Editor’s Note: The questions and answers have been edited and paraphrased for brevity and clarity.)
T.J. Shope is a first term member of the House of Representatives in Arizona. At 28, he is one of the youngest members in the Arizona House.
Take us through your childhood and early years in Arizona.
My grandfather moved to Coolidge (Arizona) from Iowa in 1952, when my dad was only four years old. He started an IGA (Independent Grocers Association) store and we’ve owned Shope’s IGA ever since. I was born in 1985 in Florence and I have lived in Coolidge for most of my life. I graduated from Coolidge High School in 2003 and then went to Central Arizona College before transferring to Arizona State University, where I received a degree in political science in 2008.
Did you grow up working in the family business?
Yes. Ever since my grandfather moved here, we have been involved in the food business with Shope’s IGA —except for a short time when my father worked in the produce warehouses in Phoenix. We have a 16,000 square foot store that competes against Safeway and a Super Walmart in Coolidge. When the Walmart opened in 2001, we weren’t supposed to survive, but we have. We survive by concentrating on meat and produce. We have meat cutters on staff and also sell the freshest produce. We also get involved in sponsoring community events. That’s something the big stores don’t do.
You majored in political science in college. Were you always pointing toward a political career?
My grandfather was on the City Council in the 1970s and my dad was elected to the local school board when he was 23. In fact, he is currently serving his eighth term as mayor of Coolidge. Politics were always our dinner-time conversation. When I graduated from college, I moved back to Coolidge and did work in the store, but there was never any expectation that I would be a grocer for the rest of my life. My family told me I should do what makes me happy. In 2008, after graduating, I ran for the local school board and won at the age of 23. I considered running for the state Legislature in 2010, but decided not to. When the opportunity arose with redistricting in 2012, I decided to run and I won with the closest margin of victory of all the legislative races in the state. I wasn’t expected to win, but I did. When I got to Phoenix and went to the Republican Caucus, they told me I was the biggest surprise winner.
When I was a junior in high school, I went to the state capital and shadowed a legislator for a day. At that time, I thought it would be great to be a legislator…and here I am.
Are you still involved in the family business?
I still do work in our supermarket, but not as much as I used to. I just don’t have time, especially when the Legislature is in session. I live one hour away from Phoenix and so I have a 118-mile round trip commute every day. That’s two hours on the road.
What is the main issue that brought you into politics?
Being from a rural area, I have always been very interested in improving our educational opportunities. When I went away to college, I didn’t know if I was well prepared for it. The question kept on popping up, ‘Are we doing enough to prepare our kids for college?’ I got on the school board with the goal of improving the education in rural Arizona.
I do tell people that you run for office on a platform, but once you get in, you are dealing with 100 times more than you ran on. There are lots of issues that you didn’t run on.
Did you come to Phoenix with expectations? Have there been any surprises?
The biggest surprise is that for the most part — from the most left wing member of the Legislature to the most right wing member — we get along with each other and agree on almost everything. There are 10 percent of the issues where there are big disagreements, but most of the time we work together.
How do you describe yourself politically?
I consider myself a Chamber of Commerce, rural conservative. I was a Republican prior to the Tea Party so that’s not my connection. I am a traditional Republican. I am on three committees: Commerce, Ag & Water, and Energy & Natural Resources. I picked Ag & Water and Energy & Natural Resources because I have those industries in my district and wanted to represent them. I picked Commerce because of my family business background.
Do you have a main agenda item that you would like to get accomplished?
My biggest issues right now revolve around rural Arizona. This past session, we worked very hard to get funding for a veterinary school at the University of Arizona. That is a very big issue in rural Arizona. We need more large animal vets. We had some success this session, but we are going to continue to fight for more funding next session. I’d say that is my biggest issue.
How important is agriculture to you and your district?
Agriculture is very important to me and Pinal County. In the county of Pinal, agriculture represents an $800 million hit to the economy. Water, of course, is one of the main issues for agriculture and I am keeping abreast of that. As a business owner in the food business, I care very deeply about agriculture and about the food we sell on our shelves. It is very important to our success (at Shope’s IGA) that we sell the best quality produce to our customers.
After I won the election, I toured some agricultural fields and learned how growers operate. It was awesome.
This year we were successful in securing funding for a cooperative extension, which is very good for agriculture in rural Arizona. We need to make sure that moving forward those programs have proper funding.
What about immigration reform? That is a big issue to agriculture and has surfaced in the Arizona Legislature from time to time?
After Arizona passed 1070, the Supreme Court told us that immigration falls under federal purview…and we have listened to that. In the past two years that I have been in office, the Legislature has not passed one anti-immigration bill. And I am happy about that. This issue is important to me. My mother was born in Mexico and I am half Mexican. I am happy that the tone and tenor of the Republican Party in Arizona seems to have gotten better on this issue. As a Republican I hate to see us perceived as anti-Mexican. For the future, we need to be a voice for reasonable immigration reform.
The demographics of Arizona are changing. If we are going to compete we cannot be seen as the party that is anti-Mexican. I see those changes first hand in our business. During the winter months, when the snow birds come to town, most of our customers are Anglo. And then we do a complete 180 during the summer months; most of our customers are Mexican.
Immigration reform is a very serious issue and I hope it is addressed by the federal government.
There are other issues that we’d like to talk about in a reasonable manner such as drug and human trafficking. We need to have these discussions without turning people off because of our stand on immigration reform.
What is in your political future?
I am in one of the few competitive districts in the Arizona Legislature so I must remain focused on the next election. There are only three or four districts that are truly competitive so we have to look at our district a little differently. I need to listen to all my constituents and get along with everyone.
As far as the future is concerned, I was elected at a very young age and if I am elected to four terms, which is the limit, I will only be 35 years old when I term out of the House. At that point, I will look at my options politically and decide which way to go. I think the sky is the limit.
Our members and some of your constituents produce the best fruits and vegetables in the world. Are you a consumer of our products?
Absolutely I am a consumer and I have a little different perspective as a seller of those fruits and vegetables. As I said, fresh produce is very important to the success of our business. Every time I come into the store, I pick up an apple or something else we have just ordered and taste it. I am the guinea pig for anything new we sell.
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