PHOENIX – On Tuesday, there’s a special election in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District, which Donald Trump won by 21 percentage points. It’s to replace Trent Franks, the abortion opponent who resigned amid reports that he tried to create his own personal version of “The Handmaid’s Tale” by pressuring female employees to serve as gestational surrogates.
In the past two elections, Democrats didn’t contest the district, which encompasses suburbs northwest of Phoenix. This time, a Democrat named Hiral Tipirneni, a former emergency room physician and first-time political candidate, is running against a Republican state senator, Debbie Lesko. Though Lesko is expected to win, some polls show the race in a dead heat, and Republicans have spent more than $1 million on the campaign.
On Thursday, public schoolteachers in Arizona, among the lowest paid in the country, are planning to walk out, following the lead of teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky. For 15 years, “we’ve continued to get cut and cut and cut,” Theresa Ratti, who teaches high school in Mesa, told me. “My AP government textbook that I teach from, the new president is George W. Bush.”
These two events – an unexpectedly competitive 8th District election and a rare labor action by teachers – are connected. Partly this is because Lesko is a villain to many local champions of public education. I met Ratti as she prepared to go canvassing for Tipirneni; she told me, “Lesko has been an advocate of vouchers and privatization and pretty much anything she can do to destroy the public school system.”
But there’s a deeper link. Both the walkout and the surprising viability of Tipirneni’s campaign are manifestations of the explosive activist energy, particularly among women, set off by the catastrophe of Trump’s election. Since Hillary Clinton’s defeat, “college-educated women have ramped up their political participation en masse,” the historian Lara Putnam and the political scientist Theda Skocpol wrote in a recent article, “Middle America Reboots Democracy.” It’s this civic renewal that is transforming politics in Arizona.
Speaking to activists here, I was struck by how similar their stories were to those I’d heard last year while reporting on a special congressional election in Georgia’s 6th District. In both places, women who were once politically disengaged felt demeaned by Trump’s victory. Overcome by a need to do something in response, they’d turned to local politics, which had gradually come to consume their lives.
Save Our Schools, a prominent grass-roots organization supporting the walkout, is an outgrowth of an Arizona group called Stronger Together, which itself is a spinoff of the pro-Hillary Clinton Facebook group Pantsuit Nation. Dawn Penich-Thacker, one of the founders of Save Our Schools, once served as a public affairs officer for the Army, and compared the relationships among the state’s newly minted activists to the bonding she experienced in the military. “It’s the deepest friendship,” she said.
She introduced me to Jaclyn Boyes, whom she met when Boyes started a petition demanding that Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., hold a town hall. After Trump’s election, Boyes told me, she had the desolate sense that “half of my country doesn’t like me because I’m black.”
Boyes attended the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, her first ever demonstration. Now she lives and breathes activism; when the Arizona Legislature considered a bill cracking down on protest she joked, “But if I can’t protest, what will I do with my friends?”
She joined a chapter of Indivisible, a nationwide resistance organization, which has focused on recruiting and training Democratic precinct committeemen, the people who link their neighborhoods to the party. Steven Slugocki, chairman of the Democratic Party in Maricopa County, which includes the 8th District, told me that before the election, Republicans had more than 3,000 precinct committeemen in the county, and Democrats only 600. Since 2016, he said, the Democrats’ total has grown to 1,700.
Even with this new infrastructure, local activists realize that winning on Tuesday is a long shot. Unlike the pro-Trump district that the Democrat Conor Lamb won in Pennsylvania, Arizona’s 8th has no Democratic roots. It’s both very white and, because of a high concentration of retirees, very old.
Nor is it clear how long progressive enthusiasm can sustain the teachers’ walkout. Arizona has little tradition of union activism, and teachers I spoke to are worried about public support.
But whatever happens this week, politics in Arizona, which Trump won by a mere 3.5 percentage points and which is key to the Democratic dream of retaking the Senate, is changing fast. Though our national politics remains a horror show, here, among so many indefatigable women, it’s easy to be hopeful.
Tipirneni – also inspired to enter the political fray by the shock of Trump’s election – insisted that she’s optimistic about Tuesday. “Something is happening here,” she told me.
Even if she comes up short, the work she’s done to build up the Democratic Party in her district will have a lasting effect, she said: “It’s going to be incredible to see what Arizona looks like after November.”