Election 2024

Ruben Gallego’s battle against Kari Lake could decide the fate of the Senate. And our democracy.

U.S. Senate candidate Ruben Gallego (right) greets supporters before submitting signatures to the Secretary of State's office on March 4, 2024, at the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix.
U.S. Senate candidate Ruben Gallego (right) greets supporters before submitting signatures to the Secretary of State's office on March 4, 2024, at the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix. Photo: Mark Henle/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK

On the afternoon of January 6, 2021, as election deniers armed with Tasers and tomahawks overran the US Capitol, Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) handed his colleague and close friend Eric Swalwell a pen. “Here,” he said to the California Democrat. “Stick this in their neck if they get close to you.”

The Marine veteran, who’d seen combat in Iraq, leaped on a table and began issuing instructions to other panicked lawmakers, showing them how to don the gas masks secured under their chairs: “Tear gas will not kill you. But it’s important to remain calm. If you hyperventilate, you may pass out.” If necessary, Gallego told himself, he could use his own pen as a weapon to take a more lethal one from a rioter.

Three years later, the battle for American democracy continues, and Gallego, locked in one of the most pivotal contests of the 2024 election, is again attempting to hold the line. Along with close matchups in Ohio and Montana, his Senate race in Arizona for the seat Kyrsten Sinema is vacating could be one of a handful that decides control of the upper chamber and, with it, the future of our republic. Donald Trump, facing 88 criminal counts, has promised to usher in MAGA on steroids if reelected, including mass deportation and sweeping bans on gender-affirming care. A Democratic-­led Senate would be one of the last fortifications against his agenda.

As if to further underscore the stakes, Gallego’s opponent is the former TV news anchor turned Trump sycophant Kari Lake. A prolific purveyor of conspiracy theories, Lake claims not only that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump but also that she was robbed of the Arizona governorship in her 2022 race. If Trumpism is akin to a religion, Lake views herself as one of its martyrs. “You can call us extremists. You can call us domestic terrorists,” she declared during one campaign event in 2022. “You know who else was called a lot of names his whole life? Jesus.”

Lake’s loss two years ago is just one indicator that Arizona is turning away from Trump-style conservatism. Though Trump won the state by 3.6 percent in 2016, he lost it in 2020 by about half of a percent. In 2022, all of the major statewide candidates Trump endorsed were defeated. But the state is certainly not a Democratic stronghold, either. Of roughly 4.1 million registered voters, there are some 236,000 more Republicans and 197,000 more independents than there are Democrats. To win, Gallego “has to appeal to a cross ­section of voters,” says former Arizona Democratic Party Chair Jim Pederson, “particularly moderate Republicans.”

Doing so will require Gallego to walk a nuanced line on the border crisis; the crisis raises drug and crime concerns for many Republican voters, but migrants also fuel the state’s economy. The high-profile race will also force Gallego to confront controversies from his past. The same wartime experiences that prepared him for January 6­ left him with PTSD that has led to angry outbursts and the collapse of his first marriage while his then-wife was pregnant with their child.

Gallego’s mental health struggles may be good fodder for his opponent to leverage against him, but his allies counter that his history of hardships is not a liability—it may even be an asset.

“I was on the floor with him on January 6. I was sitting right next to him,” Swalwell says. “And I saw, actually, not somebody with a temper, but somebody very much in control.”

Gallego never had it easy. Both of his parents immigrated to the United States as teens, his father from Mexico and his mom from Colombia. His parents divorced around the time Gallego was in junior high. His now-estranged dad, who worked in construction, would eventually be convicted on felony drug charges. His mom raised Gallego and his three sisters in a small apartment outside of Chicago, where Gallego slept on the living room floor and helped the family make ends meet through odd jobs as a line cook, a janitor, and a cashier. From his makeshift bedroom, he plotted an escape route out of poverty by way of a college education. His dream school, Harvard, ultimately offered him a scholarship.

In Cambridge, Gallego had a dorm room with a bed—something he hadn’t had in six years. He majored in international relations, thinking he might work for the State Department one day, and experienced some culture shock. “We both were finding our way in this new environment,” says Shailesh Sahay, Gallego’s fraternity brother and future best man, who is also the son of immigrants. “We both went to public high schools and kind of socialized in a normal public school way. To contrast that, there were kids like Jared Kushner in school with us. His budget for going out on Saturday night was significantly higher than our budget was.”

