How Unite Here Turned the West’s Biggest Red State Blue

How Unite Here Turned the West’s Biggest Red State Blue

How Unite Here Turned the West’s Biggest Red State Blue

Arizona was pivotal in the 2020 presidential election. Its shift was no accident.


Early on the morning of July 20, Unite Here Local 11 Copresident Susan Minato crammed her suitcases, computer, and other necessities into her gray SUV rental and set off on a 371-mile drive from her home in the Mount Washington neighborhood of Los Angeles to Sun City West, on the northwestern edge of Phoenix. She was on a mission: to knock on as many doors as possible and help flip Arizona blue for Joe Biden.

It was the height of the pandemic, and at the time Arizona was one of the world’s Covid hot spots; nowhere else in the United States had infection rates as high. But Minato, a small, feisty woman who has worked with the union on organizing efforts for nearly 30 years, wasn’t one to shy away from potential danger. For months, she had taken the lead in pushing sometimes reluctant coalition partners, in Mi AZ (Spanish for “My Arizona”) and other networks, to join with Unite Here in developing a comprehensive ground game for in-person canvassing in the battleground state.

Minato took only one bathroom break and made one gas stop—just over the state line, since Arizona’s gas prices are cheaper than California’s. Five and a half hours after setting off, she arrived at a large salmon-pink ranch house, with a brick wall surrounding the building and a wrought-iron entry fence. The house, with its crushed-rock garden and two-car garage, was in a solidly conservative neighborhood, a quiet area of plush, recently built homes, where large American flags proudly fluttered in the desert breeze in many of the front yards. It belonged to Minato’s sister and had the added advantage of being not far from where her elderly mother was living at the time. It was a 45-minute drive northwest of Downtown, where Unite Here’s Phoenix offices were located.

Minato, whose union represents hotel, restaurant, airport, and entertainment venue workers, planned to spend four months living there while she coordinated her army of canvassers.

Unite Here local 11, which operates in Southern California and Arizona, has been at the forefront of progressive activism in Los Angeles for more than three decades. In 1989, an insurgent campaign for president by Maria Elena Durazo (now a California state senator) wrested control of the local from a more conservative leadership, setting the stage for it to swing leftward in the following decade. The majority of the Unite Here activists who subsequently took center stage were women, opposed to the anti-immigrant stance of the state’s then governor, Pete Wilson, and determined to make their mark on California politics.

Today, a generation on, the walls of Unite Here’s LA offices—in a brick-and-glass block shared with several other labor and economic justice organizations, on a quiet street just north of Downtown’s soaring skyscrapers—are decorated with memorabilia from a who’s who of good fights. There are United Farm Workers posters, photographs from large May Day union rallies, posters showing Cesar Chavez and Robert F. Kennedy together. There are other posters calling for boycotts of non-union hotels and placards demanding protection for residents with temporary protected status. In pride of place on the rear wall of Minato’s airy office, opposite a war-room white board detailing the ongoing political operations, is a poster urging one and all to “Disobey Trump.”

Durazo’s 1989 campaign had captured the imagination of the Rev. James Lawson, one of the icons of the civil rights movement, who was instrumental in guiding Martin Luther King Jr. along the path of nonviolent direct action. Sixty years old by then, Lawson was teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles, and hosted regular sessions at the Holman United Methodist Church on training community organizers and union personnel in nonviolence methods. He took the new Unite Here leadership under his wing and began strategizing with them on how best to push their political and economic agenda, to broaden access to the franchise, and to expand the movement for “equality, liberty, and justice.”

More than 30 years on, at the age of 92, his hair a shock of white, Lawson still meets regularly with the union leadership and holds workshops—though during the pandemic those meetings have largely been reduced to Zoom encounters. He is proud of how instrumental Local 11 has been in helping shift California politics to the left. Its organizing efforts, he says, “have been contagious and infectious.”

But the local’s reach isn’t confined to California. Since 2007, it has also been one of the biggest players in the long campaign, conducted by an array of racial justice groups like Somos America (“We Are America”) and trade unions, to turn deep-red Arizona purple and then, ultimately, blue. Its canvassers were instrumental in flipping a number of city council seats in Phoenix in the years after 2007. By 2013, they had turned the nine-member council blue, and in 2019, they succeeded in getting one of their own, a fiery union organizer and onetime hotel housekeeper named Betty Guardado, elected as a councilwoman representing the sprawling Maryvale district. They played a key role in unseating Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in 2016, after narrowly failing to defeat him four years earlier. They returned again to help Kyrsten Sinema win her US Senate seat in 2018. Throughout these campaigns, they established a sterling track record of bringing new voters—especially low-income and minority residents, as well as young people in high school and college—into the political process.

