Immigrant Democratic doctor eyes Congress seat in red Arizona suburb

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Javier TOVAR
·3 min read
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Hiral Tipirneni represents the so-called American Dream -- an Indian immigrant who came to the United States as a child and became a doctor.

Now the 53-year-old aspires to become a congresswoman. But to do so, the Democrat will need to win in an Arizona suburb that has always voted Republican red.

Is it an impossible task? The polls show a race too close to predict -- a surprise in a district where Republican David Schweikert, the incumbent since 2013, won by 10 percentage points in the last election two years ago.

President Donald Trump won by the same margin in Arizona's sixth district in his 2016 election duel with Hillary Clinton.

The district covers part of crucial Maricopa County, which is home to six out of 10 Arizona voters and includes Phoenix, the state's largest city.

"Maricopa County is the largest swing county in the entire nation," Tipirneni told AFP at her campaign headquarters.

"So yes, we have the ability to not just impact this district, and what happens in the state of Arizona," she said.

"We have the chance to impact what happens for this nation when we wake up on November 4."

- No door-knocking during Covid -

With its booming urban population and its burgeoning demographics of young, educated college voters and Latinos -- as well as moderate conservatives -- Arizona could be crucial to next month's election.

The state is "really prized," Tiperneni said.

And to win in the sixth district, she said candidates must win over "independent thinkers" who "are not looking for somebody who's going to toe a party line."

Schweikert represents a "far-right extreme arm of the Republican Party," she says.

But the eerie silence at campaign headquarters shows just how much the coronavirus pandemic has impacted this election cycle, with remote events now the rule -- at least for Democrats.

"I so miss knocking on doors, having direct personal engagement, talking to families all across our community," said Tipirneni.

"But obviously, we have to do what is safest for everybody. We don't want to put anyone at risk."

- 'Don't back off' -

Tipirneni came to the United States at the age of three with her parents, who opened a convenience store in Buena Park, California. 

They did not have enough money to pay for employees or a babysitter, meaning they took turns running the business and caring for their daughter.

Her father eventually got a job as an engineer in Ohio, where Tipirneni and her brother grew up. Her mother became a social worker.

"I am the product of the American Dream," she told a Zoom meeting with volunteers, who are calling voters on her behalf in a state where early voting began more than two weeks ago.

"Don't back off," she urged them.

The meeting was attended by "West Wing" actor and political activist Bradley Whitford, whose presence invigorated avowed fan Tipirneni as well as the volunteers.

"My God, it's Josh Lyman!" gushed Tipirneni in a starstruck tone, referring to his character in the acclaimed White House television drama.

But the doctor quickly turned serious again when explaining her political agenda, centered on the health care system -- a key Democratic focus in this election. 

Between the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic crisis it has triggered, she said it is "a perfect time for an ER doctor to step in and say, 'Let's hold on, let's stabilize the situation, let's stop the bleeding,' right?"

"Let's make sure that we provide immediate relief. And then let's have a long-term plan."

Like many Democrats in the traditionally conservative southwestern state, though, Tipirneni is careful not to appear partisan, and strikes a centrist tone.

"It has nothing to do with party and has nothing to do with ideology," she said.

"It's about what is the right thing to do based on the science and the data that's in front of us."