(PHOENIX) — When President Joe Biden lands Monday in Grand Canyon Village, Arizona, Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., intends to raise with him legislation he has introduced in the U.S. House to tackle extreme heat as the American Southwest struggles with record-breaking temperatures this summer.
“I’m going to drive up and meet him on the tarmac,” Gallego said Sunday with a cacti backdrop in scorching West Sun Valley, Arizona. “That way, I can have a quick conversation with him especially about my heat legislation, which, you know, we are all talking about right now. We need to make sure that these cities have the opportunity to draw down federal funds when we have such drastic heat situations that you have.”
Biden is visiting Arizona to designate a large area around the Grand Canyon as a national monument in an effort to protect the area from potential uranium mining, according to The Washington Post.
Making a tour across the West this week, he’s expected to tout his administration’s efforts to combat climate change in the Inflation Reduction Act. And while the president announced new steps last month to protect workers in extreme heat, such as measures to make drinking water more accessible — saying then, “We’re gonna outline steps we’re taking to help communities who, right this minute … are facing a real crisis in their cities” — Gallego argues it’s not enough.
“I do think he should be doing more,” Gallego told ABC News. “It is a very, very big problem, especially in the Southwest, but also other parts of the country, and helping us pass this legislation, or using any type of executive action to allow FEMA and states to declare emergencies is extremely important, especially for us to get the funds that we need to create the programs to save people from extreme heat.”
Gallego will push legislation he introduced in June to add extreme heat to FEMA’s list of major disaster-qualifying events. He meets with Biden one day after he held a town hall inside a retirement community tucked away in the West Valley of Phoenix to mark one year until Arizona’s primary election. Gallego is running for the Senate seat currently held by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz.
During his town hall, where more than 150 Arizonans retreated from the 108-degree temperatures, Gallego gave the example of the federal government covering the cost of certain cooling centers this summer if his bipartisan bill were to become law.
“The City of Phoenix and other cities have been pulling their money out of their general budget to do that. Instead, what we should be able to do is call FEMA and FEMA be able to reimburse us. That is your taxpayer money, by the way, the federal taxes you pay right now should be able to fund these kinds of programs.”
Barbara Ray of Sun City West, Arizona, retired and a registered Democrat, echoed Gallego’s concerns and said Biden “has done quite a bit, but I think he could do more.” Ray said global warming and its impacts in Arizona, which saw record-breaking heat this summer, is a big concern for her.
“We have to start doing more right now, or it’s just going to get worse. And whereas many of us might not be here when things get worse than this, we have to leave a good place for our children to live and our grandchildren,” Ray said.
There was something else on many minds inside the air-conditioned ballroom: Will Sinema run again?
State of the Senate race
Sinema, who left the Democratic Party last December to become an independent, has not announced whether she’ll run for reelection, but several voters who supported her in the past expressed doubts to ABC News that she could win.
“I feel tricked, really tricked,” said Dianne Blumberg, a registered Democrat from Surprise, Arizona. “I feel like she became a Democrat just to get elected. And I would never vote for her again.”
“We are very disappointed in Kyrsten Sinema,” said Sandy Shocker, an independent voter from Buckeye, Arizona. “She has not lived up to what we were hoping, and Gallego has stepped in to be our Democratic senator and I would love to see him get elected.”
Sinema’s office did not respond to a request for comment by ABC News but told local news outlet Arizona’s Family she is working and “not engaging in campaign politics.”
If she does run, Sinema would ensure a Senate race with three major candidates — an independent, Democrat and Republican — while avoiding a primary race in a state where independent voters now outnumber Republicans, making it difficult to predict a winner come next November. Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb is already running for the Republican nomination, while Donald Trump ally Kari Lake is expected to launch a bid early fall, setting up the potential for an inter-MAGA primary battle. Both Lake and Lamb deny the validity of the 2020 presidential election.
