You can’t eat David Garcia.
The curious saying stems from when the Democratic gubernatorial candidate served as an infantryman in the U.S. Army.
Garcia and his Army cohorts were told by a commanding officer that their military handbook included the phrase, “you cannot eat another soldier.”
Your fellow soldiers could get you killed, leave you in a foreign land or get you blown up, but they couldn’t cannibalize you, Garcia said at a June 7 fundraiser.
Garcia, who ran for state superintendent of public instruction in 2014 and lost by about 16,000 votes, is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor this cycle.
Well, because you can’t eat him – you can’t destroy him, you can’t get rid of him.
Garcia’s gubernatorial campaign shares some similarities to his previous campaign mostly because he is just as vocal about the fight for public education as he was four years ago.
But in his gubernatorial bid, Garcia is running to the left of where he was four years ago when, as the more mainstream candidate in the general election, he garnered some Republican support and a surprising endorsement from the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Now, Garcia is occasionally compared to former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders — who lost to Hillary Clinton by double digits in Arizona — as he promises free college tuition, shuns big money and backs a ballot initiative that would boost taxes on Arizona’s top earners.
Garcia, who is in a three-way Democratic primary battle, claims he is the same candidate he’s always been: A strong supporter of public education, but this year, he’s running in a totally revamped political environment and he’s letting his progressive flag fly.
A professor at Arizona State University, Garcia was born and raised in Mesa. An Army veteran with his master’s and a doctorate degree in education policy, Garcia jumped into the governor’s race just after Gov. Doug Ducey signed a law expanding vouchers last year. Garcia has never held elected office before, but he has worked on the policy side of government, having served at the Arizona Department of Education and with the state Senate Education Committee.
Much of Garcia’s previous campaign experience translates to his gubernatorial campaign because education is the top statewide issue this year.
Education funding makes up nearly half the state budget, and education translates to other issues like economic development, prison reform and mental health, he said.
“Arizona’s biggest stumbling block is education,” Garcia said. “We do not invest in our people. We do not invest in our schools.”
This coming from the candidate who rented a school bus as his primary mode of campaign transportation. The bus, which has been wrapped in purplish campaign signs, has been retrofitted with solar panels to help power the work stations and appliances located inside.
But on top of fighting for K-12 education, Garcia has promised free college tuition — an idea made popular by Sanders’ presidential bid — if he’s elected governor.
Garcia has also been extremely vocal in speaking out against dark money and contributions from special interest groups. In his bid for schools superintendent, Garcia was aided by hundreds of thousands of dollars in independent expenditures spent in favor of his campaign and against his opponent, a large chunk of which came from an education nonprofit partly funded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
He said his campaign did not solicit the outside funding, and had no idea it was coming. Ultimately, Garcia said he had no control over outside groups supporting his campaign.
“As a campaign, you want as much control over what you do as possible, and dark money is not in your control,” he said.
In his gubernatorial bid, Garcia has sworn off lobbyist and corporate PAC money in favor of a small-dollar fundraising strategy that has become increasingly popular among progressive candidates. Garcia has more campaign donors than his opponents, but he has trailed both Ducey and his main primary opponent state Sen. Steve Farley in fundraising.
Sanders revolutionized the small-dollar donation strategy in his presidential bid, creating a model for other candidates to follow, Garcia said.
“There was no meaningful small-dollar path until Bernie Sanders came along,” Garcia said.
A tale of two campaigns
Garcia proponents and opponents attribute his shift to the left as a necessity of running in a competitive primary and a factor of him running for a more partisan statewide office.
The governor’s race is far more political than the superintendent position, said Garcia’s former campaign spokeswoman Julie Erfle. She helped on Garcia’s campaign for superintendent.
In 2014, Garcia largely talked about education, which isn’t generally thought to be a partisan issue, she said. That race was about presenting a vision for the best education policy going forward, she said.
But far more contentious issues crop up in the governor’s race because there are other areas of policy the governor has to address, Erfle said.
“I think he definitely is coming off as a much more progressive candidate this go-round,” she said. “Though, again, I think that has more to do with the race, and the nature of what’s happening right now in the state.
It’s a different race and a different time, Erfle said.
The political world has been turned on its head in the past four years.
“The world has shifted,” Garcia said. “You’re asking a comparison between 2014 and 2018, but you’ve got to remember 2016 turned everything on its head in lots of ways. There are folks that are out there that are active, that are involved in ways in ‘18 that were not there in ‘14.”
