He Saved Gabby Giffords. Can Daniel Hernandez Save Arizona?

Anthony Berteaux

Anthony Berteaux

Tower Tomorrow Fellow; San Diego State University, Class of 2017

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~ Also by Anthony Berteaux ~

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He’s a gay, Latino, progressive activist who is fighting for stricter gun control and better schools. He’s a strong supporter of Israel. He’s been called a national hero. And he’s 26 years old.

Daniel Hernandez, Jr. never wanted to be famous, and became so due to unwanted circumstances, but he is now, in many ways, the new face of American political advocacy.

An openly gay Latino, he was hailed as a hero for saving Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ life after an assassination attempt in 2011, which occurred on the fifth day of his internship for her. He is now the president of his local school board in Tucson, Arizona, on which he has served in various roles for four years. In late January of this year, he filed to run for the state House of Representatives as a Democrat. If he wins, he plans to continue advocating for the issues he has always cared about: Gun violence, reproductive justice, gender equality, gay rights, and youth involvement in politics – an intersection of human rights issues. He is only 26 years old, but he already has almost a decade of political experience behind him.

Hernandez is also something else: A fervent supporter of Israel. After weeks of scheduling and rescheduling interviews, we finally met at 2016 AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC, perhaps the largest gathering of pro-Israel activists in the world. Hernandez is a Policy Conference veteran, but his advocacy for Israel hasn’t always been easy. “As a progressive, this gets me into a lot of trouble sometimes,” he told me. To his progressive peers, his pro-Israel beliefs have defined him a “neoconservative.” At the same time, to conservatives who are pro-Israel, Hernandez’s advocacy for gun control and reproductive rights mark him as a “lefty radical.” Hernandez jokes that no matter what he does, he can’t please everybody.

“I enjoy the dichotomy,” he said. “But I also believe in standing up for the right cause.”

What may surprise you is how interconnected Hernandez’s advocacy for progressive causes is to his experiences with Israel. In fact, it was a childhood experience with a Holocaust survivor’s daughter that led Hernandez to pursue his passion for public service. And it was his experiences with public servants – both in the U.S. and in Israel – that shaped his activism and his passion to improve his home in Tucson.

After the heroism he displayed at age 20 during the Giffords shooting – he gave her vital first aid, applying pressure on her gunshot wounds until the paramedics came – Hernandez was no longer just a Tucson native attending the University of Arizona. The media frenzy that followed defined him as an “American hero.” He became a figure on whom people projected their pride, ideals, and, sometimes, misconceptions. He became known in the Spanish-language press as “el heroe hispano,” or “the Hispanic Hero.” The Dallas Voice, an LGBT publication, labeled him the “gay intern” who saved Giffords’ life. To his admirers, it didn’t matter that he had yet to formally “come out,” or that he had made it clear that he was uncomfortable with the label of “hero.” Whether he liked it or not, people were positioning Hernandez as a role model for young Latino and LGBT Americans, minority groups that continue to be subjected to prejudice and discrimination across the United States.

Hernandez didn’t feel like a “hero.” As he explained to the Tucson Weekly, “I’m going to be real honest: I don’t like the word ‘hero.’ It’s hard to disagree with someone like the president, but I’m going to keep doing it. [The assassination attempt] is something I have repeatedly said is a one-time thing. You know, there are people in Tucson who are real heroes, working day in and day out without fame and without anyone calling them a hero.”

Six people were killed in the shooting, but that number would likely have been higher had it not been for Hernandez’s intervention caring for Giffords and others. He would relive the tragedy as he was asked to address it in interviews and speeches. But he consistently tried to refocus the attention on Giffords and others who dedicate themselves to public service. As he said during the memorial service at the University of Arizona on January 12,

Despite the horrific actions that were taken on Saturday, where so many were lost, we saw glimmers of hope. These glimmers of hope come from people who are the real heroes….We must recognize that the real heroes are the people who have dedicated their life to public service. I must reject the title of hero and reserve it for those who deserve it … the people who have made sure that they have dedicated their life to taking care of others.

When Hernandez went to Washington, DC at the end of January 2011 to attend the State of the Union as a guest of Michelle Obama, he was asked by Rick Klein of ABC News how he would proceed with his career in light of his newfound celebrity. “I’ve always known that I wanted to go into public service and I was inspired by people like Congresswoman Giffords,” he responded. “The events that happened in Tucson on the eighth only reinforced my desire to go into public service.”

