(Editor’s Note: The questions and answers have been paraphrased for brevity and clarity.)
Steve Montenegro, a Republican, was first elected to the Arizona House of Representatives in 2008 to represent District 12. Redistricting has changed his districts to now be number 13. He is currently serving his fourth term. He was chosen by his colleagues to serve as Majority Leader at the beginning of the 2015-17 session. Following in his father’s footsteps, he is also a pastor at the Surprise Apostolic Assembly.
Where were your born and raised?
I was born in El Salvador in 1981 and my parents immigrated to the United States when I was five years old in the mid-‘80s. They came to the United States for the American Dream. My father was a minister, but until he was offered a church, he drove a truck and sold the World Encyclopedia. My mom was a secretary.
We first flew into California and settled in Los Angeles. My father was eventually offered a church in Colorado where we stayed for four and a half years and then we moved to Canada for a couple of years. Eventually he was offered a position as a pastor in Surprise, Arizona. We moved here when I was about 14 and entering high school, and we have been here ever since.
A stay in California, then Colorado, then Canada…what did you think about moving to Arizona?
I was excited. I wanted to work and I thought you could work in Arizona at age 14, which turned out not to be true, but I was excited to come here.
Tell us about your educational experiences and how you got into politics?
I went to high school in Surprise and then went to ASU (Arizona State University) and studied political science. My plan was to become a lawyer, not to run for office. In fact, it was when I was applying for law school after college that I made the decision to run for office instead. I had an acceptance letter in hand from law school, but there were people urging me to run for office. I could either go to law school where I could learn how to interpret laws, or I could join the Legislature and write the laws. That was an easy choice.
I was politically involved in college and I did volunteer on a couple of presidential campaigns, but I never envisioned running for office. I was a newcomer when I ran and the newspapers didn’t give me a chance to win.
Did you approach the election as an opportunity to get your feet wet and just get your name out there?
Although I had no clue I was going to win, I did give it everything I had. I don’t think I slept for a minute during the three days prior to the election. My election is proof that your vote does count. I won by only 481 votes. Every vote counted.
When you first ran for office in 2008 did you have a signature issue and has that changed over the years?
I have always had the core belief that big government really is oppressive. My focus has always been on what the individual can do to make this country great. I believe you can dream big and work hard and accomplish what you want to do as long as government gets out of the way. I believe that through regulations government puts so much weight on the backs of people it is getting harder to succeed. As a legislator I try to do everything I can to make sure we are giving people the opportunity to succeed and not burdening them with regulations.
When you came into office, the Arizona budget was in a huge deficit and that was the most important issue facing the legislature. Has that crisis passed?
In 2008, the Arizona budget had a $3.5 billion deficit. We worked hard to right the ship and I believe the budget will be balanced in the next year or two. A new governor came in and that helped, but we all made the budget the top priority and solved that problem. I think the budget situation will continue to be our top priority.
How important is agriculture to Arizona?
It is essential. Agriculture is fundamental to our success and it is a lifeline to Arizona and the rest of the country as well as the world. Yuma alone is the winter vegetable capital of the United States. Agriculture is a treasure and we need to spread that word. I have taken it upon myself to be an advocate for agriculture and spread the message. Agriculture is still very important in Arizona and the Legislature knows that. Agriculture has not lost its clout in the Capitol.
Immigration reform is an important issue for agriculture. As an immigrant yourself, what’s your take on the issue?
I believe immigration reform is really, really important, but agriculture has been caught in the middle of this debate and it shouldn’t be. Agriculture has certain needs such as finding a good labor force. That is not immigration reform. We should solve that problem separately. There is a need for labor and we should allow workers to come here and work. Immigration reform is a different thing.
As an immigrant I have been vocal on the subject. I believe that people who want to immigrate to the United States should follow the law and do it properly.
Have you picked a candidate to support for the Republican nomination for President?
I have. I am supporting Sen. Ted Cruz and I am the Arizona state chairman of his election committee. He backs the U.S. Constitution and is a very articulate spokesperson for the rights of the individual. He sees things through the lens of individual rights and I agree with that. Government seems to have forgotten that the first question shouldn’t be are we doing the right thing but rather should we be doing anything at all. I believe Ted Cruz understands the role government should play and he will make us great again.
Our members and many of your constituents produce the finest fresh fruits and nuts in the world. Are you a consumer of our products?
I am. I love lots of fruits and vegetables. I love salads. I love watermelons. I love apples and plums. Broccoli and cauliflower with a little dressing and cheese…c’mon man…it doesn’t get any better than that!