Marco López and Raul H. Castro were born six decades apart. Both come from hardscrabble beginnings in Mexico and made a name for themselves in southern Arizona.
These two Democrats now share something else – an aspiration to become a Latino governor of traditionally conservative Arizona.
The late Castro frequently recalled being told he was “crazy” to run for governor in this red state.
“I said, ‘Look, nobody’s tried it. I’m going to try it,’ ” Castro once told The Arizona Republic. He did just that and was elected governor in 1974 by fewer than 5,000 votes.
Castro took office in January 1975 and two years later left the governorship to become the U.S. ambassador in Argentina.
No other Latino has been elected since – until maybe now?
Arizona has changed, but Latinos still face challenges
López is seeking the Democratic nomination to replace outgoing Republican Gov. Doug Ducey next year. His Democratic challengers so far are Secretary of State Katie Hobbs and state Rep. Aaron Lieberman.
A slew of Republicans are seeking their party’s nomination: former U.S. Rep. Matt Salmon, ex-TV anchor Kari Lake, state Treasurer Kimberly Yee and Karrin Taylor Robson, a member of the state Board of Regents.
A lot has changed politically and demographically in Arizona since Castro first made his gubernatorial bid in the early 1970s.
Back then, the state’s electorate was heavily Republican.
Now, voter registration is almost evenly split between Republicans, Democrats and independents. And Latinos, who make up a third of the state’s 7 million residents, represent a good chunk of that electorate.
Yet the 43-year-old López is facing similar challenges as Castro did nearly half a century ago.
Democrats in the 2020 election made huge progress turning Arizona purple.
But Hispanics in particular still face an uphill battle, judging by the fact that Corporation Commissioners Anna Tovar and Lea Márquez Peterson are the only Latinas to hold statewide office.
Castro campaigned in English and Spanish
The way former Gov. Janet Napolitano described Castro’s electoral challenges still applies to today’s political environment, but she also crystalized Castro’s roadmap to success. It’s one that could serve López well.
“When he (Castro) ran for governor, it was tough in Arizona for a Democrat, for a minority to run for any statewide office,’’ Napolitano said in a video honoring Castro. “But I think he understood that unless you challenge barriers or unless you challenge conventional wisdom, particularly in politics, that change never occurs.”
López, who worked for Napolitano, must know that he’s facing a tough Democratic primary and then – if he clinches the nomination – an even tougher general election against a Republican.
But just like Castro, who campaigned in English and Spanish, López is building a campaign rooted in cultural identity and the idea that anything is possible with hard work.
“I’m an immigrant, running for governor in the Southwest,” López says in one of his campaign videos. “And It’s true that if I got elected, I’d be the only one – the only immigrant governor. But I learned we can’t sit back and let other people tell our story.”
López is following a similar path
López set his eyes on politics at a young age. At 22, he became mayor of Nogales, Arizona. He then worked for Napolitano when she was governor and later when she became Secretary of Homeland Security as chief of staff of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
For the past few years, López has worked in the private sector, leading his consulting firm International Business Solutions.
He touts his political, business and family trajectory as a story “uniquely Arizonan,” where “nobody can tell me I don’t know the power of opportunity.”
Castro, who died in 2015 at 98, also viewed opportunity when too many told him he was “crazy” to even dream about becoming governor in a state where he couldn’t even get a teaching job after college because he was Mexican.
How did Castro win in the 1970s, and can López replicate that victory when others like David Garcia couldn’t in 2018?
Castro credits his success to old-fashioned campaigning – talking directly to people, especially those often forgotten, such as Latinos and Native Americans.
“Believe me, I made the rounds,’’ said Castro, who recalled that when he went to bed on election night he was losing by about 5,000 votes but woke up the winner, thanks to the Native American vote that came in later in the evening.
Garcia never caught fire. Can López win an open seat?
Modern-day politics require millions of dollars to wage competitive statewide races. Ducey, for instance, crushed Garcia by nearly 15 points in 2018, in part, because of money and lackluster support for the challenger.
By many accounts Garcia, an Arizona State University professor, decided to run for governor on a whim when everyone expected him to seek the superintendent’s job, which he had narrowly lost in 2014.
Though Garcia won the Democratic primary in 2018, he never really caught fire and thus had troubles raising money. Inadvertently, Garcia became the Democrats’ sacrificial lamb against Ducey, the well-funded and popular Republican incumbent.
The 2022 governor’s race is an open seat, which means a Democrat or a Republican can take it.
The question is whether 2022 will be the year that Arizonans elect the first Latino governor in nearly half a century.
López says he’s confident he can rally Arizonans around this “inclusive movement” and is doing exactly what Castro did decades ago – listening and talking to everyone, especially marginalized communities that candidates have often ignored.
“Y nadie me puede decir que no lo podemos lograr,” López says in his bilingual campaign video. “Nobody can tell me it can’t be done. This is our moment.”
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