Like a summer monsoon that barely whispers a warning before unleashing a downpour, the fight over the solidly Democratic, though culturally diverse, Legislative District 30 has erupted in recent weeks.
Fierce back-and-forth attacks between Democratic Sen. Robert Meza and his challenger, longtime Hispanic-community activist Raquel Téran, both Phoenix residents, have become a weekly occurrence and range from petty to severe.
Meza claims Téran has been illegally coordinating with unions, the Democratic Party and outside political groups, and even says one of her volunteers raised Meza’s sexuality while canvassing, which Meza said is completely inappropriate. Meza is openly gay.
Meanwhile Téran says Meza has harassed her volunteers. One Democratic activist, who doesn’t live in LD30 and who said she is not connected to Téran but prefers her in the race, has requested a probe into whether Meza has been illegally pocketing campaign cash over the past several years.
The candidate who wins the Aug. 28 primary will take the seat. No Republican is running for either the state Senate or House in LD30, which includes parts of west and central Phoenix and the southeast corner of Glendale.
But partisans, activists and the candidates themselves agree that underneath the accusations, the LD30 fight is emblematic of how Democratic politics in Arizona is shifting.
Téran has been eager to rattle off specific complaints about Meza’s voting and attendance record, but at the core, her fortune relies on boosting political engagement within communities that have been uninvolved, and as she contends, ignored.
“This is about an emergence in our community,” Téran said of her campaign’s broad goals. “It’s our community that we’re moving forward.”
Téran’s campaign is employing the same strategy that has improved voter turnout in Hispanic communities in Maricopa County, enabling recent victories for a new crop of Democratic challengers like Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, in 2010, and Phoenix District 5 City Councilman Daniel Valenzuela in 2011.
The strategy begins with identifying heavily Hispanic, working-class communities, where voter registration and turnout has been anemic.
LD30 is a prime example, said Ken Chapman, executive director of the Maricopa County Democratic Party.
“In past elections, this is a district where a total of five-to-six thousand ballots are cast,” Chapman said.
But with grassroots voter registration and education efforts, turnout can be pushed to as much as two or three times that amount, Chapman predicted.
A dedicated core of volunteers saturates previously non-participating neighborhoods, registering voters and talking with new ones about issues and candidates. And because such communities are energized about Arizona’s struggle over immigration, Téran’s years of clout and visibility on the issue, working with immigration activism groups like Promise Arizona, will lead to victory, she hopes.
Téran’s volunteers get support from groups such as the Maricopa County Democratic Party and the local chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which has been the source of one of Meza’s official campaign finance complaints.
Meza says the Democratic Party is actively working against him and that the support it has given to Téran’s supporters violates the Clean Elections rules. She is running under the Citizens Clean Elections system, which provides her with public financing. He also says the union has unfair influence.
“They (the Maricopa County Democratic Party) have been hijacked by the UFCW, because MCDP isn’t getting money from anyone but the UFCW,” Meza said. “They don’t want Democrats who are pro-business. They just want union-based Democrats, nobody endorsed by the chambers (of commerce).”
Joseph Larios, Maricopa County Democratic Party field director, said they’ve done nothing wrong and their job is to enable volunteers to use their resources to register new Democrats and promote any Democrat they choose.
“We don’t tell them who to support,” Larios said.
And the fact that the union has provided support for the volunteers and their voter registration effort aligns with their inherent goals to empower working class voters, Larios contends.
Meza, however, still has the incumbent’s advantage. He has endorsements from established Democrats such as Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, former Attorney General Terry Goddard, former state Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, House Minority Leader Chad Campbell and House Assistant Minority Leader Anna Tovar.
Téran has been endorsed by U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, state Sen. Steve Gallardo, Representative Gallego, Phoenix City Councilmen Valenzuela and Michael Nowakoski and the AFL-CIO.
Pro-commerce support from groups such as the Arizona Technology Council and solid financial backing by the Capitol lobbyist cadre are also part of Meza’s campaign arsenal.
Meza, who was born and raised in the district, also has stories of responding to constituents and helping them deal with personal challenges such as mortgage modification, college admission and dealing with Arizona’s Medicaid system.
“With this district, you have to be hands-on,” Meza said.
Campbell, who ran on a slate with Meza when they were in the same district and who has worked closely with him over the years, says Meza’s strong ties to the community are going to be his biggest asset.
“I’ve seen him work hard with his constituents,” Campbell said. “I think he’ll pull it out.”
Meza considers himself as a rounded leader, with strengths on issues from education to jobs and immigration. He’s developed a reputation for making himself available for his constituents.
“You have to be multi-dimensional in your approach. You have to have the whole spectrum,” Meza said. “(Téran’s) problem is she only talks about immigration, when the issue for the majority of people is better jobs and education.”
Téran says she’s undeterred by Meza’s criticism, saying she, too, has worked on job- and education-focused projects. She frequently returns to the notion that there are communities that have not participated in the political process and that they’re simply looking for a leader who engages with them.