PHOENIX -- The head of the local Border Patrol union is telling Hispanics they should not support David Garcia for governor simply because he also is Latino.
"Do not vote for lawlessness,'' Art Del Cueto said Monday at a press conference organized by the reelection campaign of Gov. Doug Ducey. "Do not vote for those individuals that align themselves with people that cuss out our law enforcement in this state.''
Garcia countered that he believes there's a racial undertone in the attacks on him by Ducey and his supporters who seek to stir up fears of illegal immigration and drug smuggling, even if Del Cueto is himself a Hispanic. But Garcia himself has inserted ethnicity into the race by saying that it's wrong that a state where 31 percent of the population is Hispanic has not had anyone in statewide elective office in four decades.
Del Cueto's comments refer to tweets by Xenia Orona, who was a campaign staffer, who wrote that "law and order is the smokescreen that bigots hide their hate behind.'' Orona also used a curse word next to an emoji of the American flag and wrote that "ICE is abusive and needs to be abolished,'' complete with a hashtag that curses police.
Orona quit following publication of the story, with an aide to Garcia said the Democrat candidate was unaware of the comments until they were published by conservative site P.J. Media.
And lest the message be lost on the English-speaking audience, Del Curto, also an officer of the National Border Patrol Council, spoke to the cameras in Spanish, saying he was addressing "all Latinos in the state.''
"Don't be fooled just because a candidate has the same surname as another Hispanic person,'' he said, saying the reality is that "these elections are very important.''
"Vote for our state's safety and vote for the person who has the best interests and not just for a person who feels entitled to your votes just because he is a Latino or because of his last name,'' Del Cueto said.
The endorsement comes as the issue of the role of the governor protecting Arizona from illegal border crossers has taken center stage, with the Republican Governors Association already setting aside $9 million for commercials to attack Garcia.
He has provided some fodder for his foes to use.
Garcia talked about dismantling and rebuilding Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the wake of practices of "zero tolerance'' and family separation. Ducey supporters have said that shows Garcia seeks to "abolish'' the agency, though the candidate, unlike other Democrats, has never used that specific term
And in a speech in New Orleans, Garcia urged that people "just imagine no wall, no wall in Southern Arizona,'' comments he later said were meant to mean opposition to new walls proposed by President Trump and not a call to remove existing barriers.
Garcia, in an interview Monday with Capitol Media Services, dismissed claims he's not interested in border security, saying that, unlike the incumbent, he actually has a record of protecting the border.
"I have put my time in as a young man to defend our borders,'' he said, referring to his time in the infantry. Ducey, by contrast, has no military service.
"To think I would do anything else as governor is contrary to who I am,'' Garcia said, suggesting that the attacks on him have racial overtones.
"I think people are going to see through this bigotry,'' he said. "I think they are not going to normalize this bigotry as basically business as usual.''
That goes to to the related question of whether Arizona, which has had only one Hispanic governor in its century-old history -- and that was four decades ago -- may be due for another.
Garcia has not shied away from the concept of advancing his candidacy based on his heritage and the fact his family was here "before Arizona was Arizona.''
"I firmly believe, what our campaign believes, is what we need is leadership that reflects the population of Arizona,'' he said. "We haven't had that in over 40 years,'' since Raul Castro was elected governor.
Castro ended up resigning to become U.S. ambassador to Argentina. And since then, Garcia said, there has not been a Hispanic in any statewide elective office despite Hispanics making up 31 percent of the state population.
"From my perspective, I believe that to have representation that looks like Arizona, that should be changed.''
But Garcia said he was not telling people to vote for him because of his ethnicity or surname.
"I have never said you should vote for me or any other candidate because of their ethnicity,'' he said.
Del Cueto brushed aside questions of whether a growing Hispanic population -- the number of Hispanics is predicted to double by 2050, compared with a 20 percent growth rate of non-Hispanic Anglos -- might be more inclined to support someone who is an Arizona native and understand the issues they face, like discrimination and racial profiling by law enforcement, than someone who grew up in Ohio and came to Arizona to attend school here. He said there is no single Hispanic experience.
"I can guarantee you that there's many Latinos throughout the country that have not walked in the same shoes that I have walked,'' he said, saying he wants to "educate'' people to vote for "the right individual.''
Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, added that said his agency has more minorities than Anglos, putting the figure of Hispanics at 52 percent.
And what of profiling?
"It's a real issue,'' he acknowledged.
"And people should be concerned about that,'' Judd continued. "But you have to understand that, the Border Patrol, we do the best that we can.''
Garcia said the endorsement of Ducey is no surprise, pointing out that Judd and his organization backed Trump in 2016 even before he was the GOP nominee for president.
In an interview with NPR in April of that year, Judd said that decision was made after he spoke directly with the candidate about issues of border security. Judd said Trump "was very receptive to those ideas of those individuals who know what it takes to secure the border.''
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