Sitting in the First Lady’s box, Hernandez watched as President Obama brought up the shooting. “Tucson reminded us that no matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is a part of something greater – something more consequential than party or political preference,” Obama said.

We are part of the American family. We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people; that we share common hopes and a common creed; that the dreams of a little girl in Tucson are not so different than those of our own children, and that they all deserve the chance to be fulfilled.
Now, by itself, this simple recognition won’t usher in a new era of cooperation. What comes of this moment is up to us. What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow.

Those words stuck with Hernandez. After a long day of media appearances and meetings, where so many people called him a hero, he returned late to his hotel. It was his 21st birthday. He walked to a nearby bar alone and drank a lukewarm beer – courtesy of the bartender.

In the bar that night, Hernandez decided that if he was truly going to live up to the title that people had created for him – and the duty it entailed – he was going to do it on his own terms.

He got up and left the bar. His glass was half full.

Today, Hernandez is a little older and a lot wiser.

In the five years since the shooting, Hernandez has dedicated himself to public service. He has tried not to allow the events of that fateful morning to be the defining moment of his life. He continued his campaign for student body president at the University of Arizona while advocating for accessible and affordable higher education. His campaign was unsuccessful, but his defeat became an opportunity. He started to look for other ways in which he could advocate for education.

Daniel Hernandez receives a standing ovation at a memorial event dedicated to the victims of the Tucson shooting. First Lady Michelle Obama and Gabrielle Giffords’ husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, stand next to him. Photo: Chuck Kennedy / White House / Wikimedia

Daniel Hernandez receives a standing ovation at a memorial event dedicated to the victims of the Tucson shooting. First Lady Michelle Obama and Gabrielle Giffords’ husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, stand next to him. Photo: Chuck Kennedy / White House / Wikimedia

In particular, Hernandez looked to the Sunnyside School District in Tucson, where he graduated from high school. Its student body is 94 percent minority, and 84 percent of students live in low-income households. In 2007, Johns Hopkins University defined the district as one of the nation’s “dropout factories.” In his memoir They Call Me a Hero, Hernandez listed the issues plaguing the district that motivated him to get involved in local politics: “I wanted to get involved and fix things. I wanted things to be better for my sisters and their future kids.”

Hernandez gave up his internship at Giffords’ office and his position as the city of Tucson’s commissioner on LGBT issues to fully dedicate himself to running for a position on the Sunnyside Unified School Board. His platform addressed three issues: Protecting all-day kindergarten, creating partnerships with local businesses, and producing college- and workforce-ready high school seniors. His opponents ran a smear campaign using homophobic rhetoric that claimed Hernandez wasn’t “manly enough” to serve, but he won with 63 percent of the vote. In a conservative state that has traditionally enacted anti-gay and anti-immigrant legislation, Hernandez’s election as a gay, Latino, progressive Democrat was a welcome change – a sign that progress was possible in Arizona.

“Growing up, I didn’t have an easy path,” Hernandez told me. He grew up in south Tucson, the oldest son of Daniel Sr., a businessman who works in construction, and Consuelo, a native of Mexico. “We grew up as a working class community, but being a gay Latino in Arizona is not an easy position to be in by any means,” Daniel Jr. says. Nonetheless, he simply loves his hometown. “Tucson is such a weird place – and because it’s so weird I love it,” he says. “It’s such a quirky amalgamation of so many different kinds of people.”

Listening to Hernandez gush about the city, it’s not hard to believe that this is true.

I am so lucky that I was born in Tucson, because I can’t think of any other place that is as quirky and is as welcoming as Tucson. Tucson is one of those places that no matter where you are from, you feel right at home. And I think that’s one of the things that people who come here are so surprised by. They say, “Who goes to Tucson? Why would anyone want to go there?” And then they come here and see our community and say, “This place is awesome.”

While Tucson prides itself on diversity and tolerance, however, Hernandez also grew up with a heightened sense that he was different in size, mannerism, and identity from others, which led other children to bully him. To them, he was too gay, too big, or too Latino.

As a child, Hernandez couldn’t ignore the slurs that the Latino community faced from others. “When I went to places like markets and movie theaters in the mall, kids called me ‘wetback’ and ‘spic,’ so I knew about prejudice,” he wrote in his memoir.

These childhood experiences drew Hernandez to stories of people who faced similar struggles. A powerful moment for young Daniel – which continues to influence his advocacy today – came in the third grade. On the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, one of his teachers gave a talk about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. A child of Holocaust survivors, the teacher spoke about how her family in Hungary had been imprisoned and sent to concentration camps, where they were exterminated because they were Jewish.