In the summer of 2020, when Minato and her colleagues headed east from California, they had their sights set on the biggest prize of all: Arizona’s 11 Electoral College votes, which they knew could prove pivotal in the presidential race.

Twenty-eight-year-old Maria Hernández grew up with her four younger siblings, her then undocumented parents, and her grandparents in a home in the Maryvale neighborhood of Phoenix, before moving to Los Angeles to work for Local 11 a few years back. Maryvale was a disproportionately Latino, working-class neighborhood on Phoenix’s west side, its potholed residential streets lined with low-lying bungalows with shingle roofs. In spring, the stunning yellow blossoms of the paloverde trees added beauty to the neighborhood. But other than that, there wasn’t much to soften the hard contours. Its main drags were home to auto repair businesses, payday lenders, car-title loan companies, fast food outlets, and the other low-end stores seen in impoverished communities around the country. It was a run-down place where people were born poor and too often died poor. Working with the Unite Here local, however, Hernández suddenly felt a sense of possibility.

“Growing up in Arizona, you felt the hatred to people like you, like your parents,” she remembers, crying as she talks. “You grow up really fast. You grow up thinking it’s normal to be scared of the cops, because you have figures like Joe Arpaio.” The notorious longtime sheriff of Maricopa County had won election after election primarily through immigrant-baiting and pulling tough-on-crime stunts like reintroducing the chain gang and forcing male inmates to wear pink boxer shorts. “I’d be so scared every time my dad would go to work,” Hernández says. “I’d wonder if he would come back. Same with my mom.”

In 2010, after years of anti-immigrant legislation and voter-passed propositions, Arizona’s Republican governor, Jan Brewer, signed the harsh SB 1070 into law. Among its many draconian provisions, it mandated that law enforcement officers demand residency papers from anyone they deemed likely to be undocumented—a blank check for racial profilers like Arpaio. SB 1070 was a precursor to the politics that, six years later, Trump would attempt to imprint on the nation.

In the wake of the bill’s passage, Hernández’s mother, tearful and scared, wanted to move the family to another state. By contrast, Hernández, then in her junior year at Trevor G. Browne High School, wanted to fight. “It was a political awakening for myself,” she says.

That year, thousands of high school and college students around the city took part in walkouts to protest the legislation. It was a strategy they would continue as Arizona politics heated up over the coming years.

Soon after SB 1070’s passage, Hernández got an internship with Unite Here’s Campaign for Arizona’s Future, where she worked with dozens of young organizers who were committed to taking Arpaio down. “It showed me I had a voice, that I could lead people—that someone like me, the daughter of immigrants, could make a difference through bottom-up organizing,” she recalls, sitting in the LA office in a “Take Back the Senate” sweatshirt, her long black hair pulled back tightly in a bun, her ears adorned with large gold hoops. “I was in the movement. I started to see a shift, something I had never seen before: people coming together to vote out hate.”

In 2012, Unite Here registered about 35,000 people to vote in Arizona, most of them from the poor, minority neighborhoods of Phoenix. They didn’t quite win, but they came pretty damn close.

For Marisela Mares—who at the time was a self-proclaimed “flamboyantly gay” 14-year-old boy and would subsequently transition to being a woman—that 2012 campaign was an epiphany. Students at Mares’s Cesar Chavez High School, in the new southside development of Laveen Village, walked out in protest against Arpaio’s policing tactics and then, en masse, began organizing their community to try to vote him out. Mares recalls telling people, “I’m not old enough to vote, but I’m here because you are old enough to vote.” She would go on to explain what was at stake for her personally: how her undocumented grandparents had self-deported back to Mexico as the anti-immigrant squeeze intensified; how immigration agents had raided her family’s home; how Latinos in the city were routinely being racially profiled and humiliated.

Shortly after that election, a then 19-year-old Hernández encountered Arpaio and state Senator Russell Pearce, SB 1070’s extremist architect, in the halls of the state capitol. She told Arpaio that he didn’t represent the will of the majority of Arizonans and that, the next time around, they would make sure to vote him out. The octogenarian Arpaio glared at her and strode off. Sure enough, four years later, Unite Here’s campaign defeated the self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in America.” “We did it,” Hernández says, recalling Arpaio’s defeat by 10 percentage points, her voice brimming with emotion. “We got rid of the man who, for so many years, instilled fear in our community. Housekeepers, cooks, dishwashers, folks like me—young people, a coalition of diverse folks, a coalition of people he, for so many years, had tried to keep down—we rose up and said, ‘Bye-bye, you don’t serve us.’ This coalition, we’re going to do the impossible. We don’t ask ‘Can we do it?,’ we ask ‘How do we do it?’ and then we do it.”

