State Sen. Minority Leader Jorge Luis Garcia, who has represented Tucson in the Legislature off and on for a dozen years, died Friday. He was 57.
Jose Bracamonte, who was managing Garcia's bid for Arizona Corporation Commission, said Garcia had been ill and had previously been hospitalized. But Bracamonte said his death was unexpected, as they had just met Thursday to discuss details of the campaign. That was also the assessment of David Bradley, his Democratic running mate for the two commission seats up for grabs.
Bradley said Garcia was out campaigning up until the night before he died. State Elections Director Amy Bjelland said Garcia's name remains on the ballot for next month's election. In fact, early ballots already have been mailed. She said if Garcia were to win one of the two seats, it would be up the governor to choose a replacement -- who would have to be a Democrat like Garcia. But Bjelland said she is researching whether that obligation falls to the governor at the time the election results are certified, which would be Jan Brewer, or to who is the governor at the point there actually is a vacancy in the office in January. One thing is clear: While commissioners normally serve a four-year term, there would have to be an election in 2012 to decide who gets to serve the last two years of that term.
Garcia drew praise from various political and community leaders for his public service. Democratic Rep. Phil Lopes, elected from the same Tucson district, called him "probably the most independent Democrat'' at the Legislature. "When he made up his mind, he pursued it,'' Lopes said. "And he didn't necessarily pursue only those things that Democrats wanted to do.'' That independence also resulted in Garcia developing a reputation among reporters as someone who would speak his mind, even if it meant not following the party line -- and even if it meant criticizing other Democrats. In 2008, for example, Garcia openly expressed concerns that Gov. Janet Napolitano, also a Democrat, would cut her own budget deal with the Republican legislative majority. He noted she had done that two years earlier, agreeing to a permanent 10 percent cut in individual income tax rates to get Republicans to support state funding for full-day kindergarten. A clearly annoyed Garcia told Capitol Media Services that was done "to the shafting of her Democratic caucus.''
"And he would say that to her face,'' said Lopes, who previously served as the House minority leader. He said the rest of the Democratic leadership did not have the nerve to talk to the governor that way. "I think he was underestimated,'' said Bradley. "He was a very bright guy,'' Bradley continued. "But he was so soft-spoken and circumspect about things, people sometimes overlooked his contributions.''
Brewer, who had to negotiate with Garcia for the last two years, described him as a hard working and dedicated public servant. "He was a gentleman, and a kind man with a wonderful sense of humor,'' the governor said. She has ordered state flags to be flown at half staff for seven days, beginning today.
That assessment of Garcia as a "gentleman'' was shared by Glenn Hamer, president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry. "Obviously we weren't naturally on the same page on every issue,'' he said. But Hamer said that Garcia was willing to work in a bipartisan fashion when necessary. One example, he said, was when Garcia helped pull together the Democratic votes to put a proposal on the ballot last May for a temporary hike in the state sales tax. That measure was being advanced by Brewer, and many of Garcia's Democratic colleagues were opposed to the plan because it put the burden too much on those at the bottom of the income scale. But the proposal would never have gained the necessary Senate votes to refer it to the ballot without Garcia. Democratic colleagues remembered Garcia as a workhorse, as opposed to a showhorse, at the state Capitol.
Sami Hamed, an aide to U.S. Congressman Raul Grijalva, said Garcia was an inspiration and a good friend who lent support in his recent, unsuccessful race for the state Legislature. Hamed said he learned much from Garcia, including, "To be humble and always work hard. And to never carry a grudge in politics.''
Pima County Republican chairman Bob Westerman, who ran against Garcia in a previous legislative race, said that, even as a campaign rival, "Jorge was always very friendly and courteous.'' He recalled that after the two were interviewed by the editorial board of the Arizona Daily Star, they walked out together to their cars, talking the whole time. Pima County Democratic Chairman Jeff Rogers called Garcia "one of the great grassroots campaigners.'' And Rebekah Friend, executive director of the state AFL-CIO, called him "a clear, consistent voice for the working people of Arizona while in the Senate.''
She said many Arizonans had looked forward to the same kind of leadership from him on the Arizona Corporation Commission. According to his official Senate biography, Garcia was born in Nogales. He earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona in 1975 and his master's degree six years later from Arizona State University six years later. He was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1992 and served there four years. Garcia was out of elective office until 2002 when he was elected to the Senate. Garcia has been the Senate minority leader for the last two years. He leaves behind his wife, Maria, and three grown children, Yvette, Dominique and Rolando.
Rhonda Bodfield of the Arizona Daily Star contributed to this report.