Arizona state Senator Lela Alston has served in the Legislature for 24 years. Chamber Business News sat down with the veteran legislator to hear about the differences between when she first served versus serving now, her main priorities this session, and advice she would give to those interested in entering politics.
Question: You served in the Legislature from 1977 – 1995 and then came back again in 2013. Did you notice any differences between then and now?
Answer: Oh yes, night and day! Well first of all, I spent all of my first 18 years in the Senate. And then when I came back I ran for the House seat. So that in and of itself is a different culture. There’s twice as many people, the norms over there are different than they are here. But the ability to work across the aisle politically between Republicans and Democrats, we were much less able to do that when I came back. I always had friends that would raise eyebrows because of personal relationship politically, and we just always had that when I served in the 1977-1995 era. I found it much more difficult to establish positive working relationships with members of the other party in the House. I find it now much more pleasant and workable now in the Senate. Part of it is because we have fewer numbers, part of it is because of term limits. Term limits we didn’t have term limits, they were established while I was still in office but I was never affected by them. So that you don’t have time to build good relationships by the time the person is termed out. And people who have higher ambitions often feel like they have to make their mark in a short amount of time, so they’re a little more cut throat than they would have been with a little more time. You’ve only got 8 years to become Speaker of the House, you only have 8 years to become President of the Senate and I think that colors people’s thinking and method of operation.
Q: What has been one of your favorite memories serving at the Legislature?
A: Wow, well I think I’ve got to be a part of a filibuster on transportation and made that what could have been a mean-spirited thing, a pleasant thing. I read transportation things like Burma-Shave advertisements, the Little Engine that Could, and I didn’t get called out on that, even though it was about transportation. Having had those experiences have been really good. I think working with people across the aisle, working for things that are really important. If I had to say I had a big deal memory, it would be when we finally got ASU West campus into the ground and I am happy to say I was an integral part of that. Now others were working on that issue before I got there, but I found myself in a position that actually completed and sealed the deal. We’ve got ASU West campus now that is a wonderful tribute to a lot of people, but I’m really happy I got that opportunity to be involved in that great institution. And one of the things we always said was that it would never be a residential campus and finally one of my friends, who has passed, Sen. Anne Lindeman, we worked hand-in-hand in getting that established, and we had some tough times working with the Governor at the time, Bruce Babbitt, but she did not live to see the day when a residential building was established on the West campus. I always think of her when I think of that because of the promises we made to the community and the university system. They weren’t so wild about having competition from ASU Main, and of course, it’s a whole different world today.
Q: What are your main priorities this session?
A: This session my number one priority, in addition to making sure we move forward with the Red for Ed movement, because I’m a retired school teacher and sit on a school board, so education issues are always number 1 for me still, that’s what got me into the business and keeps me in the business. But my other number 1 priority is homelessness, also an issue I’ve had from the get-go, however many decades ago that’s been. One thing that caused that to come even more to the forefront is that my neighbor was brutally murdered by a homeless person a little under a year ago. It was during Legislative session and I gave a floor speech about his death and his murder and why we are still underfunding the homeless trust fund because there is such a need, not only in my district which is Central Phoenix but in other areas of the state as well. We are just not doing what we need to do, and that is influencing the issues in neighborhoods across the states. I have picked up some colleagues who are unlikely, one of them is Rep. John Allen who is helping me with homeless issues this year and trying to get more money in that homeless trust fund so we can do a better job of taking care of our most needy persons and vulnerable people in the state. Heather Carter is another one that just jumped right in and said she wanted to be involved. Now that we have some bipartisan support for that issue and that we have some money available this year with more one-time money and ongoing revenue available, I think we will see some changes, finally. Those dollars were cut drastically when the Great Recession hit back in the early 2000s.
Q: How has it been working with the other side to get bipartisan issues passed?
A: In the eight years I served in the House was much more difficult than the first time I was in the Senate. I feel like we are on a much more positive trend in the Senate, but when you compare the number bills, the number of Republican bills that are coming out of the Senate and the Democratic bills coming out of the Senate, there is a wide disparity. We need to work on that, but we’re making progress. In the House, there was no Democrat bills that were getting out of here and there were maybe a handful. Hard to say why those got out and others didn’t, but, I have my suspicions.
Q: Who is one of your personal mentors or someone you look up to?
A: I’ve had several. One is Jim Wakes, who is a former member of the Phoenix City Council and former Corporation Commission and his wife Marcia Wakes who initially got me into politics because she was a state senator a term before me. She and Jim have been wonderful mentors since the very beginning and they still support me and my efforts to work in state government. I would also include Mike Colletto who is a volunteer lobbyist with the firefighters association who has been by my side for almost all of my political career. His support of me, and the firefighters of me, has been incredible over the years. And then of course I have two that when I ran for state school superintendent my co-chairs were Kino Flores who is on a school board in the west valley now and who was the principal of Carl Hayden High School at that time and Art Hamilton who was a renowned Minority Leader in the Arizona House. Both Art and Kino were involved with my political career and I consider them mentors as well. I’ve been really blessed to have such fine people to help me, to guide me, and they’re still people I look to for support and guidance when I have a question. Believe it or not, legislators don’t know everything, some of us thing we do, but we don’t, so we have to look for information and guidance.
Q: What is your favorite book?
A: My favorite book is a book of poetry, and it’s called The Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Lewis Stephenson and that is a book that I received as a child that my parents read to me and first introduced me to poetry and literature. It’s a child’s book but it’s still very meaningful to me and I have given that book to my children and my grandchildren. It’s not very esoteric but it’s very meaningful to me from my very young age.
Q: What is your advice to someone who wants to get involved in politics?
A: I think my number one advice is to get involved with your community first and your political organization or your interest in community. It came naturally to me because I was a teacher and so those were my issues and I had great mentors. There are number of really fine training programs for people who are interested in getting involved. They learn how to run campaigns, they get to learn about the issues. Flinn Brown is a wonderful program that trains young people about community; Valley Leadership is another one. Political parties also have training programs. Emerge is a wonderful one for training Democratic women for example and I believe there is a Republican one for young Republican women. Getting to know your own legislators or members of the court, whatever your interested is, it’s always nice to reach out. I’m mentoring a young women who’s a Flinn Brown scholar in Barrett college now and she’s a refuge from Africa who’s been her for only 7 years and already is a Flinn scholar and graduated from Bioscience High School, which is one of our PUHSD. There’s great talent in all of our kids and we can’t afford to waste that talent, and that’s why equal education opportunities are so important to me.