Black leaders say Ruben Gallego has dismissed and abandoned their community
U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, at the 2017 National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Annual Conference in Phoenix. Photo by Gage Skidmore | Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0
When Ne’Lexia Galloway started her job as the Black outreach representative for U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego in January 2020, she thought that the Phoenix Democrat would listen to people that look like her. Fifteen months later, she felt used, and quit her job.
Galloway posted on Twitter that she left after concluding that Gallego, who is in his fourth term representing the Arizona congressional district with the largest Black population, had no actual interest in engaging his Black constituents. When mass arrests of protesters and controversial felony and gang-related prosecutions were taking place in Phoenix, the congressman failed to “speak up about the injustices that were occurring in his district to Black and Brown constituents,“ she wrote.
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Galloway’s statement brought attention to the growing frustration Black community leaders have expressed about Gallego. Some call him anti-Black. Others said he does nothing for Black people. They wonder, does he do anything to represent them?
For five months beginning in May 2020, thousands took to the streets in Arizona to protest the deaths of Black people at the hands of police: George Floyd in Minnesota, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, Dion Johnson in Phoenix, and scores of others whose names didn’t make headlines but died after encounters with law enforcement. Phoenix police officers arrested hundreds, sometimes on false felony charges and trumped up gang charges. Activists with local groups like Black Lives Matter Metro Phoenix and Mass Liberation Arizona denounced police for arresting protestors and lying on arrest documents, accusing Maricopa County of prosecuting political opponents.
Those complaints, arrests and prosecutions are the heart of several federal lawsuits and a civil rights investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into the City of Phoenix and the Phoenix Police Department that was announced this month.
Gallego responded to the DOJ investigation, saying the need to closely examine police policies, behaviors and reforms “has never been more clear.”
Galloway didn’t understand how Gallego now expressed clarity on this issue, when he lacked clarity for months in addressing his constituents’ complaints. She posted on Aug. 7 her experiences calling her former boss’ words “political theatre.”
Congressman Gallego’s office made a statement about @CivilRights investigating the Phoenix Police Department. From my experience I know this to be political theatre. “Accountability MUST be the Rule not the exception”-Congressman Gallego
— NeLexia Galloway (@NelexiaG) August 7, 2021
Galloway is now executive director of the Maricopa County Democratic Party. She emphasized that the experiences she shared on Aug. 7 only represent her perspective, not that of the places she is affiliated with.
Galloway worked with Gallego’s team from January 2020 to April 2021. She said she reported to Gallego’s office about the “alarming” issues that are now the subject of the DOJ probe.
“Congressman Gallego did not speak up nor speak to organizations that were contacting his office to speak to him about this issue for over a year,” she wrote in her public statement.
Galloway said someone she “personally knew” was arrested in August, which gave her “a front row seat to what the Phoenix Police Department was doing to protestors, who were merely exercising their First Amendment rights.” She kept sharing information, news reports and stories about the arrests and prosecutions.
“Congressman Gallego had plenty of opportunity to speak up about the injustices that were occurring in his district to Black and Brown constituents, but he chose not to,” she wrote. “During a pandemic, his constituents who were charged with felonies are still unable to get jobs or housing as they cannot pass a background check, although the charges have now been dismissed.”
He did nothing. He was silent. It’s just that we needed him to show up and say out loud, ‘There’s a problem here.’
– Lola N'sangou, executive director of Mass Liberation Arizona
Lola N’sangou is the executive director with Mass Liberation Arizona. The group advocates for criminal justice reform. The group tried for months to engage local elected officials, including members of the Phoenix city council and Mayor Kate Gallego — the ex-wife of Ruben Gallego. No one denounced the arrests of over 300 people and prosecutions for felonies of 40 of them, or called for the cases to be dropped, she said. The group reached out to Galloway in February hoping the congressman would get involved.
Galloway responded by including Monica Sandschafer, Gallego’s district director, but the group never got a direct response to their concerns, N’sangou said.
“We were told essentially that we weren’t able to connect with the office, the office wasn’t going to take a position on this. I think they mentioned it was a conflict of interest in some way, and just refused to talk to us,” N’sangou said.
That clarified for N’sangou where Gallego really stood.
“Congressman Gallego has not shown up to the Black community,” she said. “He could’ve just made a public statement. He could’ve just demanded an inquiry.”
As people arrested in his district faced years in prison, lost scholarships and were told by prosecutors they belonged to a gang that didn’t exist, Gallego remained silent.
“He did nothing. He was silent,” N’sangou said. “The lift wasn’t heavy, the ask wasn’t big. It’s just that we needed him to show up and say out loud, ‘There’s a problem here.’”
