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Arizona grassroots effort boosts Black candidates, turnout

December 4, 2020 GMT
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FILE - In this Jan. 13, 2020, file photo, Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, speaks on the opening day of the legislative session at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix. Bolding was named to lead House Democrats as minority leader, Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
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FILE - In this Jan. 13, 2020, file photo, Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, speaks on the opening day of the legislative session at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix. Bolding was named to lead House Democrats as minority leader, Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

PHOENIX (AP) — Black voters in Arizona were barraged with text messages, phone calls and visits before the election — and they got the message.

The get-out-the-vote effort in Arizona translated into record-high turnout for African Americans, who helped deliver a win for Joe Biden in this traditionally conservative state and elected several Black candidates or almost did in state and local races.

Democratic state Rep. Reginald Bolding, who is Black and won reelection, said 60% of Arizona’s Black registered voters cast ballots this year, citing early projections from Mi AZ Coalition, a collective of progressive community and advocacy organizations led by people of color. The U.S. Census Bureau says Black voter turnout in the state was 44.2% in 2012 and 46.6% in 2016.

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The coalition, including Our Voice Our Vote Arizona and Progress Arizona, attributed its success to a yearlong effort mobilizing a group that makes up about 5.2% of the state’s population, according to a 2019 census report.

It also worked to mobilize Latinos, who, along with Native Americans, changing demographics and suburban voters turning out to oppose President Donald Trump, helped pushed Biden to victory in Arizona.

For Black voter turnout, the national reckoning around police brutality and systemic racism also played a role, said Bolding, who’s co-executive director of Our Voice Our Vote Arizona.

“There has been a stronger election campaign because of it, and our communities have learned the way to create change is by shifting change,” he said, by voting “like their life depended on it.”

That reflects what happened around the country, with Black voters showing up in strong numbers and overwhelmingly backing Biden and Kamala Harris, who became the first Black woman elected vice president.

Mi AZ Coalition, which formed in 2018, poured more money, employees and time into this year’s grassroots efforts to try to beat Trump and flip a U.S. Senate seat blue, said Emily Kirkland, executive director of Progress Arizona. It was successful — Biden became the second Democratic presidential candidate to win Arizona since 1948, and Mark Kelly’s win gives the state two Democratic senators for the first time in nearly 70 years.

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We did all this “in spite of the limitations posed by COVID-19” and were able to build on the work many groups have been doing in the state for 10 years, Kirkland said.

The coalition knocked on more than 1.1 million doors, made 7.9 million phone calls and sent more than 100,000 text messages, according to a statement.

The efforts came as more Black candidates sought office this year than ever before, Bolding said. Many won seats on school boards, including Redeem Robinson in the Balsz School District, Kiana Sears in the Mesa School District and Shelley Jackson in Phoenix’s Roosevelt School District. Sadie Shaw became the only Black woman on the Tucson Union High School District governing board.

Black Democratic candidates Whitney Walker and Jevin Hodge challenged Republican incumbents for two of the five Maricopa County Board of Supervisors seats in Arizona’s most populous county, which includes Phoenix. Walker lost by a few thousand votes to Bill Gates, who has held the seat since 2017, while Hodge lost by only 403 votes to Jack Sellers.

Hodge said on social media that there was much to celebrate even though he didn’t win.

“For starters, we broke some records,” he said in a livestream about his campaign, which raised $300,000, knocked on over 15,000 doors, sent 60,000 texts and made 5,000 calls. As a result, “we saw record high turnout for this district — 84% of registered voters participated.”

Walker, the first Black woman to be the Democratic nominee for the county board, said on Twitter that although she lost by more than 5,600 votes, her margin of defeat was closer than any other Democratic candidate for the district and that reflected a desire by some voters for a more inclusive board.

The Phoenix suburb of Tempe got its first Black mayor in March, when Corey Woods defeated Mayor Mark Mitchell, who had led the city since 2012.

Black candidates also saw historic successes in neighboring New Mexico.

Democrat and retired Air Force Capt. Harold Pope Jr. became the first Black state senator in New Mexico’s 108-year history when he unseated Sander Rue, a Republican in office since 2009.

“It’s giving young African Americans and Indigenous — people of color — they’re seeing someone that looks more like them,” Pope said. “And it’s letting them know that ‘Hey, he did it.’”

Gerald Byers was elected the first Black district attorney of southern New Mexico’s Dona Ana County this year after running unopposed.

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Associated Press reporter Anita Snow contributed to this report.