Allan Lira has walked more miles on the streets of Phoenix than he can count, knocked on hundreds of doors, and, with the polish of a seasoned precinct captain, appealed to Latino voters to exercise a right that he may never have.
Lira, 17, is a serious-beyond-his-years high school senior, a fresh face in an effort to rouse the growing Latino population in Arizona and turn it from a place where Republicans hold all statewide offices into an electoral battleground.
Though he turns 18 this summer and has lived in Arizona since the age of 1, Lira can’t register to vote. His mother overstayed her visa and their family’s status is undocumented. He also can’t get a driver’s license because of an executive order issued by Governor Jan Brewer, a Republican.
Lira said he is willing to work and wait. His efforts in the nation’s sixth largest city, and those of other local canvassers, stand in contrast to a voter-registration drive in Texas that is funded by millions of dollars from Democratic donors and is being carried out by operatives who helped President Barack Obama win re-election.
Yet White House officials say that Arizona, because of population projections that show Hispanic voters on the rise as white voters decrease, could become competitive years before Texas.
“It’s inexorable,” said David Simas, a deputy senior adviser to the president who oversaw campaign polling.
Brewer and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose policies many Latinos say are anti-immigrant, are making the Democrats’ job easier even as they also have set off feuding within the state Republican Party. The state’s two U.S. senators, both Republicans, are embracing an effort in Washington to rewrite immigration laws to provide a path to citizenship for undocumented workers.
One thing is clear: the only debate is how quickly that change will come as demographic shifts in the U.S. continue to drive political change.
“Even by the most conservative projections the electorate in Arizona will change very quickly,” said Rodolfo Espino, a professor of political science at Arizona State University in Tempe. “You can’t ignore data.”
Latinos make up 30 percent of the population in Arizona and 25 percent of its citizens, and Census projections indicate that number will continue to increase. Perhaps more important for future elections, Hispanics make up 49.7 percent of the under 18 population while the white population skews older. The white vote dropped to 74 percent in 2012 from 79 percent in 2004, according to exit polls.
In the 2012 election, 74 percent of Hispanics in Arizona voted for Obama, exit polls show, even as the president lost the state to Mitt Romney by 10 percentage points. The state hasn’t voted for a Democrat since Bill Clinton in 1996, and he was the first Democrat to carry it since Harry Truman in 1948. Yet if Latinos continue their allegiance to the party, the state could be competitive as soon as 2016, much as Colorado became competitive in 2008 and New Mexico in 2004.
The outcome of the debate over revising the nation’s immigration law in Washington will affect the pace of change. Along with Lira, there are about 700,000 Hispanics in Arizona who have undocumented status, including 80,000 students like him. If they are granted a path to citizenship, Latino voter rolls will swell even more.
At the same time, Democrats say that they lack the funding necessary to expedite the shift.
“We are trying to make the case that we are a cheaper date than Texas,” said D.J. Quinlan, executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party.
Arizona’s two senators, Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake, are among the sponsors of an immigration bill and they win praise from Latinos for the effort.
Not so for the governor and the Maricopa County sheriff, whose jurisdiction includes Phoenix, whose policies helped solidify Democrats edge among Hispanics.
Brewer signed an Arizona law allowing law-enforcement officials to require anyone they stopped or had reason to suspect might be in the country illegally to show evidence of citizenship. Arpaio, who boasts of being “America’s toughest sheriff,” has overseen a crackdown on undocumented immigrants, prompting a recall petition against him.
Robert Graham, chairman of the Republican Party of Arizona, criticized Brewer and Arpaio for alienating Hispanic voters. He said that if the party doesn’t present a welcoming posture, then Democrats indeed could take over the state.
“I don’t think it’s a pipe dream,” said Graham, adding that his party long has known of the growing Hispanic presence among voters. “What happened is the Republican Party atrophied by not showing up” in the Hispanic community.
Democrats aren’t assured of success. Republicans hold a registration advantage of 6 points and the fastest-growing group of voters call themselves independent, and they often vote Republican, said Tim Sifert, the state Republican Party communications director.
What’s more, Arizona lacks a unifying Democratic figure, like Nevada has in Senator Harry Reid. One of Arizona’s rising stars, Democratic senate candidate Richard Carmona, lost to Flake by 3 percentage points, even with the overwhelming backing of Latinos.
Graham said Republicans are implementing their own effort to win Hispanics based on common ties on social issues such as abortion, religion and support for small business: “We have a growing Hispanic population. It’s a demographic we need to recognized and learn from and be a part of.”
