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Attacking the Incumbent 

U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva hadn't faced Democratic challengers since he was elected to Congress. Well, he's facing two this year.

In the 2010 general election, Democrat Raúl Grijalva faced Tea Party Republican Ruth McClung—a newcomer to the political scene—and he came surprisingly close to losing the congressional seat he's held since first being elected in 2002.

The Tea Party battle cry is a bit muffled these days, but in the new Congressional District 3, Grijalva is now seeing opposition from within his own party. This year, for the first time since becoming a congressman, he's facing Democratic challengers in the congressional primary: Amanda Aguirre and Juan Manuel Arreguin.

Aguirre, a longtime Yuma Democrat who spent seven years in the state Legislature, remembers her last state Senate campaign, which she lost to a Tea Party challenger in what she describes as a post-SB 1070 fight. The state Republican Party poured more than $200,000 into the campaign to defeat her, she said—and it worked.

Then there's Arreguin, an OB-GYN who works for El Rio Community Health Center. He is a political newcomer who has lived in Tucson for 20 years. He doesn't even live in the district whose seat he is running for, and he was, until recently, a Republican.

Some pundits claim that Grijalva has nothing to worry about in the primary or the general election, where he will likely face Republican Gabriela Saucedo Mercer. However, when the Tucson Weekly interviewed Arreguin and Aguirre, both candidates said Grijalva should be worried, citing U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes' defeat in Texas as an example of what can happen to a longtime congressional incumbent if the right challenger comes along.

Reyes lost his bid for a ninth term when he was defeated in a May primary by fellow Democrat Beto O'Rourke by 6 percentage points. O'Rourke cast Reyes as someone who had been in office too long, didn't care about his constituents and had ethical issues.

But are Arreguin and Aguirre the right challengers? I talked with all of the Democratic candidates, and while the congressman anticipates a fight, he's better prepared than he was in previous election seasons, and has raised far, far more money than his challengers at the start of the race. As of the March 31 campaign-finance reports, Grijalva had raised almost $426,000, while Aguirre had raised about $31,000, and Arreguin had not even broke the $12,000 barrier.

If the other candidates have a unique strategy in their pockets, they aren't revealing it. Instead, their strategy is more of the same: Call out Grijalva for his ill-advised post-SB 1070 boycott of the state, and attempt to paint him as someone incapable of compromise with the Republican majority.

Juan Manuel Arreguin does not currently live in the new Congressional District 3. Because of a weird quirk in the law, however, congressional candidates don't need to live in the district they seek to represent.

Arreguin explained that he used to live on the westside, and that he and his family have spent more time living in the district than outside of it. He said that when his kids reached high school and became involved in sports, he and his wife decided a move would give them more opportunities, and that's how he ended up with a Catalina foothills address.

"But over a year ago, or even before, we had made a decision, with kids (now) out of the house, that we were interested in moving back to the westside, he said, adding that his foothills house is now on the market.

Arreguin also confirmed that when he became eligible to vote at age 18, he registered as a Republican. It wasn't until last year that he changed his registration to Democrat.

"I grew up in a Democratic household and would go to political rallies with my parents, but when I was a senior in high school and student-body president, there was group of Republicans that went to schools in Los Angeles and went after student-body presidents. They rounded up about 10 of us and told us the Republican Party is about family, community, education and being responsible," Arreguin recalled. "... They asked me if I'd like to register, and I did."

But when Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB 1070 into law, Arreguin said he told some of his friends and other doctors he worked with that he could no longer consider himself a Republican. "I told them, 'I can no longer align myself with a party that is attacking our patients, people we are giving our lives for in this community.'"

Arreguin's voting record as a Republican is spotty. He missed most of the primaries, the 2006 Regional Transportation Authority vote and other special elections.

Arreguin said he doesn't have an excuse. "I think probably like a lot of folks, you either miss it because you can't get out of the office, or you just wonder, 'Does your voice really count?'"

In an interview at his campaign director's office, Arreguin said he came to Tucson in 1991. He estimated that he's delivered about 10,000 babies during his career, and credited his job as a physician with motivating him to get involved in politics. He's heard plenty of stories from his patients about the broken immigration system and families torn apart, and about those struggling to find jobs to provide for their families.