But Gallego could hobnob with anyone, friends say. “Was he absolutely the coolest kid in class? No, but he definitely knew a lot of people,” says Jean-Pierre Jacquet, another Harvard classmate and fraternity brother in Sigma Chi. He “had a lot of self-confidence, which is, you know, not unusual in Cambridge.”

During his sophomore year Gallego’s college career was nearly derailed after his grades declined and he broke some campus rules. (“Underage drinking” was involved, he told the Boston Globe.) Harvard administrators kicked him out of school, saying he could reapply in a year. A few months later, Gallego enlisted as a Marine reservist and completed basic training in South Carolina. He was readmitted to Harvard for the winter 2001 semester.

That fall, Gallego watched on a laptop screen as two hijacked planes hit the World Trade Center towers, changing the country’s future—and his.

In 2003, during what would have been Gallego’s final semester at Harvard, his unit was sent to Okinawa, Japan, for an uneventful deployment. But the next one wouldn’t be. After graduating from Harvard in 2004, Gallego followed his college girlfriend, Kate Widland, to New Mexico. He did fieldwork for John Kerry’s presidential bid until he was called up again, this time to Iraq with a battalion that would send home 48 flag-draped caskets, more than any other since 1983’s Beirut bombing.

After six bloody months in Iraq, Gallego settled in Phoenix, where Kate had moved to work in Democratic politics. “Coming back to ‘normal’ life was disorienting. The goals were nebulous, the relationships far less intense, and therefore less meaningful,” he writes in his 2021 memoir, They Called Us “Lucky.”

Not long after his homecoming, Gallego landed a job at a public relations firm, and work became a soothing distraction. “I was immediately impressed, especially when I heard his story,” says Joe Yuhas, the firm’s managing partner who remembers meeting Gallego while in line for the bar at a charity event. “He’s energetic and tenacious and he listens. Those were important features in the work that we did.”

One of Gallego’s first projects was battling a state ballot proposition banning gay marriage. During this campaign, Gallego clashed with one of the local politicians leading it, then–state Rep. Sinema.

Gallego’s role included recruiting volunteers, many of them members of the same LGBTQ community as Sinema, who is bisexual. Even so, she considered it a mistake to place queer people at the center of the campaign—she wanted to focus on how the proposition would also make it more difficult for straight and unmarried­ ­couples to access insurance and legal protections. After Gallego argued she was alienating their most effective advocates, Sinema eventually requested his removal from the campaign. Yuhas chalks it up to a “personality conflict,” adding that “neither one of them lacks in personality.”

Sinema’s strategy was necessary—they won by a 4-point margin—given the state’s conservative politics at the time, Yuhas says. And he notes that Gallego thrived working on other projects, including the successful campaign of Phoenix City Council Member Michael Nowakowski, who poached Gallego as his chief of staff.

Nowakowski and Gallego had an odd-couple relationship—Nowakowski a soft-spoken manager of a Spanish-­language radio station who once dreamed of becoming a priest, and Gallego a hard-charging war veteran. “I want to throw down some hail and brimstone, and this guy’s like, ‘It’s not how I operate,’” Gallego told the Arizona Republic in 2008.

Gallego’s fiery temperament caused a local scandal the following year when he sharply upbraided a council intern, “yelling and pounding his desk,” according to the Republic. Less than an hour after the incident, Gallego emailed two city council staffers: “When you have a chance I would like to talk to you about [the aide],” he wrote. “Her time as an intern is up.”

The intern claimed Gallego “was aggressive towards me” and filed two complaints with the city. She was let go shortly after. The city ultimately cleared Gallego of the harassment accusations and noted that the intern was previously slated to be dismissed due to budget cuts. Gallego touches on the episode in his memoir, attributing his behavior to trauma from his military service. “I’d never lost my cool before the war,” he writes. “Now I did, snapping and yelling at people for little reason.”

Gallego resigned from Nowakowski’s office in late 2009 to run for a state House seat representing a liberal portion of Phoenix. In this new role, he prioritized legislation that benefited fellow military service members, specifically a bipartisan bill granting veterans in-state tuition in Arizona. But soon he was looking for his next break, and after the US House member who represented his district announced his retirement, Gallego jumped into the race. After a competitive primary, Gallego handily won the general election.