Garcia and his staffer rattled off a list of grassroots movements that have galvanized Democratic support in recent years, including Red for Ed, Black Lives Matter, March for our Lives and annual women’s marches.
Progressive and minority candidates are also making waves, and winning across the country as the backlash against President Donald Trump steamrolls through the 2018 midterm election cycle.
But the political environment has also gotten significantly more polarized in the recent past.
As Garcia went door to door in a west Phoenix neighborhood — where nearly everyone answered the door in Spanish — on a recent Sunday, the candidate encountered a Republican voter who wasn’t interested in his pitch.
Garcia approached the burly man, who was working on a truck parked in the driveway of a modest, one-story home. Upon hearing Garcia is Democrat, the man exasperatedly waved the candidate and his posse away.
But the encounter didn’t end there.
The man hopped in the truck and circled the block, following Garcia and his staffers as they hit other, nearby homes. At one point, he rolled down a window to chastise Garcia for not knowing better than to solicit a home occupied by strong Republican voters. Later, he appeared to take down the license plate number of a Garcia staffer’s vehicle — the car the group piled into to get to the neighborhood.
And while Republicans typically aren’t as unfriendly, they won’t be keen on supporting Garcia this time around either.
For starters, Garcia is unlikely to get that coveted Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry endorsement this year.
The chamber is a big Ducey supporter, and while the incumbent governor clinching the endorsement is not a done deal, it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion.
So, why did the chamber endorse Garcia for superintendent in 2014 — the first time the group supported a statewide Democratic candidate in nearly a decade.
In 2014, Garcia fashioned himself as a commonsense, reform-minded Democrat who was willing to listen to education ideas that were outside of the liberal viewpoint, said chamber spokesman Garrick Taylor. The chamber also liked that Garcia was a proponent of school choice and a supporter of Common Core, which his Republican opponent Diane Douglas vowed to rip apart.
But the Garcia of 2014 is not the one chamber members are seeing on the 2018 campaign trail, Taylor said.
“The David Garcia of 2018 does not appear to have made a slight tilt leftward, but a dramatic tilt to the left — more in line with the Bernie Sanders wing of the party,” Taylor said.
One issue that has really drawn the chamber’s ire this cycle is the Invest in Education Act — a proposed ballot measure to boost income taxes on wealthy Arizonans — a move that the chamber argues could hurt Arizona businesses. Garcia proudly supports the initiative.
But Garcia says his campaign message hasn’t changed. He still supports school choice and Common Core and he’s still railing against standardized tests.
“I ran in 2014 as a strong public education supporter. I’m running in 2018 as a strong public education supporter,” he said. “I’m running again on the idea that we need to get rid of standardized testing, and invest in public education.”
Farley, the state senator from Tucson, recently criticized Garcia for working with Arizona Republicans on education policy. He was specifically referring to former Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan, who as a lawmaker in 1994 sponsored legislation to create charter schools in Arizona. Garcia worked at the Department of Education and then, as an associate superintendent of public instruction under Keegan.
Part of why Garcia was able to pick up some Republican support and the chamber’s endorsement in 2014 was because the business community was worried about Douglas and her positions on education, said former Superintendent of Public Instruction Jaime Molera. But Molera, a Republican and a Ducey supporter, also pointed to the Invest in Education Act as an example that Garcia is endorsing more progressive policies this go-round.
Molera attributed Garcia’s shift to the left to the contested Democratic gubernatorial primary in which Garcia faces Farley and Kelly Fryer, CEO of the YWCA Southern Arizona.
Garcia is speaking almost exclusively to members of his party right now, he said. He’s trying to nail down support from progressives, the unions, and environmentalists — that’s why he’s tacking to the left, Molera said.
Molera endorsed Garcia’s 2014 bid for superintendent. Garcia would still make an excellent candidate for superintendent, but he’s not the best candidate for governor, he said.
Ducey’s political adviser J.P. Twist labeled Garcia as too “extreme” for Arizona.
“David Garcia very easily is the most extreme candidate of either party to seek the governorship in modern Arizona history,” he said. “As voters learn about the candidates, they are seeing the real Garcia, a big-spending liberal who would bankrupt the state many times over.”
Garcia has jumped headfirst into his campaign, but he’s also already imagining what it would be like to be governor of Arizona.
“When we win this, and we’re there in the Governor’s Office and you’re wondering what Garcia is going to do. … Know one thing, folks. They can’t eat me,” he said.