Arreguin said he's traveled the district (much of which was formerly Congressional District 7) to learn more about residents' needs. The district includes Santa Cruz County, most of Pima County heading west, a significant chunk of southwestern Maricopa County, a part of southwestern Pinal County, and the southern part of Yuma County.

In Nogales, where the unemployment rate is nearly 18 percent, "it struck an important chord that we are not doing enough to provide jobs in this district," Arreguin said.

Arreguin supports stationing the Air Force's new F-35 fighter at the National Guard facilities at Tucson International Airport; so does Aguirre. Both candidates also support the proposed Rosemont copper mine in the Santa Rita Mountains, something that Grijalva has staunchly opposed.

"The F-35—those are real jobs," Arreguin said. "People will bring in their families, buy cars here, visit our neighborhoods and theaters."

While Arreguin had raised $11,939 as of the March 31 report, he promised the next report would show money in the bank.

"As a physician, it is difficult for me to raise money, and it does not come natural," Arreguin said. "But I'll tell you, we are anticipating by our next filing, we will have had 10 major fundraisers, and we've projected $100,000 to $200,000 in new money." The next filing date is July 15.

Arreguin is trying to paint himself as a much-needed moderate voice to counter Grijalva's progressive views, while at the same time casting Grijalva as a typical inside-the-beltway politician.

"When you look at his voting record ... he's so far to the left, there is no one left of him. He's part of the extremists who cause the paralysis in Washington. I don't think that helps those of us in the middle who are looking for a politician able to work with both sides. Is he effective in D.C.? I'd venture to say he's not being invited to the table for too many discussions."

Both Arreguin and Aguirre plan to make Grijalva's 2010 call for a boycott of Arizona to protest SB 1070—also known as the "papers, please," law, because it required law-enforcement officers in many cases to verify the citizenship of people they stop—a part of their campaign strategy. They want to remind voters that it caused economic damage to the state during a down economy.

"It came down to hurting the working class—cleaners, cooks, painters, electricians—folks who rely on our tourism to maintain a living," he said.

Arreguin said he passes the Democratic Party's litmus test on abortion, although in a roundabout way: He is pro-choice, as is Aguirre. "Abortion is a tough issue," he said. "We recognize that it is one of those symptoms that demonstrate where, as a society, we fail."

However, "when mothers find themselves with a baby with a lethal anomaly or their water bag is broken, we know, left untreated, it will lead to the death of the mother and child. This creates difficult choices. If you choose to take a life to save another, you are labeled. But there's not room in that hospital room for politics."

The elimination of the Mexican-American studies program in the Tucson Unified School District has become a divisive issue in Tucson, and even Grijalva has faced criticism for not reacting fast enough with statements of support for the program. Arreguin and Aguirre both said they support it.

"I think it is a shame that at the end of the day, we lost a program that was impacting students' lives," Arreguin said.

As for his support of the Rosemont mine, "I don't think I'll be considered a Rosemont candidate, simply because I think our message is clear. I don't ask the patient, 'Are you a Democrat or Republican?' and base my treatment on what the response is. I think if you're going to represent this community, then it can't be about representing one aspect."

Arreguin acknowledges that Aguirre has better name recognition because of her time in the Legislature. But he points to Reyes' loss in Texas as evidence that a lack of name recognition can be overcome by an unconventional candidate.

"There's something interesting happening right now; there's a frustration," he said.

On Monday, June 18, Aguirre opened her Tucson campaign office on South 12th Avenue. In an interview there, the former state senator outlined her campaign talking points: Southern Arizona's struggling economy; unemployment rates that reach as high as 29 percent in some parts of the district; and, of course, Grijalva's call for a boycott over SB 1070.

Asked if her loss in the 2010 state Senate race hurts her chances this time, Aguirre said no. "I was certainly targeted by Russell Pearce for my stand against SB 1070. I know that the Republican Party put $200,000 against my campaign, and it took an even bigger spin when Grijalva called for the boycott."

Aguirre, like Arreguin, pointed to Reyes' loss in Texas as an example of why she is a viable candidate. "It was a surprise. I would never have thought he could lose an election. ... I would not be wasting my time and the voters' time and your time to do this if I didn't have the support. I have met with so many people and families and folks who are tired of what is going on in Washington, D.C."