Gallego’s demons persisted as he climbed the political ladder in DC. “I still drank more than I should. Smoked more than I should. Lost my temper more than I should,” he writes in his book. “I had nightmares. I thought about my dead friends. I wondered why I was alive. I couldn’t seem to find anything to cheer me up.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs lists many of these symptoms in its criteria for PTSD, a diagnosis Gallego received after three years of medical evaluations. Yet by then, his relationship with Kate, whom he married in 2010, had unraveled; they announced their separation in 2016 when she was in the third trimester of her pregnancy with their son. Now the mayor of Phoenix, she and Gallego co-parent their 7-year-old, who often joins his dad on the campaign trail. Kate also endorsed her ex-husband’s Senate bid in December, though Gallego’s critics have seized on the timing of their split. (Kate Gallego declined an interview with Mother Jones.) The Washington Free Beacon has filed a motion to unseal ­Gallego’s­ divorce records, and Lake has attacked him over the issue. Referring to Gallego’s pro-choice views, she said she would “not be lectured on motherhood” by someone who “left his wife when she was nine months pregnant.”

Gallego’s mental health struggles have also bled into his congressional life. A former Arizona state lawmaker describes a meeting, not long after Gallego first came to Capitol Hill, in which a veteran who had been injured by an IED lobbied Gallego to oppose the Iran nuclear deal. “When this guy came in and told Ruben, ‘If you don’t vote against the bill, you’re gonna have the blood of American servicemen and women on your hands,’ [Gallego] blew up and he started screaming,” the former lawmaker, who was present, recalls. (A congressional aide who was also in the room disputes that Gallego yelled.) “He took a stern tone,” says the aide, who adds Gallego’s frustration was in response to “how aggressive and confrontational the veteran was.”

Gallego’s sometimes-salty disposition, the former lawmaker points out, might contrast sharply with the camera-ready persona of his opponent, especially if they square off in a debate. “Lake has had 30 years of television experience and can be very poised,” the former lawmaker says. “And he could come off as an angry short man yelling at the woman who might be saying outrageous and insane things but is looking composed.”

With Lake, political disinformation and deceit are masked by a perfect pixie cut and gleaming white smile. With Gallego, his allies say, what you see is what you get. “Sometimes I’m out with him, and he’ll meet somebody new. And I expect politician Ruben to come out. And it doesn’t,” says Swalwell. “I’ve seen people tell him they’re in Washington working on whatever issue. And he’ll say, ‘Well, that’s a bad idea.’ He’s not afraid to tell people how he feels—not in a rude way. But if you’re expecting a polished politician, that’s not Ruben, and that’s refreshing.”

In mid-December, Gallego’s forthright nature is on display during a visit to Yuma County to judge Somerton’s 16th annual Tamale Festival.

“Good spice,” he writes on a blue scorecard next to a four-star entry.

Entry number 24 is “too dry,” but the tamale from contestant 25 is “amazing.”

“I don’t know about this, y’all,” Gallego says as he bites into a spinach one. “No, no, no, no.” He shakes his head as he pushes the green mush to the side of his plate.

He jokes that after sampling two dozen contenders, he may have to cross the border to sample something else: Ozempic.

As we walk by various food vendors, Gallego is approached by at least a dozen festival attendees, including a squad of young cheerleaders seeking a group picture and a woman from the Cocopah Indian Tribe, who has Gallego’s ear on and off throughout the day. “You’ll never see Sinema or Kari Lake doing any of this, like talking to people, trying to actually understand what’s going on with their lives,” he says.

In addition to festivals, parades, and rallies—the meat-and-potatoes campaign schedule for any conventional candidate—Gallego is also on a mission to visit all 22 federally recognized Native tribes in Arizona. Part of this is personal. Gallego says two of his closest friends are Navajo brothers with whom he served in Iraq. And one of the few bills he’s successfully navigated to passage in the House provides resources to Native tribes to help them prevent and investigate child abuse. Gallego’s strategy is also politically astute. The massive turnout of Native people, who make up roughly 5 percent of the state population, proved critical for Democrats in 2020, when Biden won the state by fewer than 12,000 votes.

While Lake already boasts national name recognition, experts say Gallego’s go-everywhere-talk-to-everyone approach is critical to broadening his appeal outside of Phoenix. “If the Republicans or Democrats were winning by a huge landslide, then maybe it’s not necessarily going to make much of a difference to try to engage with all these low-population counties,” says Samara Klar, a political science professor at the University of Arizona and an expert on independent voters. “But that’s not the way in Arizona. We have extremely razor-thin margins of victory.”

