As an organizer, Raquel Terán helped build the political power of Latinx Arizonans. That growing power has helped shift the state left and oust some of the chief authors and enforcers of anti-immigrant policies, like former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Now, as a state representative, Terán is still fighting for working families and progressive policies, and she hopes this session—with control of the legislature up for grabs—will mean big gains for Democrats.
Terán’s work as an organizer helped propel her into office in 2018 as one of the two House representatives for District 30. Terán, who announced Saturday that she has tested positive for COVID-19, is running unopposed for her second term representing the district, which includes central west Phoenix and downtown Glendale.
Terán grew up in southern Arizona, close to the Mexican border. “The separation between both countries was just a fence,” Terán said last week in a phone interview with The Appeal. “It was hard to understand the political implications of it.” Her parents would always say how lucky it was for them to be citizens of the United States, where they could have the opportunities that so many people wanted to cross that fence for.
“But as I saw the anti-immigrant sentiment in Arizona, I wondered why it was that people who wanted the American dream were assaulted, either by bad legislation or by the minute men” along the border, Terán said. Like other Latinx activists turned lawmakers in Arizona, that anti-immigrant sentiment motivated her to find ways to stand up for her community and fight the destructive policies and rhetoric that were permeating the state.
So she began looking for ways to get involved. While attending a march in downtown Phoenix in the early 2000s, Terán went to a volunteer table for Mi Familia Vota, a nonprofit that works to increase civic engagement in Latinx, immigrant, and allied communities. They gave her voter registration forms, Terán said, and she ended up marching and registering people to vote.
“The theme of the march was ‘Today we march, tomorrow we vote,’” Terán recalled. “Change in this community has come from building the political power of Latinos. I just got plugged in to the whole progressive movement over the past 15 years. It’s been a lot of knocking on doors and getting people involved.”
In 2012, Terán decided to run for office and ended up losing in the primary by just 113 votes. She kept working as an organizer, fighting for the rights of immigrants, women, and workers. She went on to become the regional director of Mi Familia Vota’s education fund, then decided to run for office again in 2018. This time, she won.
Running for office, Terán said, was “really seen as taking the organizing to the next level. The analogy that I use is, for many of us—for people like me who have been doing the work around issue-driven campaigns, community organizing, and holding elected officials accountable—it’s changing megaphones to microphones.”
The efforts of community organizers like Terán helped to oust the infamous Arpaio, who was found guilty of criminal contempt for flouting a federal judge’s order to stop racially profiling Latinx drivers, and recall former state Senator Russell Pearce, the author of Senate Bill 1070, Arizona’s “show me your papers” law that allowed police to demand documentation from anyone they suspected of being in the country illegally.
Maricopa County, the state’s most populous county with over half (4.5 million) of Arizona’s 7 million residents, has long been a Republican stronghold. But the county has shifted away from the GOP since Donald Trump’s emergence, and is poised to play an outsize role in deciding the presidential race. Voters there elected Democrats for county recorder and for sheriff in 2016—the first time since 1988 that Democrats won two countywide races—and they helped swing a U.S. Senate seat to Democrats two years later.
The presidential election is drawing national attention to Arizona, 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 state House of Representatives for the first time since 1966 and also have a shot at taking back control of the state Senate for the first time since 1990.
Though Terán isn’t running in one of the handful of closely watched races across the state, if Democrats do flip one of the chambers next month, Terán 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.
“I’m very excited about the possibility that we’re gonna come back and be in the majority,” Terán said. “So what that means for Arizona is we will be able to move policies that are in favor of all Arizonans, to fully fund education, to modernize our electoral system—because at the end of the day, if we don’t have a good electoral system, we can’t move these progressive policies we’re talking about.”
This session, Terán said she’ll be prioritizing passing paid family leave, repealing Arizona’s pre-Roe vs. Wade abortion ban, and increasing access to the ballot through automatic voter registration and same-day registration.
The median household income in Terán’s district is about $30,000, and although Arizona has family leave, it’s not paid, so not everyone can afford to take it. “I talked to a teacher last year who said, ‘I’m counting on fall break to have the baby, and then I’ll come back the week after,’” Terán said. “It should be a basic human right to not have to go back to work the week after you give birth.”
Meanwhile, women in Arizona could soon face criminal charges for choosing not to have a child. Under Arizona’s pre-Roe ban, any woman who gets an abortion will be sentenced to at least one year in prison, but could face up to five years as well. That ban could be enforced if Roe vs. Wade gets overturned, an outcome many fear as the Supreme Court lurches to the right, following Amy Coney Barrett’s recent confirmation.
“There is so much we have to undo from the last 40 years,” Terán said, noting that Arizona lawmakers have chipped away at access to reproductive healthcare for years and passed so many abortion restrictions that it is extremely difficult for women in rural areas to get an abortion.