Four years later, Unite Here’s activists decided to do the impossible once again. By the summer of 2020, with the election fast approaching and Covid’s spread accelerating, the national Democratic Party had decided to pull back from door-to-door canvassing operations. The pandemic, Biden’s team concluded, simply made it too risky. Local 11’s leadership in Los Angeles and in Phoenix decided the opposite was true: that given what was at stake in both the presidential and congressional elections, it was too dangerous not to go door-to-door.

They hired a Tucson-based University of Arizona infectious disease epidemiologist, Saskia Popescu, to help them devise a Covid safety protocol. It would be modeled on protocols the union had already implemented for getting its out-of-work cooks back into industrial-scale kitchens to prepare food for distribution to pandemic-isolated seniors in LA. Now it would be used first to deploy canvassers safely to Arizona, then for those canvassers to go door-to-door in areas with so-called low-propensity voters to talk about the issues and make sure they followed up by actually casting their ballots.

“We focused on distancing, PPE, hand hygiene, and how to respond if interacting with unmasked individuals,” Popescu remembers.

With the protocols in place, the canvassers hit the ground running. More than 300 canvassers came in from the LA area; hundreds more were already in Arizona, willing to knock on doors from morning to night, for what translated to about $17 per hour plus benefits, paid for by the union’s 504(c)(4) wing, CASE (Central Arizonans for a Sustainable Economy) Action, and its federal super PAC, the Worker Power PAC.

Their target was 80 door knocks per person per day. They exceeded that. By September, many canvassers were knocking on more than 100 doors a day and working six days a week. “We were going to very heavily Republican, conservative areas,” says 31-year-old Josh Wells, one of the campaign’s field directors. “We have to talk to the folks that may not think they’re our people, but they’re experiencing the same problems. Getting them to think that things can be different.”

Wells, a tall, skinny man with a Che Guevara–style beard and a penchant for black berets, whose family originates from Trinidad, grew up in Buffalo, N.Y. He had moved out to Flagstaff, Ariz., after high school to go to college. There, he met the woman he would marry, and the couple decided to make Phoenix their home. But the politics were a challenge: He was Black, she was brown, and the state’s leadership at the time veered perilously close to white supremacism. “To raise multiracial kids in a state where there’s so much discrimination, very often ingrained in state law, I had to make a decision: whether I was going to stay here and fight to make things better or go somewhere else. I wanted my kids to see, if the fight is difficult, that’s where we should be.”

In 2020, the fight was about as challenging as any Wells could have imagined. Sometimes pro-Trump residents threw stones at the canvassers, let dogs out on them, even physically assaulted them.

Marilyn Wilbur, 49, is a retired Air Force veteran with six tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, who suffered traumatic brain injury and eye, jaw, and shoulder damage after the vehicle she was in was blown up. Having left the military in the wake of these injuries, she took a job as a food worker at Arizona State University in Tempe. When the pandemic hit, she was furloughed. Now, with the election fast approaching and with rising medical bills for the counseling sessions her autistic son needed, she decided to supplement her military retirement and VA payments by working as a team leader for Unite Here, in charge of 22 canvassers. She was, as she puts it, the alpha of her wolf pack.

“My third day, I knock on a door,” Wilbur recalls, sitting in the union’s offices, dressed in gray slacks, a red Unite Here T-shirt, and gold hoop earrings, a small stud above her upper lip. “This guy comes to the door; he’s tattooed, intimidating, bald-headed. He says, ‘What the fuck do you want?’” When she told him that she was canvassing for Biden and for Senate candidate Mark Kelly, the man came at her and, his hands on her chest, pushed her to the ground and spat on her. As she lay there, stunned, in a midtown yard not far from the Unite Here offices, she continues, “He says, ‘I don’t want you on my property, you stupid nigger bitch.’ All he saw was my color—he didn’t know I’d been blown up in Iraq. All he saw was my color.”

