For a long time, Arizona State Senator Martín Quezada wasn’t interested in politics. But when he took an internship at the state Senate during his last semester as an undergraduate at Arizona State University in 2001, he was terrified by what he saw, and felt that he had no choice but to get involved himself.
“I would see people debating some radical ideas that were clearly detrimental to my community, and making choices just to ignore those pleas from people who came in and testified,” Quezada told The Appeal. Quezada says he remembers people testifying before a Senate committee against a proposal to maintain cuts to dialysis services for those who didn’t have access through their health insurance.
“People came into the committee and testified, ‘if you don’t restore this service, I will die in a few months,’” Quezada said. “And then I watched them all vote to keep the cuts.”
After that, Quezada worked as a research analyst and policy adviser for the Democratic Caucus in the state Senate and House of Representatives, then decided to pursue a law degree. After law school, he took a judicial clerkship on the Court of Appeals, and ran for an open state House seat in 2010 but lost. He began a law practice and was in the process of building it when a seat in his district opened again in 2011—this time, because one of the people who won a seat in the district was indicted and forced to resign.
Quezada decided to try again and was appointed to the seat in March 2012. He says his atypical experience—being appointed to represent a district he’d already lost the race for—influenced the way he worked as a state lawmaker for the better.
“I kind of walked into that seat thinking, ‘OK, I’ve been given a gift here to walk into this seat and vote with a clear conscience on everything, because I probably won’t come back if the voters didn’t like me in 2010,’” Quezada said. “I want to be proud of every vote I took when I leave. I took that approach, and what I found was my district loved it.”
Quezada has won every election he ran in since, switching from the House to the Senate in 2014. During that time, he’s introduced legislation that has banned the box requiring job applicants to disclose prior convictions, protected undocumented immigrants from fraudsters who prey on them, and repealed a state law that barred school teachers from any instruction that portrays homosexuality positively or educates people that there are “safe methods of homosexual sex.”
Now, Quezada is running for his fourth and final term as state senator for District 29, which includes parts of Glendale, Litchfield Park, and Maryvale. Quezada, a lifelong Arizonan whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, is now representing the neighborhoods he grew up in. And he’s hoping his final term will be his most meaningful yet since Republican control of the state legislature up for grabs.
All eyes are on Arizona for the presidential election, where former Vice President Joe Biden holds a steady lead against President Trump, despite the state’s history of voting for Republican presidents. But the state’s legislative races are also extremely high stakes: Democrats could flip the House of Representatives for the first time since 1966 and also have a chance to take back control of the Senate for the first time since 1990.
Though Quezada isn’t running in one of the handful of closely watched races across the state, if one of the chambers is flipped next week, Quezada and other Democrats will have more power to advance their agenda. Currently, because Republicans hold a majority in both houses, they can kill bills from Democrats without even allowing the bills a hearing.
If that happens, Quezada said, “we have an opportunity to gain some movement,” particularly on some of the issues most important to him: criminal justice reform and access to quality education.
Quezada supports decriminalizing offenses based on addiction, truancy, or poverty, and wants to end partnerships with ICE like the federal agency’s 287(g) agreements, which allow local law enforcement agencies to engage in federal immigration enforcement. He also supports creating independent and fully funded community oversight boards to review police use-of-force incidents, and wants to ban the use of military weapons by local law enforcement
“I’m an attorney, I’ve practiced criminal defense,” Quezada said. “So watching our criminal justice system—I don’t believe it’s broken, I believe it’s designed to impact poor people and people of color the way it does. Trying to change that system is a priority to me.”
Arizona’s lack of support for public education is also personal to Quezada, who has served on the Pendergast school board since 2010. Arizona is consistently one of the lowest-ranked states when it comes to funding public education. Quezada wants to provide pre-K statewide, increase teacher pay, and invest more in schools. He supports Proposition 208, the Invest in Ed initiative, which would put a 3.5 percent tax surcharge on people with annual incomes that exceed $250,000 for a single filing or $500,000 for a joint filing, and use the revenue to fund education.
“If Prop 208 passes, I think refocusing our efforts on education funding will be a priority as well,” Quezada said. “208 does nothing for the capital needs, like the buildings themselves, so that’s a big need there still.”
Quezada told The Appeal he also wants to fight voter suppression and protect voting rights, and reform the healthcare system. He supports universal healthcare and automatic voter registration.
So far, Quezada says, his philosophy of voting for his progressive values with a clear conscience has served him well.
“My support has grown stronger every year,” Quezada said of the people in his district. Democrats “don’t have to compromise as much as we end up doing so often. I think the people of my district really appreciated that.”