Raul Grijalva relishes a good fight

by Renee Guillory

NAME
Raúl M. Grijalva

HOMETOWN
Tucson, Arizona

AGE
58

VOCATION
Serving the U.S. House of Representatives for Arizona’s 7th District

HE SAYS
"The environment is connected entirely to time: The more time you lose or waste, the less protection you have."

Congressman Raúl Grijalva is a different kind of politician. Plain-spoken and refreshingly unguarded, he disdains deal-making. When he finds something funny — or ridiculous — he’s quick to laugh, with an infectious joie de vivre.

But he doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and there’s a steely note in his musical baritone that warns listeners not to underestimate him. Grijalva plans to be a thorn in the paw of the Beltway’s ruling class for as long as he can manage it.

Grijalva is a lonely figure in Congress. Democrats like him are few — he is a champion of unions, the environment, immigrant rights and strong social programs — and even moderate Republicans are far to his right.

Nonetheless, the two-term congressman can point to significant victories. "I’m most proud that we’ve been able to return some land that was stolen from the Colorado Indian Tribe," he says. A 1915 executive order by President Woodrow Wilson took more than 15,000 acres away from the tribe, whose reservation lies about 200 miles west of Phoenix, and put it in the hands of mining companies. In 2003, Grijalva took up the cause, finally prevailing last year. In 2005, he was instrumental in restoring environmental justice funding to the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget.

"We also put up a great fight to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge," he says, adding with a smile, "In fact, we’re still putting up a great fight on that issue."

These fights matter, he says: "Setting the stage for future victory is critical, as is drawing a line in the sand about what’s right."

Grijalva is firmly rooted in the southern Arizona desert. His mother is an Ajo, Ariz., native. His father was a bracero, a Mexican who moved north to work in agriculture as part of this country’s original guest-worker program, and became a ranch hand. The family moved to Tucson when Grijalva was in second grade.

Grijalva first entered politics in 1974 to boost Latino representation on Tucson’s school board. During a 13-year stint on the Pima County Board of Supervisors that began in 1989, Grijalva faced off with developers and pushed for the Sonoran Desert Protection Plan. As a congressman, his environmental voting record has garnered A+ report cards from Defenders of Wildlife and the League of Conservation Voters.

"I grew up in the beautiful Sonoran Desert, surrounded by mountains," says Grijalva. "I could see for myself that because of unrestrained growth, the stunning public spaces I’d grown up with were disappearing."

Recently, however, Grijalva’s environmental agenda has been overshadowed by the national immigration debate.

Grijalva calls the efforts of his Republican colleagues to bolster border security and make illegal immigration a felony "mean-spirited and perverse." He is working on a plan for comprehensive immigration reform — similar to his unsuccessful 2005 bipartisan bill — that would provide earned legalization for those already in the United States, practical enforcement, and a more streamlined citizenship process for new immigrants.

But his views on immigration have not been easy for even some fellow Democrats to swallow, and these days he’s not fitting so comfortably inside the Arizona Democratic Party’s big tent.

Grijalva lashed out when Gov. Janet Napolitano declared a state of emergency over undocumented immigration in August 2005. The Democratic governor called for more enforcement funding and National Guard patrols along the Arizona portion of the border. The normally jovial Grijalva has been fiercely critical: This quasi-military response, he says, is insulting, environmentally destructive, and ineffective.

Immigration will be spotlighted in this year’s mid-term elections: While Congress weighs various proposals, Grijalva’s potential opponents are already raising border-related issues. Two Republicans are poised to vie for the chance to unseat Grijalva: Joseph Sweeney, a perennial anti-immigration candidate, and former Avondale mayor Ron Drake, who says immigration is one of his top concerns.

Grijalva — and his loyal supporters — say they look forward to the fight.

The author is a freelance author and nomad currently writing from somewhere in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert.

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