The canvassers called the police, but when Phoenix’s Finest came, the man denied having assaulted her, and eventually the officers dismissed it as a case of he-said, she-said and left without arresting him. “It lit a fire under me: ‘You want a fight? You got a fight,’” Wilbur says. “After that, I was determined to help the union turn Arizona blue.” When she called her 93-year-old grandmother, Viola, who was then living in the small town of Holdenville, Okla., to tell her about the incident, her grandmother—who had marched, been arrested, and been beaten during the civil rights years—simply said, “Don’t quit. If you quit, you lose. You’re fighting for change, for democracy, for the people.”

Wilbur didn’t quit. And, for the most part, when she knocked on doors that summer and fall, decked out in her PPE, always stepping back six feet from the door after ringing the bell, she received a sympathetic hearing. If she or the other canvassers were invited into the homes of the people they were speaking with to break bread, they explained their Covid protocols and politely declined. At the end of the day, bone weary, the union members would go back to their homes or rented apartments and safely space out, each one eating in their own bedroom, none of them gathering in the shared space to watch TV together. Over those five months, Minato avers, not a single canvasser got sick with Covid while on the job.

Susan Minato and the other Unite Here canvassers from the Los Angeles area—unemployed cooks, concession stand workers, bartenders, and the like—would remain in Phoenix through the November election. “A lot of things inspired me to go out there,” says Ana Diaz, who was brought to California from El Salvador by her parents as a 9-year-old in the early 1980s. Diaz, now a single mom, works as a bartender at the Bank of California Center and the Los Angeles Convention Center. She has heavily tattooed forearms—a green owl on her right arm, a fish on her left—wears beaded necklaces, and tints her hair purple.

Diaz had first canvassed in Arizona in 2018, working on the Sinema campaign. Now, in 2020, she felt the stakes were even higher. Originally slated to head to Phoenix in March, she stalled for time because of the pandemic, hoping against hope that things would swiftly ease up. Then, in August, after she had wet her feet by getting out of the house and volunteering at local food banks, she felt she couldn’t wait any longer. “I was tired of Trump, tired of his treatment of immigrants, tired of hearing his bullshit. It angered me. He didn’t care about our community, about humanity. He cared about his rich friends. What about us—working people?”

Diaz got in her car and drove to Phoenix. There, in temperatures that regularly soared past 115 degrees, she donned a mask and a face shield, loaded up with hand sanitizer, and began knocking on doors. “People at first were iffy: ‘What are you doing? You guys are crazy! Why are you here?’” she recalls. But “once we started talking to people, they started remembering us, respecting us from prior campaigns.” At the same time, however, “it wasn’t all pretty in pink. After dark, we didn’t know if somebody would let his pit bull out on you, shoot you. It got scary at times, but I didn’t want to let the fear get to me. My mind was set on one thing: ‘I need to defeat this asshole—he’s done too much to working-class people.’”

Over the five months they were in Phoenix, the local’s canvassers knocked on hundreds of thousands of doors (union officials put the number at 800,000, including repeat knocks) and talked to 190,000 people, of whom roughly 150,000 gave positive responses indicating they supported Biden for president and Kelly for the open US Senate seat. This was after registering many thousands of new, often young voters earlier that year. These numbers were in addition to the 40,000 they had already registered in Maricopa County in 2018 and the 10,000 in 2019. No other Arizona door-knocking operation came close to theirs in terms of scale. Done largely out of the spotlight, their work was as crucial to turning Arizona blue in 2020 as the work of Stacey Abrams and Fair Fight was in Georgia. Given how the GOP, in one state after another, has worked since the election to make it harder for poor and minority residents to vote in future contests, the intensive, in-person methods that Unite Here perfected in Arizona under the most trying of circumstances will be vital in upcoming elections if progressives are to succeed in the face of the GOP’s increasingly antidemocratic machinations.

When people said they were too hot to walk or drive to the mailbox to send in their ballots, some of the canvassers would offer them bottles of water, fans, even hand-held misters. When they said their vote wouldn’t make a difference, the canvassers explained to them just what was at stake. When they couldn’t find their ballots, the canvassers helped them contact county election officials to request new ones. When they wanted to vote in person but feared catching Covid, the canvassers offered them face shields. As the election neared, a growing number of low-propensity voters in Maricopa County cast their ballots.

Joseph Silva, the deputy operations director of CASE Action, trawling through the election data on his laptop, estimates that up to 28,000 people that Unite Here’s canvassers spoke with voted in 2020 after having sat out the two previous election cycles. Since Biden won the state by less than 11,000 votes, these additional votes were critical, he says. “If you flip Maricopa County, the rest of the state is going to flip,” explains the 32-year-old Silva, who has a BA in history from UCLA and has been a Unite Here staffer in Phoenix since 2017. “We were talking to new voters, young voters, people of color, newly registered voters, a lot of suburban flip voters in more contested areas. But our secret weapon has always been low-turnout voters. And there was no other way to get to them than at their doors.”

