GOP grooms Hispanic stars to keep Arizona red

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PHOENIX — Republicans in Arizona are recruiting and grooming young Hispanic conservatives to run for office in a bid to ensure the state stays firmly in the GOP column.

Party leaders are embracing faces they hope will have the same crossover appeal as Govs. Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Brian Sandoval of Nevada, GOP rock stars who can speak more compassionately about immigration and the border, and communicate Republican values to Hispanics.

The GOP has dominated Arizona politics for decades — Republicans have won the Grand Canyon State in every modern presidential contest but one. But now, the party is bracing for a wave of Hispanics, who already comprise more than 30 percent of the population and have been turning deep-red Arizona increasingly blue.

Arizona’s business community is still healing from the black eye caused by SB 1070, the anti-immigration law passed in 2010 that spurred economic boycotts of the state and national protests from Hispanic groups. One Arizona State University study said the state could turn from red to blue by 2025, fueled by enormous growth in the number of young Hispanics, who tend to support Democrats and independents.

“That’s something that worries me,” says T.J. Shope, a folksy, freshman state legislator with a white cowboy hat that’s as big as his smile.

“I’m 29, I’m a Republican. My mom was born in Mexico, my dad is from Iowa originally. I kinda look at myself and say we’ve got to do a better job,” Shope says in an interview after a candidate debate in Casa Grande, about halfway between Phoenix and Tucson.

“I want our party to be there when I am older.”

Shope, whose father is the longtime mayor of rural Coolidge, helps manage his family’s grocery business there. He won election to the state House in 2012, and spent his first two months trying to convince Democrats to allow him into the Hispanic caucus. They finally gave in. 

This summer, he fought off challenges from two Tea Party candidates furious about his decision to join Democrats in voting for Medicaid expansion. He now says his support for legislation allowing businesses to refuse service to people based on religious beliefs was a big mistake, pointing out that he successfully urged Gov. Jan Brewer (R) to veto the bill.

And on the economic front, Shope said, he joined GOP state House Speaker Andy Tobin on a trip to Mexico City and Monterrey last year to discuss opening up a trade office with Mexico.

“Tone and tenor is where we need change,” Shope said.

Given the changing demographics of the state, party leaders say they have no other option but to abandon the anti-immigrant, red-meat rhetoric espoused by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and former state Senate President Russell Pearce, who was recalled, in part, for authoring SB 1070. This year, Pearce had to resign from a top post at the Arizona GOP for stating on his radio show that poor women on Medicaid should be sterilized by force.

Martinez, the district attorney who captured the New Mexico’s governor’s office in 2010, is a better model for the party, said political strategist Nathan Sproul, a former executive director of the Arizona Republican Party who worked on the Martinez campaign.

“We need to recruit that type of leadership to run, to convey the message that the Hispanic community is a strong believer in faith, family, entrepreneurship, small business ownership, a strong work ethic,” Sproul said. “There is a bridge that can be built there.

“If we do that, then Arizona will remain a Republican state for a very long time,” he continued. “The future of Arizona politics is the Hispanic community — there is no doubt about that. If we just walk away and don’t address it, we’ve got a problem.”

But while Republicans have begun tamping down their rhetoric, Hispanic Democrats said they haven’t done much to change their policies. Former state Rep. Ruben Gallego, a Phoenix Democrat who’s likely heading to Congress in January, said state GOP leaders refused to bring bills to the floor that would allow young illegal immigrants to obtain drivers licenses or obtain in-state tuition.

“They’re changing their language but still at the core are anti-Hispanic,” Gallego said in an interview. “They all use Sheriff Joe in their primary to attract the anti-Hispanic vote, then hide him in the general election.”

But Arizona Republicans said they’ve observed real policy shifts in recent years. No hardcore anti-immigration bills have reached the House floor in Phoenix, Shope said, thanks in part to Speaker Tobin, a congressional candidate who’s tried to make Arizona a more appealing place to do business. And the state’s two U.S. senators, Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake, were part of the Gang of Eight who shepherded a comprehensive immigration reform bill through the upper chamber last year.

In fact, it was McCain, former GOP Sen. Jon Kyl and other high-profile Republicans who encouraged Tony Rivero, 32, to run for public office.

Rivero, who is Mexican-American, had worked on McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and interned with the senators. Four years ago, he was elected to the city council in Peoria, a suburb west of Phoenix. Now, it looks like he’ll be elected next month to the Arizona House.

“It’s important for businesses and citizens looking to move into the state of Arizona that their elected officials, whether Democrat or Republican, are pursuing intelligent policies that solve issues rather than policies that divide and make people emotional,” Rivero said.

“I’m not trying to say I’m for an open border. I’m not trying to say I’m for amnesty,” he added, “but we need to have smart, intelligent policy ideas that will solve problems rather than keep status quo in place and hurt our economy.”