The thin margins have something to do with the unique politics of Arizona, where a third of registered voters claim no political party. One of the state’s most revered politicians was the late John McCain, the Republican elder statesman of the Senate known as a partisanship-bucking maverick. A year before his death, McCain famously gave a forceful thumbs-down as he cast the deciding vote against a GOP-led attempt to repeal part of the Affordable Care Act. Sinema, who was elected to the Senate shortly after McCain’s death, also rejected a pivotal measure with the same hand gesture. In her case, she was one of a handful of Democrats blocking an increase of the federal minimum wage.

Sinema’s obstructionism, especially her refusal in 2022 to support reforming the filibuster to pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act by a simple majority, convinced Gallego to run for her seat. “The filibuster isn’t a tool to encourage sophisticated debate, it’s a tool to kill legislation that the vast majority of Americans support,” Gallego said at the time. Later that year, Sinema became an independent and filed initial paperwork to run for reelection as such. Gallego’s announcement that he would challenge Sinema from the left both elated and alarmed liberals who worried they would divide the moderate-to-liberal vote and tip the scales toward a Lake victory—and perhaps a GOP-led Senate.

Sinema’s March announcement that she would instead retire at the end of her term relieved Democrats, taking a messy three-way race off the table. Arizona Democrats won big in 2022, electing a Democratic governor, secretary of state, and attorney general. But if the results suggest a repudiation of Trumpism, mounting concerns over immigration could hamper Gallego’s chances. An October survey of registered Arizona voters, for example, found they trusted Trump more than Biden on immigration by a margin of 54 to 41 percent.

The issue is personal to Gallego. His parents immigrated through family reunification and worker visas, he says. He supports increasing funding for both humanitarian aid and Border Patrol personnel. But he also argues that today’s crisis stems largely from the dismantling of the pathways his parents took to enter the country legally.

It’s not simply that migrants need us, he argues, but that we need them. Just 12 miles from Somerton is the Mexican border, which tens of thousands of migrants cross during peak season to work the Yuma County fields that produce about 90 percent of the country’s lettuce every winter. Throngs more opt for less safe and less legal—but more permanent—solutions.

They are “doing all these illegal or abusive things because they want to get here and we’re not making it easier,” he says, “and we do need people to come work.”

Two months after the tamale festival, I catch up with Gallego on Capitol Hill. While he waits to vote on some procedural measures, we take brisk laps between the entrance to the House chamber and Statuary Hall. These days, this is how Gallego gets in his steps, as he juggles legislative and child-rearing duties. Last summer, Gallego and his second wife, Sydney, a Democratic lobbyist whom he met at the 2018 annual congressional baseball game, welcomed a baby girl. A member of the Congressional Dads Caucus, Gallego took a few weeks of parental leave over the summer.

On our walk, we talk about television shows (he is hooked on Netflix’s Griselda), Mexican food (don’t make him pick a favorite dish), and which chores he contributes to his household. (“The real answer is I don’t do enough,” he admits.)

We also discuss the day’s legislative agenda—namely, what wasn’t on it. Earlier that week, Democrats and Republicans seemed close to consensus on a border bill. The deal, initially backed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, would have barred migrants with criminal histories from applying for asylum, quickened hearing timelines, and more. Then Trump weighed in. “Only a fool, or a Radical Left Democrat, would vote for this horrendous Border Bill,” he posted to Truth Social. “Don’t be STUPID!!!”

That was that. The bill was dead.

Republicans “really had nothing else to run on, and it was going to be taken away, and that’s when Donald Trump and his minions called it in and sunk it,” says Gallego. “It was one of the most cynical political moves I’ve seen since I’ve been in Washington, DC.”

There is some competition for that distinction of course—notably Trump’s effort to overturn the election, which culminated in the insurrection that sent Gallego into combat mode three years earlier not far from where we stand. That Gallego is now facing Lake, one of the biggest promoters of the Big Lie, in this pivotal Senate race is oddly fitting, and its outcome will say much about where the nation may be headed.

One candidate amplified the election lies that motivated thousands of Trump zealots to ransack the citadel of American democracy. The other prepared to repel this onslaught—and preserve the sanctity of the democratic process—with a ballpoint pen. In November, democracy is again on the line. And Gallego is up for the fight.

This article first appeared on Mother Jones. It has been republished with the publication’s permission.

Don't forget to share:

Support vital LGBTQ+ journalism

Reader contributions help keep LGBTQ Nation free, so that queer people get the news they need, with stories that mainstream media often leaves out. Can you contribute today?

Cancel anytime · Proudly LGBTQ+ owned and operated

Audre Lorde criticized exclusionary feminism decades before it became a big issue

Previous article

Gay beach volleyball team of Kyle Friend and Tim Brewster finds love off the sand

Next article