Democrat David Garcia eyes governor's seat in politically shifting Arizona

Democrat David Garcia eyes governor's seat in politically shifting Arizona
Democrat David Garcia announces his run for Arizona governor at the state Capitol in Phoenix, on April 12, 2017. Copyright AP
Copyright AP
By Stephen A. Nuño with NBC News
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The university professor and Army veteran wants to take Republican Gov. Doug Ducey's seat by tying him to Trump and the 'Republican agenda.'

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — David Garcia is a Latino Democrat running for Arizona governor in the hopes of being the next in a line of wake-up calls against Republicans, following the shocking win by Democrat Doug Jones for the Senate in very Republican Alabama. If Garcia wins the primary, it's clear he plans to take advantage of the waning popularity of the president and tie him closely to the incumbent, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey.

He made that clear when he held a news conference to respond to the positive picture Ducey painted for Arizona in his State of the State speech Monday.

"By working together, with a spirit of service; with integrity, humility — by forgetting about who should get the credit — we can move Arizona forward, and in a way that will make our fellow citizens proud. So let's get to work," Ducey said.

Garcia was not convinced, saying, "This governor, like our president, would like us to believe that everything is going just great. We know that this isn't true. We know that this system is broken."Garcia is an educator and Army veteran, and used the governor's speech as an opportunity to refute what he called the "Republican agenda."

A professor at Arizona State University, Garcia announced his bid for governor last year. He faces Democratic state Sen. Steve Farley during the primaries in August.

Garcia is a fourth-generation Arizonan with a doctorate from the University of Chicago who has made education the centerpiece of his appeal to voters, promising, among other things, a plan to make college tuition free for all Arizona students.

Arizona's constitution states that "...the instruction furnished shall be as nearly free as possible," and Garcia says he has a plan to make good on that commitment.

Arizona ranks last in education among the country's worst in several important indicators, according to the National Education Association. For instance, Arizona has the second highest number of students per teachers, and the state ranked dead last in average teacher salary. Arizona also ranks second to last in public school revenue per student, behind Idaho.

Phoenix has grown faster in population than almost every city in the nation, which has made the city a potential target for companies seeking new markets, but opponents argue that the continued disregard in education will be a detriment to the kind of economic growth that creates permanent jobs.

Ducey's response has been to promise an expanded budget for K-12 education, saying that "80 percent of Arizona's new spending priorities will be on education." A focus on education may also help him with a growing Latino population, which now makes up 31 percent of the Grand Canyon state's population, according to Pew Research Center.

Focusing on education may be a way for Ducey to disarm Garcia's best appeal and his most likely voting base, young voters, progressives, and Hispanics. While the Hispanic population has grown in the state, it is a young community, making budget decisions between tax cuts and spending on public services, such as education and health care, a contentious issue between Democrats and Republicans. According to the latest US Census, the median age of Hispanics in Arizona is just over 27 years old, while the median age for non-Hispanic whites is over 47 years of age; the latter group preferring tax cuts, while the former demanding greater investment in the future.

But tax cuts, argues Garcia, equals a refusal to deal with the problem. "Until we vote him out, let me tell you what we can expect. We can expect more teachers to leave the classroom. We can expect more people who would love to be in the classroom to give up their cherished profession. We can expect our children's classrooms to remain overcrowded," he said.

If Garcia wins the Democratic primary, the question is whether a focus on education and other issues can overcome the positive economic indicators enjoyed by Ducey.

With the benefit of the lowest unemployment rate in over a decade in Arizona, last reported to be at 4.3 percent this past November, Ducey heads into a re-election campaign with the wind at his back. In his State of the State speech, Ducey drew attention to less controversial issues, such as public safety on the roads, cooperation with Mexico on trade, and steps to address the opioid crisis.

Notably, the governor's State of the State did not mention immigration, drawing a distinction between himself and the more hardline discussion in the GOP, and instead chose to point out the positive relationship Arizona has with Mexico, which happens to be Arizona's largest trading partner.

Ducey invited Mexican Gov. Claudia Artemiza Pavlovich Arellano of the state of Sonora to his speech, and also took the opportunity to point out that Pavlovich is the first woman to be elected governor in that state. "Muchas gracias for your friendship and partnership in creating a safer more prosperous place for all our people," he said to the Sonora governor.

But immigration has long been a controversial issue in Arizona, a state that passed one of the nation's most restrictive immigration enforcement laws in the country. The announcement on Tuesday that former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio decided to run for the open Senate seat promises to complicate the governor's positive image simply by association.

Arpaio was convicted of criminally disobeying a court order to stop making arrests solely on the suspicion that a person was in the country illegally, and his tactics gained wide disdain in the Latino community, which endured harassment at checkpoints used to stop and question the residency status of Latinos. Arpaio lost re-election after six terms in office, but was recently pardoned by President Donald Trump for his crime.

On immigration, Garcia has been less forceful, lest he encourage the kind of vitriol that can topple his already long chances of defeating Ducey. But he will not have a choice as a Latino and in a political environment that will grow more toxic with Arpaio in a statewide campaign for Senate.

The entry of Arpaio, however, may galvanize Hispanic voters and serve as a reminder of darker times. Trump's close relationship with Arpaio will surely act as strong encouragement to continue to mobilize. Ironically, Trump and Arpaio have served as as catalyst for the Latino community, and much of the organizing has centered around the nativist sentiments against immigrants.

In 2008, the U.S. Census reported that 291,000 Latinos voted in Arizona, growing to 400,000 in 2012 and an estimated 550,000 in 2016, a growth rate of almost 90 percent over the last decade. Politically, Republicans and Democrats are eyeing the state to see what impact this growth will have on elections.

While Arizona is still a strong Republican state, there have been notable gains by the Democrats, particularly in Phoenix with a growing Democratic presence in elected office. Republicans are also well aware that Mitt Romney won the state in 2012 by 9 percentage points, but that lead was cut down to 4 percentage points in 2016.

If Garcia is to have any chance, the Democratic Party will need to invest heavily in Arizona. Even if they see Garcia's chances as slim, his argument to the party will need to center around continuing the slide from a dark red state to a purple state, like in Nevada or Colorado. Arizona is more difficult to organize because of its strong pro-business policies that cripple any ability for labor to assemble any coordinated strength.

While Garcia may have only an outside chance, his campaign is in the midst of an unpopular president and Republican Congress, with Republican hardliners pushing strongly in the state for a more Trump-style agenda. Some hard line conservatives including Steve Bannon, former White House chief strategist, have already endorsed Kelli Ward for Senate, and this kind of endorsement has been seen as a shot across the bow against a conventional Republican candidate.

After a contentious war of words between Republican Sen. Jeff Flake and Trump, Flake announced his early resignation, rare for a young senator. Also in question is Sen. John McCain's health, which makes Arizona open to potentially three statewide elections in the very near future.

Garcia's job for now is to pace himself through the primary campaign and hope the political winds become more favorable to him as the campaigns heat up. While he faces a challenge against his primary opponent, state senator Farley, there is little doubt that he is headed into the path of this country's political hurricane.


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