To Aguirre, Grijalva is part of the problem. The way to fix gridlock, she said, is to elect someone like her who has figured out how to work with Republicans. As an example, she cites a bill she drafted to force insurance companies in Arizona to provide coverage for children with autism.

"In the Senate, it had my name and passed, but when it moved forward (to the House), the speaker said (there was) no way was he going to have a Democrat name on this huge bill. I compromised because ... I knew how important it was. A moderate Republican copied my bill, put his name on it and moved it forward. I allowed a Republican name on my bill to get this done," she said.

When asked for an example of an issue that Grijalva should have compromised on, Aguirre said, "It takes more than just a bill to say you will compromise. We also need to elect the right people and stop electing extremists on both sides."

Asked if she was calling Grijalva an extremist, Aguirre cited his opposition to the Rosemont mine. "Have you toured the mine? So you know they are using high technology and are conscious about the water. Would you rather see a community living in poverty?"

As for basing F-35s at Tucson International Airport, she showed her support by placing a hand over an Air Force pin she wears. "I'm an Air Force mom," she said.

When SB 1070 was brought to the state Senate floor for a final vote, Aguirre wasn't there. She faced her share of criticism from immigrant-rights groups, although the bill would have passed anyway. When asked about that criticism, Aguirre became agitated.

"I was on the floor when it was first generated, and I was there when we discussed it in committee, and a year before in a special hearing when Russell Pearce brought in (Maricopa County Sheriff Joe) Arpaio and (Pinal County Sheriff Paul) Babeu. I was the only Democrat who attended that hearing to listen to these folks," she said.

"All the final vote means is it went to the House, got changed and came back for the sponsors to agree and the body to agree with that particular change. I have always been against SB 1070. I was not on the floor because someone in my family had to have surgery out of state. We forwarded my vote."

When queried about concerns voiced by Luis Heredia, executive director of the state Democratic Party, that Aguirre is backed by Republicans and those with ties to the Republican National Committee and their interests, Aguirre said, "That's just gossip."

Aguirre's request for the state party's voter file, a database with detailed information on registered voters and their preferences, became an issue when the state party denied Aguirre and Arreguin access to the voter file.

"That was their excuse—that I am not Democrat enough. But couldn't they say the same thing to (Democratic U.S. Senate candidate) Dr. Carmona? He changed parties two years ago. Grijalva has people running against him, and they are trying to suppress the ability for voters to choose who to vote for. I have not seen anything like this before," she said.

Her first requests for the database, known as the VAN database, were in writing, twice, with no success. So when she traveled to Phoenix in March to pick up an award from Phoenix College, she stopped by the state party's office to cut a check and get access to the VAN database for her campaign.

"I know (Heredia) said publicly that I wasn't willing to pay for the VAN system, which is totally not true," Aguirre said. "I was there ready to write a check like we always did in the past."

For the past two years, Raul Grijalva's Tucson congressional office has been based at the Historic Y on Fifth Avenue. Around the corner is the Epic Café, where Grijalva has become a fixture when he's in town.

As he sat outside of Epic on a recent day, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes (yes, he's tried to quit), folks stopped to say hello or shouted a greeting as they passed by. Grijalva has a wealth of stories about people he has known in his career, and swears that the book he'll write when he retires isn't going to be about his life, but about the characters he's met along the way.

Our interview with him was peppered with people stories as he reflected on his last election, and he considered the challenges he expects this campaign season.

"I think the last election, we were doing our normal door-to-door stuff we've always done, not anticipating the (ad) air war that was going to hit us. We had to scramble and had four weeks to push back through the media. Our opponent was new and had no record, and I was reluctant to hit her real hard, because I didn't want to be perceived as some misogynist beating up on a young lady," Grijalva said.

This time, Grijalva said, he's become more aggressive about fundraising. The primary is on Aug. 28. "So far, it's not venomous, but it's going to be different because it is inside the party," he said about his competition.

Speaking of Aguirre's difficulties in obtaining the VAN, Grijalva recalled his first congressional race in 2002. One of his challengers was state Sen. Elaine Richardson, who had the backing of the state party, because she had name recognition.

