Local Latino Activists Target Unlikely Politician | News | Phoenix | Phoenix New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Phoenix, Arizona

Local Latino Activists Target Unlikely Politician

An army of political volunteers — mostly Latino and liberal — has descended on Maricopa County, campaigning hard against conservative candidates, from Sheriff Joe Arpaio to presidential candidate Mitt Romney. And at least one Mexican-American Democrat: state Senator Robert Meza of West Phoenix. Leaders in Arizona's Latino community are demanding...
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An army of political volunteers — mostly Latino and liberal — has descended on Maricopa County, campaigning hard against conservative candidates, from Sheriff Joe Arpaio to presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

And at least one Mexican-American Democrat: state Senator Robert Meza of West Phoenix.

Leaders in Arizona's Latino community are demanding not just more, but better representation.

Some of those volunteers — undocumented and U.S.-born students and seasoned activists — are part of a group dubbed Team Awesome, which played a pivotal role in Phoenix politics last year. Buoyed by their success, they're back this year to keep Obama's face in the White House and change the face of the Arizona Legislature. Even if that means getting rid of a brown face.

They simply don't believe Robert Meza is fighting hard enough for their causes or his constituents in Legislative District 30.

Meza has missed too many legislative sessions or votes, supported bills that play into the anti-immigrant frenzy that lawmaking nativists have created at the Legislature, and allegedly misused campaign funds, his critics say.

The senator is eager to explain away the political barbs his opponents are lobbing at him in a primary race that will be decided August 28 (early voting begins August 2).

He is campaigning hard, but if he doesn't win a sixth term in the Arizona Legislature, he says, it simply means the universe has different plans for him.

During the past decade, Meza faced little to no political opposition; West Phoenix was all his. But this year, he's facing a formidable challenger — Raquel Teran, a 34-year-old community organizer with energy, dogged volunteers, the backing of local labor unions, and endorsements from politicos such as U.S. Representative Raul Grijalva, state Senator Steve Gallardo, and former state Senator Alfredo Gutierrez.

Meza and Teran are vying to represent a predominantly Hispanic district that runs roughly from Interstate 10 to Dunlap Avenue, and from 19th Avenue as far west as 67th Avenue.

Both are Democrats. Both are Latinos. And both say they support issues important to the Latino community. The difference is that Meza has had about a decade to grow deep roots in West Phoenix. But apparently he didn't grow them deep enough.

Tony Valdovino, who is leading Teran's campaign volunteers, says there is a strong perception in the community that Meza has been absent.

"I don't support him because he has never been there for the community as a whole," he says. "We're knocking on doors. People are surprised he's been there for 10 years. No one knows him."

Meza made a name for himself in the world of nonprofits, where he's worked as a fundraiser since the early '90s. He helped raise money for Friendly House, a social-services organization, and later worked as financial development director for Chicanos por la Causa, a nonprofit that offers housing and social services. He resigned in 2009, and went to work in the same capacity for Aguila, a nonprofit group that mentors and prepares Latino students for college.

He has the backing of Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, former Attorney General Terry Goddard, and several of his legislative colleagues, including state Senator David Lujan.

Meza says he's done a lot for the community but has "never been a person to shout on microphones or megaphones."

Maybe he should have been — because his fly-under-the-radar philosophy hasn't proved to be the best strategy this time around.

Until she began running for office, Teran worked at Promise Arizona, a pro-immigrant organization that recruits and trains new leaders and hosts voter-registration drives.

Like her volunteers — who tirelessly reached out to voters in a West Phoenix city council district, increased Latino voter turnout there by nearly 500 percent and successfully got Councilman Danny Valenzuela elected — Teran comes from a different generation of outspoken leaders.

As a community organizer, she devoted many hours to the successful campaign to recall state Senate President Russell Pearce, author of Arizona's harshest anti-immigrant laws, and has been a vocal critic of Arpaio.

"It's not just about his treatment of immigrants," Teran says, adding that Arpaio has racked up millions of dollars' worth of court judgments against his agency, wasted county resources attacking his political opponents (for which taxpayers have to foot the bill), and failed to investigate sex crimes against children.

In 2008, Arpaio's deputies delivered a citation to her home accusing her of disorderly conduct in connection with her criticism of Arpaio during a Maricopa County Board of Supervisors meeting.

And Teran has sat in a Maricopa County Superior Courtroom, birth certificate in hand, to defend herself against allegations that she is undocumented and ineligible to run for public office. (The lawsuit, filed by Douglas border watcher Alice Novoa, was tossed out by a judge.)

Meanwhile, as his critics observe, Meza has shown support for bills that move toward criminalizing undocumented immigrants, militarizing the border, and forging alliances between local cops and immigration-enforcement officials.

