‘I was thinking about trying to stab a person’: Rep Ruben Gallego on how his US Marine instincts kicked in during Capitol riot

Arizona Democrat speaks to Eric Garcia about leadership, how to win Latinos – and whether he will challenge Kyrsten Sinema

Saturday 13 November 2021 14:02 GMT
Representative-elect Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) (R) talks with fellow military veterans before a news conference to call on Congress and President Barack Obama to move forward with immigration reform at the U.S. Capitol November 12, 2014 in Washington, DC
Representative-elect Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) (R) talks with fellow military veterans before a news conference to call on Congress and President Barack Obama to move forward with immigration reform at the U.S. Capitol November 12, 2014 in Washington, DC (Getty Images)

When supporters of Donald Trump tried to infiltrate the House floor on 6 January in an attempt to overturn the presidential election, Rep Ruben Gallego, a Democrat from Arizona, said his instincts from his days in the US Marines when he fought in Iraq and the need to protect the most vulnerable people.

“Well, what triggered me to snap back in was when I saw the really scared, scared faces of the young staffers. They reminded me a lot of the young Marines I served with in combat, and how necessary it was to show leadership and give people direction,” Mr Gallego said in an interview with The Independent.

Mr Gallego said the reason he did so was that if he didn’t, then chaos would break out. All the while, he was plotting how to defend the Capitol.

“I mean, I was thinking about trying to stab a person and take away their weapon and keep fighting, and trying to figure out who are the younger members that can create a defensive position,” he said. “And all these things that you never think you ever have to do on the floor of the House of Representatives.”

At the same time, Mr Gallego was thinking about which of the younger members like Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries of New York, former NFL linebacker Colin Allred of Texas and Pete Aguilar of California, could help create a defensive position.

The heroism that Gallego, who is 41 and has served in the House since 2015, displayed on 6 January is one of why many reasons why members of his caucus respect him. Some others want him to stage a primary challenge against incumbent Democratic Sen Kyrsten Sinema, whose opposition toward everything from a minimum wage increase to a $3.5 trillion price tag for Democrats’ proposed Build Back Better legislation, increasingly frustrates many Democrats.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema talks about bipartisan infrastructure bill

But Mr Gallego said he would need to consider many factors before he decided to jump into a Senate race in 2024, saying he was mostly focused on passing Democrats’ social spending bill and then winning reelection in 2022.

“And I leave the future to the future. And when I usually make decisions, it’s what’s best for my family,” Mr Gallego said. “And because campaigns are tough and they’re time-consuming. And when you go on campaigns, no matter what it is, even running for reelection, you’re giving up a certain amount of time with your constituents and a certain amount of time with your family. It’s nothing that I can think of right now just because I focus on the now, and then we’ll see where the future goes.”

Ms Sinema has irritated many Democrats mostly when it comes to their social spending bill. Alongside the bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed on Friday, Democrats also hope to pass a larger social spending bill that create universal child care and preschool education, expand a child tax credit, increases money for home care for elderly people and people with disabilities and have provisions to combat climate change. The bill would pass through a process called budget reconciliation, which would allow Democrats to pass it with a simple majority and sidestep a Republican filibuster. But that means getting all 50 Democrats on board, including the fiscally conservative Ms Sinema and her counterpart Joe Manchin. Ms Sinema doesn’t want any tax increases for either corporations or wealthy individuals, as the New York Times reported.

As progressive Democrats huddled for hours last week on whether to pass the bipartisan bill, Mr Gallego said he was worried that the six moderate Democrats who were holding out until the Congressional Budget Office gave the reconciliation bill a score “are not trustworthy.” But ultimately, when five of the six moderates pledged to vote for the bill by 15 November, he voted for the bill. Similarly, he said he thinks Sen Sinema can be trusted.

“I’m going to give her trust on this because I think, at the end of the day, she’ll have to answer to her constituents. And for me, we can’t operate under this idea that nothing’s going to move. We’re going to do our best that we can,” Mr Gallego said.

