Arizona never elected a Latina to statewide office until 2020, when it elected two

By: - November 18, 2020 8:45 am

Lea Marquez Peterson (l) and Anna Tovar (r) became the first Latinas elected to statewide office in Arizona when they were elected to the Corporation Commission in 2020. Screenshots via Arizona PBS/Arizona Horizon

Two Latinas, one Democrat and one Republican, were the top vote getters in the race for three seats in the Arizona Corporation Commission, marking the first time in Arizona history that a Latina has been elected to a statewide seat. 

Lea Marquez Peterson, a Republican who was appointed to the commission in 2019, and Anna Tovar, mayor of the small Phoenix suburb of Tolleson, each won a seat on the five-member panel that is best known for regulating utilities. 

Marquez Peterson, who led the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce for nearly a decade. Tovar, whose previous stint in government was as a Democratic state legislator, said they are honored to make history.

“My goal is to make sure that, yes, I am the first, but definitely not the last,” Tovar said. “We have a lot of work to do within having representation in regards to elected offices in Arizona, from statewide all the way to local school boards. These are important roles, too.” 

Marquez Peterson and Tovar each received more than 1.4 million votes, and their elections mark the first time in decades that Arizona voters picked a Latino candidate for a statewide seat. The last Latino candidate to win a statewide race was Raúl Castro, who was elected governor in 1974. 

“It’s incredible that it took until 2020 for that to occur, but really it is quite an honor,” Marquez Peterson said. “I hope that Latinas who are considering a role in public office will look to myself and to Anna, regardless of party, as role models… I have come up through the small business world and business community leadership and Anna has come up through government leadership as a state legislator and then as mayor, so I hope each of us serve as a role model for other Latinas that are looking to serve.”

Marquez Peterson said she became involved in local politics when she and her husband ran into regulatory roadblocks when trying to open gas stations and convenience stores in the Tucson area. That experience started her role in advocating for small business at the local level. She ran for U.S. Congress in 2018, but lost to Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick. In May 2019, she said she received a call from Gov. Doug Ducey’s office that she’d been appointed to a vacant seat at the Corporation Commission. 

“It was a very quick turn-around. I didn’t know about the depth of the issues,” she said. “It was a steep learning curve.”

When Tovar went from being an elementary school teacher to running for Tolleson city council, she said she also had to learn on-the-go. 

“All you need is that drive and that passion to serve your community, everything else is learnable,” Tovar said. “If you are passionate about the issue you are running for, my advice is just do it,  don’t be fearful of failing. We need more Latinas in elected office so we are making the decisions that affect our community day-in and day-out.”

Tovar to prioritize climate change policy, Marquez Peterson to focus on rural residents

Marquez Peterson credits her win to outreach to the business community throughout the state, including Hispanic business groups, and to smaller Republican clubs who are part of the GOP base. Speaking to and representing the concerns of Arizona residents outside of Maricopa County, she said, is what also made her stand out. 

“It’s important to have diversity in demographics, but also geographic diversity and thought diversity at the commission and other government roles,” Marquez Peterson said. 

She said expanding broadband access is an issue she’ll keep front-and-center during the next four years. 

Tovar also stressed the importance of diversity and representation. 

“One thing I learned at the (state) Capitol is that, when you don’t have that representation of issues, and you are not at the table, there’s a high likelihood that those issues are not on the menu,” she said. “You are running for them, running to represent them — it’s an inspiration to hear the constituency here in Arizona to figure out how I can bring forward solutions.”

Tovar said she credits the “trailblazing” women in her family for paving the way for her. She spoke about her great-grandmother, Carmen Lopez Espinoza, who worked at the post office in the state Capitol. She would commute from Tucson to Phoenix every Sunday evening and stay in Phoenix during the week to keep that job, because it was important to be in a place of impact, Tovar said. 

“She wanted our family and our community to know that, as Latinos, we deserved to be working there, as well. Even though she only delivered mail, she would say, I wanted to make sure my future granddaughters, great granddaughters know that they belong there, they have a place there,” Tovar said. “It was her hope to help build dreams and aspirations within our own family and our community, that we need to make bold and brave decisions in order to move our community and our culture forward.”

Tovar said her campaign worked to reach new voters, a younger demographic, and state residents concerned with the climate crisis. 

“I’m looking forward to bringing solutions so we can leave a better Arizona with cleaner air and water and overall environment for many generations,” Tovar said.   

Attorney and longtime community leader Daniel Ortega, who worked on Tovar’s campaign, said the election of two Latinas from different political parties to statewide office shows the diversity within the state’s Latino community. 

He said their victories will also help energize Latino communities to register to vote and participate in elections. 

“I think that, when you see Anna and Lea being elected to statewide office, particularly in this itime, it is encouraging to the Latino community in general because it really provides hope that it is possible to do it, again,” Ortega said.

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Laura Gómez
Laura Gómez

Laura Gómez Rodriguez previously covered state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror.