Shortly after the Arizona senator Kyrsten Sinema publicly changed her political affiliation from Democrat to Independent, Ruben Gallego, a Phoenix-area Democratic congressman, announced that he would challenge her in the 2024 election. Sinema had followed a sui-generis political path: having started out as a rabble-rousing Green Party activist who became the first openly bisexual member of Congress, she ran a moderate campaign for the Senate in 2018 and, after winning, infuriated liberals and Party activists by moving even further to the right. She helped to block a bill that would have cut prescription-drug prices, she voted against raising the minimum wage, and her opposition all but doomed President Biden’s plans for a much more expansive Build Back Better Act, in 2021. (Sinema has not yet announced whether she will run for reëlection; if she and a Democrat are both on the ticket, that might make a Republican more likely to win the seat.) She was at first held up as an example of how progressive outsiders could effectively pressure the political system, and then as an example of why those outsiders could not be trusted. Gallego, a forty-three-year-old fifth-term representative and a key figure in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, has held more conventional Democratic positions. He has also sometimes baited Sinema. “When I go to D.C., I think about everyone that got me to where I am,” he told “Good Morning America” in January, shortly after announcing his candidacy. “She doesn’t.”
If this election marks a turning point in Sinema’s political career, then it is also critical for Gallego, an outspoken, partisan figure who represents a different generational tendency, in which the dynamic force in the Party is the young members of the establishment, hardened by the Trump experience, growing more combative in their politics and expansive in their demands. Raised in Chicago with three sisters by an immigrant single mother (his estranged father was at one point imprisoned for drug trafficking), Gallego made it to Harvard, where his work-study job entailed cleaning his classmates’ bathrooms. After his grades faltered, and what he called an “enforced ‘pause’ ” on his studies, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and later served as an infantryman in Iraq, where he saw extensive combat as part of a company that went on to suffer some of the highest casualties of any Marine company during the conflict. Returning Stateside, he eventually moved to Arizona with his Harvard girlfriend, Kate Widland, who is now his ex-wife and the mayor of Phoenix. Gallego’s 2021 memoir of his war experience, “They Called Us Lucky,” is an emotional and at times angry book that emphasizes the tenacity of combat trauma in his own life and in the lives of his fellow-soldiers. Gallego is not idealistic about the business of politics, nor about the people within it. After a short interview by phone, Gallego and I met for dinner in Rockefeller Center, on Monday evening, when the media world was consumed by the news that the U.S. military had shot down several unidentified flying objects over North America. We spoke about the Senate race, the impact that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have had on politics, and—most of all—about the generational change under way in the Democratic Party.
Do you have any insight about whether we’re under attack by aliens? I feel like I would be derelict if I didn’t ask—do you know anything we don’t know?
I definitely know stuff you don’t know, because I’m the former chairman of the Intelligence and Special Operations committee. So, yes, yes, I do. I don’t think what’s happening now is aliens—that I deduced recently.
Are these just balloons?
Could be anything. But if we’re using F-22s to shoot it down it’s probably not aliens. Just a hunch.
You gave a quote to Vox a year and a half ago that really stuck with me, because it seemed to give some insight into how you view politics. You said, “Politics is dark and hard. It’s not a bunch of people trying to do their best. It’s who can shank each other in a smarter way.”
Well, I try to be subtle.
Many times, politicians focus on this idea of how politics should be but not necessarily on the outcome. That ends up hurting people that need help. Sometimes you have to maybe not work hand in hand with your loyal opposition. Maybe you should focus on making people’s lives better. A lot of people grew up watching “The West Wing” and thinking that politics can be decided by two people who agree. Well, sometimes you should just care about the outcome. People are hurting right now. They need help, and politicians should focus on how to get that done first.
I had thought this had something to do with the 2020 Democratic primaries, and the very idealistic politics that were ascendent then.
