House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez will guide Democrats through a historic time in the state House of Representatives.
The Democrats will have greater leverage during the 2019 legislative session with the partisan split closer than it has been in years – 31-29 just barely in Republicans’ favor.
In a pre-session interview with the Arizona Capitol Times, Fernandez credited her predecessor, now Sen. Rebecca Rios, with getting their party to this point. But it’s Fernandez who now has to take advantage of the odds.
What’s your strategy to make the 31-29 split count?
We know our strength is in our number – 29 of us. And when we stick together, 29 of us, we’re strong. So that’s our strategy right now. Making sure everybody’s up to speed, each and every member is out there working hard. I keep telling them you’re not legislators yet, take it easy. But they’re out there working hard, meeting with the constituents who got them here, meeting with stakeholders and bringing forth a lot of great ideas.
What has been your message to your members as they prepare for session?
One of the most important messages is we have to and we want to work with the other side. We are not worried about what letter comes after the name. We just want to work with them. If we can build quality legislation together that will benefit Arizona, that will benefit public education, infrastructure, we’re on it.
Of course, everyone is saying we have to have bipartisanship. But the devil is going to be in the details once these debates get started. Are you confident that hopeful attitude is going to persist?
I don’t think it has to be hopeful. I think it’s reality. We know how to work with the other side. We’ve been doing this for years when we were 22, 25 and now, 29. That’s not a big deal. It’s going to be the other side working with us. They’ve got to figure out what it looks like to reach out to the other side and to compromise and to negotiate.
You have a lot of new members joining your ranks this year. What’s the first thing they need to understand about this job?
It takes a lot of time. You hit the ground running. You’re not going to look back – you just keep going forward. You can’t really make any mistakes, and when you do, you just move on. We can fix those things. It’s OK to reach out. I want them to know it’s OK to reach out, not just here in this House but outside these doors. Outside this building are the people they represent, and they need to reach out to them.
What do you think of Speaker Bowers’ leadership so far?
It’s been a little chaotic, a little disjointed. We still have the same amount of staff as we did when we had 22 members. They’re willing to work hard and put in the long hours to make sure all our needs are met. I feel really bad for them, but they’ve agreed to that. I don’t think they can agree to anything else because we’re not going to get anymore money to hire anybody else.
The session is already off to a tumultuous start with several House members in the news under unflattering circumstances. What do you think that does to the outlook for the rest of the session?
And that’s why I’m being really careful about what I’m saying because that’s got to be rough on Speaker Bowers. He has to deal with 31 members and then two issues on top of that. So, I think it speaks volumes about what is coming for him. You know, I wish him luck.
Of course, you have to work with Governor Ducey as well. What did you take away from his inaugural address?
I think the governor is really going to work with us. He knows the math. He was able to do the math because he’s talked about the 29-31. He’s talked about our statewide wins. He knows the electorate is changing. He’s in his last four years. I think there’s a legacy that he’s thinking about. We can take advantage of that and reach across the aisle, reach across the mall and be able to work with the Senate Dems, the Senate Republicans and the Governor’s Office and really do some quality work for Arizona. They’re expecting it.
He said in his inaugural address that he’d be rejecting tax increases, but then we already have Senator Sylvia Allen calling for an increase to a full cent sales tax for education. How do you work around that dynamic?
Well, you know, that one-cent sales tax is something we brought up in 2014. That’s so 2014. We’re on to new things. We’re putting other things on the table. We’re working with our stakeholders, we’re working with our leadership team, we’re working with our members to put everything on the table. Looking at tax credits, we think with charter school reform we’re going to be saving money, and we want to see what we can find when we start doing the things that we haven’t been doing, that we’ve been very negligent about. Maybe that will help find funding for public schools, and we won’t have to look at raising taxes. But if that’s something we have to look at– it all has to be on the table.
We hear a lot about water, education, charter school reform – and those are all very important issues. But what’s the most important, least talked about issue on the table this session?
You didn’t mention transportation. That used to be a big issue, and it’s still a big issue for us today. Yes, we have provided the HURF dollars again. We were sweeping from that. We want to make sure those are safe. We want to make sure there’s money to build our roads, to rebuild our roads. And when we do rebuild our roads and our bridges, we’re putting people back to work. … It’s a big issue, especially in our outlying areas, and we need to start thinking about that.