Opinion: The Fight to Turn Arizona and Texas Blue Starts on Your Block

PHOTO: Julian Castro, mayor of San Antonio, and his brother Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, not pictured, participate in a discussion at the SA to DC conference held at the Marriott at Metro Center.Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call, Getty Images
Julian Castro, mayor of San Antonio, and his brother Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, not pictured, participate in a discussion at the 'SA to DC' conference held at the Marriott at Metro Center.

Minutes after the Supreme Court issued a decision to overturn critical parts of the Voting Rights Act, Republicans in Texas and Arizona were making moves to suppress the Latino vote.

Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, who led the fight to eradicate Mexican-American studies from his state's public schools, celebrated the end to what he saw as "humiliating" oversight by the Justice Department. In Texas, Attorney General Greg Abbott took only a couple hours to launch a voter ID plan targeted at keeping Hispanics from voting.

Republican leaders are desperate to limit Hispanic voter influence in Arizona and Texas but that appears to be a futile endeavor. Texas is already a majority-minority state and Arizona is expected to become one in the next decade.

For political insiders in Arizona and Texas, the question is not if those states will go blue, but when. Along with the burgeoning Hispanic population, the unprecedented levels of urbanization and unpopular Republican governors are helping the process move forward.

In each state, Democrats have set their hopes on young mayors who have generated national attention by mobilizing Latinos in their respective cities.

In Texas, it's San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, who made his national debut as the keynote speaker at last year's Democratic National Convention. In Arizona, it's Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, a rising political star who has made his city a national leader in the fight for comprehensive immigration reform.

Everyone knows that the key to turning Texas and Arizona blue is increasing Latino turnout. But actually accomplishing that goal isn't as easy as a sound bite about immigration. The real solution is difficult, expensive and long-term: Democrats must invest in winning local offices.

By participating in these local races, and by participating in the local government they helped elect, Latino voters will develop a stronger sense of political ownership. Supported by mayors who share their values and respect their community, Latinos will cultivate that ownership by becoming more involved politically.

Latino turnout will steadily tick up, and, before long, states that were once deep red will turn deep blue.

The effort is already underway in Arizona and Texas. Today, Texas has Democratic mayors in three of its four largest cities: Houston, San Antonio and Austin. And, for the first time in recent memory, Arizona has Democratic mayors in its two major cities, Phoenix and Tucson. While the states themselves remain red, these urban centers have emerged as progressive oases with strong Latino representation.

This wasn't always the case.

Traditionally, the Latino populations in major cities in Arizona and Texas have had their political clout restricted by a political establishment set on keeping them out of power. In Phoenix, Barry Goldwater set up the city council in the 1950s to limit Latino representation to one City Council position.

"Phoenix was thus left with a tiny nucleus of Latino leadership," noted Arizona historian Tom Zoellner.

In Houston, white city leaders in the 1960s "resisted minority empowerment by maintaining at-large council districts," as urban historian Richard Dilworth explains.

By annexing white suburbs in the 1970s, Houston's leaders were able to further limit Latino political empowerment. And, in San Antonio, the Good Government League kept tight control over city government until the 1970s. Only then did Latino students form the Mexican American Youth Organization to return some power back to their community.

With limited opportunities to create ownership in their local civic space, Latino voter turnout lagged behind other ethnic groups. But things are beginning to change.

Under mayors like Castro and Stanton, Latino voters in Arizona and Texas have experienced a new sense of political ownership.

The two leaders have been successful precisely because they have leaned so heavily on the ties they've developed in the Latino community. Indeed, Latinos were "essential" in electing Mayor Greg Stanton and Councilman Daniel Valenzuela in Phoenix in 2012. One of the largest emerging Latino political groups, "Team Awesome," focused on turning out young Latino voters to work for local races where the volunteers could engage directly with the candidates.

"It is easier to get someone to vote for [local candidates] than it is to vote for something they can't really see," said Stanford Prescott, a Democratic organizer in Latino sections of Phoenix.

For the Democrats who want to turn Arizona and Texas blue, they'll need to place a strong emphasis on electing new mayors and on supporting the ones they already have. The experience of holding local power will help break through this history of disenfranchisement and give them a stake in a political process that has largely ignored them. Local ownership will boost enthusiasm among Latino voters in future elections and build a bench of candidates who could one day win statewide office.

Though the national Democratic Party should be lauded for beginning to invest some resources in its emerging network of local leaders, the party's traditional emphasis on solving problems at the federal level has left progressive mayors in a somewhat marginal position in the party. That's got to change.

If Arizona and Texas go blue in 2016 or 2020, it will be mayors who made it happen.

Sam Kleiner, is a student at Yale Law School and a former political staffer in Arizona.