No. I’ve always kind of felt this way. I’ve seen the disappointments of my generation. I was born in 1979. I’ve seen two recessions, the towers fall, us getting thrown into an illegal war—and all this time I think there’s been a certain disappointment with the outcomes. I think it’s because politicians aren’t very realistic.
When you say disappointed with the outcomes—
You have generations right now that find themselves in poverty that their parents were never in. You have the lowest amount of homeownership, especially below the age of thirty. You have the highest amount of debt. All these things that our parents grew up with, that we kind of were expecting, are no longer there. But there really hasn’t been any kind of policy decisions to try to help. Until recently.
If this is your perspective on politicians, do you think that the press is not cynical enough?
I don’t think it’s that the press isn’t cynical enough. It’s just that the viewpoints coming from the press, and from policymakers, are very much a product of groupthink. Everyone went to the same colleges. Everyone grew up in the same areas, and I think they all kind of ended up thinking the same way.
I’ll give you a good example. I won’t name this person, but someone I went to college with was shocked after the 2016 election that Donald Trump had won. We went out to dinner, and he was lamenting that he didn’t understand how it went so bad—G.D.P. growth was happening every year. When you have the same amount of money coming into your checking account but you can’t afford to buy anything new, G.D.P. growth doesn’t matter. And he was shocked. He was, like, “Oh, so we should have been worried about people’s personal income growth the whole time?” Like, yes, yes. I don’t think you have to be more cynical. I just think that people have to look outside their bubble to see what’s actually happening.
I think we should be more cynical.
I also do think reporters should be cynical. That should be your standard.
But you did not grow up in that bubble. You grew up in a different environment.
Yeah, I grew up in a different environment, absolutely.
Tell me about that.
I definitely was an interloper in polite society. I was born and raised in Chicago, but lived for a while in Mexico, the son of immigrants. We lived in Mexico, part time, in a city called Chihuahua, and also in the country, where there was a farm that we were working. When we moved back to the states, we moved into working-class Latino and Black neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago. You know, in some ways, it’s probably the last generation where I got to ride my bike until the lights were on, all that kind of stuff. But there was also gang violence, things of that nature.
This was the late eighties.
Late eighties, early nineties, yeah. I had a cousin who was shot—everyone knew it was my uncle who did it. It was still a pretty decent experience growing up, but it was working class—my father was a construction worker, and I’d go to construction sites with them and work construction. Things eventually, unfortunately, went bad. My father’s company went under. He started selling drugs. Eventually, my father left the picture. He’d pop in every once in a while, but he was no longer a father. And he was an asshole. You don’t think about it at that age, but, when you think about it later, you’re better off, right?
Not a good dude.
No, not a good dude. My mom is hardworking. She was a secretary. She had four kids to raise. She moved into a small apartment just outside Chicago, a community called Evergreen Park. It was a very working-class area, largely Irish and Italians—a lot of people who work in the trade unions and stuff like that. We had a two-bedroom apartment for five people. I was the only male, so I slept on the floor. I went to college. You know, it was a weird situation—we were poor, but we were working. We weren’t spiteful. I don’t think we thought of ourselves as poor. Now we understand that it was not great. I worked throughout high school. I was a janitor. I worked in a meatpacking factory. I was a line-order cook and then went to school, studied, helped raise my sisters. And I had a lot of help from my teachers, my family.
You’ve said that, when Trump ran, you were very worried early on because you’d grown up among his voters, in Evergreen Park, and you were pretty sure he’d have traction.
When I was starting high school, the effects of NAFTA were starting to get felt, and Rush Limbaugh was actually coming through. I was one of the few Latinos in that high school. And definitely a mouthy Latino. I was not going to back off of anybody. I got shit for it. I was called a spic, beaner, everything else you can think of. People would try to start fights with me, and with my sisters, too. A lot of what I was hearing was definitely things that their parents were saying, right? And where were the parents getting it? It doesn’t excuse the kids for being little shithead racists. It is what it is. But you can tell that there was frustration at that point—it was a Democratic area—about people losing their jobs.