April 8, 2016

Charlene Fernandez, representing Arizona’s 4th District in the House of Representatives, which includes Yuma

(Editor’s Note: The questions and answers have been paraphrased for clarity and brevity.


Where did you grow up?

I was born and raised in Yuma, Arizona.  My father worked for the county in the highway department.  My mom was a stay-at-home mom.  We did not have any connection to agriculture except that I love vegetables.

I went to public schools in Yuma from grade school through high school.  I am a Yuma High Criminal (school’s nickname).

After that I attended one semester of junior college in Yuma, but then I got married and raised my three children.  They all graduated from the University of Arizona.  When they went off to college, I became a non-traditional student and went back to school.  I attended Arizona Western and then received my Bachelors in Education from Northern Arizona University.


Was your intent to become a teacher and did you do that?

I always wanted to be a teacher and that was my plan.  But after I graduated, I went to work on Congressman Ed Pastor’s campaign.  After he was elected, he offered me a job.  I ended up running his congressional office for 11 years.


Was that your entry into politics?

Actually my dad played a major role in my political nature.  I grew up in the turbulent years of the 1960s.  We received the Los Angeles Times on our doorstep every morning and together we would read the paper.  Those were the years of the Los Angeles riots and other turbulent things going on.  Reading the paper spurred my interest in social justice at a very young age.

After I left Representative Pastor, I worked with Governor Napolitano as a liaison for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.  I also worked for Congressman Raul Grijalva.

In 2012 I first ran for office in the state legislature.  I lost but it was very close.  In fact, the first few days after the election it looked like I had won, but then more absentee ballots came in and I lost by 101 votes.  But the man who won did not run for re-election in 2014, so I ran and won.  This is my first term in office.


What platform did you run on?

Education was my number one issue.  I believe the public schools should be funded at a proper level so that we can have what we need in our public schools.

I was also very interested in water issues.  I know water is very important in my district and very important to agriculture.  Agriculture is a very big part of my district.  I know we are the lettuce capital of the world.  I was in New York recently and I knew the lettuce I was eating came from Yuma.  We need to do what we can to make sure the farmers have a good water supply.

I also believe we need to work on issues with our ports of entry.  We need to streamline the process and make it more friendly.  I worked on that issue when I worked with Gov. Napolitano.


Of course, immigration reform is an important issue for agriculture.  What can you do at the state level to help move that issue forward?

For starters, we have to recognize that all immigration isn’t bad immigration.  Yuma is a little bit away from the border but this is a border county.  When I was growing up, this just wasn’t a big deal.  Many people went back and forth very easily.  They came over here to work every day and then they’d go back home to be with their families.  It wasn’t a scary thing and it wasn’t illegal.  Somehow it has been made scary.

From October through March, if you go down to the border crossing at San Luis at 3 a.m., you will see the workers lined up, trying to get in here.  All they want to do is come and work and then go home.  Not everyone coming across the border is sinister and bad.


Often times, in this column we are talking to Republican legislators who are stuck in a heavily Democrat legislature in California.  You have the reverse situation here.  How is it being a Democrat in a Republican-controlled legislature?

It is very enjoyable, but I have to admit it is frustrating at times.  I’ve heard members from the other side (Republicans) say our votes don’t count, but I don’t believe that.  It is all about building relationships.  We (Democrats) have worked with some moderate Republicans and got some things accomplished.  But there are some issues where the Republicans don’t welcome our input.  Right now, the Republican Caucus is working on the budget and we have not been invited to participate.  We have ideas and you’d like them to be heard.  I’d like to see more money spent on public education.  And we need to rebuild our infrastructure.  The HURF (Highway User Revenue Fund) taxes have been swept into the state budget for the past several years.  When those taxes were passed, the funds were supposed to be sent back to the counties and the cities.  That hasn’t happened.  I’d like to see that happen again so we can rebuild some bridges and roads that need it.

Hopefully the Legislature can become more balanced while I am here.  I am realistic and I know it is a long way from becoming a “blue state”. But if it was more balanced, we could have some clear and honest debates and talk about bills.  I read and study every bill, but often they (Republicans) get their 31 votes and there is no discussion.


Have you endorsed anyone for the Presidential election?

I have endorsed Hillary Clinton and I am on her Legislator Advisory Council for Arizona.


This is your first term.  What are your future political plans?

I do plan to run for re-election and serve the four terms that I can under term limits.  I raised my children, got them off to college and then it was my turn.  I am very proud to serve and I enjoy it.  But I am 61 and after four terms, it might be time to return to Yuma full time.

When the Legislature is in session, I am here in Phoenix during the week and then go home to Yuma every weekend.  When you drive from here and head to Yuma, you go through the mountains and you have a great view of Yuma below.  When I reach that spot, I say to myself “the pigeon has landed.”  I know I am back home.


Our members and many of your constituents produce the finest fruits and vegetables in the country.  You mentioned earlier that you love vegetables.  Do you have any favorites that you like to eat and cook?

I love to cook Mexican food which includes lots of vegetables in its preparation.  We love lettuce, broccoli…all the greens that come from Yuma.  I love to use cilantro in everything including salads.  My favorite dish to make and eat is calabacitas con queso.  Calabacitas is the Spanish work for squash…so the dish is squash with cheese.

On the fruit side we love grapefruit, tangerines, oranges…all the citrus fruits.  My grandson loves what he calls a fruit soup.  My husband puts all the fruits together in one bowl and we have fruit soup.