Rep. Jennifer Pawlik

Newly elected Chandler state Rep. Jennifer Pawlik and husband Jason have 21-year-old twin daughters, Kalie and Katie.

Two Chandler women – one a native Mesan and the other a seven-year transplant from the San Francisco Bay Area – last month accomplished what had been the unthinkable even a year ago.

They added a strong streak of blue to the East Valley.

One cracked a solidly Republican legislative district and the other completed the flip of another one into the Democrats’ column.

Jennifer Pawlik’s win in Legislative District 17 – which covers a good bit of Chandler and a piece of Gilbert – and that of Jennifer Jermaine in LD 18 – which covers Ahwatukee and parts of Tempe, Mesa and the rest of Chandler – pose significant consequences for Gov. Doug Ducey and the next two sessions of the State Legislature.

Their victories leave House Republicans a narrow two-vote majority – which newly elected House Speaker Rusty Bowers of Mesa already has admitted “makes leadership more sensitive to each member’s needs and wants.’’

“And those we’ll just have to work through,” he added.

Both Pawlik and Jermaine are coming to the Legislature with a determination to more adequately fund public education as a top priority – the same motivation which prompted their respective runs in the first place.

Pawlik, a former longtime teacher, and Jermaine, a management consultant for nonprofit organizations, both campaigned on the assertion that quality public education was vital to the state’s long-term economic security.

Pawlik was the top vote getter in the three-way race for two LD 17 House seats.

She not only bested Republican Nora Ellen, a former Chandler City Council member, but out-polled longtime legislator and former Chandler Councilman Jeff Weninger by about 225 votes.

Jermaine toppled two-term Ahwatukee Republican Jill Norgaard. With victories by incumbent Tempe Rep. Mitzi Epstein and Ahwatukee incumbent Sen. Sean Bowie, Jermaine’s win turned LD 18 blue despite a slim Republican registration lead in that district.

Pawlik not only is the first Democrat to win in LD 17 but also is the first woman elected in that district.

Since the last redistricting in 2012, the area that covers parts of Chandler, Gilbert and Sun Lakes, has gone to Republicans every two years. In recent decades before that, most of the same area was in District 21, which Republicans controlled election after election.

Notable House members from the area who have served over the years are current Senate president Steven B. Yarbrough and outgoing Chandler Mayor Jay Tibshraeny. The retiring Yarbrough will be replaced by former House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, an Ocotillo resident and Ellen’s son who beat Democrat Steve Weichert.

Politics were never something Pawlik dreamed of getting into while growing up.

Pawlik was raised in Mesa as Jennifer Banning, the oldest of three girls. All of her schooling from kindergarten through graduate school was in Arizona. She graduated near the top of her class at Dobson High in 1990 before moving to Flagstaff for her undergraduate and graduate studies.

She earned two degrees from Northern Arizona University – a bachelor’s in elementary education in 1996 and an education master’s in curriculum and instruction in 2010.

“All I’ve ever wanted to be was a school teacher,” she said.

For the last 17 years, including the last nine in Chandler, she taught elementary school students across the Valley, including her most recent stint as a sixth-grade language arts teacher at CTA Liberty.

She didn’t get the idea to run for office, however, until a chance encounter in 2014 on a trip to the Capitol for an Arizona Education Association event.

She was already unhappy about school funding and low teacher pay, years before the “Red for Ed” movement swept the state.

“My colleagues were leaving teaching because they couldn’t afford to do it,” Pawlik said.

With some encouragement from family, friends and colleagues, Pawlik decided to run for the Legislature.

However, there was only one problem.

“I thought, ‘I know how to teach, but I don’t know how to run for office,’” she said.

Pawlik completed a six-month program that trains Democratic women how to hold public office, called Emerge Arizona. A year later she received more seasoning with the Leading for Change program

She became more politically involved with the Democrat party as her interest in fighting for students increased. In her first run for the House in 2016, Pawlik said the fact she didn’t get pushback from her opponents helped her do better than expected.

“We were absolutely dismissed,” she said. “They didn’t see us as a threat.”

That changed this time around with Pawlik – the target of some negative mailers and ads for the first time.

“Initially, I was shocked,” she said about the early numbers. “After that, I tried not to be distracted.”

Ultimately, Pawlik said the overall “Red for Ed” momentum, the controversial tuition voucher proposition and other factors help lead to her breakthrough victory.

But it’s also led to a grueling schedule, which resulted in 12-hour days as the campaign got into the final weeks.

Pawlik estimates some weekends she only had about six hours of free time between campaigning and teaching a pair of education classes for Northern Arizona University’s College of Education program.

Educators and their supporters held high hopes for big wins in Arizona after knocking on doors, soliciting votes for candidates who support public education.

Nearly 220,000 NEA members and education families nationwide were involved in getting out the vote up and down the ballot in the 2018 election.

That figure represented a 165 percent increase in activism compared with 2016, a presidential year where activism is historically higher than midterms.

Noah Karvelis, co-founder of the grassroots Arizona Educators United, was confident education would cut across party lines.

But not only did educators lose in most legislative districts but Arizona State University professor David Garcia lost big against incumbent Doug Ducey.

Party affiliation won out, according to Gina Woodall, a lecturer in the School of Politics and Global Studies at ASU

“These local legislative races generally speaking, are low-dollar races and name recognition is an issue for many of the challengers,” she explained. “Education, I would argue, isn’t exactly an issue that crosses parties – especially in Arizona, where charter school advocates are often Republicans.”

Republicans are for less regulations and more charter schools, arguing competition is good for district public schools, according to Woodall.

Democrats, on the other hand, favor funding traditional district schools, she said.

While educator candidates in races such as in LD 12 and LD 21 fared poorly at the ballot box, Woodall pointed to the state house race in LD 17 and said:

“I think that for many of the ‘losing’ teachers, they ran in districts that were too red and since not much is known about the challengers, the Republicans are going to stick with the Republicans, no matter what,” Woodall said. 

As for Garcia, he made some big missteps and the Republicans took advantage of it, she said.

“He’s too liberal for Arizona right now,” she said. “Plus, Ducey had tons of money. This was an unsurprising loss.”

She added that another factor was Ducey’s pledge to provide more pay for teachers and that many voters may be giving him a chance to fulfill that promise of 20 percent by 2020. 

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