Steve Gallardo is well aware of his state's image problem. As the Arizona State Senate's minority whip and a member of the legislature for more than a decade, Gallardo knows that many Americans know Arizona for a few distinct reasons: initially refusing to observe Martin Luther King Day, instituting the blatantly anti-immigrant law SB 1070, and most recently almost allowing business owners to deny services to people solely based on their religious beliefs.
"I'm thinking, the entire country is looking at our state, and they're thinking, Arizona is a bunch of … off-the-wall, tea party extremists," he told The Advocate in March. "But we're not. The vast majority of Arizonans don't agree with what the Arizona legislature has done. Arizona has taken a bad rap, but it's understandable because of the measures that have been put out there."
But Gallardo is done with the Grand Canyon State being known as the Land of Bigots. When he came to The Advocate's Los Angeles offices a few weeks ago, he even joked that he felt confident in Arizona as long as there were still other states with worse reputations (cough, cough, Mississippi, cough).
In the last few months the minority whip made sure every one of his colleagues understood that he is gay, fought against the defeated anti-LGBT bill SB 1062, and has now announced that he is running for the congressional seat that will be vacated by Rep. Ed Pastor, a fellow Democrat. If Gallardo wins, he could be the first openly gay Latino elected as a U.S. representative.
Yet while Gallardo looks ahead to a tumultuous campaign in a progressive, minority-majority Phoenix-area district contained within a politically complicated state, he's still dealing with Democratic colleagues like state senator Olivia Cajero Bedford, who said he "should act more gay" before questioning his integrity.
The bit about his integrity certainly bothered Gallardo, especially since he says he was never closeted and did not deny that he was gay. Instead, he chose to make it clear to each of his Senate colleagues that their legislation would hurt one of their own, even if he is a Latino Democrat, and many of them are, well, not.
Even still, Gallardo says his state is not completely filled with discriminatory voters (he says it's just the politicians who seem to be the most extreme). In fact polling shows that more Arizonans now support marriage equality than they did before, and an overwhelming majority of them thought Gov. Jan Brewer was right to veto the so-called Religious Freedom Act (more commonly called the "license to discriminate" bill).
Gallardo describes Arizona's Seventh District as being filled mainly with young professionals, Latinos, LGBT people, and other minorities. But historically, only a small percentage of people turn out to vote in this fairly safely liberal district. Gallardo says it's time to make the district more politically active.
"This year I introduced more bills than anyone else in the legislature," he says. "This year I introduced 52 bills — look at the content of those bills and tell me that the voters of the state of Arizona do not agree with me. They do."
Gallardo has been a part of the push to introduce an LGBT nondiscrimination act to his state as well as a range of laws on such matters as collective bargaining, fair school funding, reproductive rights, and gun control. That last item was particularly tough, as the 2011 shooting of then-congresswoman Gabby Giffords in Tucson reverberated across the state, and lawmakers decided the right thing to do was to make guns more accessible.
"I'm not afraid to stand up and shout from the rooftops," he says. "When there is an injustice, when something is wrong, I will let them know about it."
There's no doubt that Gallardo is feisty and ready to hit the ground running on day one in the House of Representatives, but the next question is, Will he get there? The primary is in August, and so far Gallardo faces three Democratic challengers, one of whom (Maricopa County supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox) has gained the endorsement of Pastor. Though I wonder if that's a kiss of death, since Pastor has been seen as ineffective in office and has reportedly "somehow" become a millionaire after 23 years Congress.
The larger question is whether Gallardo could even do anything if he were to land in Washington. There is the possibility that Republicans will take over the Senate and further dominate the House come November. For the sake of his constituency, I hope the projections are wrong. I'm at that age now where I've become fairly cynical when it comes to politicians who promise to change everything once they get to Washington, but for some reason, I kind of believe him.
Gallardo does not hold any punches. He's not afraid to be pro-choice or openly gay, or to say that the only reason the Tea Party has pushed such a harsh anti-immigrant agenda instead of a harsh anti-LGBT agenda is "because they hate the Mexicans more." He speaks about people like Jan Brewer as diplomatically as possible, before basically saying she lacked the brains to be governor. Despite what his colleague said about his integrity, he's not hiding anything. He never was.
MICHELLE GARCIA is the managing editor of Advocate.com, and she resides on the edge of California's 37th Congressional District. Follow her on Twitter @MzMichGarcia.