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Arizona may go for Biden. That took 20 years of grassroots organizing.

My research examines what brought together Latino, immigrant, labor and LGBTQ community organizers into a coalition that gets out votes

- November 12, 2020

On election night 2020, a surprise emerged out of Arizona: Democratic candidate Joe Biden appeared ahead of President Trump in the state. In fact, both Fox News and the AP called the state for Biden, although other news organizations (including The Washington Post) have been more cautious and continue to wait for the final vote count. If Biden does end up winning the state, he will be the first Democratic presidential candidate to do so in 24 years — since Bill Clinton captured Arizona’s popular vote in 1996.

Many reporters and analysts have concluded that prominent Republicans’ endorsements — like those from Cindy McCain and former senator Jeff Flake — helped boost Biden’s performance in the state. But another factor arguably made a much larger difference. Arizona has a powerful, intersectional grass roots network of Latino, immigrant, labor and LGBTQ community organizers who have previously worked to advance progressive causes. They’ve been responsible for defeating Sheriff Joe Arpaio and for passing a statewide initiative that increased the minimum wage in 2016, my research finds.

What happened to that ‘blue wave’?

Here’s how I did my research

My book “Queer Alliances: How Power Shapes Political Movement Formation documents how an intersectional grass roots movement came together in Arizona as various minority communities’ rights were attacked during the 2000s and 2010s. The biggest loss came in 2010, when the state legislature passed and the governor signed the broadly anti-immigrant bill SB 1070. My research analyzes how this coalition expanded and contracted during various campaigns to win rights and thwart rights losses in both Arizona and Washington state.

The book draws from over 50 interviews with organization leaders and advocates in both states. I conducted interviews in Arizona in 2015 with activists involved in Latino, immigrant, labor and LGBTQ organizing. To better understand how different groups came together, I also attended and participated in protests, organization meetings and related events. Finally, my research draws from materials obtained from local libraries, news archives and organization and campaign websites.

SB 1070 and the formation of a grass roots organizing network

Many of the organizers I spoke with had been involved in community organizing before 2010, spurred by dozens of anti-immigrant bills and statewide propositions targeting their communities. But they agreed that SB 1070 inspired them to work more closely together to build a movement. The omnibus anti-immigrant law enabled local law enforcement to stop and question anyone they suspected to be undocumented. As the “stop and frisk” policy did for communities of color in New York, enforcement of SB 1070 traumatized thousands of Latino and immigrant Arizonans until it was largely dismantled through lawsuits.

“SB 1070 was so blatant, racist, that it shocked us. And it awoke us …. and we chose to fight,” one youth organizer told me. Similarly, a labor organizer recalled a vigil, in the spring of 2010 — a “nonviolent direct action campaign on the literal grass of the state capitol” — in which participants demanded the governor veto SB 1070. Advocates and leaders from Latino, labor and immigrant rights groups who had worked together to organize the vigil stayed in touch to become a civic engagement coalition. From the beginning, the groups recognized immigrant rights, racial justice and economic justice as core community values, with the goal of advancing the interests of communities of color and the working class.

The coalition grew throughout the 2010s, encompassing queer and trans migrants and LGBTQ community members who faced similar attacks on their rights. Interviewees also pointed to the legislature’s 2014 bill SB 1062, which would have allowed religious businesses owners to refuse to serve LGBTQ people, as a mobilizing moment. While the local and national pro-LGBTQ business lobby helped push Republican Gov. Jan Brewer to veto the bill, working against SB 1062 nevertheless further expanded the local communities and groups involved in Arizona’s grass roots movement.

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¡Bazta Arpaio! and intersectional movement expansion

Realizing protest wasn’t enough to turn back the law, after 2010, organizers worked to elect officials who would advance their collective policy interests. For example, in 2011, one Latino youth group knocked on 72,000 doors in one district, increasing Latino turnout by 480 percent in the district — and elected Daniel Valenzuela to the Phoenix City Council in a seat never before held by a Latino person.

Throughout the 2010s, the Latino, immigrant, labor and LGBTQ network continued to organize electoral and public policy campaigns, like the successful statewide campaign for paid sick leave and an increased minimum wage. Notably, in 2016, organizations that included LUCHA, Puente Movement, CNL (now Poder in Action) and One Arizona launched a campaign they called ¡Bazta Arpaio! to defeat Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County in his 2016 reelection run. Arpaio was nationally known for extreme efforts to arrest undocumented immigrants, whom he held in an outdoor jail and forced to work on chain gangs.

¡Bazta Arpaio! included such tactics as driving a red school bus, holding rallies that featured a blowup figure of Sheriff Arpaio in handcuffs, driving people to the polls and encouraging people to vote for Arpaio’s opponent. Members of Arizona’s queer Latinx community also produced a drag remake that adapted singer Selena Quintanilla’s well-known song “Baila Esta Cumbia” to make the case to “Vota Con Esta Cumbia.” The video spread through social media in an effort to get out the vote.

There’s a long history behind Stacey Abrams.

These and other campaigns’ successes show the network’s power in the state. There is evidence that this isn’t something that is limited to Arizona. In 2016, alongside work by former senator Harry M. Reid’s Democratic operatives, organizing by communities of color, labor and LGBTQ advocates in Nevada coincided with a Hillary Clinton win. In 2020, work by Stacey Abrams’s group Fair Fight expanded the Georgia electorate. Without such grass roots organizing in the South and Southwest, the 2020 election might look very different.

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Erin Mayo-Adam (@erinadam0) is an assistant professor of political science at Hunter College, CUNY and author of “Queer Alliances: How Power Shapes Political Movement Formation (Stanford University Press, 2020).