Could This Single Mom in Arizona Become Bernie Sanders 2.0?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she could become Congress’ boldest new voice in 2018, and even if not, she wants to make her mark on politics in another way.
By James Watkins
Talia Fuentes has her politics face on. She moves through various personas during our conversation — biologist to tech entrepreneur to work-from-home single mom — but it’s the candidate for U.S. Congress who greets me first, delivering polished talking points about her campaign goals. Still, it’s hard not to notice the tattoos peeking out from underneath her blazer, souvenirs from when she managed a tattoo studio, one of many jobs over her whirlwind career.
Today, however, Fuentes, 32, is considered an up-and-comer in the Arizona Democratic Party as she seeks the nomination for the state’s solidly blue 9th Congressional District. The incumbent, Kyrsten Sinema, is running for a Senate seat in 2018, leaving Fuentes to face off against Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton. Fuentes hopes her grassroots, Bernie-inspired campaign will carry the day, although her opponent has as strong a fundraising network and name recognition as any House candidate could hope for. But Fuentes doesn’t plan to bide her time until the election: She is developing a govtech startup that aims to advance app-based democracy, has a career as an applied biologist and animal conservationist, and works from home for a sports-tech company.
The diversity of her résumé is matched only by her personal makeup. Fuentes’ DNA draws from virtually every ethnic group, from Native American to African to Ashkenazi Jew (according to her 23andme test), and she’s a third-generation Arizonan hailing from German-Mexican immigrants and a line stretching back to Pennsylvania’s first governor.
We meet at an apartment building in the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale. Looking out at the mountains looming over Arizona’s scorched desert, Fuentes sips a Dr Pepper (she can’t stand coffee but needs the caffeine). “I don’t know how they can expect a white, male lawyer to be what is appropriate” to represent a diverse nation and tackle diverse challenges in Congress, says Fuentes — who is clearly cast from a different mold than most politicians.
I’m not one of the burn-it-down Bernie people; I’m for build-it-up.
Representing different voices is what’s behind Fuentes’ nascent tech company, Unite Congress, which hopes to use cellphone-based biometrics to let users engage politically by communicating with representatives — and eventually even to vote from an app. With a patent pending and still in the seed-funding stage, it is in its early days, but the driving force is the same as what fuels her campaign: making American politics more representative and inclusive.
Fuentes’ parents divorced when she was young. Her mother struggled with mental health issues, drug addiction and alcoholism, and eventually lost custody of Fuentes’ sisters. Her father, she says, “worked his butt off” through college and into a corporate job. Fuentes married young and had a child before her 21st birthday, and then split from the father three months later. Cue a series of jobs to provide for her son (from bookstore cashier to five years as a radio show host) while she also sang in bands — a talent that got her through the first couple of rounds of American Idol.
After recently returning to university to further a lifelong passion for animals, Fuentes earned a degree in applied biology and is set to enroll in a second in science and technology policy. In 2016, she turned to politics — a career shift she attributes to Bernie Sanders. As she followed his presidential campaign, her range of life experiences suddenly “made sense,” she says. And his influence on her outlook is unmistakable, as she talks about universal health care, climate change and the belief that a large number of disillusioned independents can be won round to a democratic socialist message. Here in Arizona, she may have a point: Despite traditionally being a red state, independents account for the largest voter bloc; moreover, the Grand Canyon State has had one of the country’s lowest voter turnout rates in several recent elections.
As Democrats wrestle with the ideological fallout from a calamitous 2016, there are few state primary contests underway that appear to be “proxy battles” between Hillary- and Bernie-esque visions for the party, says Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a political website from the University of Virginia. “It’s gonna be interesting to see if the national party gets all the candidates they like through these primaries,” he says, and “if Stanton lost [in AZ-9], it’d be a pretty significant upset.”
The scale of the challenge isn’t lost on Fuentes, who’s determined to personally knock on 10,000 doors in the 11-month run-up to primary day. And while she criticizes Stanton as an “establishment” candidate who “stands for what we’ve always done,” she’s also “not one of the burn-it-down Bernie people” — having campaigned heavily for Clinton after Sanders dropped out. Last year, Fuentes ran for a seat in Arizona’s 5th District, a GOP stronghold; she lost but still managed to cut the Republican margin by 12 points. “I can do a lot without having a lot,” she says, arguing that her 2016 bid proved to the party establishment that it’s possible to run an impactful campaign despite having raised only $18,000. “She’s one of the most determined people I’ve ever met; she’s dogged,” says Lindsay Vix Halvorson, chief communications officer and co-owner of Unite Congress.
Most David-versus-Goliath stories have predictable endings, but if nothing else, Fuentes says she hopes to inspire others to run from the left in Arizona, where Republican-dominated state bodies leave little breeding ground for fresh Democratic talent. And with a multifaceted career and a campaign platform built on science and equality, mathematics and reason, art and compassion, she’ll be one to watch if a Bernie-infused grassroots movement grows into a Tea Party of the left. “Those of us who can interact with multiple worlds,” she says, “are going to be the ones that save this one.”