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 voterPlayAlbert Sabaté/ABC/Univision
WATCH Team Awesome Is Turning Out the Latino Vote in Arizona

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.

With 2011 as a blueprint and the anti-Arpaio wind at their backs, Team Awesome has been working almost every day since the Valenzuela 2011 victory to shape the election this year.

Their efforts, in addition to those broader coalitions focused on Latino voter turnout, are having an impact on the state's races.

After trailing behind Flake for months, recent polls show mixed results. The latest has Carmona pulling ahead. Penzone has also made recent gains but still lags behind Arpaio.

The number of Latinos going to the polls Nov. 6 presidential race could jump as much as 23 percent from their 2008 turnout, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed officials. They predict that 359,000 of the roughly 500,000 registered Latinos would turn out on Election Day.

NALEO reports that 47 percent of registered Latinos in Arizona are Democrats, compared to 16 percent who are Republicans.

Tony Valdovinos is one of the leaders of Team Awesome and a DREAMer. His peers describe him as a bundle of energy and with his hair he resembles 1960s activist Abbie Hoffman.

Residents, who were expecting a lazy Saturday morning, are surprised by the 5 foot 6 inch, 180-pound, muscular body with smarts and charisma at their front door.

He opens his pitch with a surefire line that snaps his audience out of their weekend morning stupor.

"We're trying to get out the Latino vote in the neighborhood to take out Arpaio," he says in Spanish to the man of the house.

Skillfully, he makes his points and encourages voters to turnout. He blends his personal undocumented status with the values of the candidates on the ballot.

Seamlessly, he educates the early voter and helps register remaining eligible voters in the households and turns regular voters into early voters.

Within minutes he's off to the next house, but not before residents thank him with a smile for stopping by.

A survey by Latino Decisions found Latino voters in Arizona are among the most enthusiastic in the country. In Arizona, 60 percent of Latino voters say they are more excited to vote in 2012 than they were in 2008. Nationally, only 34 percent were more eager about the current elections.

Analysts predict the state will remain red as it has for the past three presidential elections. However Democratic strategists do anticipate Latinos in Border States to turn it increasingly purple, if not blue as early as 2016.

Team Awesome wants Latinos to engage more broadly in civic participation in order to get there.

"That type of empowerment can be permanent. It will certainly last longer than anyone's 4-year term in office," said Valenzuela. "That's where we're headed towards."

For Team Awesome, that means not just voting, but building relationships with political leaders – or even growing those leaders within the community.

For the first time in Latino neighborhoods candidate signs are showing up on people's lawns, observed Hernandez.

"Now [candidates] are thinking, 'Oh man. If I want to win, I have to go talk to them,'" Hernandez said.

If Latinos continue to turnout in larger numbers, clearly, politicians will.

On a recent Saturday, Penzone stopped by a campaign office where a dozen youth and young adults make calls for him and other candidates. At least half of the volunteers are undocumented.

He thanked them for their help and invited them to celebrate their hard work on Election Day.

Hernandez amicably called him by his first name and they performed a rehearsed handshake.

She tells "Danny" about an elderly man whom she helped vote for the first time. The man voted for Penzone with tears running down his cheeks, she explained.

Her anecdote isn't simply an OMG moment. It's a calculated scene she tells Penzone to humanize her community to him – to make sure he understands his responsibility to the Latinos whose vote might help him win this election.