Talia Fuentes attended a Bernie Sanders campaign event in March, taking the first step in a new journey.
“It all clicked for me,” said Fuentes, who’s now running to represent Arizona’s 5th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. “And I understood: This is what Bernie’s saying. It’s not just a presidential election. It’s about those of us in our communities stepping up.”
Fuentes, 31, is a single mother with a degree in applied biology. She entered the race in the spring and has been campaigning “nonstop” ever since. Previously, she was a radio host for about five years, working on a morning drive-time show and a ska punk show in the Phoenix market. She’s also had a lifelong interest in animal welfare and has done wildlife conservation work in South Africa. She spent the past summer in Nicaragua, spaying and neutering dogs.
“My goal is to instigate change,” she told In These Times. “I keep telling people that I’m not in it for the 15 minutes of fame, or whatever it may be. I’m in this for 20 years, for 30 years. If we’re really going to build the world that Bernie laid out, then we have to take advantage of these systems that are in place and make the evolution happen.”
Her Republican opponent, Andy Biggs, won $10 million in the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes in the early 1990s. He’s a Tea Party-type conservative and was elected to the Arizona State Senate in 2010. He’s now the chamber’s majority leader.
Arizona’s 5th District, east of Phoenix, is a long shot for a Democrat. The retiring Republican incumbent won his race in 2014 with nearly 70 percent of the vote. But Biggs won his contentious Republican primary race by just 27 votes, and Arizona doesn’t seem enthusiastic about Donald Trump, whose lead there is in the low single-digits. In late October, the Phoenix CBS affiliate named the 5th District one of the “major races to keep track of on Election Day.”
“This is a gerrymandered red district,” Fuentes said. “But if it’s going to happen any year, it’ll happen this year because of Biggs. I describe him as what would happen if Donald Trump and Ted Cruz became one person — a religious zealot and a millionaire who has zero interest in working people.”
Fuentes recently spoke with In These Times about her campaign, her political influences and how she manages to remain optimistic. Her interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You’ve gotten some positive publicity recently for being an “openly secular” candidate. How does that play out in your campaign?
I’m a spiritual person. I see the world through the lens of science, and I think we deserve a secular government. To me, it’s very confusing that we can’t have a dialogue about removing God from the equation, especially at a time when we have so much data and so much research to develop public policy. So, I’m really fortunate to be accepted into the secular community, while also still having my own spiritual ideals. Especially in this district, I think it’s important that I have some sort of spirituality because it’s a very religious district. I hope that I can be the middle ground between the two worlds. Because the true meaning of “progressive” is step-by-step change. And a lot of times, I think, people forget that. They want to go from A to Z, and they don’t want to take the steps in between to make the transition that we need.
What are the sources of your politics?
The music community. I grew up in the punk rock world. I sang in bands for 10 years. I was with a band that didn’t like that I was getting involved in politics. They thought I would be selling out. And that was hard for me, but music will always be a part of my life. It’s not something I can turn off. Even now, the soundtrack of the past week has been the Hamilton musical. Because it’s about revolutionaries and building up, and I’ve been nerding out on the history of the founders. And a lot of them were in their early 20s, and 30s. And that’s what we’re doing right now — building a revolution for what our country will be.
If we have the skills and know-how and we can be smart about it, we can change the system and make it better for the people. I was literally raised by the anti-establishment. But also, my dad is a Republican. So I’m in this limbo between worlds. But I think that’s the kind of people that we need in politics. I’m really fortunate to move between worlds and communities, and hopefully I can bring those voices into government. I think we all need to be part of the dialogue, and if any one person goes in saying they have all the answers, don’t trust them.
You’ve made a point of reaching out to Republicans in this race, especially since it’s such a heavily red district. What common ground do you find with them?
Honestly, the No. 1 divide I see within the Republican Party has to do with climate change. That’s really the main issue dividing Republicans. I don’t usually use “climate change,” because those are trigger words for Republicans, and I like to be aware of language and how it shapes discussions. I say “climate management” or “climate shift.” I’m so over talking about why it’s happening. I’m talking about what it’s doing to life on this planet. Because Republicans are seeing what’s happening — there is flooding, and hurricanes, and those things are creating a dialogue. They’re “deniers,” in that they deny that humans are changing the climate. But they don’t deny that the climate is shifting. That’s why I focus on: This is happening. So what do we need to do to manage it? A lot of times the discussion gets stuck on the cause, because of the oil industry. But if we start steering the conversation toward, let’s fix it, then we can be more productive. And that’s my goal — to be productive.
What keeps you hopeful about our ability to address climate change, given our record on it so far?
I focus on the fact that if I don’t do this, that Dante’s Inferno-type world that everyone is talking about is going to happen. I’m optimistic because I’m actually doing something. When I’m not doing something, that’s when the positivity disappears. That’s why politics is fun for me — because there’s always something to do.
Your opponent is heavily favored. What happens if you lose?
I would like to keep running. I would like to be — I will be a Congresswoman someday. Women’s voices, especially, are being left out of the conversation. We make up about 20 percent of the Congress, and that’s wrong because women outnumber men by about a million people in this country. To me it seemed very easy to do — to just jump in. And I hope I can inspire other people to do the same. Until 50 percent of Congress is female, I have to keep doing this.