Mr. Grijalva Goes to Washington

Mr. Grijalva Goes to Washington

The Progressive Caucus chair is one of the most powerful liberals in America. But even though he’s a long way from his Arizona home, he has not forgotten where he came from.


Raul Grijalva (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Raul Grijalva, co-chair of the seventy-six-member Congressional Progressive Caucus and one of the most powerful liberals in America, is no poster boy for Washington protocol. When he and his wife, Mona, arrived for his swearing-in ceremony in 2003, a man in military uniform met them at the airport and addressed him as “Congressman.” Grijalva, elected to represent Arizona’s Seventh District, promptly got the giggles.

Years later, in the wake of the conservative victories of 2010—a moment when the most prominent members of both parties were consumed with deficit hysteria, drawing up plans to slash federal spending in order to protect tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans (in the Democrats’ case, somewhat reluctantly)—Grijalva and the Progressive Caucus headed in the opposite direction. They proposed a "People’s Budget" that would raise taxes on millionaires and billionaires, end subsidies to Big Oil, increase the income threshold that could be taxed for Social Security and roll back tax cuts on the wealthiest estates. And they would use the additional funds, over a trillion dollars, to invest in public infrastructure, education, renewable energy and transportation.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, the budget would have significantly boosted employment and economic growth while paving the way to a budget surplus by 2021. Of course, such a bold proposal was a non-starter among Washington elites. The People’s Budget went nowhere.

Today, however, Grijalva may seem more like an opinion-maker than an outlier. With a renewed emphasis on fairness and equity triggered by the Occupy movement—and with President Obama’s re-election campaign going after the GOP for its intransigent defense of tax perks for  millionaires—many of the ideas embodied in the People’s Budget seem somewhat more palatable.

If Grijalva has his way, the Democrats will embrace bold initiatives in the run-up to the November elections as a way to highlight the party’s fundamental differences with the GOP. This year, Grijalva says determinedly, is about “back-to-the-basics issues,” which have to be pushed by a party recommitted to a progressive program and confident enough to craft a genuine anti-poverty agenda. The best thing Occupy has done, Grijalva says, is shed light on the nation’s inequities. “That fairness issue is going to be bigger and bigger,” he predicts. “It’s got legs. I really sense it.”

For Grijalva, politics has always been, at its core, about promoting equity. He considers it his job to bring the experiences of ordinary Joes to Washington, and he clearly identifies more with his blue-collar constituents than with his esteemed colleagues on the Hill. The Congressman, who lives in a Spanish-speaking, working-class neighborhood of Tucson, still dines at the same south-side restaurants that he and his wife have eaten at for forty years. He is known by his first name all around town. And when people who don’t like him drive past and shout, “Hey, Grijalva, you’re an asshole!” he takes a perverse pleasure in the intimacy of the moment. (At least it’s better than when he used to visit the conservative parts of his district and, staff recall, residents would routinely give him the bird or throw rocks.)

Grijalva doesn’t keep a distance from his constituents. Nor, when he can help it, does he dress to intimidate or show off his power. In fact, the 64-year-old frequently turns up at meetings in jeans and a T-shirt. He slouches, hunches his large shoulders. Much of the time he’s holding a cigarette or a cup of coffee, or both. He’s been trying to wean himself off nicotine for decades. “He was going to quit when each of the kids were born,” Mona avers. “And the oldest just turned 40!”

His office décor is casual, too. It’s filled with Kachina dolls, pastel-colored oil paintings with gorgeous Southwest motifs and a large series of psychedelic images of John Lennon. And his white Ford SUV is a mess: strewn with coffee cups, cigarette butts and notes from events he has been involved in. Grijalva spends much of his time driving around his district, a huge swath of land that runs south to the Mexican border and west all the way to California, encompassing Tucson and seven indigenous nations. On these road trips, he and his aides are continually meeting people. And at these meetings, the congressman doodles eyeballs that expand into fantastic abstractions—not because he isn’t paying attention but because the action, akin to nail-biting, gives him somewhere to park his nervous energy.

On the rare occasions when he’s home and relaxing, Grijalva will slump onto a sofa and watch golf or boxing or football or baseball or basketball… even bowling. Grijalva is addicted to sports—so long as he can watch a game on TV rather than play it himself. “It drives me crazy,” Mona says, laughing.