That urgent message resonated with Unite Here members throughout Arizona and California. “I drove out, took the Cadillac. I got there in September,” says Jaime Gomez, a 31-year-old cook sitting in the Garden Grove office of the Unite Here local in Orange County, a 40-mile drive south of the Downtown LA office, and smiling at the memory. Gomez has been the breadwinner for his extended family since his father began suffering from congestive heart failure a few years ago. It has made him understand the precariousness of many families’ finances, the closeness to poverty that so many experience on a daily basis.

In 2018, Gomez drove to Arizona to work as a low-level canvasser. In 2020, with more experience under his belt, he was a team leader. Every day at 7 am, he and the other leaders would caucus via Zoom, going over the canvassing agenda for the day and then sending out their teams.

Two weeks in, he remembers, despite pro-Trumpers at times trying to attack the canvassers on the streets, he felt in his gut that they were on the cusp of something huge. “‘Oh, man—are we really winning right now?’” he remembers thinking. “‘Are we doing this?’ It’s a cascading effect, building upon itself,” he adds. “Not just talking to people about voting, but about how the pandemic is being handled. People were starting to call in, reach out to us. They wanted to know how they could vote.”

By Election Day, he felt it was a done deal. So did Josh Wells. He remembers thinking, “We turned Arizona blue. No one else was willing to go out and talk to people. We went out there, we talked to people, and people changed.”

In the days after the November election, with most of the networks declaring the result still too close to call, Minato and her team worked on vital vote-curing efforts, following up with people whose ballots were at risk of being discarded because they had filled out a line incorrectly or had a signature on the form that didn’t quite match the one in the county’s files. Gomez says that he helped 10 voters cure their ballots. With hundreds of Unite Here canvassers helping to cure several ballots each, a whole heap of votes ended up being counted that would have been discarded otherwise, in a state ultimately decided by 10,457 votes.

On November 10, when it became clear that her work in Arizona was done, Minato, along with hundreds of other LA organizers, left. Largely under the radar, courting a minimum of publicity, they had helped craft one of 2020’s most extraordinary political stories. They had developed a template for how, with the right kind of organizing and outreach, solidly red states around the country—even those with a long history of voter suppression efforts—could be turned blue.

After a brief spell back in Los Angeles, many of these canvassers headed east again, this time to Georgia. As the Senate run-off races there intensified, the canvasser-activists once again played a crucial, albeit out-of-the-spotlight, role.

“I feel honored I was able to do that,” says Chris Smith, a 52-year-old African American man with a shaved head and a baritone voice. Born in Virginia and raised in New York, Smith, who works a series of unionized bartender jobs at stadiums around the LA area, spent nearly eight weeks between November and January canvassing in Georgia, with 15 of his family members and friends, as part of the Unite Here team. “I feel like I got away with something,” he says. “I wasn’t supposed to have a voice. And I did it. It’s amazing to have that voice.”

On the Sunday after the November election, a triumphant Ana Diaz got into her Toyota Venta and made her way from Arizona back to Los Angeles. As she drove through the desert, she cried with happiness. “I was so proud of myself. We had made a change. My kids called to congratulate me: ‘We won! I’m so proud of you!’” Shortly after returning to LA, she packed her bags again, hopped a flight east, and, like Smith, settled into work in Georgia. Unite Here’s skills at canvassing in a pandemic, combined with Stacey Abrams and Fair Fight’s extraordinary ability to register and activate new voters, were instrumental in tipping the balance toward Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in the Peach State’s Senate contests.

“It’s been one of the best experiences of my life,” Diaz says. “It’s a chapter I want to keep adding to, a chapter I hope never ends. You’re out there for a purpose, out there for a reason. You’re changing the world.”

Marilyn Wilbur, who also headed to Georgia for two months after her work in Arizona was done, agrees. And, she says, so does her son, whose autism was once thought by doctors to be so severe that he would never speak. Now, she says, he tells people that “my mom goes around from place to place, state to state, and she saves the world.” For Wilbur, there’s no greater validation. “It makes my heart feel elated. To him, I’m a superhero. We’ve shown what the power of coming together can do. We helped people show they wanted a change, helped people realize they have a voice, that they count. Wow, we did it. I was part of it. We just helped make history.”

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