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Fresh faces: Legislature will welcome near record number of newcomers

Fresh faces:  Legislature will welcome near record number of newcomersT.J. Shope, a Republican from Coolidge, and Juan Mendez, a Democrat from Tempe, share a lot in common.

Both are 27-year-old incoming state representatives. Both studied political science at Arizona State University and received bachelor’s degrees in 2008.

And both ran their respective parties at the university. Mendez headed the Young Democrats from 2007 to 2008. Shope was the president of the ASU College Republicans from 2006 to 2007, and chair of the College Republicans from 2006 to 2008.

The two say that although they were in opposing parties when they set up their booths next to each other on campus or passed each other coming and going from the political ideology class they shared, they were always cordial with each other. They hope they can keep up the trend as freshmen lawmakers — working across the aisle on some of the priorities they share, including improving the university and community college system.

“I always felt we had a good relationship,” said Shope. “There was kind of an uneasy truce between the two sides, I guess.”

And Mendez said, “I’m happy we were never extremists, even in college.

I didn’t know he was going to go on to be a political figure, and I assume he didn’t know I’d be doing this either. But we were always respectful, even at that age, which is cool.”

Shope (District 8 ) and Mendez (District 26) are two members of the large class of incoming freshman lawmakers who will join Arizona’s 51st Legislature. In all, 37 members are either new to the Legislature, changing chambers or returning after having served in the past.

That is the second largest number of new faces arriving to the Legislature after an election since the Arizona Capitol Times started keeping track in 1966. The largest number of new members came in 2002, when the House and Senate saw 40 fresh faces.

And while Mendez and Shope remember each other from opposing sides of the aisle in college, Republican Ethan Orr, a freshman lawmaker from District 9 in Tucson, was actually in a different party when he went to college.

Orr, 38, joined the Republican Party after being a Young Democrat at the University of Arizona, where he earned two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s in public administration. He worked on several Democratic campaigns during the early 1990s, but became disillusioned with the Democratic Party before President Bill Clinton was elected to his second term. He then registered with the GOP.

“After looking at it as I was going through college, I felt like as a whole the Republican Party had a more serious commitment to fiscal responsibility and making sure we don’t pile up more and more debt,” he said.

Since then, Orr worked as the economic and community development director for South Tucson and at the Tucson Office of Economic Development. He currently works as adjunct assistant professor at the UofA and as the executive director of Linkages Arizona, which does work force training for veterans and the disabled.

Orr campaigned as a moderate Republican who can help Arizona’s unemployed get back to work. In his first run for office, he won in a slightly Democratic district that covers Tucson’s north side.

For Democrat Andrea Dalessandro, getting elected took some perseverance.

Dalessandro ran in 2008 for the state House in a Republican district covering Tucson’s east side and her home in Sahuarita. She lost that year, and lost again in the same district in 2010. But with redistricting, she landed in the new Democratic stronghold of Legislative District 2, which runs from the Mexican border in Santa Cruz County up to the south side of Tucson. She was unopposed in the Democratic primary.

“I don’t give up,” she said. “The third time was the charm.”

Dalessandro, of Green Valley, said she hopes to use her skills as a retired certified public accountant and her knowledge of the Arizona- Mexico border region to change the course of the conversation and reframe the picture most Arizonans have of life on the border. A goal is to show that it’s not just a danger zone to be sealed off, but a huge opportunity to increase trade and the state’s financial footing.

“My role as a legislator is to get Republicans to come down here and see what it’s really like,” she said.

Some of the new faces coming to the Legislature aren’t new faces at all. Three members of the incoming class of freshmen are former lawmakers returning after a hiatus. Democrat David Bradley (District 10) is one of those returners. He served in the House from 2003 through 2010, when he hit his term limit. Other fresh faces never even left. Seven members of the House are moving over to the Senate, including incoming Democratic Sen. Steve Farley of Tucson, who decided run for the Senate in District 9 after Sen. Paula Aboud hit her term limit.

Senate Republicans have two new members entering their ranks, including Kelli Ward, a doctor of osteopathic medicine from Lake Havasu City. While new members usually join the Legislature in the House, Ward was encouraged by outgoing state Sen. Ron Gould to take the less traditional route. She ran directly for the Senate, even though it meant being a three-way Republican primary against Rep. Nancy McClain and Sam Scarmardo. Ward won the primary and it was smooth sailing through the general election in Republican-heavy District 5.

She said even though she didn’t get the experience in the House that most senators have before entering the upper chamber, her knowledge of the health care system and experience in leadership organizations will aid her in the transition.

“There’s always that traditional route that most people follow,” she said. “But I have a lot of experience and I’m a quick study, so I shouldn’t have a lot of problems.

Besides, she says, one of her main areas of focus will be health care, and her life’s work as a physician gives her an advantage` over most lawmakers.

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