The lawmaker concedes that he has supported one Republican-backed border bill, but he says he did it after getting a call from someone in Washington (a member of Arizona's congressional delegation, perhaps?) asking him to figure out whether the governor, Republicans, or extremist border groups were behind SB 1083, a bill introduced this year to create a state border militia.

Meza tells New Times that his actions on this and other bills are so strategic and stealthy —  several steps ahead of the curve — that most people simply don't understand his approach.

He declines to say who in Washington called him, but he explains that his initial "yes" vote on SB 1083, during a Border Security, Federalism and States Sovereignty committee meeting, was just a way to infiltrate the bill's circle of sponsors and get information on who was behind the proposed law.

He voted against the bill when it went for a final reading.

"It's a matter of principle," Teran says, not swayed by her opponent's explanations. "We can't allow these bills to get out of committee. We need people to speak up against them. We already have enough people voting against our community. We need to know that we can on the people who are representing our district to reflect our values and interests all the time."

Meza notes that in 2011, he opposed SB 1406, a bill related to building a border fence. And legislative records show that he did vote against it, but those same documents also list him as a sponsor of that measure. It was signed by Governor Jan Brewer in April.

And he supported HB 2807 in 2008, which would've allowed local cops to enforce immigration laws. It was passed by the Senate and House of Representatives but vetoed by then-Governor Janet Napolitano.

In 2005, he co-sponsored HB 2539, a bill to criminalize human smuggling and make transporting undocumented immigrants a felony. A Senate version of the bill later was used to charge them as co-conspirators for smuggling themselves into the country. It was signed into law in March 2005.

Whether they passed or failed, these measures were part of a Republican strategy to make life so uncomfortable for immigrants that they would want to pack up and leave Arizona.

Meza defends his votes, telling New Times that he wasn't the only Democrat who voted in favor of some of these bills.

Teran and her supporters say it isn't about party politics; it's defending about the community's interests.

"People say I don't do anything, and it kind of hurts me," Meza says. "I was taught that you don't brag about what you should be doing anyway. Now that's come to haunt me."

He says he's worked closely with individual constituents to help them resolve medical and foreclosure issues. He recently raised nearly $50,000 for the Arizona Kidney Foundation.

As for Meza's frequent absences during daily roll call at the Legislature, he explains that instead of wasting time on opening ceremonies, he is working with constituents. He says he nearly always shows up when it's time for a floor vote, when the entire body votes on a measure.

And yet in 2008, while he was serving in the House of Representatives, Meza ranked in the top 10 for missed votes. In 2010, he was criticized for taking a vacation at the beginning of the session. In 2011, records show he was present for 36 sessions, excused for missing 12 sessions, and showed up late to 10 others.

In 2012, he's had seven excused absences.

"When you're absent — regardless of what comes up — you're missing an opportunity to share the stories of your community," Teran says.

Meza clearly is feeling mounting political pressure. For instance, he is accused of lashing out at Valdovino and threatening to file a defamation lawsuit against him for spreading the word throughout West Phoenix about Meza's attendance and support of anti-immigrant legislation.

"He was also going around telling abuelitas [grandmothers] in the district that I'm gay," Meza tells New Times. "I've been representing the area for 10 years. They know, and they don't care."

Valdovino says Meza's intimidation tactics aren't going to work, and that he is making those false gay-bashing allegations to detract from the real issue — his lack of community representation.

Ted Prezelski, a left-of-center Tucson man with the blog Rum, Romanism & Rebellion (www.rumromanismrebellion.net) noted in a post that "there has been dissatisfaction with Meza for a number of years for his shaky commitment to progressive issues."

It isn't just Teran's campaign that Meza has been battling.

Esther Duran Lumm, a West Valley woman, filed a complaint with the Secretary of State against Meza over what she alleges are irregularities with his campaign financing.

In 2010, an election year when Meza ran unopposed for his Senate seat, he logged more than $12,000 worth of reimbursements to himself for "miscellaneous" expenses.

State law prohibits the personal use of campaign funds, and Meza's payments to himself "raise real questions about their purpose," writes Lumm in her complaint.

Meza says he reimbursed himself for expenses tied to campaigning — wining and dining potential fundraiser hosts, reimbursing himself and his volunteers for gas and food, and paying for campaign-related supplies, including a new computer, a cell phone and two printers.

He says he combined expenses because "it's too painstaking to take each receipt and type it in, one at a time," he says.

Teran says the scrutiny Meza is facing is long overdue.

"He's never had accountability from our citizens, and that's changing," she says. "There is a sense of urgency in our community, and we're taking action."

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