May 15, 2017

LEGISLATOR PROFILE: Arizona Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Yee Representing Arizona’s 20th Legislative District

You were born and raised in Arizona. Tell us a little bit about how you got to be where you are now.

I was born and raised in Phoenix, the same legislative district I now represent, which is northwest Phoenix and parts of Glendale. I guess you can say I am “homegrown.” I am the one of three daughters born to a mom who was an Arizona public elementary school teacher and a dad who is former U.S. Army and a small businessman. I attended public schools in the Northwest Valley and went to Pepperdine University for undergrad and ASU for my Master’s in Public Administration.

I didn’t think I would stay in California beyond the four years I was there for college, but a fellowship opportunity in Governor Pete Wilson’s second term took me to Sacramento and I ended up staying much longer. As a fellow, I worked on childhood development issues at the Department of Education and a year later became an appointee of the Wilson administration working on other education-related issues in the K-12 system. I enjoyed my time there, but it was important that I come back home. So I came back to Arizona and worked in the Senate as a bi-partisan research analyst for the Senate Education Committee.

In that position, I analyzed all of the bills that came to the committee, wrote fact sheets in layman’s language and presented them on a weekly basis to the voting members of the Senate. It was a wonderful experience to see the legislative process in action and was a fantastic training ground for what I would do later in life. It was a great experience because I really got to know the process first hand.

Following that job, I actually got a call to go back to California to work for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger during in his first term. It was a great opportunity so I took it. I served as deputy cabinet secretary and managed a portfolio that consisted of issues including education, state consumer services, labor and workforce development and the lottery. California was in a budget bind at that time and was coming out of some really tough times, so I was also helping the team to rebuild the state’s budget. It was a great experience to reunite with those people who I worked with in the Wilson Administration.

Around 2005, I came back home to Arizona and started working for the state treasurer as his communications director and legislative liaison. I did that for four years. Senator Linda Gray was my state senator then and one day she asked me to lunch. During lunch, she said she was contemplating retirement at some point and I should really think about running for the legislature one day. She said I could hit the ground running since I knew the ins-and-outs of policymaking and worked extensively with elected officials. I thought and prayed about it and 5 years later, in 2010, I filed my paperwork to run for a House seat. After I filed my paperwork, a House member resigned which created a vacancy and I was selected to fill the remainder of his term. It was only for a short period, but it was clear to me that the door was open. That fall, as a candidate, I was elected as the first Asian American female legislator to serve in the state legislature in Arizona. It is really an honor and a special blessing since I am representing my home district where I was raised. My husband and I own a small dental practice in the West Valley. To be a small business owner while raising a family here really puts everything into perspective when we come down here and make laws.


Did you have any experience with agriculture growing up?

Yes, I did. My family did a lot of field trips to educate us about where we were growing up. On occasion, we would go out to the West Valley to visit farmlands. As a Girl Scout, we also did a lot of field trips to local farms and met farmers and learned how food got from the farm to the stores. It was always very interesting and there were always so many different commodities. We had a small farm in our area that grew pumpkins and vegetables and they had a small farmers market. We would walk through the fields first then get our groceries at the market after. It really made eating that food so much more enjoyable since we knew where it came from and were able to buy it directly from the producer.

Early in my career, while working in California, I also had eye-opening and educational experiences. Getting to know A.G. Kawamura when he was Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture opened my eyes and made me appreciate what the ag community does. A.G. would often talk to us about his experience us as a farmer and educate us ‘policy people’ about making laws and what works best for the industry.


What was it that you saw, witnessed or experienced growing up that influenced your decision to serve in elected office?

I had so many different experiences growing up that influenced me because the area I grew up in—the area I now represent—has wide ranging demographics. The northern part of the district is generally affluent, while many constituents in southern parts and areas further west rely on state subsidized care or programs.

My mother taught for 38 years in one of the poorest school districts in the state. At the dinner table, she would tell us about how children less fortunate would come to school not properly clothed. As such, I always think about the low-poverty schools and how our existing or proposed laws affect them, whether they are in my district or not. When considering legislation, I have to think about issues that affect families in all parts of the state, not just my district. That has affected, and will always affect, my decision-making here at the Capitol.


You are the first Asian American female to ever be elected to the Arizona Legislature and the second ever female senate majority leader in Arizona legislature history. Tell us a little bit about who inspired you.

As I mentioned before, Sen. Linda Gray was my state senator and first inspired me to run. I got chills after she asked me to consider running for office because it was one woman asking another woman to serve in a leadership position. After much thought and prayer, five years in fact, I think I made the right decision.


You were an honored speaker on the first day of the Republican Convention in Cleveland last July. What was that experience like and how has it shaped your outlook on government and politics?

