TUCSON — For many community organizers in southern Arizona, the fight for climate justice and civic engagement is intertwined.
Groups that hope to protect voter rights also either work directly or partner on efforts to protect those same vulnerable communities from the effects of environmental harm.
One such group, Chispa Arizona, contends that “Latinos are among the worst impacted by climate change,” and members actively champion protections for clean air and water for communities.
“We are the community most impacted right now by climate change,” said Vianey Olivarria, state director for Chispa Arizona. “Our communities live close to gas stations, oil infrastructure, more so than others. We have less access to green spaces, or live in food deserts, or suffer from high pollution that we don’t create.”
Olivarria also said that while Chispa focuses on climate issues, there is a “super tight” relationship between voting and environmental rights.
“It’s literally the heart of our work,” Olivarria said. “If there’s no reflective democracy, there’s no environmental justice.”
Within Arizona, Olivarria said they’d monitored and opposed over 30 state measures from the past session they say were about rolling back voter and ballot access. Chispa is also part of a legal challenge to two bills, SB 1003 and SB 1485, the latter of which involves kicking people off early voting rolls. Olivarria said these measures predominantly impact rural areas and “black, brown and indigenous” communities.
Within Pinal County, Rural Arizona Action recently helped organize a voting rights march in Eloy and has worked on fighting against voting restrictions.
“I believe that it is important to recognize that civic engagement here in Pinal County, a county that is less urban with wide open spaces, will naturally involve environmental issues,” said RAZA Advocacy Director Aris Correa. “The folks here appreciate the outdoors. RAZA believes that it is important that we continue to protect our public lands and the environment out here. The community out here also understands that the future is sustainability, and investments here with regards to energy production, water usage, manufacturing should have an environmentally conscious focus because that is the future.”
At the federal level, as Congress considers separate infrastructure bills this month, a number of potential climate action items are on the table, including electrical vehicle infrastructure, renewable energy projects and even a civilian climate corps.
However, according to Marilyn Rodriguez, partner at the firm Creosote Partners, which focuses on progressive issues, Arizona’s Democratic delegation is not doing nearly enough, and she’s not afraid to call them out by name.
“We’ve been really discouraged to see (Rep. Tom) O’Halleran recently take a step back from pursuing bold solutions,” Rodriguez said. “Biden’s infrastructure plan is being heavily chipped away right now, and (Sen. Kyrsten) Sinema is leading the charge.”
Vianey echoed many progressives in Congress by calling the reconciliation package “the bare minimum” necessary to tackle the climate crisis.
“It’s not the ceiling, it’s the floor,” Vianey said of the bills’ price tag. Sinema and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin have been among the most vocal critics of the reconciliation package’s $3.5 trillion price tag.
Vianey accused Sinema of “playing politics” by trying to avoid being associated with aggressive government spending, yet constantly acknowledging the need for climate action.
“This is not about her political career,” Vianey said. “This is about the future of Arizona. We have no option to not act, or not act boldly. We need to have a state we can live in where we are not constantly fighting flooding, or wildfires, or unbearable heat waves.”
Vianey said the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club are partners, particularly on water issues.
One measure that was recently included in the latest draft of the infrastructure is possibly reversing a land swap agreement between Resolution Copper and the government for a copper mine that has drawn opposition.
“We’re grateful that the House Natural Resources Committee under the leadership of Rep. Raul Grijalva has included a measure to protect Oak Flat in the budget reconciliation bill,” said Randy Serraglio, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Grijalva has been a staunch ally in the campaign to protect this sacred place for many years. We need Congress to pass legislation to protect Oak Flat as soon as possible, by whatever means necessary.”
Locally, RAZA Data Coordinator Kate Boettcher has helped organize a letter campaign against the Salt River Project’s proposed natural gas power plant expansion in Coolidge. Boettcher said the campaign is a good example of something that affects both advocacy and climate issues.
“Coolidge residents do not have a direct vote on who gets to make these crucial decisions,” Boettcher said, noting SRP produces power for the Phoenix area while Coolidge itself relies on electricity from Arizona Public Service Co.
“People in power have been talking about the transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy for decades,” Boettcher said. “We do not have decades to act on climate change.
“We want to build sustainable relationships with our communities and that starts by listening to each other and including as many people as possible in these conversations.”
Rodriguez emphasized that many climate issues transcend partisanship, and that there is broad support within Arizona for climate action, and that they have good relationships with various urban and rural lawmakers.
Rodriguez said she’s helped organizations partner with the Western Conservation Fund and hunters’ rights groups.
