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'Brain drain': Arizona Democrats lose valuable experience as legislators resign

Leezah Sun, Jennifer Longdon, Athena Salman, Anna Hernandez and Amish Shah
(From left) Leezah Sun, Jennifer Longdon, Athena Salman, Anna Hernandez and Amish Shah

There has been something of an exodus of lawmakers from the Arizona Capitol of late. Just last week, Democratic Rep. Leezah Sun (Phoenix) resigned amid an ethics investigation and ahead of an expulsion vote she was likely to lose. Then, just minutes after that news broke another Democratic representative, Amish Shah (Phoenix), announced his own resignation from the House.

This all came on the heels of two other Democratic lawmakers leaving for greener pastures: Reps. Jennifer Longdon (Phoenix)  and Athena Salman (Tempe).

On top of that came the announcement from Sen. Anna Hernandez (D-Phoenix), who said she’s not resigning — but she’s not running for reelection either. Instead, she’s running for Phoenix City Council, where she’s hoping she’ll be able to get more done.

So, what do all of these vacancies mean for the future of the chamber? And what does all of this mean about what kind of place the Legislature is to work?

For more on all of that, The Show talked to Hank Stephenson, co-founder of the Substack the Arizona Agenda and longtime Capitol reporter.

LAUREN GILGER: Some of these lawmakers are going on to other things. Some are running for other offices. As I said, Rep. Leezah Sun, of course, was just about kicked out. Why are all of these resignations happening now?

HANK STEPHENSON: Well, like you mentioned, they’re all kind of different reasons. But I think the trend here is that Arizona is seeing kind of a state of political upheaval. There are a lot more opportunities out there in the world for Democrats with a little bit of lawmaking experience under their belt than there were a couple of years ago.

And for these lawmakers, they’re still in the minority. It’s not a great place to work. The pay sucks. So a lot of them are kind of looking around and seeing what else is possible. Of course, Leezah Sun is an outlier there. But the number of Democrats that have resigned in the last year from the Legislature is is very high historically.

GILGER: Yeah, I think the case of Sen. Anna Hernandez is interesting because she talked about this when she announced that she won’t run for reelection, that she’s going to go try for the city council instead. Tell us what she had to say there.

STEPHENSON: Yeah, I talked to her after she made the announcement and kind of asked her, what’s the deal? Why are you leaving now? And she said there are a lot of reasons here. One of them, she just thinks she can be more effective on the Phoenix City Council, where she’s not in the minority, wouldn’t be a Democrat who basically gets ignored as many do at the Capitol.

But also, there's the pay issue. I mean, lawmakers earn $24,000 a year, and that’s before they get their per diem and mileage allowance. But city council people make closer to $60,000. That’s a livable wage for somebody who works in politics.

And she said she has to move to run in this city council district that she wants to run in because she doesn’t technically live there. She lives a couple of blocks over. But even that cost her more in rent. So there are a lot of considerations for these lawmakers. Just imagine trying to live on $24,000 a year. It’s not a good job.

GILGER: That’s really interesting. So the pay is one thing. What do you think this says, or does this say something about just how gridlocked the Legislature is?

STEPHENSON: Yeah, you know, the pay is part of it. Part of it’s just the vibe and the atmosphere down there. … Everyone’s partisan, everyone’s bickering. Everybody’s all up in everybody’s business. It is just kind of chaos all the time. It’s hurry up and wait atmosphere, and that gets old, you know?

You don’t want to do that for your entire life. There’s a lot of reasons why people don’t stick around the Legislature very long. And that means that besides term limits, which force these people out eventually, a lot of them just leave of their own volition because they don’t like the job.

And that means that we don’t have lawmakers at the state Capitol who really know what they’re doing. I mean, it takes several years to get up to speed, to have some sort of expertise on some policy area, to be effective, to be good at the job. And by the time they get to that point, a lot of them just end up quitting.

GILGER: Yeah. Is it notable, Hank, what do you think about the fact that all of these resignations came from the Democratic Party?

STEPHENSON: Yeah, I think there’s a you know, there’s a lot of opportunities for Democrats out there right now. So I think that’s part of it. New governor, new administrations across the state with Democratic leaders in them. So there are a lot of different opportunities for them. Rep. Athena Salmon left, for example, to go pursue a work with a pro-choice organization that really wouldn’t have been possible in Arizona a couple of years ago at the same level that it is now.

But the thing that sticks with me is this huge brain drain that we’re seeing from the Democratic caucuses. They already lost their leader in the House and in the Senate last year, Andres Cano — the House Democratic leader — left to go to Harvard, and (former Sen.) Raquel Terán left to run for Congress. So we already had to replace Democratic leadership.

And now four people at once leaving from the House Democratic Caucus. That’s a huge chunk of their members.

GILGER: Let’s talk about the timing, too, Hank, because the Democrats are really hoping to be able to flip one or both of these houses in the next election. They are behind by just a very slim margin in both. And they’ve been talking about this for a long time, I know. But is it any more likely, you think, to happen this time around?

STEPHENSON: Probably. Like you said, they’re only one seat away from tying up either the House or the Senate. I’ve always been pretty skeptical of Democrats’ plans to take over the Legislature, but they have moved those margins so close over the years that now it’s a matter of can they win one seat and not lose any seats?

And I think the real question is that second part of it, which is can they not lose any seats? Because last year they were on track to tie up the state House but lost a seat in a Democratic stronghold. And that seems to be just how it always goes for the Democrats. It’s kind of a Lucy-and-the-football situation. They get so close and then at the last minute they screw something up and end up not being able to achieve those goals.

GILGER: So should they, Hank, have stuck it out? Maybe some of these folks stuck it out and maybe gotten into the majority for once next time around? Like, is this the wrong time to leave?

STEPHENSON: Maybe. It’s certainly more fun in the majority. You can actually get things accomplished as opposed to just voting no on bills and hoping that the governor vetoes them at the end of the day, which is the position that most Democrats are in now. So next year, some of these people who left may be regretting it.

GILGER: Yeah. Did Democrats — very quickly tell me — do you think they expected to have more sway in the Legislature because there is now a Democratic governor in the governor’s office, that’s that’s a turn of events?

STEPHENSON: Yeah, I think so.You can’t really expect the Capitol to change until you change the Capitol. But with having a Democratic governor up there on the ninth floor, I think that a lot of them really hoped that they would be able to not only kind of have say with small amendments, which is the stage that they’re at right now, but actually be able to pass meaningful policy and get it sent up to the governor’s office.

And that’s just not really happening. The Democrats, at their best, are really working around the edges right now, trying to change policy slightly before it gets up to the governor’s office. But that is still not the same as being able to pass the bills that you were sent down there to work on.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.