Other students laughed that there was a country called “Hungary,” but Hernandez was stunned. The experience was especially moving because Hernandez grew up in a large family with countless cousins, aunts, and uncles, so it was shocking for him when he found out that the teacher had no extended family because they had all been murdered in the Holocaust.

For me it was a wakeup call because it was the first time that I realized that people don’t always treat each other the way that they should. I was only in third grade, but it was the first time I started to think about Israel and its meaning. It was a very basic thing, and I think my parents were a little concerned, because my first reaction to her experiences was “Wait, could that happen here?”

That following summer, Hernandez read every book on the Holocaust and World War II he could get his hands on – Elie Wiesel’s Night and a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt especially stuck out. And, naturally, he read about Israel.

A natural extension of my interest in Jewish history and the Holocaust was reading and understanding the creation of the State of Israel. So as a 10-year-old, I was reading very heavy subject material, but also learning that there was a new country in the Middle East that was formed not that long ago. When you are a child, you think that countries are these things that are old, so the idea that there was this country started in 1948 right after the Second World War was a really surprising and empowering idea. So I read more about the State of Israel and I read biographies about the different prime ministers. I’ve always been drawn to strong women, so learning that Israel had a female prime minister – Golda Meir – way before the United States was even thinking about a female secretary of state was a fascinating thing for me.

Jewish history and the Jewish experience profoundly influenced Hernandez in another way. From a young age, he wondered how he could better serve other people. In his youth, he believed the only way to help people was by being a doctor, but he began looking towards politics as a form of public service, and drew inspiration from Jewish history and values.

One of the things that has drawn me strongly to Jewish history and Jewish culture is that sense of social and moral responsibility. I think it’s not one that I share – because I’m not Jewish – but it’s one that I can understand. For me this idea of helping others and helping mankind is an important thing. I grew up wanting to be a doctor or nurse because it was the only way I thought you could help others. I was still figuring it all out, but it wasn’t until 2008 that I discovered there were others way to be a public servant.

Through hard work and a bit of luck, this realization would change Hernandez’s life.

Hillary Clinton was a subject of fascination for Hernandez since her 2000 run for the Senate. When Hernandez found out that The New York Times had a student discount for subscriptions in elementary school, he asked his dad to order it, and nearly every day Daniel Jr. would read the paper, which led him to identify with Hillary’s campaign, values, and story. He came to believe that Hillary could be Golda Meir’s American counterpart, a symbol of empowerment for women.

So when Clinton announced her candidacy for president in 2007, Hernandez immediately signed up to work for her campaign. He told me that it was a specific volunteer group that really shaped who he has become today –Yentas for Hillary.

Yentas for Hillary [were] Jewish female volunteers in Arizona who took me under their wing and really shaped who I was in terms of my early political life. They taught me all the Yiddish words you’re not supposed to say in front of polite company and how to make brisket. But they also taught me a lot about Israel, about being a socially responsible person, and the importance of doing political advocacy.

Hernandez found a second home in that community – and a new safe space. But Clinton was unpopular in his conservative area, and Hernandez realized that his support for her had become another way for others to attack his identity. He wrote in his memoir that his peers would say, “You’re so gay for helping Hillary. You’re so gay for helping a woman.”

But, this didn’t bother Hernandez. The Yentas had taught him the importance of doing political advocacy, regardless of public opinion. In his meetings with them, they stressed the importance of sharing one’s personal history – not just with elected officials in Washington, but also with neighbors and community members.

Hernandez learned from the Yentas that detractors don’t matter if you celebrate and deeply believe in your identity, passions, and values. “I think when we talk about organizing, one of the biggest things we emphasize is the story of self, talking about who you are and where you come from,” Hernandez told me. “I was lucky that I learned my story of self and who I was from a bunch of old Jewish ladies.”

After two years of being on the school board for Sunnyside Unified School District, Hernandez was running out of patience.

In 2013, news broke that Superintendent Manuel Isquierdo was in financial and legal trouble: He owed $150,000 in back taxes, lost his driver’s license after failing to appear in court for unpaid traffic tickets, and racked up $12,545 in unauthorized charges on his Sunnyside district credit card. In response, Hernandez and fellow board member Buck Crouch called for “accountability and transparency” from the superintendent and voted against extending Isquierdo’s contract.

