Originally published in The Advocate.
Daniel Hernandez was just a 20-year-old intern for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords when he was thrust into a living nightmare. In January 2011, Giffords was hosting an event for her constituents in a Tucson, Ariz., grocery store parking lot when a man burst forward and shot her in the head before killing six people and injuring 19, including Giffords.
Giffords’s survival was partly due to Hernandez’s response, where he applied pressure to her wound and ensured she didn’t choke on her own blood. Giffords is now a gun control activist, and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, was elected last year as a Democratic U.S. senator from Arizona.
Hernandez credits his former boss with instilling in him a love of service and giving back. While still a student at the University of Arizona, Hernandez ran for a seat on his local school board and won (and experienced antigay blowback). Five years later, he ran successfully for the Arizona House of Representatives, besting a Republican incumbent. After five years in the legislature — where he headed up the Arizona House’s LGBT Caucus and fought back against anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, while securing funds for expanded health care and resources for sexual assault victims — Hernandez just announced he’s running for the U.S. House. If elected, Hernandez would represent Arizona’s Second Congressional District, which Giffords previously represented (state officials are soon redrawing all nine of Arizona’s congressional districts, so the borders will likely change).
Hoping to replace a retiring Democratic congresswoman, Hernandez wants to get the word out early on his candidacy, hoping to build momentum for the primary next year. We caught up with the politician to discuss why he’s running and the changing nature of swing state Arizona.
The Advocate: How are you feeling after announcing your candidacy?
Daniel Hernandez: I’m really excited for a lot of different reasons. I’ve grown up in southern Arizona, where I was born and raised. I’ve always wanted to help, since the age of 5. I thought I wanted to be a nurse or doctor. When I got to 18, I started working in politics and Gabby was one of the first people who talked to me about public service and advocacy. I became a school board member and a legislator.
Ten years ago, with the shooting, it cemented my desire to go into public service. I want to get to D.C. to help the community I represent already and then the rest of southern Arizona. I’m one of those weirdos who loves working with people even when I don’t always agree with them. I’ve been able to get stuff done in the legislature and will hopefully be able to do great things in D.C.
What do you want to accomplish in the House?
The first thing is access to health care. When I was 17, I was sick with Graves’ Disease; it’s an autoimmune disorder. I had no health insurance and I almost died. My kidneys, liver, heart were all shutting down. Because we didn’t have money, we didn’t have access to health care, and we were really on the verge of me dying at 17.
Access to health care is such an issue for people in my state and around the country. I’m excited about strengthening and protecting the Affordable Care Act, which has protections for preexisting conditions. As an LGBTQ person, it protects people, especially seniors with HIV.
Also, how do we protect and preserve the economy? Now that COVID is starting to resolve itself, we have to be careful to not leave people behind.
I worked on nondiscrimination in the legislature and got a Republican sponsor in my nondiscrimination bill. But it’s not just about passing laws, it’s about enforcing them. The Supreme Court said you can’t discriminate against LGBTQ people in employment, but we have to make sure that is actually done and implemented in a way where trans people and people as a whole are not being left behind.
Is gun control a nonstarter in Arizona?
Gun violence prevention is such an important topic for me. I serve with a colleague and a good friend who’s in a wheelchair because her spinal cord was severed from a shooting. I literally held my boss’s head for 10 minutes when we were waiting for EMTs. Gun violence is an issue that’s been affecting our communities for too long. That being said, it’s not an issue where we can’t find common ground. I worked with Republicans and actually introduced a bipartisan bill that would close some of the loopholes around domestic violence to stop prohibitive possessors. We have to find ways to work with our colleagues across the aisle. What we haven’t seen is action on the federal level because the Washington gun lobby has too much power because we let them get away with it.
For 45 years, the NRA has convinced politicians that even talking about the issue is toxic. What’s toxic is not doing anything about this issue. We’re seeing more and more people running for office, talking not about “gun control,” but how do we promote gun safety and gun violence prevention, so we’re not ceding the ground to the NRA when they say, “They want to take your guns away!”
Every year, I go on a hunting trip with my Republican colleagues to Yuma County. I’m one of the best shots; last year I got 17 doves. All the Republican men who go are super macho and try to catch up to my doves. I’m not against guns, I’m against people putting people behind special interests. Laws like we saw pass in 2005 that give immunity to gun manufacturers is not where we need to be. We need to close background check loopholes. It’s been a long slog since 2011 when the shooting happened, but it’s something I’m deeply passionate about. I know there’s a path forward, but we have to stop the gun lobby from dictating the terms of the conversation that we’re having about gun violence.
Most of us do agree, background checks should be required for all guns sales. Prohibitive possessors or criminals who are mentally ill should not have access to those. We had an attempt back in, I believe in 2013, with the Manchin-Toomey bill on background checks that failed because Democrats and Republicans were afraid to even talk about the issue.
In the last election, Arizona went blue for the first time in decades. Conservative forces are now conducting a redundant audit of the election. Is Arizona on a more progressive trajectory or could it fall back to its hard-line past?
Arizona is changing in a way that’s good for the state and the country. More people are being elected who are thoughtful and mindful. That being said, you can sneeze and it could go in any direction. Every gain that we made, especially on issues around the LGBTQ community, can be lost in an election. That’s why we can’t be complacent. That’s why I’m running for Congress. The district I’m running for has been held by Democrats and Republicans in the last decade. Martha McSally, who Sen. [Kyrsten] beat in 2016 and Sen. Kelly beat in 2020, was the congresswoman, but it was also Gabby’s old congressional seat. There is no safe Democrat or Republican district in Arizona; it’s always a fight.
