David Garcia boarded the school bus turned campaign conveyance around 5:15 a.m. It was the start of a day trip to the border town of Douglas, but Garcia was loaded down with bags and coolers and joked that it looked like he was packing for a week away.

His wife and two daughters climbed onto the bus behind him. Garcia was carrying blankets, bags filled with changes of clothes and coolers with drinks and snacks —provisions for him and his family.

The August trip would provide a historical touchstone for the campaign as Garcia would speak to supporters at a park named after Arizona’s first Latino governor.

He aims to be the second on that list.

Garcia, 48, a college professor who teaches and researches education policy, wants to make education the central topic of his gubernatorial campaign. The converted school bus, emblazoned with an image of Garcia’s family, is a shorthand symbol of that message.

But the days leading up to this August trip to Douglas had been about issues far from the classroom. Garcia was buffeted nearly daily by attacks over statements he had made, or appeared to have made. Many of the attacks came through social media by people associated with the re-election campaign of Gov. Doug Ducey.

Garcia was accused of calling for open borders, employing people who hated law enforcement, and running out of money and not paying his staff. He also canceled a fundraising event at the last minute, leaving supporters with a refrigerator full of uneaten, catered food.

It appeared like a week that could prove pivotal to Garcia’s campaign.

He was leading his two contenders in the Democratic primary, but there were enough undecided voters to tip the balance. Garcia’s fate in the primary, and whether he would survive to face Ducey in the general election in November, seemed to hinge on how he weathered the barrage of negative news.

MORE: Governor’s race: Ducey wins GOP primary; Garcia nabs Democratic nod

Garcia placed his coffee in a shallow sink, which experience riding this bus for campaign trips has taught him was spill-proof, and headed to a bus seat in the back. “I’m crashing,” he said.

The bus had a wall about midway through with a door that closed mainly in spirit. The room had a conference table flanked by two rows of bus benches. The area could be used for strategy sessions. But now, it would be used for more shut-eye.

As the bus pulled out of the central Phoenix lot, Garcia was curled up on the bench seat and appeared asleep. A byproduct of being a soldier, he would say later, was that he can sleep anywhere, at anytime.

The trip to Douglas and back would take 15 hours, providing a Republic reporter tagging along with unrestricted and unconditional access to the candidate. Once he awoke.


Doug Ducey and David Garcia will face off in the race for governor of Arizona. Here’s what Arizonans can expect in the lead up to the general election.
Arizona Republic, Arizona Republic

From an Army enlistment to a Ph.D.

Just after 7 a.m., as the bus entered the Tucson area, Garcia emerged from the back of the bus carrying a smoothie whose ingredients included almond milk, spinach, avocado and chocolate protein powder.

Garcia sat on one of the bus benches installed along one side of the bus. He also had a copy of that day’s Arizona Republic, though as the day wore on, he wouldn’t read much beyond a sports feature on former Arizona State University football player Terrell Suggs.

Garcia graduated from ASU, the first in his family to go to college. But, he said between sips of smoothie, it came only because he joined the Army first.

Garcia earned high social marks in high school. He was student body president and organized a dance in the school’s outdoor amphitheater.

But he didn’t apply himself in the classroom. Garcia said he was kind of a “Ferris Bueller type,” describing the namesake character from the movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” who was popular but a bit of a miscreant.

One day, one of his counselors at Mesa High School, a Mr. Gonzalez, “tears into me,” Garcia said. He said Garcia was shiftless and would maybe end up in community college before starting an aimless life.

Garcia was shaken and a bit upset. He sought solace in his girlfriend, Lori Higuera. But she agreed with the counselor’s assessment.

“She said, ‘He’s right,’ and I needed to go back and listen,” Garcia said.

The counselor suggested that Garcia join the Army, telling him he needed “to go get your ass kicked.”

His father signed a consent form, allowing the 17-year-old Garcia to enlist after graduating in 1987.

READ MORE: When will Arizona election results be final?

In basic training, he made a fast friend in a fellow recruit who hailed from the East Coast and had a Roman numeral in his name: Robert Bartenstein III. The two would serve in the same battalion after basic training and become roommates.

Garcia had thoughts of being a fiction writer. During downtime, he would write stories. His roommate noticed the avocation and started talking to him about literature. Bartenstein filled in gaps in Garcia’s knowledge, telling him what books he should read before going to college.

Garcia said he signed up for correspondence courses, in essence taking high school over again, but this time applying himself.

He enrolled at ASU at 19. He didn’t consider any other universities but the one in his backyard.

“To me, college was ASU,” he said. “That was college.”