“There are many people in the community who haven’t met a Republican,” said Graham.
Lira started in politics by registering voters for the city council campaign of Daniel Valenzuela, who went on to become the first Hispanic to represent his west Phoenix district.
That fueled his interest in other races, and he said Latinos are receptive to his message that they can change their lives for the better by voting.
It is that kind of personal appeal that Espino said is more effective among Latinos than other forms of voter contact. “It’s like taking care of a garden,” he said. “You just can’t plant a seed and think it’s going to grow.”
Lira also advocated for the Dream Act, which would have granted children of some immigrants a path to citizenship. That measure died in Congress, and Obama issued an executive order that achieved many of the same objectives, including a provision that allowed Lira to get a Social Security number, which in turn opened the opportunity for him to attend college in the fall.
Valenzuela said he has seen a growing activism among Hispanics in Phoenix who see how policies, and votes, can affect their lives. He said the Hispanic share of the vote increased by 500 percent in his last race in the Maryvale section of town, a result that caught the attention of the Obama campaign.
The president’s re-election team considered fighting for Arizona’s 11 electoral votes, then pulled back to focus on more traditional swing states.
“We have to get people to care about their local elected officials and the jobs that they are doing in order for them to truly care about what is happening on the federal level,” Valenzuela said.
Luis Heredia, a Democratic activist and lobbyist, said Latinos often come to politics slowly. His parents arrived in the U.S. in 1972 as lawful permanent residents and could have become citizens in 1978. He filled out their citizenship applications for them in 2000.
Sense of Urgency
There is more of a sense of urgency today, particularly with immigration as such a front-page issue.
“If I were to bet right now, I would say there is a 75 percent likelihood we will be a battleground state” in 2016, Heredia said.
Arizona may well go the way of California, where Hispanic voters awakened in 1994 after Republican Governor Pete Wilson’s support for Proposition 187, which made undocumented residents ineligible for public assistance, he said. From that point, California became the foundation for any Democratic presidential campaign.
Arizona, which last year celebrated its state centennial, has Latino roots that reach several centuries before statehood, long before whites came to the state searching for riches among the five “C’s” -- copper, cattle, cotton, citrus and climate.
Among its top 10 private-sector employers are Bank of America Corp. (BAC:US), JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM:US), Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC:US), Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT:US) and Raytheon Co. (RTN:US) Latinos gravitate to jobs in the construction and service industries, Heredia said, and they are particularly vulnerable to economic downturns and dislocation.
A report from the University of Arizona’s Economic and Business Research Center in March said that the state’s economy was starting to rebound, with growth of 2.1 percent in 2012, and home prices that are rising at the third fastest rate in the nation.
In its politics, whites have dominated Arizona since their arrival. Among its best known Republicans, the former senator and 1964 presidential nominee is Barry Goldwater, is thought of as one of the godfathers of the modern conservative movement, even though he became disaffected with his party’s rightward movements late in his career. His granddaughter, C.C. Goldwater, was an Obama delegate to the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Place in History
The state also has a history of supporting women candidates, and is the only one to have had four female governors. Former state legislator Sandra Day O’Connor became the first female justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Now, it is Latinos who say they want to find their place in Arizona’s political history.
“There has always been the conversation about the demographics, if the sleeping giant would wake up,” Heredia said. “The sleeping giant is not asleep. They are occupied, building Arizona, building Phoenix. It’s getting them to focus on why they should care.”
According to a a study by the Morrison Institute at Arizona State University, “Arizona’s Emerging Latino Vote,” Latinos could represent more than 50 percent of the state’s population by mid-century.
“Unless there is an unforeseeable sea change in Latino voting patterns, Arizona is destined to become a much less Republican-dominated state, perhaps even changing from red to blue in coming decades,” William Hart wrote in the report.
That’s what Allan Lira counts on as payback for all those evenings he has walked house to house in Phoenix, imploring Latinos to vote with his well-practiced speech on the power of a vote to bring change.
“I can’t register to vote,” he said. “That’s one of those things I hold dear to my heart.” He has read the proposed immigration legislation and said if it passes, he may be able to become a citizen in six years.
“I want a perfect voting record,” Lira said. “It’s become an emotional thing. I see it as an opportunity to put my voice forward and I can do this by going to people’s houses and say this is important, that counts as a vote for me. I feel like I voted 100 times last year.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Michael Tackett in Phoenix, Arizona at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at email@example.com