Q&A with House Minority Leader Lupe Contreras

Contreras, House, legislative session

House Minority Leader Lupe Contreras said one of the biggest challenges of the 2023 legislative session was obtaining "the buy-in of our caucus, being that there were so many freshmen." (Photo by Jakob Thorington/Arizona Capitol Times)

Q&A with House Minority Leader Lupe Contreras

Editor’s note: This story was published in print in our Aug. 25 Session Wrap edition, which reviewed and analyzed the 2023 legislative session.

What were your biggest accomplishments this session?

You know what, getting the buy-in of our caucus, being that there were so many freshmen. To understand that in such a pivotal year, being that we had a Democratic governor, to work together as one team. That in my 11 years of being here at the Capitol, I think that was one of our biggest, at least mine in leadership, was one of my biggest accomplishments and I can’t say it was mine. Because in any … good leadership team, in any marriage, it’s a team.

Minority leader wasn’t a role you probably expected at the start of this session. How would you describe the job that former Leader Andrés Cano did in making sure Democrats were heard on important policy issues and uniting the caucus?

I think he did a great job. It’s no secret to anyone that Andrés and myself, I came from the Senate, and he was here in the House. He and I were not aligned when I first came here. And we worked together to become aligned being on leadership because that’s what leadership does. We worked together to be focused on what was the main thing and the focus was our caucus. He led by working together with our leadership team, I was assistant leader, and he and I worked with our leadership team to bring us together.

To touch on that week you just mentioned, eight bills sponsored by a Democrat were signed by Gov. Katie Hobbs this year. In 2022, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey signed 14 bills and 24 bills in 2021. And that’s not even counting the number of Dem bills even put up for a vote. There were 28 in 2023 compared to 72 just two years ago with identical splits in the Legislature. Can you describe what’s happening here and why?

The writing’s on the wall. The Republicans are just – they’re mad. They’re mad at seeing a Democrat governor, and they’re making the Democrats pay the price here in the Legislature. It’s disrespectful because we are all doing the same job. And we gave that respect to the prior governor, and we worked with the prior governor when we could. But because we are now sitting with a Democrat governor, they refuse to let there be any wins if there’s a “D” next to that bill. It’s just wrong.

What issues do you hope to prioritize next session?

Our labor family out there. We need to protect our workers. And I can pivot from there to one of the next things is our workers are out there and we have our population growth here and Arizona has gone crazy. I’m a lifelong resident here in Arizona. We who have been lifelong residents, we are acclimated to the heat of what we have here. The heat is real – this is Arizona. But with the population growth here in Arizona, the people that are coming from other states and their bodies aren’t acclimated to this and the heat is getting worse. With that population growth comes problems in homelessness and here we are with the deaths that we’re having. We need to have some kind of heat mitigation for the future, and we need to pass some legislation to help that out. We need to do something with the homelessness problem. We need to do something with our disability communities.

Is there anything that can realistically be done with ESAs? Speaker Ben Toma said Republicans will not relent on defending the program as it currently stands.

I have respect for Speaker Toma but ultimately he is one person. Yes, everything has to go through him in this body that we call the House. But we are all elected officials. This is the state of Arizona, I think we should all have a say in it. It should be for the entirety of the state, not just what one person is saying. They keep going off and touting this is for the poor to be able to get into the better schools. But yet, if you look at the numbers, it’s not the poor getting into the better schools. It’s the people already in the good schools.

Do you expect to see any action on the tamale bill next session? That seemed to cause a rift among some Democrat members of the Legislature?

You know anything’s possible. It’s a new session. Anything’s alive – everything’s still alive until sine die.

Is there a different approach you hope the Democrat caucus will take with the budget next year? There were some complaints this year that legislative Democrats weren’t as involved as they would’ve liked to be. Are those valid complaints?

You’re correct. I’m not going to deny what you’re saying. You’re spot on to a point. But let’s call it what it is. There were changes made. And I don’t want to revert to what the past was because we have a very bright future that we’ve already been working with currently for the past months. I can proudly say that with a new team the governor has up there, I can with every with every ounce of energy I have in my body say that things are looking 100% better.

Why does the Freedom Caucus have so much influence around here?

I guess you’d have to talk to the speaker about that one just like you had to talk to him about ESA. As you mentioned earlier, he could proudly say nothing’s going to happen to ESAs. But when the Freedom Caucus stands, things start changing. There’s enough numbers there (with the caucus) to stop their movement because there’s only 31 (Republicans). So, they lose one person – lose that number of individuals, they have to gain it on our side. But the problem is, is that none of the bills are ours.

Democrats have a chance of flipping the Legislature with our next election in 2024. After everything we saw from the majority this year, why should voters hand Democrats the keys to the Legislature?

In the years that I’ve been here in 11 years, there’s been a constant of change within the body, not only here, but in the Senate. There’s so much going on and the people in Arizona are seeing it. They want certain things done and they’re seeing that what’s done here, or what stopped here in the Legislature would have been passed if it would have gone to the voters. At what point are the people of Arizona going to say, wait, hold on here?