Some Arizona teenagers learned a real-world lesson at the Legislature in recent years – your public policy ideas will go nowhere if they conflict with the Republican majority.
That’s been life for Democratic lawmakers for years, but students who went to the Capitol to push for school safety, gun reform and climate change action left feeling dismissed and disrespected.
And the lemon juice in that wound? Lawmakers who those students say were sometimes condescending and refused to meet with them rave about the civic involvement of children and teenagers who pushed innocuous bills sponsored by Republicans.
Republicans say refusing to sponsor progressive bills does not equate to disrespect.
Jordan Harb, a Mesa High School senior who organized students around school safety last year, knows that feeling all too well. After leading marches and die-ins to push for gun reform a year ago, Harb and other student activists with Arizona March for Our Lives switched tactics this year, working with Democratic and Republican lawmakers on legislation that would have required school districts to adopt plans to help at-risk students before they can harm themselves or others.
They had bipartisan sponsors for their legislation and one bill made it out of the Senate, but both the House and Senate versions were halted before they could be heard by the full House. Instead, Harb spent weeks reading about a juicy bill pushed by another high school senior.
Gov. Doug Ducey this week signed a measure naming lemonade the state drink. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Warren Petersen on behalf of Gilbert teen Garrett Glover, follows the designations in recent years of the state metal (copper) and state dinosaur (Sonorasaurus), both of which resulted from students pitching their Republican legislators.
“I feel very disrespected when lawmakers are so eager to work with young people when it’s about something stupid,” Harb said. “But when we come to the table with something very well-thought out, written with stakeholders from across the state, actually substantive, we struggle to even have a hearing because lawmakers have that connotation for young people – the only thing you’re able to do is write a lemonade bill or a dinosaur bill.”
The students involved with March for Our Lives started their activism with a bang – a 15,000-person march to the state Capitol to demand background checks for gun purchases and more funding for school counselors. When Gov. Doug Ducey and Republican lawmakers refused to meet with them, the students staged die-ins in the waiting area of Ducey’s office and the lobbies of the House and Senate.
Those tactics laid the foundation for the group’s current work, Harb said.
“If we hadn’t done a die-in, if we hadn’t done sit-ins, I don’t think the governor would’ve even come out with a school safety proposal in the first place,” he said. “I don’t think anyone in this state would care what March for Our Lives was.”
But while their aggressive tactics brought the March for Our Lives students name recognition, they soon realized it wouldn’t result in legislation. Instead, they revised their tactics.
“We had to take a traditional approach because unfortunately the people who didn’t want to meet with us were re-elected,” Harb said.
This year, they changed their focus to something they thought was actually feasible in the Republican-controlled Legislature – improving support systems for mental health. It’s a message that resonated with some Republican lawmakers, including Phoenix Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, who sponsored the Senate version of the students’ legislation.
“They worked on identifying the problem,” Brophy McGee said. “At the end of the day, the problem is mental health, whether the weapon chosen is a gun, a knife or something else, and they attacked it with this model legislation.”
Both Brophy McGee’s bill and a House version sponsored by Tucson Democrat Daniel Hernandez failed. The Senate bill never received a hearing in the House and House Rules Chairman Anthony Kern didn’t schedule the House version in his committee.
Despite the legislation’s failure, the students are still getting most of what they asked for this year. Kathy Hoffman, the state superintendent of public instruction, announced this week that she’ll create a school safety task force like the one proposed in Brophy McGee’s and Hernandez’s bills.
It’s an end-run around the Legislature that Harb said was only possible because voters elected a statewide Democrat.
“This wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for Kathy Hoffman being elected,” he said. “And so there may not be legislation passed this year or next year. I think what’s more important is their messaging… people are going to keep that in mind when they’re going to the ballot box next year.”
Petersen, the House majority leader and sponsor of the lemonade bill, said House Republicans do care about school safety. Hours after Petersen received questions for this article, his caucus blasted out a specifics-free press release about how House Republican leaders believed school safety resources would be included in the budget.