It was a real honor to be asked to speak. It was a wonderful and memorable experience to be a speaker. I was a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 2008, so I had the experience of sitting on the convention floor in the past, but I never thought I would be on the stage addressing the delegates from a podium. It was an honor of a lifetime. As I said in my speech, we are in a new, exciting day and I think we really have a great future in front of us.


Arizona has an agriculture industry that produces more than $17 billion for the state. What can the Arizona Legislature and the government do to continue to promote Arizona agriculture both within the borders and outside of them?

This is a great question. I have promoted a pro-business agenda as an elected official, not only because my husband and I are small business owners and because I come from a family of small business owners, but because it’s important to help those who create jobs in our state. And the best way to help is by getting out of the way. Getting out of the way means we need to reduce unnecessary regulatory burdens that hinder businesses from growing and thriving. We must strive to instill a free enterprise spirit.

I try to educate myself when we are not in session by talking with business owners so I can understand their problems. If that conversation doesn’t occur, I won’t know how to help fix their day-to-day problems. So I will continue to promote economic growth, business development and job creation while I am here in the legislature.

It’s also very important that the agriculture community share their stories about their issues. They work the farm day-to-day, year-to-year and they know what needs to be done to get the product to the shelf. Sharing that experience with us is so important since many of us have not worked in that profession and don’t represent ag areas. We need to hear these stories in order for us to be the best advocates in the legislature for the industry.


You have a strong background in education and come from a state where agriculture is a major industry. How important is it to teach our children how to eat healthy and to have them understand where their food comes from?  Is there anything else we can do to get out children more involved in agriculture?

This is so important. We should always do more to ensure that students understand how important agriculture is to our state. Personally, I love giving tours to school children. The tour ends at my senate desk where there is a state seal on the floor. We discuss each symbol on the seal and go through the 5 ”C”s (Copper, Cattle, Cotton, Citrus and Climate) with them. Beyond that, the state will have a good opportunity over the next couple of years to promote agriculture’s importance because the state board of education is going to be adopting revised academic standards for science. Through this process, we can truly promote additional information that our students can use to better understand the science behind growing fruits and veggies at age appropriate levels.


Western Growers has launched the Careers in Ag Program to encourage students to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers in the Arizona and California agricultural industry. In a world where agriculture labor shortages are frequent and expected to grow, how important are STEM students to the future of agriculture?

I have been a strong advocate for STEM education since being elected and have sponsored a number of bills to foster more students to develop those skills. In 2012, I introduced and the governor signed HB 2697. This bill helped create an alternative pathway to getting teachers in our classrooms much sooner if they demonstrate adequate knowledge of a particular STEM subject through a postsecondary degree or relevant coursework. Applicants with who met the qualifications in the bill didn’t have to go through the regular time-consuming process to receive their teaching certificate and we were able to address teacher shortages in the areas of STEM education in Arizona.

In 2014, I introduced SB 1288 that said science should be considered on a student’s statewide education assessment in addition to reading and math. The thinking was that if science were part of a student’s letter grade, the subject would be taken, more seriously. Science is truly a part of agriculture and these education strands definitely go together.

Just last year, I worked with the Arizona Chamber of Commerce on SB 1502 which requires the state board of education to issue a specialized standard teaching certificate in career or technical education that includes agriculture if they meet certain requirements. This was important because there is a teacher shortage and some vocational classes had to close. In essence, it encourages experts in vocational education to go right into teaching.


You have had the unique experience to have served in the government in both Arizona and California. Can you elaborate on the difference in experiences you had regarding the legislative, regulatory and political environments in each state?

There are major differences in general when we talk about the legislative, regulatory and political environments in both states. I certainly feel more comfortable at home in my home state of Arizona in terms of the political and regulatory environment. The Arizona Senate feels like home to me since I spent five years here as a staff member. As the Senate Majority Leader, my office is now on a different floor, but the legislative process is something I can do in my sleep. And the people here are like family to me. I love my job and what I do every day. It is a great honor to serve the people of District 20.

I made friends in both California and Arizona and that has helped me understand the basic issues agriculture faces in both states. When I met with Western Growers’ board members and staff during the first week of April when they were visiting Phoenix during your Arizona Leadership Meetings, I was able to see friends from both places! I was honored to have met with so many Western Growers board members. We had wonderful conversations and I hope to continue those in the months to come.


How do you describe your ideology?

I am a fiscal conservative and believe in small government, family and family values. Free markets are important whether we are talking about schools or business. I truly believe in and try to uphold all of these values when I work on bills every day.


Arizona produces a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and tree nuts. What are some of your favorites?

I love buying Arizona grown fruits and veggies. Our family eats all types of veggies and we especially love salads. We make some of our favorite salads using Bibb or Butter lettuce. I also buy apples on a weekly basis. That takes me back to the days when I was living in Sacramento. I would make fall trips to Apple Hill, which was just a short drive away. It brings back good memories and reminds me of fall and the beautiful apple orchards.