Ambition, Life Experience Driving State Representative
On May 1, Ruben Gallego was picking up his wife Kate from Sky Harbor International Airport when he heard on the radio that Osama bin Laden had been killed in Pakistan. The couple quickly returned home to watch TV.
Later that evening, Gallego, who served a tour in Iraq as a Marine, met several of his buddies from his reserve company, Lima, at Roosevelt Tavern, a bar on 3rd St., across from his downtown condo, to celebrate the U.S. victory and commemorate lives lost—especially the lives of their fellow Marines.
It was a “very emotional night,” said Gallego, who relocated to Phoenix after his military service and after graduating from Harvard University with a degree in international relations. A native of Chicago, born to immigrant parents, Gallego today is the State Representative for District 16, which incorporates the South Mountain area.
This is Gallego’s first stint as an elected official—the Democrat’s term began in November 2010—although he previously worked as chief of staff for District 7 City councilman Michael Nowakowski, and was elected vice chair of the Arizona Democratic Party in 2009.
“It’s been a crazy year,” Gallego, 31, said of his first term in office.
In addition to his elected job, Gallego is a real estate entrepreneur and handles public and community affairs for Southwest Ambulance. He also volunteers his time on the board of Valley Citizens League, the Children’s Museum, and South Mountain Community College Governing Board.
It is an ambitious schedule for anyone, but Lawrence Robinson, a staff attorney for the Arizona Legislature, said Gallego approaches his political obligations with a “full-time mentality.”
He is “always very curious about the issues,” Robinson continued, “even after the session let out.” Gallego won the primary election but continued to walk neighborhoods, said Robinson, talking about the issues with his constituents, even in the summer heat.
“There are some people in public life who are brave or smart but fewer that are both,” said Andrei Cherny, chair of the Arizona Democratic Party. “Rep. Gallego is one of those few. He has the experiences of both Harvard and the Marines but is still approachable and sets people at ease.”
Greg Brownell, who is chair of the Legislative District 16 Democrats, called Gallego a “unifier,” which is especially important in an all-Democratic district, where fighting within the party can weaken it: “He was one of the few primary candidates who was working to be a unifier.”
Despite a lifelong interest in history, Gallego said he felt apolitical until after returning from Iraq. Then, he was motivated to do something on behalf of the causes he cared about—particularly support for U.S. veterans and the prioritization of education.
Being in the Marine Corp “taught me to be thorough,” he said. Known as one of the last representatives to vote on any bill, Gallego said “there’s just no way” he would feel pressured to vote before he was ready, even if it means reading the legislation one more time.
Gallego grew up poor, with four sisters and a single mom living in a small apartment. He received scholarships to Harvard and he worked his way through school as a janitor, waiter, and bar bouncer—“I’ve always been scrappy,” he said.
At times, that scrappiness has played out in the public arena. For example, this spring he was quoted as derogatorily comparing Arizona to Alabama in a news article about the proposed “birther bill,” requiring presidential candidates to prove they are U.S. citizens before their names
can appear on a ballot. Gallego apologized for the comment.
“I like what I’m doing,” he said. “I’m learning more, and I feel like I’m effective.