When Raul went to Washington, Mona worried that her husband wouldn’t be taken seriously. His shabby wardrobe made her so anxious that she started buying him suits and ties—a fact the New York Times glommed onto when the paper profiled him as a newcomer to watch. And she asked her DC-based daughter and son-in-law to keep him appropriately clad while in the nation’s capital. “People expect you to look a certain way,” Mona explains, bundled up at an outdoor table at a Starbucks on a rare day of drizzles in the desert. “They want you to look Congressional, not to wear jeans with a rip in them or a shirt with a stain.”

Grijalva was the first person in his family to go to college. As a student in the 1960s, he was politicized by the anti–Vietnam War movement, the civil rights movement, Cesar Chavez’s farmworkers union and the emerging Brown Power politics of the Southwest. He helped coordinate student walkouts in Tucson and built up a local reputation as a rabble-rouser.

After college, he worked as a community organizer, first with El Rio Community Health Center and then with El Pueblo Neighborhood Center. Like Barack Obama, Grijalva segued into electoral politics after several years of organizing. Whereas Obama leapt into state politics, Grijalva went the local route. He lost in a Tucson School Board election in 1972, then ran again in 1974. The Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund calculated that a Latino couldn’t win a citywide election and prepared to sue the city following Grijalva’s loss as a way to force electoral reform. “Well,” says Grijalva, laughing, “we won by 2,000 votes. There goes the lawsuit, and there goes my entry into electoral politics.”

While serving on the Tucson School Board, Grijalva survived a scandal following a DUI arrest in 1981—an experience he says was both humbling and liberating. It forced him to confront some of his weaknesses, and when voters gave him a second chance, it made him realize just how much he appreciated his constituents. Perhaps more pertinent to his later career, he championed Martin Luther King Day and Cesar Chavez Day at a time when Arizona was refusing to honor these holidays. After the state said that local officials had no jurisdiction to declare public holidays, Grijalva got creative, giving all staff “administrative days off" on those days. From 1989 to 2002, Grijalva served on the Pima County Board of Supervisors.

In 2002 Grijalva set his sights on Congress, mounting a classic grassroots campaign to represent the newly created Seventh District of Arizona. On election night, about 1,000 supporters crammed into the El Camino ballroom to celebrate. “He’s probably given a lot of these people a food box at some point,” says Grijalva’s district director, Ruben Reyes, referring to a program to combat hunger among the district’s poor.

Now serving his fifth term in office, Grijalva is not just a Washington veteran but a leader among progressive Democrats. He has emerged as a strong voice in favor of progressive taxation, environmental protections, clean energy, immigration reform (including passage of the DREAM Act), and improving educational opportunities for all Americans. The feisty, unrepentant liberal is everything the modern GOP loathes—and the feeling is mutual.

In 2010, Grijalva became arguably the nation’s most vocal opponent of Arizona’s notorious anti-immigrant bill SB 1070. The legislation, which requires police to arrest any suspect who can’t produce papers, made Grijalva so enraged that he urged a national boycott of his home state. The GOP felt that such a strong stance made him vulnerable; his seat became one of the party’s top targets in the midterm elections. But in a year in which Republicans saw sweeping victories around the country, Grijalva managed to hang on, beating then-28-year-old Ruth McClung in the hardest re-election race of his career. The victory was a testament to Grijalva’s political skills as well as his enduring popularity among southern Arizonans.

Grijalva remains an idealist at heart, but by now he has mastered the DC game. In the years since he first went to the nation’s capital, underdressed and out of his element, he has secured important resources for his district and helped ensure that the Democrats’ left flank remains forthright. He is reluctant to admit it, but the metamorphosis from a take-no-prisoners community organizer to a top legislator cutting deals to push a progressive agenda suits him. “I enjoy the speed of DC,” he says, a half-sentence after decrying the capital’s pomp and circumstance. “You can’t rely on instinct all the time.”

Even though he’s a long way from home, he hasn’t forgotten where he came from—or whose interests he represents. Grijalva likes to quote an adage his father used to tell him: “‘Don’t hang your hat where you can’t reach it.’ It meant, you’re trying to act too big. Don’t treat people like that.” His mother told him something similar: “Don’t forget you were born with a cactus on your forehead.” Or, as Grijalva translates: “Don’t forget your roots, no matter how powerful you become.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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