In the wake of U.S. Rep. Ed Pastor’s retirement earlier this year, Ruben Gallego and Mary Rose Wilcox are locked in a high-stakes struggle to win votes in a district previously marked by low turnout and uncontested primaries.
The Aug. 26 Democratic primary race highlights a bitter schism among longtime Valley Democrats with community roots and political newcomers eager for an opportunity to represent the state.
For both campaigns, the main focus consists of talking to voters, coaxing their support and helping them get their ballot turned in. For Wilcox, 64, a former member of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, the methods of doing so reflect tradition and a connection to the minority community’s struggle. For Gallego, 34, a former state representative, it’s all about efficiency, numbers and new technology.
In a mostly Phoenix district dominated by Democrats, the winner will go to Washington D.C. in January.
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When Ruben Gallego and his campaign manager Ruben Alonzo rally the troops, they boast of their campaign’s finely-tuned door-knocking operation.
“You’re doing something that’s never been done in this district, let alone the state,” Gallego says, referring to his high-tech strategy for reaching voters in the 7th Congressional District, the poorest, least educated, most ethnically diverse district in the state.
Gallego’s campaign is all about iPhones, a MiniVAN voter data app and GPS coordinates that provide the location of each home his teams will visit.
Rather than creating packets of papers, printed with maps, addresses and data filled out by hand, Gallego’s operations have moved to an all-digital format.
Information on voters — how frequently they vote, when they’ve voted last, what their last impression of Gallego was on a scale of 1 to 5 — is available with a swipe or tap of a finger.
It’s all part of Gallego’s strategy to defeat Wilcox, a candidate with higher name recognition, high profile endorsements and decades-old ties to the central Phoenix congressional district.
Gallego and Wilcox both have substantial canvassing operations, but offer competing styles and targets as they look to get voters’ support. She is running a more traditional campaign in neighborhoods where it’s difficult to find voters who’ve never heard of the politician most locals call Mary Rose.
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When Pastor announced his retirement in February, there was little question that Gallego would run. It took a matter of minutes for him to announce his candidacy on Twitter. Volunteers from some of his prior campaigns were just as quick to reach out to Gallego and pledge their support, firing off quick text messages asking when and where they could begin working on the campaign.
It’s an operation that, without Kate Gallego’s campaign for the Phoenix City Council in 2013, wouldn’t have been possible on such short notice.
Kate’s campaign was the petri dish for Gallego’s team, an opportunity for them to experiment and perfect a ground operation that volunteers had been working to innovate for years.
Now Gallego is delivering the same methods that worked for his wife Kate, but on a much broader scale.
Gallego’s first crack at campaigning in Arizona came in 2006, when he worked on a campaign to beat a ballot initiative to outlaw same-sex marriages. In 2007, he was at the helm of Michael Nowakowski’s upset win against another Pastor-endorsed candidate — the congressman’s daughter, Laura Pastor — in a Phoenix City Council race.
At the time, the Phoenix New Times reported that all the state’s Democratic elites had backed Pastor, and Nowakowski wasn’t supposed to stand a chance.
“For all of Pastor’s money, she simply failed to get out the vote,” the New Times reported in January 2008.
Since that campaign, Gallego has helped sweep a number of candidates into office, including himself. He successfully ran for the Legislature in 2010, then helped Daniel Valenzuela win a seat on the Phoenix City Council and supported Greg Stanton during his campaign for Phoenix mayor.
Gallego and his volunteers used the same method that worked for Nowakowski four years earlier: A relentless canvassing operation that had volunteers knocking on doors in the district multiple times. The volume of faceto- face contact with voters proved to be effective in convincing residents of the value of a candidate, but also convincing a new wave of Latinos to vote.
Tony Valdovinos, Gallego’s field director for the congressional campaign, volunteered for Valenzuela in 2011, and has been working on campaigns under Gallego’s guidance since.
Valdovinos was born in Colima, Mexico. When Arizona voters passed Proposition 300 in 2006, he could no longer receive in-state tuition. His school expenses tripled, in essence, pricing him out of a higher education.
So Valdovinos threw himself into political campaigns, hoping to make an impact by electing politicians who could improve his circumstances. It was that, or shovel cement on a construction site with his father, he said.
In 2012, as he watched Democrat Richard Carmona fail in his U.S. Senate bid against now-Sen. Jeff Flake, Valdovinos saw the disparity between a Latino candidate he was working to elect and the ultimate support behind him.
