Progressive organizers continue winning streak in truncated session

Arren Kimbel-Sannit//June 22, 2020

Progressive organizers continue winning streak in truncated session

Arren Kimbel-Sannit//June 22, 2020

Alejandra Gomez, co executive director of Living United for Change in Arizona, discusses the political defeat of a sanctuary cities ballot measure and the other issues still facing the Hispanic community. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)
Alejandra Gomez, co executive director of Living United for Change in Arizona, discusses the political defeat of a sanctuary cities ballot measure and the other issues still facing the Hispanic community. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

Six months ago – or an eternity, depending on how you count – before the coronavirus, before the most recent wave of public demonstration against police violence, before the David Cook scandal or talk of legislative leadership races, Gov. Doug Ducey set the tone of the fledgling legislative session with an immediately controversial proposal to enshrine a ban on sanctuary jurisdictions in the Arizona Constitution.

It was the political expression of a governor leading his party into electoral war. While he had been conciliatory with Democrats in the previous session, this year was already proving to be different.

But with that proposal – which would soon turn into a ballot referral carried by Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, one of Ducey’s key legislative allies – the tactician in the Executive Tower made a key misstep. Within two months, he pulled the plug.

In those intervening months, Ducey apparently failed to predict the level of opposition that an effort to effectively enshrine one of the remaining provisions in SB1070 into the Constitution would engender, including from within his own party. And while it was the likely defections of heterodox GOP Reps. Tony Rivero and Noel Campbell that killed the sanctuary city referral, it’s crucial to examine another root cause of the initiative’s failure – the state’s community of progressive activists and organizers.

Indeed, though this year didn’t have anything that compares to the effort to recall then-Sen. Russell Pearce – SB1070’s legislative champion – the passage of a minimum wage initiative or the  mass teacher walkouts of the Red for Ed days, the Second Session of the 54th Legislature served in its own way is proof positive that activists in Arizona form an increasingly effective vanguard of the state’s gradual leftward shift.

T.J. Shope
T.J. Shope

From raising the alarm about the sanctuary city initiative in the public eye to raising hell about controversial elections bills in committee meetings, the state’s cadre of activist groups showed this session that they’re not afraid to play ball in traditional halls of power, though they’re certainly not going to play under the rules that the political establishment sets.

“I think they’re maturing into their role as a force to be reckoned with,” said Democratic political consultant Ben Scheel.

If passed, HCR2036 would have asked voters to decide whether the Constitution should specifically prevent local entities from declaring themselves sanctuary jurisdictions – in other words, a statute or policy that limits cooperation with federal immigration enforcement officials. In practice, not much about current law would change, as state statute already prohibits political jurisdictions in the state from doing just that – an extant provision of SB1070, a divisive 2010 bill designed to give the state authority to control immigration.

But if voters passed a ballot initiative to the same effect, it would become much more difficult for a future Legislature to reverse the policy due to the Voter Protection Act.

Almost as soon as the proposal left Ducey’s lips in January, the opposition began to congeal, waging a public campaign against the bill and painting it as a revival of SB1070. By the end, a business boycott seemed like it could be on the horizon.

At the forefront of this opposition was the aptly named LUCHA, or Living United for Change in Arizona, a group that formed in the fallout of SB1070. Founders Tomas Robles and Alejandra Gomez were two among the thousands of people who came out for a 103-day vigil on the lawn of the Capitol in 2010 – several other of the state’s current legion of community organizers took part as well.

“In less than a decade, many organizers who first cut their teeth fighting that bill are now lawmakers, campaign managers and directors of civic engagement groups like Mi Familia Vota and the Arizona Dream Act Coalition,” Gomez and Robles wrote in a New York Times op-ed in December. “While it’s easy to dismiss mass protests as short-lived eruptions of anger, Arizona offers a model for how this energy can become real electoral power: It happens when people learn to work with one another, build deep connections and create something bigger than themselves.”

These groups followed a path established in the SB1070 days in pushing back against HCR2036, and its twin in the Senate, SCR1007: derive power from popular opposition, and convert that power, largely through non-electoral means, into results in traditional halls of power. In the early days, that same strategy helped to win the historic recall election against Pearce.

This time around, it meant a bruising public campaign that helped turn the business community against the proposal, raising the specter of a hit to Arizona’s economy. And it meant highly visible acts of disobedience during debate on the proposal. In a February meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee, activists from LUCHA and other groups went toe-to-toe with Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, the Republican committee chair, after he cut off testimony from lobbyist Hugo Polanco when he called the proposal racist.

When the two started yelling back and forth, Farnsworth asked for the sergeant of arms to remove Polanco, prompting a quick response from Polanco’s allies.

Hugo Polanco
Hugo Polanco

“Whose house? Our house!” they began chanting. “Kill the bill!”

Farnsworth eventually recessed the committee, and troopers from the Department of Public Safety began escorting protestors out. LUCHA was quick to seize on the perception. It was just a preview of what the response would look like if the referral passed out of the Legislature, Polanco warned at the time.

“Our response has been swifter and greater in force,” Polanco said then, recognizing the growing power of activist groups. “That will push the business community and others to act more quickly.”

HB2304, Republican legislation that would have allowed immigration agents to check the citizenship status of people on voter registration rolls and limit the ability of voters to bring translators with them to the polls, faced a similar response. During a committee hearing on the bill, a LUCHA activist testifying against the legislation quarreled with Republicans on the committee, leading House Majority Leader Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, to accuse “you and others like you who are disrespectful to the process” of setting a vitriolic tone at the Legislature.

Rep. Diego Rodriguez, D-Phoenix, became so frustrated that he walked out of the hearing without voting on the bill. After the hearing, Rodriguez wouldn’t say that Petersen’s statement was intended to be racist, but that the underlying perception – a lawmaker verbally attacking a group of minority activists who had been waiting for hours to speak on the bill – were disturbing nonetheless. Sidelined by the coronavirus, the bill never made it out of the House.

LUCHA and other groups have proved masterful at provoking negative responses from their political opponents. It’s an indication, it seems, that the grassroots have grown in the foundations of the Capitol. And it’s not just at the state level – at Phoenix City Hall, for example, where former Puente executive director Carlos Garcia won election to the City Council.

“Have they gotten stronger? Yes,” said House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma. “Have they made their presence known? Definitely. They’re our partners, they’re our stakeholders, and they represent the working class families here in Arizona.”