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Dem House freshmen break tradition, turn up the ‘volume’

(Photo by Paulina Pineda/Arizona Capitol Times)

(Photo by Paulina Pineda/Arizona Capitol Times)

Democratic Rep. Isela Blanc said before being sworn in to represent Tempe’s Legislative District 26, she got some questionable advice: “Sit back. Watch. Avoid talking.”

“I heard it more than once, and I’ve heard it more than once since,” Blanc said.

She didn’t take the advice very seriously though. She was elected to represent the needs of her constituents, she said, and the only power she has is her voice.

Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, said during orientation, she was told to “trust the process” at the House.

“‘It’s very good. It works,’” she said staffers and other lawmakers told her.

But as a member of the minority party, Epstein said, the process doesn’t work if you don’t speak up.

Blanc and Epstein are two of the eight freshmen women Democrats in the House of Representatives.

The Arizona Legislature welcomed one of its largest freshman classes in 2017. More than one-third of the members of the House – 13 Democrats and 12 Republicans – were newly elected lawmakers, never having served as elected officials in any capacity.

But the lack of governmental or lawmaking experience hasn’t stopped the women from using this opportunity to speak out for causes that are important to them and for pushing for changes at the Legislature.

The group is outspoken, often questioning the status quo and challenging their Republican colleagues, many of whom have accused them of grandstanding on the House floor, activism and theatrics.

They are also very active on social media, engaging with constituents on Twitter and Facebook, posting photos and live streams of colleagues as they speak on the floor, and encouraging voters to reach out to lawmakers to demand changes.

It’s in sharp contrast to the attitude of freshmen in previous legislative sessions that have typically spent their first year or two listening and learning, said Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix.

“This is a really intelligent, assertive group of freshmen,” Rios said.

A different tactic

It’s also a different tactic than those used by more seasoned Democrats in the House and Senate, or Democrats in swing districts, who often vote alike with Republicans and for the most part keep quiet during debates on the floor and in committee.

And it’s a different approach than those used by freshmen Republicans who have an easier time bringing their issues to the forefront given that it’s a Republican-controlled Legislature.

Freshman Rep. Todd Clodfelter, R-Tucson, for example, said he’s more of a “sit back and watch approach kind of guy.” If he needs to push one of his measures through committee, he’ll reach out to the committee members first. If the bill gets to the floor, he’ll whip votes.

He said it’s rare for him to stand up to explain his vote on the floor, and usually he’ll only speak if he gets riled up.

“We are in the position as the majority party that we really don’t have to twist arms to the level they (Democrats) seem to have to,” he said.

Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, another freshman, said it’s easier for him and his GOP colleagues to debate issues that are important to them on the floor without having to go to the same lengths as Democrats.

“We can get our bills through committee, we can get our bills out on the floor, and we have a chance of voting them off the floor. That’s just the way it works,” he said.

However, despite being criticized by their Republican colleagues for what some see as antics on the floor, and efforts to prevent them from speaking up, the women said they won’t be stopped.

“Being quelled is just the best reason to speak up more,” Epstein said. “And I always think in terms of I’m here to represent other people. So somebody else tells me hush. What? You’re telling the 250,000 people I represent to hush? No.”

Fire to speak

Democratic lawmakers have long accepted that as the minority party, their bills typically won’t get a hearing in the Republican-controlled Legislature. After years of being bashed over the head with that notion, many have learned to “play the game,” and fall in line with the long-held traditions of the chamber.

But the freshmen Democrats have challenged the status quo these past two sessions. They stand by their convictions and values and won’t let other members roll them over.

“As a Democrat, we are not included in any policy discussion,” Blanc said. “As a Democrat, our voice is shut down, our bills are not heard, and that’s not OK. In previous years, maybe we’d say ‘This is how the game is played.’ Well guess what … the only thing I have is the power of my voice. The tool in my toolbox that I have to display on the floor is to speak authentically, to ask questions, to use my voice, and to exercise my freedom of speech.”