“We were under this idea that, ‘Oh we’re all Latinos, we’re all going to get together and we’re gonna fight!’ It was really surprising to see a Latino candidate struggle in his election,” Valdovinos said. “The endorsements were there but not really the people.”
Gallego tries to bring in new blood on every campaign and train volunteers to become organizers.
Valdovinos took advantage of that opportunity when, after having his deferred-action application approved, he took his “first American job” working as a field director for Gallego’s wife Kate, in her 2013 campaign for the Phoenix City Council.
It was his first paycheck on a campaign, but also his first chance to take the experiences from two prior years of campaigning and create a unique canvassing operation.
“I had full discretion to develop an entire new system of canvassing because I was that guy, three years ago, with a hot water bottle and a paper list that was poorly cut, and the universe was horrible, and I didn’t know where I was,”
Valdovinos said. “Most of what you see here (on Gallego’s congressional campaign) is complements of past lessons of being in the field.”
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Canvassers, mostly young high school-age students, filed into the Gallego campaign headquarters in Phoenix. It was the last Monday before early ballots were mailed to voters, and Gallego’s volunteers were finishing a monthslong effort to knock on as many doors in CD7 as possible. Thirty-six canvassers headed out in teams of three.
New volunteers were teamed up with more experienced members of Gallego’s campaign, some of whom are paid. Gallego’s most recent campaign finance report showed payments of $1,000 to 16 canvassers in June, with the expense flagged as a “field stipend.” That and the hundreds of dollars spent on gas cards have paid off for Gallego. They keep his volunteers happy and motivated, he said, and he considers the stakes raised for canvassers who knock on doors as a job, not simply as volunteers.
So far, their efforts have been a success. A map in Gallego’s office shows the last time canvassers have visited in each precinct in the district. Campaign manager Ruben Alonzo boasted that most districts have been canvassed three, if not four times. Gas cards and stipends are as essential an expense to the campaign as mailers, he said.
Gallego has tried to make a finely tuned machine of his door-knocking operation, headed by veteran campaign worker Valdovinos.
Once the rallying cry ended, teams of three were called into a small office, where Chantal Sainz Medina asked them to hand over their smartphones. If a volunteer doesn’t have one, Medina has a backup stack of iPhones to loan for the afternoon. Each phone has downloaded the MiniVAN app — an extension of the Democratic voter data database, called the Voter Activation Network, which Democrats can purchase from the state party. It tells the teams which doors to knock on and gives them voter information — how frequently they vote, when they’ve voted last, what their last impression of Gallego was on a scale of 1 to 5 — is available with a swipe or tap of a finger.
The app paid dividends later in the evening, when rather than spending hours logging information collected by canvassers, all the information was synchronized to the Gallego campaigns database as soon as phones returned to campaign headquarters and connected to the office wifi. In the field, Sainz Medina whipped Gallego’s Toyota Prius through the Gateway neighborhood, picking up and dropping off the two canvassers she teamed up with for the afternoon
.One minute she was dropping off Clarisa Felix, 18, instructing her to knock on two doors down one street. Moments later she picked up Andre Graseda, 17, who convinced a voter to place a Gallego sign in their yard.
The efficiency of the operation is something Gallego helped teach his canvassers on Kate’s campaign.
One driver and two canvassers can reach more doors in less time than traditionally walking. Equally important to Gallego, he believes it’s a healthier way to canvass.
His volunteers spend less time on their feet in the brutal Arizona summer heat.
Since the neighborhood had already been canvassed by the Gallego campaign, the team only hit a few houses on each street, making the ability to drive and drop Clarisa and Felix from door to door critical.
At some homes, Sainz Medina could recall knocking on the door for Kate in 2013.
In a little more than two hours, Sainz Medina and the others knocked on all of the 109 doors they were tasked to canvass. The 14 Gallego signs they brought with them were gone, placed in yards throughout Gateway.
“We’ve done a lot of things around being efficient and cautious, about who our volunteers are and how they can do this at a level where they’re not getting burnt out every time they go out there,” Valdovinos said.
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Mary Rose Wilcox, history and familiarity are essential to her campaign.
She is well known for “standing up to Sheriff Joe,” a fact she frequently touts during her campaign, and for good reason. The controversial Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, aided by since-disbarred former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, brought trumped-up indictments against Wilcox and other officials. A federal appeals court ruled in June that the county must pay Wilcox a $975,000 settlement for the trouble caused by Arpaio.
