Team Awesome Is Giving Latinos a New Reason to Vote

PHOTO: Team Awesome leader Tony Valdovinos (L) helps Jose Huerta, Jr. become a permanent early voter

As a child, Phoenix Councilman Daniel Valenzuela remembers his father impressing upon him two commandments: Love your mother and go to church.

When he ran his campaign, the firefighter touted his years of public service and god-fearing sensibilities, but also added one more commandment for his community: Vote.

He picked up that belief in 2011, when he won a district that was 60 percent Latino on the city's west side by knocking on doors that politicians and their campaigns hadn't knocked on for decades. With the help of Team Awesome – a group of volunteer students, including many who are DREAM Act eligible – Latino participation jumped almost 500 percent in the district and 300 percent citywide. This was a feat unheard of in the county and the nation.

It's clear Valenzuela owes much of his victory to the tireless work of Team Awesome, who knocked on 72,000 doors for him.

"They walked for me because they knew I was walking for them," Valenzuela told ABC/Univision. "That is the new standard."

The growth in civic participation among Latinos is becoming the new normal. And the group spearheading the way is doing it in a state that's at the forefront of the nation's immigration debate.

Academics have long discussed the impact and potential of the fast-growing Latino population. And marketers and political strategists have been virtually salivating over this emerging group's potential. But few have been able to figure out how to harness this. Until now.

This year, Team Awesome has worked closely with the Arizona's Democratic Party, who they view as more favorable to their interests – which include education and immigration reform. Not only has this benefited local government, but their ability to register and turn out first-time voters has captured the attention of candidates everywhere.

President Barack Obama's reelection campaign, which came to learn from this success and replicate it, set up its Arizona headquarters where Valenzuela's campaign once had theirs.

It's a sensible move given how critical high-Latino turnout is to Obama's reelection efforts.

A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo (NBC) poll showed Obama leading Mitt Romney 70-25 among Latino likely voters nationwide. However, a Pew report found that while Latino voters supported Obama by a 3-1 ratio nationwide, they were less certain to vote than the general population.

This election, Team Awesome has thrown its weight behind two Democrats: former Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who would become the state's first Latino Senator, and Paul Penzone, running against Joe Arpaio for Maricopa County Sheriff. But not before they questioned each candidate.

The Team essentially interrogated the candidates three times to understand their positions and assure themselves that Carmona and Penzone understood their own.

"We elect people and we give them our power. But just as we give it, we can take it away," said Viri Hernandez, one of the leaders of Team Awesome.

Both candidates seem to have embraced this relationship.

"What I want to do is ensure that the engagement continues after I'm elected," said Penzone.

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