Sitting at a table outside a Starbucks café in a strip mall in the impoverished Maryvale neighborhood on the west side of Phoenix, City Council member Betty Guardado tells her story.
The 44-year-old, with short hair pulled back and dressed casually in T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, says she grew up in South Central Los Angeles, in an immigrant household. After high school, she got a job as a housekeeper in a hotel, and by the late 1990s was working as a union organizer and as a volunteer on a number of political campaigns.
In 2007, Guardado moved to Phoenix to be with her husband and work full-time on organizing local hotel workers. At the time, Sheriff Joe Arpaio was marketing himself as America’s “toughest sheriff,” and his deputies were pulling over anyone and everyone whom they thought looked “Mexican” and demanding to see their papers. “You’d get pulled over every two seconds because of the color of your skin,” she recalls. To counter such practices, Guardado and her union colleagues concluded that they had to flex their electoral muscles and began working on voter registration. In Maryvale alone, they expanded the number of Latino voters from about 300 to about 5,000, Guardado says.
Ten years after arriving in town, Guardado decided to run for the City Council district in Maryvale, looking to highlight the economic neglect faced by the neighborhood, the lack of basic infrastructure such as banks and anchor businesses, and the fact that her story was similar to that of many others who live there. “Look, I’m a working-class mom just like you,” she would tell residents. “I struggle to pay my bills. I only have a high school diploma. I don’t have a higher education.”
It was a long process from the time she decided to run to the night in 2019 when, in a special election called to replace the sitting councillor—who was running for mayor—she received 63 percent of the vote. A year later, in the regularly scheduled election, she was reelected with 69 percent. Her victory marked a profound turning point for Phoenix, showcasing the hard-won power of working-class immigrant voices in a city that has long slighted the rights of both workers and immigrants.
But that shift, so liberating to many, has proven terrifying to the old-guard GOP in the state, who have grown used to electoral cakewalks and aren’t the least bit happy about the newly competitive nature of Arizona politics. That unwillingness to countenance progressive political change has reared its head recently in a particularly ugly manner.
Maricopa County, Ariz., which consists of Phoenix and the surrounding suburbs, has been in the news this week for a hyper-partisan, pro-Trump “audit” that GOP state legislators approved as a way to recount the votes, and politically challenge the results, of the 2020 presidential election.
The audit is nonsense from start to finish. It’s being run by a gaggle of conspiracists—chief among them the QAnon-believing executives of a Florida-based company called Cyber Ninjas that is providing the technical expertise—and alt-right activists. It operates on the assumption that fraud did take place and that the job of the audit is simply to find a way to count votes differently—a way that says Trump won the state. It won’t alter the outcome of the election, since Congress certified that outcome and Joe Biden is the 46th president of the United States. But it will serve to further fracture the politics of the state and of the country, feeding Trump’s die-hard base with more red meat to further their conspiracist fantasies.
This isn’t just a waste of taxpayer money; it’s desperately dangerous stuff, part of the GOP’s post-election drift ever further into loony tunes territory. This week, the House GOP, including minority leader Kevin McCarthy and party whip Steve Scalise, have begun explicitly orchestrating the removal of Liz Cheney from her Conference Chair leadership role in the party—not because they disagree with her stance on signature ideological issues (she’s as conservative as they get) but because she’s been unwilling to toe the personality-cult line when it comes to perpetuating Trump’s Big Lie about the 2020 election. Also this week, onetime GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney was mightily booed by delegates to his own state party’s convention when he had the temerity to say that he wasn’t a huge fan of the twice-impeached POTUS 45.
Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t have much sympathy for Romney or Cheney. Anybody who expects anything better of the GOP at this point—who rationalizes their continued membership in a party defined by fanaticism, conspiracism, anti-science irrationalism, and personality cultism—really doesn’t have a leg to stand on when those fanatics turn their cudgels against them. But the treatment meted out to Cheney and to Romney does speak to a monstrous crisis: The GOP, one of the two great governing parties in the United States, is now a profoundly antidemocratic force in the world.
In fact, in state after GOP-controlled state, and in the offices of members of Congress and state legislatures around the country, support for voter suppression laws has become de rigueur, a sort of after-the-fact homage to Trump and to Trumpism. It’s as much of a litmus test for the GOP these days as, say, belief in the science of climate change is for Democrats; the difference being, of course, that the Republican litmus test is based on nothing but a lie. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently wrote that Trump’s Big Lie has “devoured” the GOP, and that the political behaviors growing out of this act now threaten the very survival of American democracy. Republicans are going full speed ahead to try to ensure, by any means necessary, their minoritarian dominance of the political process in coming electoral cycles.
In Arizona, where the GOP has managed to lose two US Senate seats, the presidential election, and numerous local and state-level offices in recent years, the narrow GOP majority in the Legislature is trying to rig the system by rolling back the state’s long-standing commitment to easy-access mail-in voting, and by imposing ever more onerous ID and other requirements on those trying to exercise their franchise. So far, at least 23 voting-related bills have been announced in the past couple months. Some of them—such as the one that would allow Arizona legislators to simply ignore the will of the voters and appoint their own electors to the Electoral College—are so batshit crazy that, in all likelihood, not even the Republican governor, Doug Ducey, would sign them. But many of them will soon become the law of the land.
All of which makes Maricopa County, dominated by the sprawling Phoenix metro area, particularly interesting. The GOP and its phony “auditors” are fixating on looking for voting irregularities there because it is as a result of deep shifts in Phoenix’s political preferences that the state party and its nativist flag bearers have been handed one humiliating defeat after another in recent years.
A decade ago, Phoenix’s nine-member City Council was reliably Republican. These days, it is strongly Democratic. As its political composition has shifted, so too have its political priorities. Guardado talks about how the council has approved paying the water bills of poor residents during the pandemic, and how it has begun paying for swimming lessons for low-income children—since death by drowning, in pools and in rivers and gullies, is a big problem for young people in the desert state. She talks about her ambitions to put in place meaningful programs to tackle homelessness; she speaks with pride about the $15-per-hour living wage that the council passed for full-time city employees—and the ongoing efforts to expand this to include part-timers as well; and she discusses the urgent need to invest in expanding the city’s light-rail public transport system, and to bring economic development plans to fruition in poorer parts of the city.
Phoenix’s example shows that when politicians address real-life concerns of ordinary people, the politics of a place can change rapidly and profoundly for the better. That’s the lesson the Arizona GOP, with its phony audits and its dozens of voter suppression bills, can’t stand. As it can no longer win elections on the merits, it is trying to secure power by rigging the system to curtail the franchise.