State House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, a Yuma Democrat, had an eventful first year in that role heading her party’s largest contingent in recent memory.
It culminated, in a sense, with her recent award from the Arizona Capitol Times’ latest “Best of the Capitol” awards last month, where she was named “Most Quotable Politico.”
She said in an interview this week that she hadn’t been out to clinch that particular honor, but that it was more or less an outgrowth of her leadership post.
She said she won “probably because I’m the leader of the House Democrats made it a little unique, so I’m the one they go to for quotes all the time, so I guess that’s how I got the most quotable,” she said.
The awards ceremony program said Fernandez was up against a “monstrous challenge” in keeping her caucus together while working with Republicans who held 31 seats versus the Democrats’ 29.
“The Yuma Democrat has risen to meet the challenge, and in her arsenal is her ability to clearly articulate her party’s positions. This makes her one of the most incisive spokespersons for her party, something she demonstrates in her interviews with reporters and updates on social media,” it said.
The Arizona Capitol Times takes Best of the Capitol nominations from its readers, who then select the winners, according to the publication’s website.
Fernandez was up against five high-profile Republicans: Gov. Doug Ducey, Speaker of the House Rusty Bowers, Attorney General Mark Brnovich and Reps. TJ Shope and John Kavanaugh.
“What really surprised me is Democrats usually never get any awards, never. My first year I was nominated for ‘rising star,’ and I did not receive it, and neither did the other Democrat that was nominated, for male rising star,” she said.
Other Dems or Democrat-linked causes who won a category not broken down by party included Rep. Jennifer Longdon as Best Rising Star, House Democratic Chief of Staff Cynthia Aragon as Best Capitol Staffer, and Kyrsten Sinema for U.S. Senate for Best Candidate Campaign.
When Fernandez received her award, “They said, ‘wow, this is amazing, so many Democrats winning,’ and I said ‘and the Russians weren’t even involved.’ And they said they were going to use that.”
Fernandez feels like she also did well at the Legislature this year, though her early hopes on being able to work with Republicans on the state budget and many other issues didn’t come to pass.
“Even though there’s 29 of us, we only had seven bills that were sent to the governor’s desk,” she said.
At least one of those prevailed only through an act of bipartisanship: Rep. Richard Andrade’s bill supporting installation of changing tables that can accommodate disabled older children and adults in public restrooms, along with babies.
“The bill wasn’t heard, and then a Republican (Rep. Gail Griffin) and (Andrade) got together and he put his language on the Republican’s bill, she allowed that,” Fernandez said. “And it passed unanimously out of the House and the Senate, and was signed by the governor.”
Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services reported at the time of the bill’s passage in May there were two dissenting votes in the House, including one from the Republican committee chair who originally blocked it from being heard.
All new and renovated state government restrooms will be required to have the new tables, and “things won’t be the same for these people, who deserve to be treated with dignity,” Fernandez said.
Private buildings are not affected under the version the governor signed, but a couple of tribal casinos have agreed to install them, she said. A Louisiana legislator has also expressed interest in bringing the idea to her state.
Beyond that accomplishment, Fernandez said, “There were some meaningful bills that we pushed. There were some terrible bills that we blocked. So I think we had a successful session, and the Democrats stuck together, which was a vital part of that.”
Fernandez theorized the difficulty in working with the GOP arose from their leaders not having the larger margin they had gotten used to.
“The Republicans knew from the get-go that they couldn’t lose one member. They only have 31 and it takes 31 to pass the budget. So they were sweating it a bit, because they knew we were sticking together,” she said
Rep. Tim Dunn, a Republican from Yuma, agreed with Fernandez that the parties worked together early in the session on passage of the state Drought Contingency Plan, Arizona’s portion of a multi-state water conservation agreement, “but then it was pretty partisan the rest of the year, not that it was necessarily anybody’s fault.”
He said Republicans also get frustrated when they can’t get one of their bills off the ground in committee. “That doesn’t always come to light. But I think the speaker did a great job in working with Charlene over the year, and we did the best we could. And I think our shining moment was the DCP,” he said.
A lot of the friction between the parties comes down to basic philosophy on taxes and other fundamentals. Dunn said he and Fernandez work well together on issues affecting their shared hometown, “and she’s always got Yuma at heart.”
Fernandez said this summer, she and other Democratic leaders have working on the outreach through town halls in Tucson, Flagstaff and the Navajo reservation, and they met in Yuma for a tour of the Border Patrol’s temporary processing facility when it opened late last month.
They plan to hit all 15 counties by the end of the year, she said: “It’s not just the Great State of Maricopa anymore.”
Once the next legislative session begins in January, Fernandez said her party’s core issue will be the same as last year: education.
“We didn’t get a dedicated source of funding for public education,” she said. “We want to make sure not just that teachers are paid well, but there are resources in the classroom and smaller class sizes.”
And while the state is on the way to meeting Ducey’s pledge of a 20% raise for all teachers by 2020, the rising cost of health insurance premiums is already eating away at those increases, she said.
Boosting access to health care for everyone across the state is another problem that Dems want to address next year, she said, along with homelessness.
“Homelessness has become a huge issue. It has been, but I think people finally realize it’s our responsibility. I think we need to set the pace, lay that foundation for how we address homelessness,” she said.
And she said she’s looking forward to greater bipartisanship next year.
“I’m just so confident. These aren’t Democratic issues, they are people issues. These are issues we can come together on,” she said.