11/16/2011 07:27 am ET | Updated Jan 16, 2012

A New Day in Arizona

By Viva Ramirez

Arizona, unfortunately, has become known as the state that set off a national wave of laws hostile to immigrants and Latinos. But three elections from last week show how efforts to marginalize our community can indeed galvanize us and spur us to action: In Mesa, history was made when voters successfully recalled Russell Pearce, the Senate president and self-proclaimed author of the infamous SB 1070. On the other side of the Valley of the Sun, in west Phoenix, Daniel Valenzuela, a firefighter and newcomer to politics, was elected to represent the up and coming Phoenix City Council District 5, which has a large Latino population. Meanwhile, back in Phoenix, attorney and City Councilman Greg Stanton triumphed in the mayoral race over lobbyist, and businessman Wes Gullet in a run-off election that turned out to be one of the most closely contested races in decades. With over 172,000 ballots cast, this election shattered the record for most ballots cast in 1983 by 18,000 votes.

While there were many other elections taking place across the Valley that day, these three contests were 'game-changers.' In Mesa, the real strory was not that Jerry Lewis was elected to LD 18, it's that for the first time in Arizona's history, a Senate president was removed from his seat in a mid-term recall election. Pearce was ejected from his seat and his status as 'Arizona's most powerful politician' by voters in his very own district. This was a watershed moment for Arizona and for politics. Randy Parraz, the co-founder of Citizens for a Better Arizona's Recall Pearce drive said that the people of Mesa made their message loud and clear, "...extremist behavior will not be rewarded and will be held accountable."

In West Phoenix, the story was not that district 5 has a new councilman, it's that Danny Valenzuela is a Mexican-American Phoenix native, not a businessman or a lobbyist transplanted from the east coast. His election makes for another significant moment in the history of Phoenix. When Valenzuela assumes his post, for the first time there will two Latinos serving on the Phoenix City Council at the same time.

The mayor's race was also characterized by yet another notable departure from the status quo.  Greg Stanton referred to himself during his campaign as an Independent. The Stanton campaign had the vision to capitalize on a growing trend in politics: Americans taking their vote and becoming 'free agents' who shop it around, not by party, but by the issues that effect them the most, choosing their candidates a-la-carte.  By shedding partisan identity and openly diminishing the value of blind loyalty to any one ideological group, Stanton invoked the true spirit of choice by the people.

Each of these events shared two outstanding factors about them. Each campaign reported that they saw an increased participation by volunteers and Latinos. Each of these elections spanned across the Phoenix metro area and saw an undeniable presence of the country's fastest growing demographic, young Latinos. This election will surely be remembered as one of those pivotal moments when the American Latino demographic mobilized and flexed their political muscle.

The author, Viva Ramirez, is an organizer for Voto Latino. He lives in Phoenix.  He serves his community in many capacities including the Board of Directors of the Somos America Coalition, as president of the Civil Rights Center, Inc, and as a member of the Arizona Montessori Association.