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Democrats Target House Race In Predominantly White District In Arizona


The protests against racial injustice are motivating some political candidates to take on challenging races. In the suburbs of Phoenix, Ariz., Democrats are targeting a predominantly white district that has been held by Republicans for nearly a decade. Steve Goldstein from member station KJZZ reports that ethics violations committed by the incumbent could make the race more competitive.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN, BYLINE: Arizona's sixth congressional district is centered in Scottsdale. Its residents are highly educated, affluent and nearly 75% white. Congressman David Schweikert was reelected by double digits here in 2018. But Schweikert had been under investigation by the House Ethics Committee. And on Thursday, he admitted to 11 violations and agreed to pay a $50,000 fine. Schweikert's perspective opponents immediately pounced on the news. Here's Democrat Anita Malik.


ANITA MALIK: There's a part of me that's glad that we finally have closure to this investigation. But it is so infuriating to see him simply get off with a slap on the wrist.

GOLDSTEIN: Even before acknowledging the ethics violations, Schweikert was already expected to face an intense general election campaign in part because of an electorate that wants more action on combating racial injustice. One of the Democrats looking to challenge him is African American businessman Karl Gentles. While he believes many here are worried about education and jobs, he says the killing of George Floyd has led to more direct conversations about racial injustice than the district has seen before.

KARL GENTLES: While George Floyd was an African American, I'm an African American - and, certainly, I can see myself, my son, my father, my brother in the face of George Floyd beneath that officer's knee - I think people can see their own family members no matter what race they are in the face of George Floyd.

GOLDSTEIN: Tiana Channer (ph) is one of those people Gentles is describing. She moved into the district eight years ago. Rallies and protests illustrated for her the dramatic need to find solutions. Channer is middle aged and white.

TIANA CHANNER: It's not OK to just be silent anymore. And we've got to figure out what the heck got us to this point and how we can try and sort of turn the tide and get rid of some of that racism, hate, willingness to look the other way when things that we know aren't OK continue to happen.

GOLDSTEIN: Schweikert has been silent on race-related topics. But the changing political environment since the killing of George Floyd may force him to talk about them. Maricopa County, which accounts for 60% of Arizona's population, has seen a clear shift toward more progressive voting. In 2018, that included pushing Kyrsten Sinema to a U.S. Senate victory, becoming the first Democrat to win an Arizona Senate race in nearly 25 years. But it's not just that Phoenix is growing rapidly more diverse, says Quentin James. He's the founder and president of Collective PAC, which is focused on electing African Americans across the country.

QUENTIN JAMES: There are a ton of suburban white women who are seeing these videos and wondering if those votes for Donald Trump in 2016, if they'll do that again.

GOLDSTEIN: Republican consultant Stan Barnes understands why Democrats are generally optimistic about 2020 here, but says it's misplaced in the Phoenix suburbs.

STAN BARNES: I do not think the racially charged politics that we are living in at the moment plays favorably for the Democratic nominee in that congressional district, in part that it's so overdone. And I think voters are numb to that kind of play.

GOLDSTEIN: But Quentin James believes that voters now, more than at any other time in recent history, are looking to choose the best candidate whatever color they are.

JAMES: Part of what folks want to also know is, do you hear me? And are you going to fight for me? And it doesn't take white voters sticking with white candidates just to do that or Black voters only looking for Black candidates. I think that's the core question.

GOLDSTEIN: James says as candidates of color are becoming more common, voters are increasingly more comfortable with choosing them to bring about changes many in the public are calling for. For NPR News, I'm Steve Goldstein in Phoenix.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BAD PLUS' "LOVE IS THE ANSWER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Goldstein