By Paul Maryniak and Jason Stone, GSN Staff
Two Chandler women – one a native Mesan and the other a seven-year transplant from the San Francisco Bay Area – this 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.
For both Jennifer Pawlik and Jennifer Jermaine, the reality of their election victories has only begun to take hold.
Pawlik’s win in Legislative District 17 – which covers a good bit of Chandler and a piece of Gilbert – and that of 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.
With only a smattering of votes still left to count as of mid-week, 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 354 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.
In LD 17, Republicans hold a commanding registered lead of 10,000 over Democrats.
Both districts, however, also hold a significant number of independents, with over 40,000 in each.
Pawlik admitted that the gravity of winning a seat was overwhelming during her first trip to the state Capitol two weeks ago as a House member-elect.
“I’ve visited the Capitol so many times before,” Pawlik said. “To go through those swinging doors knowing I was (a House-elect member) was so surreal.”
She not only is the first Democrat to win in the area in decades – maybe ever – but also is the first woman to be elected in LD 17.
Pawlik’s election upset in a district that has always been Republican-dominated has been a long time coming for area Democrats.
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.
In 2015, 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 Democratic Party as her interest in fighting for students increased. She has served as secretary of the Legislative District 17 Democrats, a precinct committeeman in the Germann precinct and a state committee member.
In her first run for the House in 2016, Pawlik said the fact she didn’t get any 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” education momentum, the controversial tuition voucher proposition and other factors helped lead to her breakthrough victory.
Pawlik joked that her husband of 23 years, Jason, and their 21-year-old twin daughters, Kalie and Katie, are “thrilled” to have the election over. After all, they haven’t had much personal time together over the last three years, especially with Kalie attending the University of Arizona and Katie attending Arizona State University at its downtown campus.
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 on Chandler Gilbert Community College campus.
Besides winning, Jermaine had one other primary goal each day on the campaign trail.
“Home for bedtime, making sure I was there to put my daughter to sleep,” said Jermaine, 38, the Chandler management consultant to nonprofits and mother of a 2 ½-year-old daughter who last week captured second place in the four-way race for two State House seats in Legislative District 18.
A transplant from the Bay Area who moved to Arizona with her husband Michael in 2011, Jermaine said she got interested in running for office last year after a coalition of activists launched their successful petition drive to put the Legislature’s expanded voucher program on the ballot.
“When we were moving, we looked carefully at school districts because we wanted our daughter to have a good education,” she said. “I could see what was happening to public education and I wanted to do something about it.”
As she knocked on an estimated 10,000 doors during the campaign, Jermaine discovered that her concerns reflected those of most of the people she met.
“I’d say 85 percent were concerned about education,” she said.
Jermaine said from the start, she worked with Epstein and incumbent LD 18 Sen. Bowie.
“We worked closely as a team all the way,” she said.
Jermaine brings to her new job extensive experience in nonprofit and advocacy efforts.
A former chamber of commerce membership director, she touted her “wide breadth of knowledge about how government, nonprofits and industry interact on local, national and international levels” and her understanding of “how all the sectors are inter-connected and dependent on each other.”
With a bachelor’s degree in international business with a focus on trade policy and a master’s in public administration, she has been most vocal about the need for a moratorium on any more cuts in corporate taxes “until we figure how to restore the funding to our public education system, universities and community colleges.”
That restoration, she has said, “is a long-term investment in our future workforce and economic growth.”
She also said she found her main support in her husband, who “was on board from the start because he saw how frustrated I was with” the Legislature’s attitude toward public education.
On leave from her job since Aug. 1, she hasn’t decided yet when – or even if – she’ll resume or whether she’ll devote all her time, at least initially, to her new role as a legislator.
“It’s been a financial sacrifice for our family,” Jermaine admitted, adding that she’s excited about the upcoming session, for which she’ll start preparing by participating in a boot camp for new legislators that will be held next month.
And she also has her first legislative goal in mind.
“I want to work on special education funding so that the funding follows the student whereever the student goes,” she said.
As for Pawlik, “People ask me now, ‘Am I going to run for Congress next?’ No. No. No. The whole goal is to fund our schools. This isn’t about me.”