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Arizona House Minority Leader Andrés Cano steps down to attend Harvard

The top Democrat in the state House is quitting at the end of the legislative session to pursue a graduate degree in public administration.

Tucsonan Andrés Cano, the House minority leader, said Saturday he has been accepted into the Harvard Kennedy School. The one-year program begins in early July.

Cano said there appears to be a deal on a spending plan for the new fiscal year that begins July 1, making this an ideal time to leave. The program in Cambridge begins July 11.

He is the only Tucsonan in leadership in either party in either chamber.

The position is important because it is up to the party leader to both represent the interests of the caucus in not just budget but other priorities. And those in leadership of both parties have some clout in ensuring that the needs of their individual districts are addressed.

“I’m not concerned at all about Southern Arizona being represented,” Cano told Capitol Media Services. He said the rest of the delegation is “tested and resilient.”

But being elected by your colleagues to leadership does not guarantee that the majority of the caucus will follow.

That was proven just recently when Cano found he was one of just 11 House Democrats out of 28 on the floor voting against what had been dubbed the “tamale” bill to expand the kinds of home-cooked foods that could be sold to the public. It was only after Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs vetoed the measure that most Democrats came around to his side.

Once he quits, it will be up to the Democratic precinct committeemen in Legislative District 20, which covers Tucson from the Rillito River east to Country Club Road and much of the south side, to nominate three individuals to replace him for the balance of the term which runs through 2024. The final decision is up to the Pima County Board of Supervisors which must choose from that list of all Democrats.

“I ran for office at the height of the Red for Ed movement,” he said, when teachers and their allies demanded — and eventually got — state lawmakers and then-Gov. Doug Ducey to approve a 20% pay hike over four years.

“As as product of public schools and a first-generation college graduate, the next chamber is my public service was having an opportunity to represent my district in the state Capitol,” he said.

That, however, was not his first foray in the political arena.

Prior to that, he was a senior aide to the late County Supervisor Richard Elias. He he also has been the director of the LBGTQ+ Alliance Fund which provides grants to organizations within that movement.

“I came from nearly eight years in local government understanding the connection between local and state governments and how this place has in more ways under a Republican Legislature caused more harm to the people of Arizona than good,” he said.

And Cano said much of his political awakening came during the debate and approval over SB 1070. That 2010 measure was designed to have the state take an active role in finding and deporting those not in this country legally. While most of it has since been struck down, one portion remains: requiring police when they have the opportunity to check the immigration status of those in the vehicle they have stopped.

“That was an eye-opener for me,” he said.

“As a student, I recognized that my passion was in fighting for people from my district who needed voice and who needed meaningful representation here,” Cano said. That, he said, includes not just LBGTQ but also low-income individuals and immigrants.

Cano won his House seat in 2018 after coming out on top in the Democratic primary in a three-way race for the two available slots in the heavily Democratic district. He edged out Alma Hernandez who also got elected in the general election, and Olivia Cajero Bedford who was making an unsuccessful bid to return to the House after serving the maximum eight years in the Senate.

One of Cano’s early political battles was against Ducey and GOP lawmakers who wanted an across-the-board cut in state income tax rates. He pointed out that did little for lower-income residents.

“Instead of giving a tax break to mom, this bill puts more money into the hands of millionaires and billionaires who don’t have to worry about where or how their child is sleeping, what they’re eating, or how they’ll pay this month’s bills,” he said at the time.

Cano, who is gay, also played a role in the 2019 repeal of a 1991 law, dubbed “no promo homo,” that governed how schools can teach about AIDS and HIV.

One section made illegal any course that “promotes a homosexual lifestyle.” A second forbid anything that “portrays homosexuality as a positive alternative life-style.”

And the same law also said teachers cannot suggest that “some methods of sex are safe methods of homosexual sex,” though there was no similar bar on teaching “safe” heterosexual sex.

The repeal movement was aided by the fact that Mark Brnovich, then the state attorney general, told lawmakers he did not intend to mount a defense to the lawsuit filed in federal court by Lambda Legal and Educational Foundation on behalf of Equality Arizona and two students who are gay.

Cano said he will stay through the end of the current budget talks.

House Republicans said they intend to release a plan this coming week, something they said is close to a final deal they are negotiating with Hobbs.

Cano said Democrats have been “at the table,” though he said they have been “looking to the governor’s office” for leadership in dealing with the majority Republicans.

“The bottom line is, we want a bipartisan budget,” he said.

“We do believe the priorities we have advocated for, K-12, environment and water are key priorities,” Cano said. “And I do think that we will see the fruit of those negotiations very soon.”

He was less firm about whether the final budget will see the demand by Hobbs to roll back the universal vouchers approved last year which allow any parent to get funds to send children to private or parochial schools. That has proven to be a bigger drain on the budget than anticipated as applicants include students whose parents already had been sending them to private schools at their own expenses.

“It’s a top concern for many members of our caucus and I do believe we are close to a negotiation on vouchers,” Cano said.

The 30-year-old Cano, first elected in to the Legislature in 2018, said plans are to return to Arizona where his family is located. As to future political outings, he said “all options remain open.”

Cano’s departure is the second leadership loss this session for Democrats.

Democratic Sen. Raquel Terán of Phoenix resigned last month to pursue a congressional bid. Maricopa County supervisors are scheduled to pick a replacement this coming week.

Ignacio Ventura is a reporter for KJZZ. He graduated from the University of Southern California with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing and a minor in news media and society.