Democratic Rep. Kirsten Engel of Tucson is a University of Arizona professor and environmental lawyer who has built up an impressive resume in both academia and the legal field.
She worked as a staff attorney for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and attorney for Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund and did stints as the assistant attorney general in Massachusetts. She’s co-author of an environmental law textbook, and has worked as a visiting professor at Harvard and Vanderbilt.
Now she’s starting her first year as an Arizona state lawmaker, representing Tucson’s Legislative District 10. She sat down with the Arizona Capitol Times to discuss what drew her to elected office, first impressions of the Legislature and the similarities between life as a freshman lawmaker and a freshman in college.
Engel is the first in a series of Q&As the Capitol Times will be conducting with the freshman class of lawmakers.
You have one of the most impressive résumés, certainly of the freshman class, but also in the Legislature as a whole. So it kind of begs the question, what are you doing here?
Well, serving in public office is one of the most important contributions somebody can make. And I hope that my example will inspire more people who have an academic background like I do to go into the public sector. And I would say there’s a lot of people with very impressive résumés here.
But you must have to give up some of your responsibilities with the university to be down here, right?
Yes, I have cut back on my university obligations. I am still teaching this semester, so I go back to my district on Thursdays and I’m in the office on Friday and teaching my class on Fridays. There’s a lot of late nights here so I’m trying to keep up as much as I can with my teaching obligations.
What have you learned about the Legislature that you didn’t expect before you got elected?
You know, the incredible breadth of the issues that the Legislature deals with. I think it’s something that we all realize, the state has an awful lot of issues on its plate, but when you’re up close and personal with it there’s a lot to absorb and learn about in a very short time.
I think I saw you had sponsored four bills so far. Which one is the most important to you?
I think the education funding bills. So that education funding is really what motivated me to run for the Legislature. I’m also very interested in bringing more jobs to my district and the state, and in environmental protection. But it’s really the state’s really drastic cuts to public education over the last decade, and its failure to get back on top of education funding, that caused me to run for the Legislature. I have a bill to reauthorize and increase Proposition 301 for education, and that’s very important. And I am also looking at some other education bills that I will be introducing probably in the next week.
That brings up the question, as a Democrat, what do you realistically hope to achieve in the Republican-controlled Legislature?
I think the Democrats are working across the aisle. They’re working on issues that Republicans also think are incredibly important, such as education funding. We often ask the hard questions about the direction of the state. And I would hope that we will get more of our bills heard this year than maybe has been the case in the past. We’re sticking to the bills that voters actually think are important.
What’s the most frustrating part so far?
I wouldn’t really say anything is frustrating. There’s just a very short amount of time to really concentrate on things. So I would hope we focus on the big issues and not get caught up in too many small little issues. But no frustrations so far.
And you’re from one of the few split districts. Have you and your Republican seatmate sat down to find common ground yet?
Yes we have. We’ve both been very interested in the JTED (Joint Technical Education District) program, we both have bills on that. We sat down and talked about the importance of ninth grade JTED. So I think there’s going to be a lot of common ground.
If you could repeal one law, what would it be?
Well, one of my bills would increase the TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) funding to 24 months, so that’s sort of a repeal and replace of the policy instituted last year. And it was really gratifying to hear the governor talk about that in his State of the State speech.
How does being a freshman lawmaker compare to the freshman year of college?
I think it’s a lot alike. You’re meeting new people, you’ve got new suitemates, you’re trying to figure out the rules of the institution. And you come in with your own ideas and you’re trying to figure out how to accomplish them in this new environment.
Are there as many parties?
No. Not too many parties. But there’s a real sense of camaraderie, I think, among us freshmen. And I really appreciate the training sessions that we’ve had and the opportunities to bring the freshman class together, especially the ones that bring both Democrats and Republicans together. And you can see how the relationships you develop in this very beginning time period may be some of the most important ones that we have during the time we’re here.