Arizona’s Ruben Gallego taking long view of congressional career

Nov 8, 2014, 8:47 AM | Updated: 8:47 am
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WASHINGTON — When the primaries ended in August, most candidates turned their attention to this week’s general election, but Ruben Gallego was looking farther down the road.

Much farther.

At a Washington fundraising event in September for his congressional campaign, Gallego told donors that he plans to spend the next 25 to 30 years in the House, all but ruling out a future run for the Senate.

“I’ll be trying to work my way fast into leadership,” Gallego said in a subsequent interview. “As a congressman, you can do more for your state the more seniority you have, the better committees you get.”

Gallego moved toward that goal Tuesday, easily winning election to the 7th District seat being vacated by longtime Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Phoenix.

And in a district that is so blue that the Republican Party typically opts not to field a candidate, experts say Gallego, a Democrat, has good reason to be optimistic about his long-term future.

“With 104,000 Democrats and 39,000 Republicans, that seat is as safe as they come,” said pollster Mike O’Neil. “It’s safe for 10 years.”

Pastor, who had endorsed former Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox in the primary against Gallego, has since met with and offered advice to the congressman-elect he calls “a bright young man.”

“Right now he’s got a fire in his belly,” said Pastor, who endorses Gallego’s decision to take an extended view of his career in Congress.

“I stressed to him, ‘You have a long future. With your seniority, you could become (House) speaker,'” Pastor said.

That would cap a journey that began on the south side of Chicago and wound through Cambridge, Massachusetts, Iraq and Arizona before bringing him to Washington.

The son of Latino immigrants, Gallego worked his way through college and eventually graduated from Harvard University. While still a student, he enlisted as a Marine reservist and in 2006 was deployed to Iraq, where he fought in more than 10 combat operations.

He began his political career in 2011, when he was elected to the Arizona House of Representatives from Phoenix’s District 27. He held the seat until March when he resigned to run for Congress in a crowded Democratic field.

Democratic political operatives said Gallego’s personal narrative and his youth resonated with voters. He combined that with a sophisticated social media strategy, aggressive door-to-door campaigning and formidable fundraising prowess.

Gallego raised more than $815,000, more than half of which came from individuals, according to the latest Federal Election Commission reports. Labor unions and other political action committees, many of which had historically supported Wilcox, donated nearly a third of Gallego’s war chest.

Those factions “callously” opted to support 34-year-old Gallego over Wilcox, who had been a “loyal friend of labor for many years,” one of her advisers said.

“But when they looked at it, they saw the obvious,” said former Arizona lawmaker Alfredo Gutierrez. “She was about to be 65 and, at best, she had about 10 years in Congress. And he was 34.

“In a Congress that’s driven by seniority, he was a much better investment,” Gutierrez said.

That investment made the difference in a primary against three Democrats.

“Money determined the last 40 days of the campaign,” Gutierrez said. “She (Wilcox) had insufficient money for mailings and advertising.”

Voters, too, may have been attracted to Gallego’s relative youth.

“There is definitely a swing toward recruiting younger and enthusiastic voters into the Democratic Party,” said political consultant Barry Dill. “And they tend … to attach themselves to the younger, new generation of politicians in the party. Ruben worked that angle very well.”

The primary was considered the biggest hurdle in the heavily Democratic district, but Gallego still faced a general election race against six opponents, including Libertarian and Americans Elect candidates and several write-ins.

Gallego won Tuesday with 74 percent of the vote in unofficial returns.

“He’s an excellent young man,” said Libertarian Joe Cobb, who finished second to Gallego with 15 percent of the vote. “He’s doing everything correctly. This is the way you build your career.”

Gallego credited the win to his door-to-door campaigning. He said he knocked on thousands of doors and likely spoke to close to 1,000 voters during the primary alone.

“The key to our success was bringing politics back to … the basics of democracy,” Gallego said. “Having a conversation with the voter at the door.”

Those doorway conversations helped shape the priorities Gallego said he has set for his time in Congress. Voters in the district are chiefly concerned about education and making sure college is affordable, he said.

“It’s a very young district,” he said. “Young, working-class families, and they want to see their children succeed.”

Support for comprehensive immigration reform and veterans also ranked high among issues constituents expect him to tackle in Washington.

Pastor said he encouraged Gallego to accept whatever committee assignments he is given, make the most of them and become a team player within the Democratic caucus.

And he counseled him to “be seen in your district, and keep a good bank account in your campaign, so people will have second thoughts about running against you.”

At his age, Gallego said he has plenty of time to map out a future in Congress, whether that includes a run for the Senate or not. In the meantime, he said he knows that he has big shoes to fill in the House.

“Congressman Pastor really was the congressman for the state, not just for the district,” said Gallego. “It’s going to be really difficult to replace him.”

While building a campaign staff, Gallego said recruiting and training young volunteers to be future leaders was a top priority.

“If you grow up poor … poverty tends to follow poverty, and so there’s not many … middle-class professional role models for you,” he said.

His paid campaign staffers were predominantly minorities, Gallego said, and they served as mentors for young minority volunteers on the team.

“They (volunteers) got to see how adults treat each other, how to work in a professional environment,” he said.

He hopes that inspiring young Latinos to become politically engaged is part of the legacy of his first congressional campaign.

“I was very happy to see that a lot of them will continue in politics … and would not be surprised to see some of them end up running for office,” he said.

“As long as it’s not against me.”

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Arizona’s Ruben Gallego taking long view of congressional career