While two boys recited the Pledge of Allegiance, she noticed that one of them had raggedy shoes and no jacket.
It was nippy that day, said Lorraine Newman, now a retired teacher who helped organize the event.
“She leaned over to me, because we were sitting together, and she said, ‘Can you get the name of that young man?’ She pointed at one of the little boys,” Newman said. “It was something I didn’t even notice.
“She said, ‘I need to get him some shoes and some clothes.’ And for me that was profound… But that’s the kind of stuff that she would zero in on,” Newman added.
For Newman, Landrum Taylor’s ability to spot people’s needs defines her politics, and that makes her a passionate advocate for those who have less.
It’s the kind of politics that instinctively eschews hyper- partisanship and recognizes that gridlock achieves nothing for the poor.
Indeed, colleagues and longtime Capitol observers agree: The incoming Senate minority leader, who is the first African-American woman to lead the Democratic caucus, is a pragmatist who is comfortable reaching across the aisle and is more inclined to resolve issues than pour gasoline on them.
And in a year where Democrats have gained enough seats to potentially have a say in big policy decisions, observers say Landrum Taylor is best positioned to lead her party and extract concessions from Republicans.
• • •
Leah Landrum was born on Aug. 23, 1966, to Hazel and Robert Landrum.
She grew up in a working class family in south Phoenix. Her father worked in behavioral health while her mom is a social worker.
Her parents were activists even then. For example, they fought to get the “little dirt road’’ in front of their home paved because the dust was getting children sick with valley fever.
In a way, Landrum Taylor is now reaping the benefits of the struggle of her parents’ generation — the same kind that prepared the country for its first African-American president. Raised a Catholic, she went to Xavier College Preparatory High School and then to Arizona State University, where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
And although she doesn’t mention it, her religious background is sometimes on display when she votes on socially conservative issues.
For example, Landrum Taylor is committed to women’s ability to have an abortion, but she also supports the requirement that minors get their parents’ permission before undergoing the procedure.
In a way, her training and upbringing prepared Landrum Taylor, 46, for the kind of dogged, low-key and details-oriented work that gets a proposal through the Legislature, especially when one’s party doesn’t call the shots.
The Democrat taught politics in the Maricopa County Community College system and owns a preschool, and has been advocating for her community’s interests for years.
She and her mother created the Landrum Foundation, which prepares students for postsecondary education and provides them with financial support.
But her most ambitious project is housing for multi-generational families — that is, a place where grandparents can raise their grandkids.
Senior citizen residential complexes often do not allow children to live with their grandparents, a restriction that hurts grandparents who end up caring for their children’s children.
Last July, the Grandfamilies Place of Phoenix finally opened. Landrum Taylor had been working on the project for almost a dozen years.
• • •
Working in a place that’s known for partisan hostilities, Landrum Taylor often collaborates with Republicans in advocating for measures to benefit children and low-income families.
Indeed, even as Democrats and Republicans were squabbling over anti- union legislation this year, Landrum Taylor was working with Sen. Rick Murphy, R-Peoria, on adoption issues.
Interestingly, Murphy was quarterbacking the push for the anti-labor bills, which ultimately went nowhere.
Landrum Taylor had cosponsored several bills with Murphy, including his proposal to expedite adoption proceedings.
The two senators’ connection is easy to understand: Both Murphy and Landrum Taylor have adopted children.
But working with the “other” side also came naturally. The Democrat said she grew up learning the value of talking things over and finding common ground.
“Anytime there was a concern, there was a problem, I remember my parents always saying, ‘Ok. (Let’s go) to the kitchen table.’ We knew what that meant. It’s time to sit down. We are going to talk about this,” Landrum Taylor said.
Mario Diaz, Landrum Taylor’s political consultant, said her bipartisan work makes her an ideal Democratic leader.
“Some in the Democratic Party may not like that type of political philosophy, but in Arizona, I think it’s a recipe for getting work done,” Diaz said.
“The Republicans don’t see Leah as a partisan attack dog,” he added.
• • •
But Landrum Taylor’s penchant for compromise doesn’t make her a reluctant fighter.
The Democrat is a fierce advocate of children’s issues, and when the GOP-led Legislature decided to cut back on welfare programs for low- income families at the height of the fiscal crisis, she took a bullhorn to the Senate floor as well as to the Senate lawn.
She brought affected families to the Capitol to let them tell their stories, and she kept up the pressure even when the media’s attention waned. It was partly because of pressure from Democrats like Landrum Taylor that Gov. Jan Brewer and the Republican-led Legislature restored funding for transplant services, which had been cut to save money.
Persistence runs in Landrum Taylor’s family. Her grandmother, Faye Landrum, was a smart woman who went back to school after having 15 kids. Faye Landrum finished her bachelor’s degree in social work at 68 — then the oldest graduate of ASU’s School of Social Work.
But in calling out the majority party, Landrum Taylor kept a civil tone.
Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Tucson, the incoming assistant Democratic leader, said those who have been serving in the minority for years know the value of not burning bridges.
Sometimes, that allowed Democrats to successfully advocate for less controversial but nonetheless important legislation, Lopez said.
“(We) understand you need to negotiate. You need to collaborate. You need to cooperate. That’s the way things get done,” Lopez said. “When we operate from the middle, we operate in the best interest of our state and our constituency.”
• • •
Time will tell if Landrum Taylor can deliver.
Observers say the new bipartisan split in the Senate will likely impel Republicans to reach across the aisle, perhaps even on major issues such as the budget, health care, and education.
Outgoing Senate Minority Leader David Schapira, D-Tempe, said Landrum Taylor will have a different job because of the influx of new Democrats. Schapira led when only nine Democrats made up his caucus.
“She’s actually going to get to probably have a little bit more of an opportunity to govern than we did,” Schapira said.
His advice to Landrum Taylor is to continue Democrats’ traditional watchdog role while being prepared to work with the majority.
Undoubtedly, Landrum Taylor is starting her term with high expectations.
“Now at 13 (Democrats), what I see is an opportunity,” she said “Certainly, we cannot be discounted.”
For constituents like Newman, the retired teacher, Landrum Taylor proved her leadership skills a long time ago. Whether she succeeds or fails as the Democratic leader won’t change Newman’s view of the young lady who spotted the boy with the raggedy shoes.
Newman said the Democrat’s kindness that day prompted the school to launch an “adopt-a-student” program, where teachers watch out for and look after specific pupils.
Landrum Taylor doesn’t remember the event.
But she quickly added, “I can’t stand seeing a child in need.”
Leah Landrum Taylor, incoming Democratic leader
Birthdate: Aug. 23, 1966
How long in Arizona: Since birth
Occupation: Taught at Maricopa County Community Colleges; owner, preschool; founder and vice president, Landrum Foundation Marital status: Married to Gregory Taylor; three children
Education: Xavier College Preparatory; bachelor’s degree and master’s in political science, Arizona State University; attended John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University Political experience: Arizona Senate since 2007; House member, 1999-2006; assistant Senate Democratic leader since 2011; assistant Democratic House leader, 2003-2004; Democratic House whip, 2001-2002