(For the AZ Daily Star, July 6, 2014. Click here for a link to the Star article)
New U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics place Arizona next to last among the states for recovering jobs lost to the recession.
That fact hits particularly close to home in Yuma County — the heart of Legislative District 4— where unemployment stood at 26.5 percent in May.
So it’s little wonder fixing the economy is such a critical issue among the three Democrats vying for the district’s two seats in the Arizona House of Representatives.
Where the three differ is on how to get the job done, and they have different political priorities.
Investment representative Jose Leonardo Suarez would support legislation creating a guest worker program for migrants and believes undocumented people in Arizona should be allowed to apply for driver’s licenses.
Charlene Fernandez, a former staffer for U.S. Congressmen Raul Grijalva and Ed Pastor, says an educated workforce will boost the economy and strongly supports increasing transparency in state agencies.
Incumbent Lisa Otondo is proud to stand by her voting record from her first term. She supports preventative services, for both health care and land management, and believes a strong public school system will help attract businesses to the state.
Suarez says the best way to improve the economy is to invest in proper public infrastructure. This “will help to attract private capital investment and get more job opportunities for people,” he says.
During four years on the San Luis City Council, population 32,000, he worked with other council members to fund community development and street improvements.
Suarez points out District 4 shares a long border with Mexico and is close to California. “We’re in a very enviable location, so we need to take advantage of that and keep promoting the legal international trade,” he says.
Fernandez says she believes the economy and education go hand in hand. Fully funded public schools will better prepare students for college and the work force, she says.
To increase funds for schools, Fernandez says many state agencies can be streamlined, improving efficiency and increasing transparency.
Reducing obstacles for businesses, such as making applications for certifications and regulations more straight-forward, would make Arizona more business friendly, Fernandez says.
She says her experience working with a small engineering firm in Yuma gave her first-hand knowledge about the difficulties such businesses face.
Small businesses are important because “the money they generate stays in our communities,” Fernandez says.
Otondo stresses the importance of trade with Mexico for her district. During her first term, she met with the Mexican consulate several times. Otondo cites a need for coordination between the federal government and the Mexican government to ensure trade continues.
Loopholes in tax credits are a problem Otondo says must be reviewed to “find what is beneficial for the state and for the state revenues.” Some of these tax credits are antiquated, she says.
Proper management of public lands is another way to avoid financial losses, Otondo says. Although wildfires are not a primary issue in District 4, Otondo points out the negative effect of a fire on the entire state budget.
“When we take care of state lands, it benefits everybody from the south to the north,” Otondo says.
The candidates agree more money should go to education.
Suarez and Fernandez both strongly support science and technology education. Candidates have different ideas for how to address public education needs.
Suarez stresses the need for educational programs to help students prepare for the “real challenges” presented by increasingly globalized markets. And he would increase funding for extracurricular activities that help students get more prepared for life after school.
Fernandez, a former school board member, focuses on the importance of ensuring schools are well-equipped and class sizes are manageable for teachers. Public money for full-day kindergarten and preschool would help prepare students from an early age for a better education, Fernandez says.
Otondo wants to focus on funding public education rather than promoting private schools.
Better education means a more skilled workforce, she says, which in turn will help attract more businesses to the state.
“If we are going to take tax dollars to put it into education, there better be some accountability,” which is not available when funds go to private education, she says.
Otondo meets with teachers in her district and listens to the Arizona Education Association.
None of the candidates support SB1070.
Fernandez and Otondo say the tough immigration law hurt business and tourism ties with Mexico.
“It felt racially motivated,” Fernandez says. “It felt like a scare tactic and we’re better than that.”
Both say immigration reform must be addressed at the federal level.
Although Suarez does not support undocumented immigration, he says communities and roads will be safer if undocumented people already living and working in Arizona are allowed to apply for and hold driver’s licenses, which is now prohibited by a 1996 law.
The primary election is August 26. Early voting starts July 31.
The two winners of this race will face Republican Richard Hopkins in the November general election.
(Christa Elise Reynolds is a University of Arizona journalism student who is an apprentice at the Star.)