Ms Sinema reportedly has frequently compared herself to Arizona’s late Sen John McCain, the former 2008 Republican nominee who nonetheless was known for having a positive relationship with Democrats and passing bipartisan campaign finance reform, earning the title of maverick for bucking his own party. But Mr Gallego has a similar history to the late Mr McCain, who was a prisoner of war in Hanoi during the Vietnam War for more than five years.

“He’s a once in a lifetime public servant. I think the one thing that people have to forget, John McCain always met with his constituents,” he told The Independent. “And even if he took the bad positions, positions that weren’t popular, he didn’t run from or hide from his positions. And I think it’s important, no matter what you do and how you stand, for you to be clear about ‘this is where you’re going, this is what you’re feeling.’ And I think that’s probably the closest you can to really emulating John McCain.”

Challenging incumbent Senators is an inherently dicey venture, with little prospect of success. But at the same time, doing so in a presidential election year is even dicier, particularly when Arizona voted for a Democrat for president last year for the first time since Bill Clinton won the state in 1996. That same year, Sen Mark Kelly won a special election to fill out the rest of Mr McCain’s term. This is why Mr Gallego said he wants Democrats to pass their proposed Build Back Better legislation, specifically one that focuses on child care subsidies, paid family leave and universal pre-kindergarten education as well as provisions to combat climate change.

“Arizona is going through a severe drought, we’re having water shortages in certain parts of the state,” he said. “These types of actions that we can prove that there’s a benefit to having Democrats being elected, it’s going to make a big difference in terms of us being able to win and hold the state in 2024.”

Ruben Gallego says John McCain was a ‘once in a lifetime public servant’ (AP)

But there is another roadblock for Democrats winning southwestern states like Arizona: Despite calling Mexicans crossing the border drug dealers, criminals and rapists, in the last election, Donald Trump made significant inroads with Latino voters, particularly ones without a college education and in border states. Mr Gallego faulted a lack of voter contact.

“I think the lack of campaigning because of Covid allowed somebody like Donald Trump to be a bigger presence, someone who has 100 percent name ID,” he said. At the same time, he also criticized the Democratic Party for its messaging.

“I think, lack of actual action to improve the lives of working class Latinos matter,” he said. If they feel that nothing’s changing and they keep voting for Democrats and nothing’s changing, and they just feel that Donald Trump can come and talk to them about crime, can talk to them about patriotism, then they at least have something to latch onto, versus Democrats, who don’t necessarily have anything for them to latch onto.”

Mr Gallego stressed the drop in Latino support for Democrats was another reason they needed to pass a robust Build Back Better legislation. Similarly, when Arizona was called for Mr Biden despite Mr Trump clearly gaining ground with Latino voters, in places like South Florida and the Rio Grande Valley of Texas he had some advice on Twitter when someone asked how Democrats could improve with “Latinx” voters.

“First start by not using the term Latinx,” he tweeted last November. “Second we have to be in front of them year round not just election years. That is what we did in AZ.”

When asked about using terms like Latinx, which is meant to be a gender-neutral and inclusive term, Mr Gallego expanded and said how often, it seems like using the term is used to appeal to progressives rather than the Latino community.

“Well, I think it’s indicative of a larger problem because it shows that you’re are not really in tune with the Latino community. It shows that a lot of your consultants are being driven I think by wrong indicators,” he said. At the same time, he said if someone prefers to be called that term, then people should respect that.

“But if the community as a whole does not use it and it feels forced upon the community to use it and I think that’s always going to have a very bad reaction,” he said. “Now, is someone going to vote against a Democrat because they use the term Latinx? No, I don’t think so. But you’re missing an opportunity to connect with a voter because you’re trying to take care of another constituency that really has no interplay and interconnection with this other constituency.”

At the same time, he said the best way to win back Latino voters is to focus heavily on a message about reviving the American dream and economic opportunity.

“The best message is we, Democrats, got us out of Covid,” Mr Gallego said. “We revived the economy, we revived the American family economy by putting money into your pocket so you can live the full American Dream. And we’re going to continue to make sure that you have a chance at the American Dream by having a fair economy that takes care of workers that really kept this economy alive the last two years.”

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