New legislator says relationship-building is key to understanding diverse views, serving entire community
ASU grad follows family legacy of public service, shelves plans to go to law school to win Arizona House seat
Lorena Austin decided to take a break from her plans to study law. For the next two years, she’ll be making laws instead.
The 2020 Arizona State University graduate in Chicano/a and Latino/a studies will take the oath of office Monday as a new member of the Arizona House of Representatives. In November, voters in District 9, composed of west Mesa and a few precincts from Tempe, elected Austin to represent the part of the East Valley where she grew up and where her family has lived since the time of the Civil War.
“I actually had no intention of running for office this year, as I was actively applying for law school,” said Austin, 34, a Democrat. “However, when redistricting was finalized in Arizona due to the 2020 U.S. census results, a brand new legislative district was created in my neighborhood where my family has resided for over 100 years.”
Austin’s family has a history of community involvement. Her father is a civil rights attorney; her mother is a social worker and teacher; and her late grandparents were store owners who sat on several community boards.
After Austin spoke with several members of her community, she said it became clear to her that some candidates were mulling relocating to the district to escape crowded primary fields where they lived.
“I didn’t think that was right,” she said. “I believed that someone who was from our community — someone who lives, works and understands their community — should be advocating for our community. So I pulled my law school applications and decided to run for office.”
Austin was the top vote-getter in the race for two House seats in her district, receiving 30,980 votes.
While in the House, she will be unable to continue her job as student government advisor at Mesa Community College (MCC), where at one time she was student body president, because lawmakers are not allowed to have state employment outside of drawing their legislative pay. Having two jobs for a change will be interesting, she said, because last year she held three jobs to make ends meet. “As a child, I grew up living in Section 8 housing,” she said, recalling the past. “It saved my life.”
Austin’s degree program in the School of Transborder Studies, housed within The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, included a specialization in U.S. and Mexico regional administration policy and economy, and certification in cross-sector leadership. She also trained at the Congressman Ed Pastor Center for Politics and Public Service, based at the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.
Read on to learn more about Austin’s educational, political and public service journey.
Question: What was a typical day of campaigning like?
Answer: I knocked on doors every day. There were speaking events, I studied issues and policy, made connections. People would ask me what I did yesterday and I couldn’t remember. ... I never knew that your brain could have the capacity for so much, because it is the most multitasking and demanding thing you could ask for. ... I enjoyed it. People tried to prepare me, but it’s something you can’t understand what it’s like until you do it.
Q: What kinds of opinions did you encounter when in neighborhoods?
A: Definitely there were people who didn’t want to talk. But the majority of them were really receptive. Across the spectrum, people said they were tired of divisive politics and rhetoric. I work in higher education, so it made it easier to make things relatable to people. When they asked how long I lived in Mesa — I couldn’t believe how many people went to MCC when I said I went there — it was easy for me to connect with people and start a relationship. That way, it’s easy to start discussing issues in a respectful manner.
With some people, we didn’t agree and we left it at that, but I was running to represent everybody. I grew up here; I know how diverse it is, the religious views, the economic status. I want to build bridges between legislators and community members so they know what resources are available to them, to make sure they don’t have misinformation.
Q: How did your time at ASU, and particularly the Pastor Center, prepare you for a career in public service?
A: ASU was an incredibly important stepping stone in my educational journey. After transferring from Mesa Community College, I was afforded unique opportunities, which really allowed me to diversify my leadership skills. My time with the Pastor Center exemplified a bipartisan, fact-based research style approach to civic engagement, which proved to be extremely valuable in my campaign.The staff (shout-out to Alberto Olivas!) is incredible, and overall, the program is a powerful legacy honoring the late Congressman Ed Pastor, who was well known for his community-centered approach in the legislature.
Q: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?
A: I actually didn’t know what my major at ASU was going to be until a week before school started. I initially was going to major in sociology, but my advisor at Mesa Community College told me about the School of Transborder Studies (STS); I had never heard of it. After speaking with the advisor at STS, Patricia Corona, I decided to change my major, and it was the best decision I ever made. The required classes covered immigration policy, history of the Southwest, urban development, culture, research projects, pop culture, folklore and so many other intersectional topics. I had never been in an educational setting where I could relate to my peers and world-class professors on a personal and cultural level. It was also the first time I never had to correct the pronunciation of my name in all of my classes. Truly, it was a life-changing experience.
Q: Why did you choose ASU?
A: I was accepted to the Next Generation Service Corps (NGSC) leadership program at ASU, which allowed me to obtain a certificate in cross-sector leadership. NGSC was equally pivotal in my success at ASU. I was able to work in the public, private and nonprofit sectors while taking courses that centered on creating character-driven leaders who could solve complex problems through cross-sector collaboration.
Q: Which professor(s) taught you the most important lesson while at ASU? Are you still in touch with him/her/them?
A: All of them. I actually keep in really close contact with staff and professors from the School of Transborder Studies, and also the program staff from Next Generation Service Corps. However, I will say that representation matters. I was able to see that firsthand in my degree program in transborder studies. Seeing professors that looked like me, who could understand my culture and community, was such a confidence game changer. Something else I will never forget is how my professors handled our courses during the pandemic. I was the first graduating class during the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. The grace and patience they showed is something I remember often.
Q: Running for public office is difficult and filled with plenty of criticism from political opponents. What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those considering becoming a candidate?
A: This is a great question. If I had any apprehensions about being a candidate because I didn’t feel like I had enough experience or I didn’t have the right amount of education, I don’t any more. I am a firm believer in changing what we believe a politician should look like. You don’t need to have a degree from an Ivy League school, or be an attorney. You do need to be invested in your community so you can understand the needs of your constituents. Being an active figure in your community and building genuine relationships is what will separate you from other candidates.
Q: What is something you think would surprise people to learn about you?
A: That I dropped out of college five times after high school because I didn’t think I was smart enough to pass math. I was never good at it. I completed my bachelor’s degree 14 years later. I learned that grades do not define your intelligence!