Regardless of who’s running, Democrats’ slim-majority in the Senate leave them exposed to a Republican takeover in 2024. The margin for error is thin: The Senate has 49 Republicans, 48 Democrats and three independents — with all independents often voting with the Democrats.
Gallego said he believes his background makes him a winning candidate in what he called “the most important election that we’ve ever had.”
The son of Mexican and Colombian immigrants, Gallego grew up poor but went on to graduate from Harvard and enlist in the United State Marine Corps. He deployed to Iraq, where his company lost 23 men. He went on to seek public office, serving in the Arizona State House before winning his fifth term to the U.S. House last year. He says all of his experiences have shaped his life, in addition to fatherhood.
“We are in a very dire situation where there is a [candidate] who is probably going to be under four different types of criminal counts by the time the election happens,” Gallego said at the Sunday town hall. “At the same time, the elections are very close, because this world is that polarized. And Arizona can and will be the linchpin in terms of making sure whether we’re going to be able to be a safe democracy and have some sane politics.”
Gallego said staying in his House seat, where he’d continue picking up seniority, is the safe route — but not the one he’s taking.
“I came to Washington D.C., to make sure to fight for everyday Arizonans and that’s why I’m running for the Senate,” Gallego told ABC News Sunday.
The race will be expensive. Sen. Mark Kelly’s reelection in 2022 was the third-most expensive campaign of that cycle with almost $236 million spent in the contest. That number is only expected to rise this time with presidential candidates topping the ticket.
“We’re really a symbolic state for the rest of the country,” Gallego said. “How Arizona goes is really where the country is going. And I think it’s important that Democrats invest here for that.”
Arizona was once a Republican stronghold but has shifted to become a true battleground in American politics. Trump’s slate of endorsed Republican candidates for statewide office, many who denied the results of the 2020 election, lost their midterm races last fall. Biden flipped the state for Democrats in 2020, marking just the second time in more than seven decades that a Democrat carried Arizona in a presidential election.
Gallego pitches himself as ‘the sure thing’
Gallego’s town hall in Buckeye, Arizona, a town in the district represented by Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., marked his first campaign event since taking paternity leave last month to welcome his newborn daughter, Isla. No Democratic Senate candidate has hosted a town hall in Buckeye or Gilbert in the recent past, according to his campaign. It’s part of Ruben’s “go everywhere and talk to everyone” strategy, his campaign said.
“Last year’s election, 2022, was extremely important. The one in 2020 was existential. This one is it,” Gallego said. “I always liken it to the Star Wars movies, right? This is the last one. We have to make sure that we destroyed that death star for real.”
Asked by a voter-submitted question at his town hall how he’ll handle running against Lake — the former Arizona GOP gubernatorial candidate — should she enter the race, Gallego said he’ll talk about the future while she talks about the past.
“She wants to talk about 2020 and 2022. I want to talk about 2024, 2026, 2030, and going on to the future. She wants to talk about what happened back then,” he said. “She wants to talk about division. That’s the only vision she has. I’m not here to divide Arizonans. I’m not here to divide Americans. I’m here to make sure we all come together and succeed. Let her play that game. And we’ll play ours.”
Meanwhile on Sunday, in Marysville, Ohio, Lake spoke at the Union County GOP’s Summer Farm Fest as she continues to make appearances at conservative events across the country.
Asked about her Senate bid, Lake told ABC News she’s giving it “serious consideration” and will make a decision in the next couple of months.
“We don’t want them pulling the same tactics they did in 2020 and 2022 in this next election. We want to protect that vote. We want to protect the voice and vote of the people of Arizona, so I’m working on that. But I’m also giving it some serious thought,” she said.
Gallego, who has called Lake “MAGA’s queen,” calls himself “the sure thing” to a safe democracy.
“I say I’m the sure thing because we’ll make sure that we have sane elected officials that are fighting for everyday Arizonans there,” he said.
ABC News’ Isabella Murray contributed to this report.
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