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The Latino community reflects on Sen. John McCain

Ariz. Sen. John McCain (second from left) launched his "Unidos con McCain” Hispanic Coalition in 2015. (KTAR Photo/Martha Maurer)

PHOENIX — A long-time friend, a compadre and a true hero are some of the ways Tommy Espinoza describes Sen. John McCain.

The two first met for dinner while Espinoza was visiting Washington, D.C., in the 1980s. McCain had just gotten elected into Congress.

“It was one of those moments where you bond with somebody the first moment you meet,” he said.

Despite their political differences, Espinoza is a Democrat, the two stayed friends for decades.

Espinoza, who’s the president and CEO of the Raza Development Fund, said he plans to talk about that friendship when he speaks at a memorial service honoring McCain on Thursday. The Republican senator died on Saturday after a year-long battle with brain cancer.

Besides being friends, Espinoza also was part of several campaigns for McCain. He co-chaired McCain’s first race for Senate and was involved in all of his campaigns thereafter, including when he ran for president.

In 2015, he also co-chaired McCain’s Unidos con McCain or United with McCain. The coalition was meant to draw support from Latino voters in Arizona for McCain’s Senate re-election bid.

Their relationship grew stronger when McCain asked Espinoza to be the godfather of his son, James “Jimmy” McCain.

That’s when the two became compadres.

Espinoza said McCain’s desire to get to know the Latino community is one of the reasons why he gravitated toward McCain.

“He was genuinely interested in the issues of our community in Arizona and primarily in the South Phoenix community where I grew up,” Espinoza said, adding that McCain would spend weekends helping him and others paint homes for elderly Latino residents in South Phoenix.

McCain’s close ties with the Latino community is part of the reason why Espinoza said he wasn’t surprised when he heard Rick Davis, McCain’s former presidential campaign manager, say on Monday that the late senator would want a Hispanic woman to succeed him in the Senate.

“He’s always been someone who has encouraged participation in politics, especially in the Republican Party, with minorities and women,” Davis said.

But McCain’s relationship with Latinos wasn’t always positive. He turned off many Latinos when he took a hardline stance on immigration and adopted a “border security first” position during his 2008 run for president and his 2010 Senate re-election bid.

That didn’t sit well with Latinos, especially those like former state Senator Alfredo Gutierrez who remembered that McCain used a different tone on immigration when he worked on a bipartisan immigration reform bill in 2005 and 2007.

“As the Republican Party began to move to the right, he began to evolve and move to the right as well,” Gutierrez said. “That really peaked when he was talking about building that danged fence.”

Gutierrez was referring to the 2010 television ad in which McCain called for the completion of the “danged fence” along the U.S.-Mexico border. McCain was running to be re-elected to the Senate at the time.

“He quickly came back from that,” Gutierrez said. “He wasn’t comfortable there.”

McCain ultimately won re-election in 2010. Three years later, he was part of the “Gang of Eight” senators who introduced a comprehensive immigration reform bill, which included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants as well as enhanced border security.

Gutierrez said the divide McCain created when he took a hardline stance on immigration “was not repaired” for some Latinos. Meanwhile, others continued to have a positive view of him, especially Latino veterans.

“What he meant to us was something very special,” said Gutierrez, who’s a Vietnam veteran like McCain. “What he meant to us was really a hero. He would never agree to that term, but that’s what he was. He was the personification of patriotism and courage to this country.”​

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