The school board was soon divided into supporters of Isquierdo – which included school board president Louie Gonzales – and detractors like Hernandez. But community members, teachers, parents, and students rallied around Hernandez and Crouch. They began to organize a campaign to recall Isquierdo.

Hernandez quickly noticed that his advocacy for transparency in the school board made him a target for the superintendent and his fellow board members.

After I expressed my desire for transparency and accountability within the school board, suddenly I had hit a wall. After two years of being on the board, I couldn’t get anything that I wanted to have changed passed, not because it was a bad idea, but because I was being blocked by my fellow board members and the superintendent at the time, who was corrupt. But I wasn’t going to quietly back off, so they tried to get rid of me via a recall.

In retaliation against the recall campaign, Gonzales’ former campaign manager, Marcos A. Castro, started a recall campaign of his own – against Hernandez and Crouch.

Homophobic fliers were soon being passed to constituents. “Put a REAL Man on the Sunnyside Board,” one flier read. “Daniel Hernandez is LGBT. We need someone who will support Sports and cares about our kids. We don’t need someone who hates our values. RECALL Daniel Hernandez TODAY.” In a jab at Hernandez’s advocacy for gun control, another flier read, “Daniel Hernandez cares about only one things [sic] taking your guns away. He doesn’t care about our kids. He doesn’t care about our community.”

Castro denied any connection to the fliers, and Gonzalez boldly argued that it was in fact Hernandez and his team who were behind them. The recall of Isquierdo was ultimately a success, and just a few months later, Hernandez became the president of the school board.

Challenging peers on their shortcomings, as Hernandez did, takes a lot of chutzpah. But Hernandez said that the ultimate outcome justifies being subject to attacks. “Over the course of my political career, I have had every kind of attack lobbied against me and I’m still here,” he said. “I’ve been in an active shooter situation and I’m still here. So when people try to hurt my feelings or try to get under my skin, there’s nothing you could really do. Again, the climate is tough as a gay Latino running for office in a Republican state, but you learn that the work itself is important enough that you need to stay and do it.”

Hernandez’s first trip to Israel took place during the chaos of Operation Pillar of Defense – the 2012 conflict between Israel and Gaza-based Hamas terrorists. It was a lot for him to absorb, he said, like “drinking water from a fire hydrant.” He left inspired, but overwhelmed.

As a result, after his second trip to Israel in 2015, organized by the American Israel Education Foundation, an AIPAC-affiliated nonprofit, Hernandez decided to stay behind while his fellow Latino participants returned to their homes in California and Arizona. He remained in Israel for four extra days, hoping to get a glimpse into the everyday life of a country that is often demonized around the world.

For most of his political career, Hernandez has been an unapologetic supporter of Israel, but just as he sometimes finds it difficult to be a progressive, gay, and Latino public official in a conservative state, he also sometimes finds it difficult to be a progressive supporter of Israel as well. He mentioned the controversial protest at Creating Change, the nation’s largest annual meeting of LGBTQ advocates, where a reception by A Wider Bridge, an organization that connects the LGBTQ communities in the U.S. and Israel, was disrupted by anti-Israel protesters. Hernandez attended the reception, and witnessed the protesters, many of them calling to “reject Zionism” and expel A Wider Bridge from the conference, devolving into anti-Semitic rhetoric. He thinks this is part of a dangerous and disturbing trend.

One of the most dangerous things that I feel like progressives have done in the last couple of years is, with a lot of the anti-Israel behavior, it often isn’t just anti-Israel, but it is anti-Semitic and it is being masked as anti-Israel. They will glom on to one or two things with Israel that they disagree with as an excuse for this radically anti-Semitic behavior and they get a pass from other progressives. That’s one of the biggest problems that keeps me up.

Hernandez firmly believes that support for Israel is entirely compatible with his progressive values and belief in social justice.

I can’t help but look at the policies in Israel that have existed for decades and see many lessons that can be learned from Israel by the United States. The fact that in such a short amount of time, they’ve been able to get to the point where women are consistently in places of leadership, to where trans people have their medical procedures covered by the national healthcare, is nothing short of amazing. Before we had even thought about repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, LGBT Israelis were freely able to serve in the military.

Israel’s progressive policies protecting LGBT minorities inspired Hernandez to visit the LGBT community center in Tel Aviv, but it wasn’t the only motivating factor: In 2009, the center was the scene of a mass shooting, resulting in the deaths of a 26-year-old man and a 17-year-old girl.