In Arizona, we have a bisexual atheist senator [Sinema] and an astronaut senator [Kelly]. For people who have won Arizona elections in the last couple years, they listen to issues that are important to the people they represent. For me as a legislator, it’s been health care, education, and jobs, and a lot of that translates to this congressional district because it’s the same communities I already represent. For me as an openly gay man to run for Congress and for that not to be a hindrance or a cause for pause is such an important thing. If you told me when I started getting into politics in 2010 that I’d be running for Congress as an openly gay Latino in a state that had passed SB1070 and elected Sheriff [Joe] Arpaio, I would have called you crazy. So things are changing, but we need to work harder.
I’ve worked with organizations like the Victory Fund for the better part of a decade, helping train, support, and educate LGBTQ people to run for office. The number 1 thing is that we don’t have support from people in our community. So I’m hoping people will join my website, sign up to get emails, and hopefully throw us a couple coins. Emily’s List got this right; early money is like yeast, it helps the dough rise. As openly gay candidates, we have to support from the community. Right now, there’s only one openly gay Latino in Congress — Ritchie Torres, and I look up to him. He’s the first, but we have to make sure he’s not the only. We can’t let LGBTQ candidates go out, run, and fail.
Do you think Republicans in Arizona are satisfied with the state of their party?
I talk to some Republican elected officials in the legislature and they’re so distraught with the direction their party is going in, and that’s why Arizona is seeing Republican voters switch to independent and Democratic. I was talking to a longtime Republican who spent 20 years doing nothing but electing Republicans, and he said, “I saw it five or six years ago, it was the Tea Party, and now the MAGA people taking over the party.” It’s now all about the cult of personality. It’s six months after the election and we’re still relitigating this election with this audit.
We actually have a Republican County Board of Supervisors who are coming out and calling out the Senate president and the senators saying this is a fraud and a waste of time. It’s dangerous, because you’re fomenting the believe that the election was stolen. It’s very bizarre when you have an election and the only thing they’re questioning is the Senate election of Mark Kelly and the presidential election; all these Republican elected officials who got in, they’re fine and 100 percent legit. Arizona voters are tired of the drama and conspiracy theories. We now have two Democratic senators, a Democratic secretary of state, a Democratic state superintendent. It had been a decade since a Democrat had won in Arizona, and in 2018 and 2020 you saw Democrats winning up and down the ballot.
I want to make sure we get things like the Equality Act passed, and the only way we do that is by having a majority [in the House] who will actually support the LGBTQ community.
How can Democrats work with the Republicans when they’re so unmoored from reality?
Serving in the Arizona state legislature has been no walk in the park. When I talk about bipartisanship I’m not talking about this abstract, pie-in-the-sky idea, I’m talking about actually getting it done. I’ve suffered a lot of indignities as one of four openly gay members of the legislature. My first session, one of my colleagues didn’t realize I could hear what they were saying and under their breath called me a [antigay slur]. The next week I had to find a way to work with him on an issue that impacted both of our districts. I’ve had to learn to work with anyone or everyone, and I don’t focus on what we disagree on but what we can find agreement on.
My first term, I found the most conservative woman and realized we both cared about sexual assault survivors and giving them protections. We passed a law allowing survivors to terminate their lease early so they can leave their place early. This was the most conservative woman I could find in the legislature; she hated Democrats, called us “Demoncrats,” and yet I found a way to work with her because I told her the issue was about protecting sexual assault survivors.
I found a Republican woman, a moderate, and I helped educate her on issues related to trans issues and LGBTQ people as a whole and she became our champion. She was the sponsor of the nondiscrimination bill for employment and housing before the Supreme Court did anything.
It’s hard when you deal with people who aren’t living in the reality we are, but if I spent all my time worrying about all the things I disagreed with them on I would miss the things I agree with them on. It doesn’t mean I won’t hold them accountable, though. I repealed “no-promo-homo,” which was the law that prohibited public schools from even talking about the LGBTQ community. It didn’t happen by me saying Democrats all are good and Republicans all bad but because I built the relationships and, more importantly, I helped educate my colleagues why having this harmful law that did nothing to better the lives of Arizonans needed to be repealed. And we got it done.
We were one of the states to kill the anti-trans bills targeting youth [in athletics], under my leadership as a member of the LGBTQ Caucus. We had one of the first debates on this issue, back in 2020 before the pandemic. We were told the bill was not moving, didn’t have the votes, stalled. I went to a conference in D.C. and got an email saying it was back on the agenda. I flew back to Arizona to be here in time to debate it. and I asked a very simple question to say, “Can you point to one example where a young woman has been denied a scholarship or title because of competing against a transgender athlete?” And the answer was no. I was able to work with the business committee to stop that bill from even being assigned to committee, so the bill died last year but didn’t even get heard this year.
How hopeful are you for legislative action on immigration reform?
We’re in a unique moment in time. Over 70 percent of Arizona voters agree we need to create a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers. So let’s start where we can find that consensus. How do we find a way to bring people out of the shadows but not give this pseudo-status kids have with DACA? Let’s finalize something for DREAMers; let’s work on a [clearer] path to citizenship for the undocumented. This involves keeping the [House] majority. Also, let’s make sure we’re treating people with humanity and dignity; these are human beings who need to be treated with kindness.