"She got access to the VAN, and we didn't," he said. "Not that we accepted it, but we didn't think we were going to get anywhere fighting about this issue. When this occurred, it didn't feel like a big deal to me. Aguirre has run before. The state party backed her tremendously."

Grijalva said he doesn't think his call for a boycott over SB 1070 will be a big issue. "I'm not going to spend the campaign apologizing about it. If the issue is that, I don't believe it is going to have traction. ... It is not the intense issue it was two years ago."

Grijalva said it doesn't surprise him that his opponents are big supporters of Rosemont. He suspects the company will contribute to their campaigns through super-PACs and through mining associations, both because of his criticism of a mine in Superior and his opposition to Rosemont.

"Amanda is an opponent, and we will deal with her seriously, and we will take the good doctor seriously. But, really, our opponents are just an empty vessel to just put things in," he said.

Grijalva acknowledged that he has critics within the Latino community. Some have accused him of not getting involved with issues such as the dispute over Mexican-American studies. They say he reacted only when pressured to do so.

Grijalva noted that there's a perception that he's somehow not Chicano enough, but he said it is important to remember that the Latino community is not monolithic.

"I speak to the Latino community like I do everyone else," he said. "I made that conscious choice that I wasn't going to talk down, that I wasn't going to use the last name as a reason you should vote for me. And in the process, I've made it clear that I care about the environment and other kinds of stuff. As an elected official, I think you have to be talking about the breadth of the issues."

Grijalva cited a statistic that 47 percent of Latinos in the state are younger than 18. "I pray that wave is really strong, and that the wave is holistic in how they see issues in the world, and are very prideful in who they are as a people, but that they also care about gay marriage; they care about AIDS; they care about those issues. I hope we've kept up, but you never know."

Grijalva said some personal relationships have become strained because of the Mexican-American studies controversy. Tucson attorney Richard Martinez, who is representing MAS teachers in a lawsuit against the state, was Grijalva's first campaign manager, when he ran for the Tucson Unified School District school board and became the first Latino board member.

"He is mi compadre. We go way back," Grijalva said. "When this started, we talked, and I was arguing that it should be more of a class-action, parent-student lawsuit," which eventually happened to help the lawsuit move in the courts. "I thought it was just having a strategy talk, but somehow, that questioning became disloyalty."

He said he believes that some in the Mexican-American studies camp took cheap shots at his daughter, TUSD school-board member Adelita Grijalva, because they didn't always agree with her voting record, or felt that she supported Superintendent John Pedicone.

"I didn't appreciate that at all. I'm a dad," he said. "And she was busting her gut on this issue—and continues to—and never gets credit for her work. There's never a mention that she's the dissenting vote. But then, somehow, they say she's part of this machine."

His way of endorsing certain candidates upsets his critics the most, Grijalva claimed. He said he was harshly criticized for endorsing Rodney Glassman in the 2010 U.S. Senate race rather than Randy Parraz.

To understand that decision, Grijalva said, people need to know that loyalty is important to him. It goes back to 1981, long before Glassman and most of Tucson's current politicos were on the scene, when he was arrested for driving under the influence, while he was still on the school board.

"When I endorsed Glassman, they said I turned my back on the Latinos, but those are choices that are ... based on history and loyalty and returning a favor," he said. "I don't forget the people who were there for me when no one else was. I don't forget the people who helped me resurrect my career after my DUI."

Grijalva said that at the time, people were "throwing dirt on my grave before the body was cold. We had to do our penance and start over, and we did, thanks to my family and a core group of friends who didn't leave me. And it's hard to come back, believe me, but we did."

Could this be his last run for Congress, as some have speculated? Grijalva said no, because he wants to make sure the seat is secure for a Southern Arizona candidate.

"Twenty-seven percent of this new district is now in Maricopa County, and we will see more and more people in Phoenix checking it out and trying to build a base here," he said.

Grijalva said he's proud of his work in Washington, D.C., including standing up to the Tea Party, and he wonders how challengers who tout their ability to work across the aisle would handle someone as rabidly partisan as Michele Bachmann. After all, compromise, he said, sounds like a good thing, but recently, the give-and-take in Congress has been all about the Republicans taking.

More by Mari Herreras

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