“That’s something that people really key in on about me,” she said following a GOTV event on Aug. 2. “When I walk, people actually stop me and say, ‘Thank you for stopping Arpaio.’”
Wilcox has served for 31 years as an elected official in the Valley, first as a Phoenix City Council member and then as a member of the Maricopa Countys Board of Supervisors. She took a seat vacated by Pastor when he won a special election to Congress in 1991.
Prior to her bouts with Arpaio, Wilcox may have been best known for being shot just outside the auditorium where county supervisors were leaving a meeting in 1997.
The assailant told police he was angry she had voted in favor of a tax increase to fund the construction of a stadium to house the Arizona Diamondbacks in downtown Phoenix.
Wilcox said being a shooting victim lends credibility to her campaign’s efforts. So far that’s been to make preventing gun violence and getting guns of the streets, the cornerstone of her campaign.
“I am a victim of gun violence, I learned through that, that I must stand up to the NRA, that I must stand up and say this proliferation of guns has to stop,” Wilcox said during a televised debate on “Arizona Horizon.”
Creating a relationship with voters Combined with an endorsement from Pastor, Wilcox offers stories of struggle as a sign of her connection to generations of voters who’ve grown up with her in office.
Canvassers hammered home that message on the afternoon of July 30, when a dozen volunteers gathered at the home of Rep. Norma Munoz, who was appointed serve the rest of Gallego’s term, before knocking on doors and gauging voters’ support of Wilcox. It was one of the final days for the campaign to reach out to voters before focusing on collecting ballots.
The canvassers’ job is to create a relationship with voters and Wilcox and instill a sense of urgency to ensure they’ll vote, said Tony Navarrete, Wilcox’s field director.
Sarai Lopez, 19, organized clipboards for each volunteer that contained a map of the “universe” each volunteer will be in that day, complete with the homes where they planned to reach out to voters. She split the volunteers into groups of two to head out into the afternoon sun.
At several locations in CD7, other volunteers prepared in the same manner. No fewer than 30 volunteers had been knocking on doors for the Wilcox campaign each day for weeks, Navarrete said.
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An hour later, Lopez was walking alone in an upscale neighborhood in Laveen, sweat beading on her forehead.
She usually aims to knock on about 60 doors in an afternoon, but the campaign’s targets have narrowed in the week leading up to early ballots. Volunteers dispatched from the Munoz compound had roughly 30 homes to knock on this afternoon. That allowed more time to have a conversation with voters about Wilcox, Lopez said.
Lopez walked swiftly between homes, but it was a slow process snaking through the neighborhood. Most homes were empty, or no one’s answering.
When she finally got a chance to interact with a voter, it was a young man who explained he’s completely out of the loop — a rare opportunity to introduce Wilcox to an uninformed voter and a prime example of the message Wilcox wants to get across.
Lopez explained that Wilcox’s first priority is immigration and her second to continue to stand up to Arpaio. But “her main focus,” Lopez said, is preventing gun violence.
Dealing with uncertainty Political junkies and candidates alike can’t be sure how voters might turn out in a district where, historically, they seldom have.
The 22,664 voters who cast ballots for Pastor in 2012 represented just 7.67 percent of the 173,912 CD7 voters who could have voted for him. Those included the district’s 94,259 active Democrats and 79,673 active independents, according to records from the Secretary of State’s Office.
Pastor ran for office 11 times after winning a special election in 1991 to represent what was then Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District. In 1992, he won his first uncontested Democratic primary with 33,289 votes, the most he ever received.
As Pastor’s district shifted every decade, increasingly becoming a safe haven for the Democratic lawmaker, he received fewer and fewer votes in mostly uncontested primaries.
Fewer than 15,000 voters cast votes for Pastor in 2006, the lowest he received in any congressional primary election, while he represented Arizona’s 4th Congressional District.
Only twice in his 24 years of representing Arizona in Congress was he challenged. Those were in 1994 and again in 2012, in races where he won 74 percent and 79 percent of the vote, respectively. As a result, voters have never had reason to flock to the polls in late summer.
The lack of reliable voting history complicates the campaigns’ efforts to target voters who traditionally could be seen as likely supporters or opponents. And predicting how many votes are needed to win the election is guesswork given how long it’s been since a congressional candidate in the district had to put up a fight in the primary.
This predicament has led both campaigns to the same conclusion: The best way to win the election is to get out the vote, and the best way to get out the vote is going doorto- door in the triple-digit heat of the Phoenix summer.
