Democratic lawmaker begins bid for House speaker ahead of election

Arren Kimbel-Sannit//September 10, 2020

Democratic lawmaker begins bid for House speaker ahead of election

Arren Kimbel-Sannit//September 10, 2020

Wooden judges gavel with a shiny brass band resting upright on a wooden base, close up low angle view with focus to the head of the gavel on a dark background with copyspace

A slate of Democrats has announced its bid for leadership of the state House of Representatives, solidifying long-swirling Capitol rumors about a challenge to current House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez.

Rep. Diego Espinoza, a Democrat from Tolleson, went public September 9 with his ambitions to run for House speaker should his party take a majority in the chamber come November, rolling out a slick website and a lengthy vision statement for his newly formed Democratic Unity Caucus.

Espinoza’s team, which includes Rep. Jennifer Longdon of Phoenix as majority leader and Sen. Andrea Dalessandro of Green Valley as whip, is running on a platform of internal reforms that the three lawmakers say are necessary if Democrats want to be a successful governing party next year. In addition to pledging improved communication and party unity, Espinoza promises to expand the Legislature’s role in budgeting, create a committee to address indigenous peoples’ issues and deliver on longstanding policy goals like education funding and expanded access to health care.

“For the first time in more than half a century, the Democratic Party has the opportunity to control a majority of one or both Arizona State legislative chambers,” Espinoza tweeted. “In order to unwrite AZ’s dark history and write a bright future, we need to be bold, we need to be unapologetic, but most importantly, we need to be united.”

That the word “unity” appears 32 times in the ticket’s 12-page vision is no accident. Newfound Democratic success in the Legislature has come with its share of growing pains, as lawmakers struggle to figure out whom the party should listen to, how it should articulate its goals and what courtesy it owes the Republican majority.

Fernandez’s solutions to these quandaries haven’t always gone over well, and a loose faction of lawmakers frustrated with her leadership has formed behind Espinoza.

Diego Espinoza
Diego Espinoza

“We know that to be successful, we cannot create a top-down leadership structure. Instead, our goal is to ensure that all members, regardless of seniority, are heard,” the leadership document reads. That means respecting voting records of individual members that may go against the grain, and fostering “a mutual understanding and respect for what makes each legislative district unique.”

Above all, however, it seems to suggest a need for greater transparency and communication.

“It’s no secret that the House Democratic caucus is very divided,” said Rep. Daniel Hernandez, D-Tucson, who supports Espinoza. “The big thing this team brings is really an attempt to say we’re going to leave all that BS behind.”

Hernandez and others have in private and in public criticized Fernandez’s leadership style, which they say leaves Democrats who are out of her good graces in the dark, leading to divided votes and missed opportunities for collaboration, even with the GOP. That became apparent in the primaries, when a batch of candidates with support from a prominent labor attorney challenged incumbent Democrats with ties to Fernandez, creating an opportunity for her critics to highlight both procedural and political challenges, ranging from a lack of development and guidance for freshmen lawmakers to a failure to deliver on legislation important to key Democratic constituencies.

Espinoza said his run isn’t meant as a direct criticism of Fernandez’s leadership, and suggested that the divides within the caucus – ideological, personal, whatever – are simply “areas of opportunity that we can expand on and improve upon internally and externally.”

Fernandez of Yuma, who is also vying for House speaker, is not rushing to match her opponent’s efforts.

“To me, it’s an issue of putting the cart before the horse,” she said. “Our goal is to get to the majority.”

And that’s her main pitch to the members: she has presided over a period of success for Democrats, and hopes to continue that streak even further. No public roll-out is needed to drive that message across.

Charlene Fernandez
Charlene Fernandez

“What I can tell you is we went from 23 (Democratic members) when I started to 29. That speaks volumes,” she said.

She challenged criticism that her team didn’t do enough to communicate or make Democrats feel included, suggesting that perhaps some of her critics within the party just aren’t paying attention.

“You’re not going to hear what kind of communications are going on if you’re not there,” she said. “We show up.”

Though the Democratic Party has political wings, Espinoza’s bid isn’t exactly ideological. Dalessandro, who is counting on cruising to election in the House after vacating the Legislative District 2 Senate seat, is one of the Senate’s most progressive members in addition to being one of the most experienced Democrats, something she said could allow her to navigate those wings easily.

“I think I can heal some of those divides,” she said. “I have good relationships.”

Just because the new leadership ticket isn’t grouped by ideology doesn’t mean there is not an ideological component to this alignment. Espinoza and many of the dozen-or-so lawmakers who announced support for his bid have received campaign support from business and charter school groups, while Fernandez and her team – which now includes Rep. Reginald Bolding of Laveen as majority leader and Rep. Raquel Teran of Phoenix as whip – enjoy close relationships with progressive advocacy organizations like Living United for Change in Arizona.

In explaining his support for the new ticket, Hernandez said that Democrats have to appeal to suburban moms in the East Valley as much as they have to take input from LUCHA if they want to take the majority.

“We can have all these conversations that we want, but it doesn’t matter if we can’t deliver 31 votes,” he said.

Fernandez doesn’t think that will be a problem.

“Unity is not just a word on a piece of paper,” she said.