“They care just as much about clean air-water accessibility as we do,” Rodriguez said. “And the ability to step outside and not feel like you are baking in an oven.”
Rodriguez also mentioned state Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, as being someone who has shown concern about environmental issues, most specifically water.
“Elected officials need to understand that they were elected to do a job, which is not to be reelected, it is to make progress,” Rodriguez said. “Republicans and Democrats alike are hurt by the inability to pass anything. Right now is the moment to act, there won’t be a second chance.”
PHOENIX — Senate President Karen Fann’s Sept. 10 press release was short on details but clear on one point — a senator had received a threat of some kind over the Senate’s audit of the 2020 election in Maricopa County.
Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, disclosed later that day she was the target of the threat. Ugenti-Rita, one of the few Republican senators to publicly criticize the audit, said she went public to bring attention to the volatile environment and in hope of protecting everyone.
Even though threats of harm, inflammatory messages and acts of intimidation can be part of heated public policy debates, her colleagues on both sides of the aisle agree that the atmosphere today is more toxic than it used to be, the Arizona Capitol Times reports.
And Fann’s and Ugenti-Rita’s responses exemplify the different approaches lawmakers take to working in such an environment.
Fann said she typically does not publicly discuss threatening messages to herself or to other legislators because she feels that brings more attention to the negativity and generates more angry emails.
“The reason I had to put the presser out was because I had a member who got one and pretty well demanded that I should put something out to say it was not acceptable,” she said. “And I said, ‘Fine, I’ll be glad to do it; it’s not acceptable,’ but, you know, personally I think the more you raise attention to it, the more you just feed into it. That’s all.”
Ugenti-Rita said that on Sept. 9 she got a deluge of volatile emails accusing her of delaying the audit, but one email with bad grammar and spelling told her to “give the American people the audit report or were coming for you.”
The writer, an audit supporter who called himself “Matt Boster,” addressed the senator with an ethnic slur and a swear word and said he knows where the senator and her family live and where she shops for groceries.
Ugenti-Rita said general tone of the emails has her worried something bad will happen.
“This is something deeper, part of a bigger sentiment that is brewing,” she said.
Senate Minority Leader Rebecca Rios said emails like the one Ugenti-Rita reported to police have gotten much more common.
“Over the years politics has gotten so much uglier and the nature of emails that we get is ridiculous,” said Rios, D-Phoenix. “There are occasions where we refer phone calls or emails over to DPS.”
Fann said she’s “absolutely” noticed a significant uptick in nasty and threatening emails this year that include “every four or five letter word you can think of.”
“The emails I’ve gotten from Democrats over these last few months have just been to some point, out-and-out disgusting,” Fann said.
Sen. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said threats are never appropriate, but he doesn’t think this year has solicited more than usual. Throughout his tenure, he has seen an ebb and flow, Petersen said. Some issues, such as the audit, draw more intensity from angry constituents.
“Unfortunately, I have seen that myself — I get plenty of choice messages,” Petersen said. “I don’t usually talk about them or broadcast them, but it’s something I’ve seen over the years.”
Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, said that while he isn’t sure if there are more threats to elected officials than there used to be, there is a lot more “general nastiness.” He said this worries him because it could discourage good people from running for office. He blames the last two presidential elections, and how the losers responded to them, for the poisonous climate.
“In 2016, after Trump’s victory, you saw a lot of nastiness in general, just hatred from the left towards him and his movement,” Shope said. “You flash forward four years to 2020, you see basically the same thing going the opposite direction. I think it kind of starts from the top in that sense.”
A slew of the threats this year have come from people who apparently believe the election was stolen from former President Donald Trump. After Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, joined Democrats in voting against holding Maricopa County supervisors in contempt in February for refusing to turn over documents the Senate wanted as part of its review of the election results, he was deluged with harassing and threatening phone calls and emails. He got police protection and temporarily left his home.
Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs and her staff have similarly been harassed and threatened, and Hobbs has also requested police protection at times. She has referred to this regularly in making her case for why she should be elected governor.
“I’ve fought against misinformation and even death threats to defend Arizona’s elections,” she tweeted recently.
Protesters who wanted to overturn the election results have shown up at the homes of Hobbs and of House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa. Shope had protesters show up at his home in May, angry at his opposition to a bill that would have banned private businesses from asking for proof of vaccination. Shope said there used to be an understanding that people’s homes were off-limits.
“I guess the lesson of the day is now there are no limits, and that’s not good long-term,” Shope said.