At the center, he met two extraordinary people. One was a gay Palestinian Arab who grew up in the occupied territories. When he came out to his conservative Muslim family, he was disowned and told by his mother that if he ever came back he “wouldn’t be living very long.” So he escaped and found refuge in Israel, where he was able to be his “true, authentic self.” In the three years since he first sought political asylum in Israel, he has yet to talk to his family, fearing violent consequences. His fears struck a chord with Hernandez.

The man also introduced Hernandez to another gay individual living in Tel Aviv who had his own tragic story. He was an Ashkenazi Israeli Jew who married a younger gay Palestinian living in the West Bank. A mixed marriage between an Israeli and a Palestinian was considered traitorous by both societies, akin to sleeping with the enemy. But one day, the Palestinian’s aunt got sick, and so the Palestinian had to travel back to visit her. It was an ambush. His family ended up killing him for being gay, living in Israel, and marrying a Jew. Hernandez was shaken by the story.

I still remember the emotions I felt when I heard that story. When we are talking about how different the welcoming of the LGBTQ community is in Israel versus the Palestinian territories, it’s not until you hear stories like that where the reality really hits home. Hearing about persecution that happens just two miles away and how difficult it must be for all the young gay men and women, and trans people, in that society, I can’t even imagine how awful that must be.

Hernandez’s four days in Israel were short, but it was during his last moments there that he truly saw his progressive values reflected in the promise of a Jewish state. He visited an absorption center in Israel where recent immigrants (most of them Ethiopian Jews) temporarily live in order to learn how to integrate into Israeli society. The son of an immigrant mother, Hernandez was amazed how immigrants in Israel were being taught the currency, language, and culture of Israel, while still being encouraged to express and value their unique cultural identity and customs. “For me,” he said, “coming from a state where immigrants are often not treated as equals, it was amazing to see how these absorption centers integrated immigrants into Israeli society without telling them to assimilate. It’s ‘We want you to learn and we want to learn from you.’ ”

In Israel, Hernandez saw the potential of what Arizona could become in regard to its immigrant and LGBTQ populations. On the plane home, he thought about how difficult it is for those who have never been to Israel to understand the existential threats Israel faces from every direction. And yet, he thought, Israelis still find ways to be happy, to be decent, and to live their lives. Everyone is unsure about the past and the present, but they are certain that better days are ahead – they have to be.

The theme of the AIPAC conference where I interviewed Hernandez was “Come Together” – an urgent response, a plea even, at a time when politics are becoming ever more polarized in the United States. Young progressives and conservatives are increasingly refusing to work across party lines, and politicians are giving in to divisive rhetoric. President Obama may argue that the State of the Union is strong, but I can’t help but see a widening chasm in American politics.

This is why it’s easy to find Hernandez’s chutzpah so appealing. He is unafraid to speak his mind, but he is also willing to engage with those who don’t agree with him. During his time as a public figure, Hernandez has tirelessly worked with people from the opposite end of the political spectrum to veto legislative measures that were bad public policy. After he was elected as a school board member, Hernandez led the first gun control group in 14 years to meet with Arizona’s Republican governor to discuss sensible gun policy. He has made the two-hour drive to the State Capitol 39 times since 2013.

We’ve seen such extreme polarization on both sides of the spectrum. There’s progressives and conservatives who have not talked to each other, but in order to make tangible change in Arizona, I learned very quickly – with my experiences with Governor Brewer – to sit down with Republicans and work with them. We have not had enough people who are willing to work across party lines in years and I’ve had to work with people…who are of every party background, of every identity. I work with people who even tell me that I’m going to hell, but if I can find a way to work with you, I will do it. There are very few people that I’ve given up hope on.

Bipartisanship is not the only thing that Hernandez is focusing on in his campaign. While simultaneously working on issues of reproductive justice, gender equality, and gun violence prevention, Hernandez is hoping to elevate the voices of young people in his state – to make them realize the power they have. “I want young people to get involved and care about these issues that I care very deeply about,” he says. “I know they can have an impact. I want young people to realize that they too have a voice, and that we are powerful.”

Over the course of his life, others have given Hernandez labels –a hero, yes, but also too gay, too Latino, too young, too big. But he’s never let these terms, positive or negative, define him. He wants his public service to define his character. Instead of giving into bullying, he ran for student council president. Instead of running away from his critics, he ran for office. Instead of giving in to smear campaigns, he fought back. When rockets were raining down on Israel, he visited anyway. And when a shooting occurred one fateful morning, Hernandez didn’t run away. He ran toward it, toward the people who needed help the most.

Banner Photo: Elvert Barnes / flickr