Most of his education came courtesy of the GI Bill. For the rest, Garcia worked odd university jobs, including organizing comedy events. Garcia said his biggest brush with greatness was escorting Paul Reiser around campus.

Garcia showed an aptitude for technical writing. He said an essay he wrote about a bicycle derailleur, the system that shifts gears, was picked to run in a magazine recognizing the top work of freshmen in the English department.

He also took a class in organization communication and a class on rhetoric. It made him ponder a career as an academic. He pursued a degree in intercultural and organizational communication.

READ MORE: Candidate Garcia gets flak over education book

His girlfriend, Higuera, who was one year behind him in high school, had enrolled at the University of Arizona during Garcia’s Army stint. Now, she was one year ahead.

Higuera wanted to go to law school, aiming to make partner at a law firm, a dream she would eventually fulfill. Garcia, by then, had warmed to the idea of life as an academic. Now that he realized the importance of education, he wanted to devote his life to its study.

The two picked a graduate school to attend together as a couple. To do that, Garcia doubled up on classes so they could graduate at the same time.

They settled on the University of Chicago. Higuera attended law school. Garcia pursued both a master’s and doctorate in education research and policy studies. They married after Higuera finished law school and the couple moved back to Arizona.

Garcia doesn’t tell this story on the campaign trail. But his academic arc, from aimless high-school student to college professor, illustrated to him the power of education. He saw how finally investing in his own education paid dividends and changed his life.

It is why his stump speeches include a line that vows that Arizona would “never have a governor more passionate about education than me.”

The bus pulled into the Triple TTT truck stop outside Tucson. It was time for a bathroom break.


Gubernatorial candidates Doug Ducey and David Garcia defeated their opponents in the primary race.
Arizona Republic, Arizona Republic

A tough week on the campaign trail

Back on the bus, Garcia asked his daughter, Olivia, to set up his new wireless headphones. He had just started teaching his online class at ASU and was hoping to use them to listen to introductory videos students had left him, the virtual equivalent of the first day of class.

Garcia opened up about his rough week on the campaign.

He was criticized by Ducey campaign and state Republican party officials for seemingly advocating for the removal of any barriers on the Mexico border. Garcia, at a NetRoots conference in New Orleans, asked the crowd to “imagine, no wall on the southern border.”

Garcia said he thought it was obvious he meant President Donald Trump’s wall, but not everyone bought that explanation.

The last-minute trip to New Orleans meant Garcia had to cancel a fundraiser in Phoenix. His hosts, in a since-deleted posting on Facebook, bemoaned the decision, partly because they would have a refrigerator filled with catered food and the bill that went with it.

On the bus, Garcia said he was working to repair the friendship and commenting further wouldn’t help.

In a televised debate with his fellow Democratic challengers — one of dozens in the primary race — both came after him. One, Kelly Fryer, wondered who was the real David Garcia.

READ MORE: Attacks against Democrat David Garcia intensify

Meanwhile, ads from the Republican Governors Association continued to run on television, portraying him as a candidate who was yearning to bring drugs and gangs to Arizona neighborhoods.

Part of the line of attack came from Garcia’s call to reform the federal immigration agency. He never exactly said he wished to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, but his comments were close enough for Republican operatives to lump him in with the #AbolishIce movement sweeping the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

“That’s what happens when you’re the front-runner,” Garcia said. “Getting it from both sides.”

Garcia said he was surprised that the televised attack ads started so early, even before the primary.

He said he sees a path to victory via motivating new voters to head to the polls. He figured that those new voters, added to an expected surge in Democratic and education-minded voters, would be enough to put him over the top.

But, he said he fears the campaign negativity would drive away the “marginalized voter” he is trying to reach with his campaign.

READ MORE: David Garcia speech to teachers raises questions

Garcia said he and his wife had warned their children that they may see mean messages about their father. “We told our daughters: ‘They’re coming,’ ” he said.

His daughters were sitting across from Garcia, at two benches set up at a table near the front of the bus. Garcia asked them what they thought of the attack ad that was airing.

“They’re liars,” Olivia, 9, said. “They’re big, fat liars.”

Lola, 11, said, “I thought it was just kind of sad.”

No Latino nominees since 1974

The bus pulled into Douglas at 9:30 a.m., a half-hour before the rally at the park was scheduled to start.

The park had been known as Tenth Street Park. But it had been renamed in honor of Raul Castro, the first Latino governor of Arizonain 1977.

Castro, according to his autobiography, came to the park as a little boy from the neighboring town of Pirtleville to hear then-Gov. W.P. Hunt speak. Mainly, Castro said, he came for the free hot dogs.

Hunt, in his remarks, said that Arizona was a place of opportunity, pointing out that one day even “one of these barefoot little Mexican boys” could grow up to be governor. Hunt gestured at Castro, the story went.

