LUCHA emerges as key PAC in Arizona progressive movement

By: Arren Kimbel-Sannit

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Fourteen of the 15 legislative and county candidates who received endorsements and varying degrees of financial support from activist group LUCHA emerged victorious in last week’s primaries, a figure progressives say is evidence of the organization’s growing influence in Democratic circles.

Living United for Change in Arizona, which formed a decade ago as a small group of activists organizing against Republican immigration hardliners, was active in several of the party’s competitive primaries, including in the closely-watched elections in Legislative Districts 26, 27 and 29, all races that seemed to magnetize political spending.

In those districts, progressives claimed repeated victories. Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, fended off well-funded challenger Jana Lynn Granillo. Melody Hernandez, who ran on a slate with House Minority co-whip Rep. Athena Salman, edged out Debbie Nez Manuel for LD26’s open House seat. In LD27 in Phoenix, incumbent Reps. Diego Rodriguez and Reginald Bolding successfully defended their seats from former lawmaker Catherine Miranda, and in LD29, Rep. Richard Andrade staved off a challenge from Teddy Castro, a Realtor from Litchfield Park.

Exactly how significant the organization’s role was in winning those races is difficult to quantify. Its independent spending — which totaled $101,000 in a two-week period in mid-July — is just a fraction of the total sum of campaign cash that outside groups spent in this year’s Democratic primaries. Besides, several LUCHA-backed candidates have electoral advantages as incumbents, and LUCHA’s spending occurred after many Arizonans had already voted via early ballots.

Either way, the organization has a growing track record of proximity to political success, from wins in primaries to spoiled Republican legislation, and its supporters say that’s no accident, pointing to the group’s ability to organize and create political consciousness among Latino people in Arizona.

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Diego Rodriguez

“If you look at where they started compared to where they are now, I think people are going to want to study LUCHA,” said Rodriguez, who received the group’s endorsement in LD27. “The state has always had large Latino communities. Now they’re organized. It’s a model that works.”

LUCHA was not planning on playing in legislative Democratic primaries, according to Randy Perez, who runs the group’s PAC. But private polling showing several LUCHA-backed incumbents losing to their challengers spurred action.

In LD27, that meant spending $32,000 in support of the campaigns of Bolding and Rodriguez.

“(In the past), the money was always one sided,” Rodriguez said. “There wasn’t a counterbalance to APS, the Chamber of Commerce, Greater Phoenix Leadership.”

Catherine Miranda, Rodriguez’s challenger, attracted backers of her own, including Revitalize Arizona, the political arm of Pipe Trades Local 469. In LD26, challengers Debbie Nez Manuel and Jana Lynn Granillo attracted support from Revitalize as well as PACs representing institutional players like Greater Phoenix Leadership, a group of Valley CEOs that advocates for business-friendly policies.

That district’s House race drew more spending than any other Democratic primary this year. Outside groups spent more than $217,000 to support Nez Manuel, and $8,000 against her.

These groups “pay to be able to talk to people who have a vote,” said longtime Arizona Democratic consultant Rodd McLeod. “These are groups where the ideology is … we want to have a seat at the table.”

And they recognize that the table might be growing. Democrats are interested in taking a legislative majority in November, and stakeholders from across the political spectrum are taking note.

“Those people always move toward someone who looks like they might be a winner,” McLeod said.

LUCHA, with its ideological frame and specific policy goals — which currently include a significant COVID-19 relief package it calls the “people’s bailout” — is a different beast. But it has adopted some of the same tactics as traditional outside groups. For example, in this election the organization paid for mailers, texts, radio ads, voter education and so on.

And like those other stakeholders, it expects the candidates that win to further a set of policy goals at the Legislature and to remain responsive to the constituencies that elected them, a concept Perez calls “co-governance.”

But the weight of that influence is still minor relative to the other players involved, said Joe Wolf, a Democratic consultant who helped run a business-backed PAC during the primaries called Arizona Integrity. For example, though LUCHA was certainly involved in efforts last session to defeat a sanctuary city ban, Wolf said that warnings from the business community and fear among Republicans of returning to the SB1070 days probably played more of a role.

“I think they have been more effective in shaping policy debates and pulling the Democratic caucus more to the left,” Wolf said.

Besides, he said, Democrats are a long-suffering minority party, making the kind of vision that LUCHA espouses difficult to realize through the Legislature.

“We’ve been fighting for things that we can pull out of the budget,” Wolf said. “We’re not driving policy.”

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