I was on the way home Oct. 15 when my editor called to tell me that Sen. Jorge Garcia had died.
I spent the next few hours confirming it and calling his colleagues to ask for their thoughts about the Democratic leader.
It was only later that night that I had a chance to reflect on the last four years that I had known him. I keep a distance from my sources, but it was difficult not to be friendly with Garcia, and I was often in his office the past two years to interview or simply chat with him.
He was a good source. He helped me get documents or information that I couldn’t get through the usual channels. If you needed to get his caucus’ pulse on issues, he was also the go-to lawmaker.
But he also always gave his honest assessment of the situation, and he had an independent streak that sometimes irritated his party-mates.
What immediately struck me about Garcia was how unassuming he was. He spoke plainly, and he had this habit of shifting his weight in tiny steps while giving a floor speech. He also always wore this smile as if he was thinking about the punchline of a joke that only he knew.
I learned from his family that he was just as austere at home. His wife and daughters said he jettisoned anything wasteful – that applied to buying “Vitamin Water.” He often ordered only a side salad whenever his family dined out because he knew there would be enough left over on their plates to fill him.
I asked him once what he did to get away from the hassles of work. He replied that he enjoyed cleaning the pool.
I began really paying attention to what he said after a Republican senator – it might have been Sen. John Huppenthal of Chandler – told me Garcia had an uncanny grasp of budget issues. The two lawmakers sat opposite the table when the two parties negotiated past budgets.
I sought his take on the 2008 elections, when many of his party-mates were predicting or hoping that Democrats would upend the Republican majority. He told me the best they could hope for was to come out of the election with the same number of seats. He was right; Republicans made gains that year, including grabbing a Senate seat held by a Democrat.
I often challenged him on his positions, even while we were just chatting. I remember repeatedly asking him why, for example, Senate Democrats weren’t more aggressive in pushing their agenda. I argued that the minority could, for example, throw monkey wrenches in the legislative process by challenging Republicans on every procedural point. He responded that it wouldn’t change things and would merely irritate colleagues.
In hindsight, maybe he simply didn’t want to get in the way of accruing munitions that his party could use against Republicans. But maybe he also saw that grandstanding or putting up temporary roadblocks only delayed the inevitable; that is, if the majority had the votes, they would inevitably be able to do what they want.
Garcia, 57, was intelligent; one colleague said you underestimated him at your own peril. But he was often too honest, and I didn’t think he excelled at playing political games. He once advocated for an alternative budget plan last year that didn’t include cuts other than what Republicans already approved in the year before, even though the state was deep in deficit. He said he wanted to show the majority that there were other options; I thought the move merely helped solidify Republicans’ opinion that Democrats weren’t serious in solving the budget problem.
Garcia had been in politics for a long time, but he never displayed cynicism. He didn’t verbalize it, but I sensed his belief in the system – that it could effectuate changes and that his involvement could produce some good for his community.
The last time I saw Garcia was before the primary election. I asked him how his campaign for the Corporation Commission was going, and he said he’s unlikely to qualify for Clean Elections funding. When I asked him why, he said his energy was zapped out of him.
I spoke to him on the phone a few more times, and each time his voice sounded more and more labored. He died on Oct. 15; he had been suffering from a rare disease that affected his heart.
It wasn’t his politics that I remember most about Garcia. It was that one night – one of several nights when the Capitol community kept vigil trying to solve the state’s budget woes – when he said I could use his office sofa if I needed to rest.