READ MORE: Raul Castro, Arizona’s only Latino governor, dies at 98

Arizona hasn’t had a Latino governor, or even a Latino as a major party nominee, since Castro left office in 1976.

At the park, before the speeches started, Castro’s daughter, Beth Castro, said she expected the campaign against Garcia to get ugly and that some attacks will be on subtle racial lines.

She recalled that her father’s opponent, Russ Williams, ran ads that said Williams “looked like a governor.”

Castro said that Garcia was already being attacked by business interests.

“I don’t personally know what they’ll come up with,” she said. “All I can hope is that it’s going to enrage the public more.”

The rally was a low-key kickoff to a canvass of Douglas neighborhoods. There was a plan for a major rally the previous week, but it was scrapped.

Garcia told the crowd he saw “so many parallels between (Castro’s) story and my story.”

Garcia described to the crowd of about two dozen how he had met Castro in 2014. He sought Castro’s endorsement for his run for state superintendent of public instruction.

Garcia said Castro gave him advice. “What he told me is that we’ve got to get our people out to vote,” Garcia said.

“We need to increase voter turnout,” Garcia told the crowd, his voice rising. “I believe our campaign is the one to do just that.”

READ MORE: Democrat Garcia raises money at Tom Steyer home

As Garcia spoke, a woman walked into the park and joined the crowd. She wore black jeans and a shirt decorated in a flag motif.

Garcia would later say he got a feeling she was not there as a supporter.

The woman started shouting at Garcia, calling him a fraud. Garcia approached her and suggested they could talk one-on-one. She refused the offer.

She paced the concrete square. The thread of her thought was hard to follow. But it included a suggestion that Garcia was a plant candidate sent in from Mexico and that he wished to take power in order to return Arizona to Atzlán, the fabled Aztec homeland that once included the southwestern United States and Mexico.

Garcia and his campaign staff went on with the business of organizing the canvass.

As he walked away with his wife and daughters, the woman shouted, “There goes David, lying David.”

Olivia had her father’s hand and was walking away. But she kept looking back, mouth agape.

Garcia asked her: “You OK?”

“Yeah,” Olivia said.

Lola asked about the woman.

“She’s not here to talk,” Garcia said, “She’s here to yell. She doesn’t want to have a conversation, so that’s why we’re not talking to her.”

‘For governor? Of Arizona?’

Garcia and his daughter, Lola, started walking the neighborhood to the south of the park.

At the Moreno home, Garcia introduced himself to Maria, who spoke only Spanish.

Garcia introduced himself, in Spanish, saying how he was a veteran and Arizona native and was there to introduce himself as a candidate for governor.

The woman seemed taken aback. “For governor?” she asked in Spanish. She paused. “Of Arizona?”

Down the next block, Garcia talked to Luis Valenzuela who was washing a car. Valenzuela said he was a teacher. The car he was washing wasn’t his, but one of three he did that day to pick up extra cash.

Valenzuela said Garcia had his vote. He didn’t really think Ducey supported public education even though the governor’s plan boosted his pay this year, he said.

“He just did it to simmer the thing down,” Valenzuela said. “I think it was like hush money.”

READ MORE: Who is running for Arizona governor?

As the group walked the neighborhood, Olivia brought up her father’s crooked smile, visible on the campaign literature he toted. The family had a contest, Garcia said, deciding who could mimic it best. Garcia was the judge. Olivia won.

After about an hour knocking on doors, Garcia headed back to the school bus, a bit weary from the humidity.

The woman who had been shouting at Garcia was still in the square, but appeared calm. She was in line at a Sonoran hot dog truck that had pulled up to the park.

Another campaign stop

Next on the schedule was a meet-and-greet at the St. Vincent de Paul.

Near the front of the hall, Garcia and his wife greeted Lupe Garcia, 92, who was born and raised in Douglas and who described herself as a “campaign-aholic.”

She said she had been “involved with politics todo el tiempo,” mixing English with Spanish to say she’d been involved all the time.

Lupe Garcia said she used to spend Election Day knocking on people’s doors, encouraging them to vote. She would offer some a ride to the polls.

She recalled working on the Raul Castro campaigns in the 1970s. “He was a good person,” she said.

She wondered why there had been so few statewide Latino candidates since Castro.

“Maybe they thought they didn’t have a chance,” she said “But if (Garcia) plays it right, he can win.”

READ MORE: What Dem governor candidates said in debate


This is what Arizonans need to know to make sure their vote is counted for the general election in November.
William Flannigan, azcentral

The managing editor of the Douglas Dispatch asked Garcia for a few moments for a sit-down.