“The allegation that we’re not addressing school safety is also fake news,” Petersen said. “We have been working on it all session. It’s going to be a significant component in the budget. We’ve already passed a lot of bills that deal with it.”
He pointed specifically to a bill by Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Phoenix, that will require schools to train personnel on suicide awareness and one sponsored by Rep. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, that requires schools to report suspected crimes to law enforcement, at the risk of losing eligibility for School Safety Program grants. Bowie’s bill passed both chambers on overwhelming margins; Barto’s was opposed by the Arizona Education Association and the American Civil Liberties Union and passed on party-line votes. Ducey signed both.
“Not running liberal policy doesn’t mean you’re not doing work and doesn’t mean you’re not making progress,” Petersen said. “We have conservative policies that work and that we’re working on.”
NOT TAKEN SERIOUSLY
Young activists’ issues with the Legislature extend beyond school safety. Teens who say their generation will be most affected by the negative impacts of climate change say they’ve struggled to be taken seriously.
Aditi Narayanan, a 16-year-old junior at BASIS Phoenix, helped organize a student group, AZ Youth Climate Strike, that urged legislative action on climate change. She and other members of the group spent time at the Capitol this session talking to lawmakers about bills on water conservation, solar power and fracking.
“A lot of legislators are just like ‘Oh, my God, you guys are 16, that’s so cute,’ and they don’t think we actually understand the issues,” Narayanan said. “We’ve had representatives that refused to speak to us.”
Some lawmakers said they were too busy to speak, or directed the students to talk to interns instead, Narayanan said. The students left feeling disheartened.
“I noticed that state lawmakers make a lot of laws that primarily affect young people, and they were so surprised when young people came to the Capitol,” Narayanan said. “There are a lot more bills that we should be working on before lemonade.”
Legislation the Youth Climate Strike organizers supported didn’t go anywhere this year, so students are redirecting their attention to local government and education.
Another national youth environmental group with Arizona chapters, the Sunrise Movement, already does most of its organizing on the local level, organizer Jess Bristow said. The group’s members spent a lot of this session focused on Arizona’s drought contingency plan, which they said didn’t do enough to conserve water.
When lobbying lawmakers about water issues and renewable energy, the Sunrise Movement members weren’t taken seriously, said Bristow, a 22-year-old Arizona State University student who expects to graduate in December with a bachelor’s degree in sustainability.
“People look at you like you’re smaller than them or you’re not as intelligent or as experienced,” she said.
Petersen said his lemonade bill, Brophy McGee’s 2018 state dinosaur bill and then-Sen. Steve Smith’s 2015 state metal bill are acts of constituent service, no different than making proclamations on the floor, giving tours, meeting with school groups or introducing guests in their chambers’ galleries.
He said he has worked on other important issues, including a bill signed by Ducey that would require Arizona regulators to recognize professional licenses from other states, and he had the time to do meaningful legislation and a small bill for a teenager. And Petersen contends no one would have criticized the lemonade bill if it were sponsored by a Democrat.
“If you’re a conservative Republican, no matter what, there is an issue,” he said. “I think if this would have been a Democrat’s bill, this would have been touted as a wonderful service they’re doing for somebody.”
Sen. Juan Mendez, a Tempe Democrat who has voted against every bill designating a new state symbol, said that’s not the best way to work with students.
“Those are not authentic opportunities for civic engagement,” Mendez said. “They are placating at best, and they really are not the way to contribute to civic growth.”
Students, especially high school students who have recently been through government classes, often know more about civics than most adults, Mendez said. He said they should be able to vote and introduce legislation on issues that matter to them.
As a college student, Mendez was the president of ASU Young Democrats. He said he received the opportunity in college to be taken seriously, and he tries to extend that same opportunity to young people he meets with now.
“Every time I talk to youth, I tell teachers that if they want to work on legislation I’ll support it if it’s progressive,” he said. “And I’ll connect them with the right lawmaker if it’s not.”
But when it comes to success at the Legislature, Petersen said students need to keep political realities in mind.
“We are hearing them,” Petersen said. “We are taking their input. That doesn’t mean that a conservative is going to run some far-left radical bill, and they’re trying to equate that with not listening.”