks, instead using his book allowance from a scholarship to help pay for rent, and once, to buy his wife a leather coat.

He was inclined to politics even at a young age, once running for the student body. He was involved in political campaigns even before he ran for the Legislature. He earned his living as a social worker.

What Garcia lacked in glamour he more than made up for in his passion for his work.

“That man spent more hours and would drive more miles on a moment’s notice if he thought he was needed, more than anyone I’ve ever seen in the Legislature,” said former Democratic minority leader Marsha Arzberger, adding he often made the two-hour drive from Tucson to Phoenix when called.

Garcia was liberal in his political views. Being a liberal Democrat, he once explained, means “making sure that working families have opportunities and that they are not forgotten in Arizona’s progress as Arizona moves forward, and that the small man doesn’t get beat up by the bigger man.”

It sounded like political rhetoric, but his family said he meant it because he knew that life.

He was often too honest for a politician, and that sometimes got him into trouble. He took a lot of heat for saying he would raise his middle finger if a cop asked what documents he carried to prove he’s a U.S. citizen. He described SB1070 as the “unleashing of hate.”

But it was the budget decisions adopted in the last two years that really broke his heart, his family said.

“He always looked for that injustice, whether it would be for KidsCare when things were going to get cut and how that was going to impact the kids, and what that does to working-class families,” his daughter Yvette said.

Garcia carried his party’s torch in budget and policy debates and called out the majority whenever he felt his caucus was getting rolled over. He never raised his voice though. In recent years, Garcia said his “blinders were coming off” and he was becoming less polarized.

The Democrat first joined the Senate in 2003. He served in the House from 1993 to 1997.

He became Senate assistant minority leader in 2007, and was heavily involved in the budget negotiations in the next two years. He rose to the position of Democratic leader in 2008, when state government began facing its worst fiscal crisis in history.

He had an independent streak that some members of his party at times didn’t find amusing. He was the only Democrat, for example, who voted for a Republican budget package last year.

Garcia suffered from a rare disease called primary amyloidosis, which develops when amyloid proteins build up in organs or tissues, including the heart, and causes them to malfunction.

The disease affected Garcia’s heart. He had been fighting it for a few months, even while he was running for the Corporation Commission. He had won his party’s primary election in August.

The illness had considerably slowed him down. He often had to pause to breathe even when walking short distances. He was hospitalized in mid-September.

The family was considering treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. On the day he passed away, Garcia told his wife that it’s cold in Minnesota. His wife, not losing hope, said they would buy jackets.

Even in death, Garcia’s family tried to honor his disposition to shun anything that to him would be glamorous or wasteful. His daughter, Dominique, suggested that instead of sending flowers, those who wanted to pay tribute to her dad send donations to charity organizations.

2 comments

  1. Jorge was a nice, honorable man. It was a pleasure serving with him in the legislature. My prayers and thoughts are with the Garcia family.

    State Representative Debbie Lesko

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