Garcia agreed and the two went to a side office.

The interview opened with some softballs. He asked Garcia why he was back in Douglas and how the campaign was going.

Then, he said, he was going to ask some harder questions.

He asked about the issue of abolishing ICE.

Garcia told him he wanted to “replace ICE with a system that works.”

He said that system would include border security. “The idea that I would do otherwise is counter to my service and my life’s record,” he said.

Garcia said the immigration issue was a “scare tactic. It’s a playbook out of fear.”

READ MORE: Ducey camp criticizes Garcia over ICE stance

The reporter told him the interview would likely be on the front page the next week.

Though, he told him, it wouldn’t be the main story. A veteran who saved his friend from choking would be the dominant front-page article.

Garcia then addressed the 30 or so people at the St. Vincent de Paul hall, giving a version of his stump speech that talked about his being a “people-driven campaign” and how he knew that “public education changes lives.”

“We have the numbers to win,” Garcia said. “We just need to get our people excited.”

As Garcia prepared to leave the hall, Lupe Garcia called the candidate over for a prayer. He bent down at her wheelchair. She laid her hands on his face and head and asked that he be blessed.

Bumpy road back to Phoenix

On the way back to Phoenix, the bus pulled into a Bisbee parking lot, steps away from a Mexican restaurant.

Garcia and his wife split an order of fajitas and two orders of guacamole, one spicy, one less so. Garcia drank an unsweetened iced tea. His wife had soda water and lime.

Talk veered away from the campaign and toward food. How the girls are learning to cook and each has a “go-to” meal they can make all by themselves. Whether the Hatch chilies from New Mexico, a staple for red tamales, were overrated. (Garcia didn’t think so.) And his aversion, which he admitted was weird, to drinking milk at someone else’s house.

READ MORE: Garcia campaign to return lobbyist donations

After the meal, there was one more campaign task: Someone from an antiques store had left a note on the bus asking for a sign.

There were no signs on the bus, or anywhere in the campaign. A new batch would be ordered after the primary, Garcia said.

Instead, he gathered some bumper stickers and headed toward Va Voom! antiques.

He met Brad Overacker, his wife, Kelly, who co-own the store, and their employee Suzanne Walsh.

Walsh told Garcia, “I cried when you didn’t make it” in the 2014 election for superintendent of public instruction.

“It should be the most qualified,” she said. “But people vote for Rs and Ds.”


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On the bus out of Bisbee, Garcia said a lot of people came up to speak to him after his 2014 loss.

“The last stage of grief for them was to see me,” he said.

Garcia said there was no long-range plan when he ran for superintendent four years ago. He had no thoughts that he would use it as a stepping-stone to a higher office.

That lack of a political plan, he said, meant that he didn’t spend a lot of years calibrating his positions to match that goal.

“I don’t have years of political capital that got me to this point,” he said. “There’s always this idea of how long you have fought to get here.” Politicians who have that on their minds end up being “just a little more cautious,” he said.

Garcia had thought about taking another run for superintendent in this election cycle.

Then, he said, the state Legislature passed, and Ducey signed, a bill expanding what had been a private-school scholarship program, which had been limited to specialized groups, to all students. To Garcia, and other education advocates, it was a backdoor voucher program that took money out of public schools.

“When Ducey signed that voucher bill, it didn’t seem as interesting to me anymore to run for superintendent of public instruction,” he said.

So, he set his sight on the Governor’s Office.

READ MORE: Fact Check: Is AZ the most corrupt state in nation?

Garcia said voters will see stark differences between himself and Ducey. “A contrast with your opponent is always a healthy thing,” he said.

The Arizona governor’s race would not ordinarily draw much national interest, or money. But, Garcia said, he thought telling the story of his candidacy at the NetRoots conference would draw attention, even though it meant canceling the fundraiser at the friends’ house.

“Turning Arizona blue with a guy named Garcia, that’s a little more interesting,” he said. 

As the bus neared Phoenix, talk turned to getting home and eating dinner.

Higuera asked Garcia what food he would want right now, if he could have anything in the world.

“A carrot muffin,” Garcia said. One of those bran muffins, he explained, that had bits of carrot in it. It just sounded good, he said.

“How random,” Higuera said.

OPINION: Elvia Diaz: Should David Garcia tout being Latino?

The sun was setting. But as it did, it was streaming through the bus window, shining on Garcia and his wife and heating up the interior. The air-conditioning labored. The bus seats and suspension system, after 15 hours on the road, emphasized every bump to the seated occupants.

As the bus entered Chandler, the family settled on takeout Italian, either pizza or pasta.

Garcia also expressed interest in a shower. Also, maybe a beer.

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