Gallego says he needs to learn more about the impact of slavery, discrimination
Gallego has also angered Black constituents by failing to explain why he declined community calls this year and last to co-sponsor H.R 40, a proposal to examine slavery, forms of discrimination against freed enslaved people and their descendands, and recommend remedies. The measure has 193 cosponsors. Gallego is one of two members of the House Progressive Caucus that has not signed on to it.
Gallego’s predecessor in Congress, the late Ed Pastor — who served in the House of Representatives for 23 years — co-sponsored legislation to study reparations in 1998, 1999, and 2010.
Black communities in Gallego’s district expected similar support and representation.
Local groups, including Our Voice Our Vote Arizona — a Black-led, progressive advocacy organization — and community leaders like Rev. Redeem Robinson advocated for the state’s Congressional delegation to co-sponsor H.R. 40. Gallego dismissed them, he said.
Robinson said meetings were cancelled. In June, Robinson traveled to Washington, D.C. He saw Gallego speaking at an event. He approached his congressman to speak to him about H.R. 40.
In a Facebook post, Robinson said Gallego “ran away” and had to be chased down. Gallego commented on the post and said he didn’t run, but had to leave to go vote on the House floor.
“My staff has met with you … and have told you repeatedly that we aren’t ready to sign on but will continue to keep and (sic) open mind,” Gallego responded. The congressman added that Robinson lied about the interaction and that he will not meet with him “until you retract this lie.”
Gallego said he’d meet “with my community and preachers.”
Robinson said the experience left him feeling ignored and disrespected. That, coupled with the experiences Galloway shared publicly this month, convinced Robinson that Gallego has “taken our vote for granted.”
“I think Rep. Gallego does not care about Black people. He is anti-Black,” Robinson said. “He does not care about Black people since he’s been in office. Very rarely does he meet with us, very rarely does he actually take our concerns seriously.”
Robinson is a member of the Balsz School District Governing Board. He has also led the Black Engagement Committee of the Maricopa County Democratic Party.
Garrick McFadden is also a former chair of that committee. He helped advocate for legislation to study reparations in 2020. Gallego’s response has been that he needs to learn more, McFadden said.
McFadden said he believes Gallego, as a progressive Democrat, should already understand the issue of slavery and discrimination. He grew up in Chicago, is a former Marine and graduated from Harvard University.
“Ruben is smart enough to know all these things. The frustration that we’ve had from the Black community is, why is he doing this? Why is he failing to do something?” McFadden said. “A number of high ranking Democrats all are confused on what the congressman’s hesitation is on H.R. 40.”
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Brent Whiting, a constituent of Gallego’s and the co-founder of Tomorrow We Vote, a nonprofit that focuses on registering high school students to vote, doesn’t understand why Gallego won’t take a position on studying the remedies for slavery and discrimination.
“He is my congressman, and he does not represent me. I’m not sure who he represents, but it’s certainly not the Black community and the needs that they ask him, the needs that they need him to be present for,” Whiting said. “We in the Black community are tired of the status quo.”
Gallego’s response: Office limited to address matters involving staff
Gallego wouldn’t speak with the Arizona Mirror, and his office didn’t respond to detailed questions about Galloway’s allegations, his silence about the arrests of protesters last year or his position on H.R. 40.
His office instead sent a statement that said they can’t comment on “matters involving former employees.”
“As a member of the House of Representatives, Rep. Gallego is subject to limitations that may prevent his involvement in certain matters, especially those involving employees or their families,” the statement reads.
The statement also said Black communities should trust Gallego to champion their interests in Congress.
“Rep. Gallego has a strong record of supporting policies and legislation that benefit Black communities and combat structural racism. He will continue to work on behalf of his constituents,” the office said. The statement included a list of legislation Gallego supported to help Black communities, among them an anti-lynching act, strengthening diversity initiatives in school and establishing Juneteeth as a federal holiday.
Galloway said Gallego is “deflecting from the truth” by claiming he can’t get involved in matters important to his staff or those related to them.
“That is disrespectful and disingenuous to the over 300 protesters arrested last year, 40 that had serious felonies ranging from 8 to 32 years. Circumventing the truth is … insensitive to those who have been politically prosecuted and still cannot get jobs or housing although their charges are dropped,” she told the Mirror in response to the statement from Gallego’s office. “The deflection is beyond disrespectful to me as a Black woman, as we now see again an attempt to silence a Black woman’s voice.”
“The people impacted on the ground I spoke with … demanded their congressman denounce the charges, call for accountability, and stand in solidarity,” she told the Arizona Mirror. “Congressman Gallego can try to spin this any way he wants to legitimize his silence, but my words and receipts stand firm.”
Galloway wrote that she crafted plans for Gallego to engage with his district’s Black communities that included roundtables with community leaders, meeting a Black Advisory committee and visiting Black-owned restaurants in his district. In 14 months, he completed “not one of those items.”
“It was evident that he had no intent of actually engaging with the Black community and that my sole role was to be a Black face for the office,” Galloway wrote.
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