Each week, Rep. Eric Descheenie drives roughly 170 miles from his home in Chinle to Flagstaff on a narrow two-lane highway that crisscrosses the flat lands, high plateaus and desert of Legislative District 7.
He travels south on U.S. Route 191 for about 30 miles to Indian Route 15 for another 20. After a short stint on State Route 77, he’s back on Indian Route 15 for another 70 miles. From there, he takes Leupp Road to Interstate 40 west to Flagstaff.
The three-hour drive is “pretty hard,” Descheenie said.
And that’s not where his drive ends.
From Flagstaff, Descheenie drives another two hours south on Interstate 17 to Phoenix.
In total, the freshman lawmaker drives five hours, more than 300 miles one way, to his job at the Capitol.
“That drive has essentially been my universe the last two years,” he said.
Descheenie said the long drive from one of the farthest corners of the state to the Capitol each week, and the time away from his family during the legislative session have taken a toll on him.
Neither Descheenie nor his seatmate Rep. Wenona Benally, D-Window Rock, are seeking re-election after one term.
The freshmen lawmakers cited the commute, time commitment and low pay as some of the reasons that led to their decision.
Those same issues have contributed to a high turnover rate in the state’s largest legislative district, especially when compared to districts that are in more urban areas or closer to the Capitol.
Since 1999, 14 lawmakers have represented LD7 and its predecessor Legislative District 2. Of those, about half only served one term.
Former lawmaker Albert Hale, who served in the Senate from 2004 to 2010 and in the House from 2011 to 2016, said the turnover in the district has led to a loss of institutional knowledge and continuity.
Hale said it takes time to fully understand the legislative process and develop strong relationships with colleagues, lobbyists and other Capitol insiders.
“You can’t really develop that knowledge of how the legislative system operates in just two years,” he said.
Of the 90 lawmakers, Descheenie, Benally and Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai, D-Window Rock, have the longest commute, about a five-hour drive each way from their home in LD7 to the Capitol.
Rep. Becky Nutt, R-Clifton, a small town in Greenlee County near the Arizona-New Mexico border, has the second longest commute – about a four hour drive spanning 200 miles.
Yuma lawmakers commute roughly three hours each way, as do those in Legislative District 5 and Nutt’s seatmates in southern Arizona’s Legislative District 14.
Those who represent Phoenix and the surrounding areas have much shorter commutes, typically about 15 to 30 miles each way, which takes about 30 minutes without traffic. The longest drive for those in the Phoenix metro area is about an hour for those in the East Valley and Cave Creek.
Peshlakai said she has tried taking different routes from Window Rock to Phoenix, going through Globe, Payson and sometimes Flagstaff, but whichever way she takes, it’s still a long drive.
“There’s no getting around it, that’s just the way it is logistically,” she said. “We could run a bill for a bullet train from the Capitol to Window Rock or somewhere in LD7, but I’m sure that’s not likely to happen.”
That’s a drive that Hale knows all too well – he lived in St. Michaels, just south of Window Rock, when he served in the Legislature.
“It is a long drive. It takes about 10 to 12 hours out of your week, and then the mileage you put on your vehicle and the mileage you put on yourself, that can take a toll,” he said.
Members are reimbursed the federal mileage rate, 54.5 cents per mile, and they are eligible to be reimbursed every two weeks when they’re paid, said House Republican spokesman Matt Specht.
But it’s not just the long commute.
Descheenie said a major reason he decided not to seek re-election this year is because he wants to focus on raising his three young sons, who are all under the age of 11.
He said while he has enjoyed his time at the Legislature, it has been difficult to spend so much time away from his family. He also said this is a critical time in a child’s life in Navajo culture – the time when a father teaches his sons what it means to be a man in “Diné society.”
“It’s one of those things where I felt I could manage both, my responsibilities as a father, especially a Navajo father because there’s some cultural responsibilities tied up there as well, and my role as a lawmaker for District 7,” he said. “However, as things have unfolded over the last few months, it has become very clear that being able to manage both of these areas in my life that are very important to me was becoming more and more difficult.”
He said while he’ll have other opportunities to run for office, and it’s something he hasn’t ruled out for the future, he won’t ever get this time with his children back.
“My passion for leadership and making a difference in people’s lives is always going to be there. I can always do what I can from wherever I am,” he said. “I love serving the district. I love serving in the Legislature, it was always a dream of mine to join the ranks of the members, but my boys are a priority.”
Like Descheenie, Benally said being away from her husband, mother, brother, and nieces and nephews for five months out of the year was a challenge.
“It became incredibly difficult as the session went on. It was a really tough decision, but I decided this would be my one and only time at the Legislature,” she said, adding that it was time to allow someone who “would be more available to carry out the duties of the office” to take her seat.
Peshlakai said since most of the lawmakers hailing from the district are Democrats, being in the minority party presents its own challenges for newcomers.
“They run, they get into office, they feel like they’re really going to make a difference, and then they get here and their wings are clipped by the partisanship. I think there’s a little bit of frustration with that,” she said.
Hale said that was one reason why he decided against running for re-election in 2016.
“When people ask me why I chose not to run again for re-election after 14 years, I just said I’m tired of living the definition of insanity – saying the same old thing, expecting different results, pushing the same legislation, expecting different results,” he said.
But that could change, they said, if Democrats gain seats in the House or Senate in the coming election.
Hale said another factor that has contributed to the high turnover rate and also prevents some people from running in the first place is the low pay. Lawmakers earn an annual salary of $24,000 in addition to a daily allowance of $35 for Maricopa County residents and a $60 per diem for those outside the county.
He said lawmakers either have to be independently wealthy or have a profession they can still practice while they’re serving. Hale, a lawyer, said he was able to continue his legal work on Fridays when the Legislature was done for the week.
Benally said one thing that would encourage more people from remote parts of the state to run for the Legislature is if it were a full-time job. She said that would not only help alleviate some of the challenges lawmakers from rural Arizona face, it would make the endeavor more worthwhile and encourage more people to run for office.
She added that right now it’s difficult to even find candidates in her district.
“There are a lot of great people who want to step up and run, but when we tell them it’s basically a 10-hour drive every week, you have to live in Phoenix for five months, you’re going to have to have an employer who supports you for five months and allows you to return for the remainder of the year, when you put all those factors together, some really good candidates say they can’t do it. It’s really impossible,” she said.
Democrats Myron Tsosie and Arlando Teller, both of Chinle, have filed to run for the two LD7 House seats, as has Republican Doyel Shamley, of Eagar. Peshlakai will face off against Pinetop-Lakeside resident JL Mealer, a Republican, in November.
Peshlakai said experiencing these challenges firsthand and seeing how it has affected the district is what encouraged her to run again.
“For me, I did feel all those frustrations, but seeing all the lawmakers we have sent (to the Capitol) just kind of reaffirmed my commitment to trying to be a solid leader and give some continuity to constituents,” she said.s