It’s the most effective way to let voters know that, for the first time in nearly a quarter century, someone other than Pastor will represent them in Congress. And it’s an opportunity to introduce new options in a more personal way than any campaign mailer or television advertisement could do.
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On Aug. 2, two days after early ballots were mailed to voters, canvassers gathered at El Portal, the Wilcox-owned restaurant next to Grant Park in Phoenix.
About 75 campaign workers and volunteers slurped menudo made by her husband Earl, himself a former Arizona legislator.
Politics runs in the family, and has for years. Canvassers hammered that message home as they began knocking on doors shortly after 9 a.m.
The message is doubly true for those headed to south Phoenix, who talked with voters about Wilcox and state Reps. Catherine Miranda and Norma Munoz — both connected to longtime Phoenix political families. The three Latina politicians stood together as the campaign volunteers prepare.
The mid-summer day eventually reached 102 degrees, plus high humidity, brutal conditions for volunteers who were asked to walk for hours on paved streets and sidewalks to knock on doors and speak with voters. Campaign organizers urged volunteers to drink bottled water before they headed out.
But the most important message — repeated to volunteers several times — is that canvassers are to ask voters for their early ballots.
An hour later, Sarai Lopez approached her first home for the day, in the Highland Park neighborhood near 16th Street and Baseline Road, where Andres Zuniga loaded a ladder into the pickup in his driveway. Lopez asked — in Spanish — whether he knows Wilcox, and Miranda and Munoz, both who are running for election to the Legislature and have combined forces with Wilcox on the campaign trail.
Zuniga looked at photos on the campaign literature Lopez has, then looked back at Lopez before tapping his pointer and middle fingers on the center of his forehead.
“Nopal en la frente,” Zuniga said with a smile.
Lopez repeated the phrase and gesture, smiling back at him.
Translated literally, it means “cactus on the forehead,” but for those with a Mexican-American heritage, it speaks to a cultural and ethnic connection. His alliance with Wilcox, Miranda and Munoz was as clear to him as the photographs on the campaign literature.
Lopez arranged for someone from the campaign to return later, when he was done working, to pick up early ballots from Zuniga’s family. She thanked him, waved, and moved on to the next home listed in her packet.
Just two doors from Zuniga, Jose “Casper” Habre was immediately turned off when Lopez told him she was there on behalf of Mary Rose Wilcox. When pressed by Lopez to hear more about why he should vote for Wilcox, Habre cut her off.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“Nineteen,” she replied.
Habre told Lopez he’s known the Wilcox family since before Lopez was born, and that his mind was made up.
“She’s got too much baggage,” Habre said as Sarai told him goodbye and headed to her next targeted home. “Earl is her baggage.”
Reached later by phone, Habre, who has been involved in south Phoenix Chicano activism since the 1970s, explained that he and others with a history in Arizona politics are skeptical about the amount of influence Wilcox’s husband Earl has over her and about the soundness of his judgment.
Habre said he would have pressed any canvasser as hard about their candidate, though.
“When I cut my teeth in the late 70s — in the Ben Miranda, Alfredo Gutierrez days — canvassers had to know the good, the bad and the ugly about their candidate,” he said.
Habre said he also thinks the Wilcox campaign has miscalculated the way it has approached the issue of guns.
“A lot of people from the Chicano movement are believers in the 2nd Amendment,” Habre said.
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The consecutive exchanges on a Saturday morning — one pro-Wilcox, one adamantly against — showed the double-edged sword that Wilcox’s name ID in the race has become.
Wilcox acknowledges there are some voters who have soured to her over during her time in office. Pol ling released by the Gallego campaign in July supports the notion: According to Lake Research Partners, 40 percent of Democratic voters in CD7 have a favorable view of Wilcox, while 30 percent view her unfavorably.
“I truly believe you can’t have represented people for 31 years and not have some detractors, but I think they’re in the minority,” Wilcox said.
Those who have a positive view of Wilcox play to one of her greatest strengths, she said.
“Many of the multi-generation families are, I think, my core support. They know me. Their parents know me, the kids know me,” Wilcox said following a day of canvassing on Aug. 2.
“And I can go into a household and I can have the grandparents say, ‘Mary Rose, we appreciate you standing up for us.’ And the parents: ‘Hey, you got a job for us.’ And the kids: ‘Hey, we play your late night basketball.’”