For many of the women, that fire to speak out comes from their previous line of work as lawyers, activists, and nonprofit workers.

Others have felt the need to challenge the status quo since they were teenagers.

Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, said she became politically active in college, eventually lobbying for higher education funding, working on local and national public policy issues, and local election campaigns before running for office.

After President Trump was elected in 2016, Salman said she felt a same sense of urgency and a greater responsibility to act considering that she had also just been elected to the state House of Representatives. Her goal, she said, is to give a voice to those who typically haven’t had one.

Rep. Pamela Powers Hannley, D-Tucson, has a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She said she has always been naturally inquisitive, and takes nothing at face value.

“It has come in handy with this job,” she said.

Powers Hannley said before she was elected, she would attend community events in Tucson where her representatives would often say that because they were in the minority there was nothing they could do. She refused to believe that.

“The people back in Tucson, they expect me to speak up. That’s why I persist,” she said.

Epstein said when she was 16 years old she worked in a dress shop selling shoes. The store had a strict dress code policy – employees had to wear solid colors, no patterns. However, one day she decided to wear a brown dress with little flowers on it, which she thought was close enough.

One of the managers, she said, thought otherwise, and he reprimanded her for wearing the dress.

“And I’ll never forget him telling me with his nose raised in the air ‘Don’t rock the boat.’ And at the time I thought? “Why? Why not rock the boat? Maybe the boat needs to be rocked,’” she said.

She’s approached her job at the Legislature in a similar manner, she said. But it’s not just about rocking the boat, it’s about looking at how what they’re doing really impacts constituents’ lives.

And she said all of her colleagues should be doing the same thing.

“This should be normal. What we’re doing should be normal. Why isn’t everybody speaking up like that? That’s what surprises me,” she said. “We have to have the courage of our convictions to speak up.”

More to come

The women’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed.

On several occasions, Republicans have accused Democrats of political theater, grandstanding, and protesting rather than debating issues on the floor.

And Republicans have actively worked to shut down their efforts by refusing to answer questions during debates on the floor, or limiting the debate to one question. On several occasions, Republicans have called for a point of order to prevent Democrats from continuing with their line of questioning, arguing that their questions are irrelevant to the debate.

During a Banking and Insurance Committee hearing on March 12, Rep. David Livingston, R-Peoria, shut down a lengthy debate on an insurance bill by calling for the question, meaning members would have to stop discussing the bill and instead vote on the measure, after Rep. Kelli Butler, D-Paradise Valley, questioned the intent of the bill and grilled the expert witnesses.

The following day, during points of personal privilege, Rep. Noel Campbell, R-Prescott, criticized Democrats for what he perceived to be political theater on the floor.

In response, Rep. Wenona Benally, D-Window Rock, said if Democrats were included in discussions they wouldn’t have to speak out on the floor. However, as she tried to make her point, Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, tried to end the discussion by calling a point of order.

On March 29, while debating a bill during Committee of the Whole, Majority Leader John Allen, R-Scottsdale, accused Blanc of impugning members and asked the chairman to force her to sit down. That move led other members to try to actively prevent the discussion on the bill from continuing.

But the women said they won’t be deterred.

Rep. Kirsten Engel, D-Tucson, said if Democrats were allowed to be a part of the process they wouldn’t have to go to these lengths.

“You don’t want to be seen as problematic and you don’t want to slow things down,” she said. “But on the other hand, you also want to make sure that people know what we’re thinking when we’re passing bills.”

Salman said she was elected to the Legislature just like every other member and it’s her duty to represent the needs of her constituents.

“We were elected to ask questions and to really do our due diligence and dig deeper into the policies that we’re trying to pass,” she said. “If they are concerned about the volume at which we’re speaking, then why do they shorten the process so much?”

For others, like Benally, their motivation is paving the way for future women lawmakers.

“Not only are we going to keep doing what we’re doing, there’s going to be more of us,” she said. “This class of freshmen women, if they think we’re difficult, wait for the women who will come after us because there will be more women coming into this chamber.”

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