Editor’s Note: This is part of a series on women candidates running for down-ballot offices in the 2020 election.
Who: Anna Tovar (D)
What: Tovar is running for a seat on the Arizona Corporation Commission. It’s a body within the state government tasked with regulating utilities and the incorporation of businesses. It also has purview over securities regulations and railroad safety. Tovar is one of eight candidates vying for three open seats with 4-year terms on the five-person body. She’s been endorsed by the Arizona List, which spotlights pro-choice women candidates for office, and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona.
When: Election Day is Nov. 3. Early voting has already begun in Arizona.
For Tovar, the personal has always been political.
She currently presides over Tolleson, Arizona, the 6,500-person city where she grew up. Before her 2016 mayoral win, she represented Arizona’s 19th district in the State Senate, and was named Senate Minority Leader. She also served a term in the House of Representatives. And she held a seat on the Tolleson City Council — her first elected office.
Tovar shows no signs of changing course, as she’s now running for a seat on the Arizona Corporation Commission. You’d be forgiven if you’ve never heard of such a race — in most states, it’s not an elected position. But Tovar uses the term “super-important” to describe the office. “It can turn the trajectory of the state in regards to extending renewable energy and leaving a cleaner environment to our children and future generations,” she says.
If she wins, Tovar could also make history as the first Latinx person to hold a statewide executive office in Arizona, she says. And that’s where the personal and political truly start to fuse. She’s the granddaughter of Mexican immigrant farm workers who came to the U.S. “to live the American dream.” By the time she was born, her grandfather owned a bustling Tolleson grocery store where she spent much of her childhood.
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Her experiences at that store, which stayed open for decades, taught her some early lessons about the importance of community — and the realities of racism. At a young age, her family told her that “you will be looked at and treated differently, sadly, because of the color of your skin and your ethnicity.” But, they added, “Use it to your advantage.”
At first, she did so by using her elementary education degree from the University of Arizona to become a first-grade teacher in Tolleson. But then, she was approached by members of the community to run for a city council seat. Busy with her job and two young children, she initially declined. Her supporters persisted — “I’m so thankful they did.”
Tovar was convinced to run when she attended a city council meeting and saw that “no one looked like me on the dais.” She adds, “They’re making decisions for families, for kids, for seniors, and there’s no one … who knows what our issues are.”
Her family’s advice — to use her perspective as a Latinx woman to her advantage — took on a whole new meaning for her in that moment. She launched her first campaign for office against a 12-year incumbent. “A real grassroots effort,” she recalls. “I beat him by 11 votes.”
That win set in motion a career in politics. And throughout, her motivation has stayed the same. Today, as mayor, “I represent a community that is mostly Latino — the vast majority of them are essential workers. They don’t have the luxury of staying at home” during this pandemic. She says the inequities her constituents face mirror those of the general Latinx population when it comes to accessing healthcare, food and the internet. And in the time of Covid-19, “it’s been magnified.”
Tovar’s desire to address that problem has her vying for a seat on the Arizona Corporation Commission. Her first act, if elected, would be to overhaul its ethics handbook. Previous elections have been fraught with controversy, including an accusation that a public utility spent over $10 million to control seats and secure rate hikes. So she hopes to bring trust in the commission back by holding its members to a higher standard of accountability.
The part of her campaign platform that emphasizes embracing renewable energy solutions is personal, too — albeit in a different way. Tovar is a cancer survivor, and says the rare form of leukemia she was diagnosed with in 2002 was caused by exposure to environmental toxins. “It hits home,” she says, and “I never want to have another person go through the journey I went through.”
Her survival story played a role in other parts of her political career, too. Rampant budget cuts after the 2008 recession resulted in the loss of coverage for 99 patients on the state’s version of Medicare — all of whom needed life-saving transplants, like the bone marrow transplants that saved Tovar years before.
Tovar, who was serving in the House of Representatives at the time, took up their cause and tried repeatedly to meet with officials who could help reinstate the funds. Time and again, she was stonewalled. So Tovar brought the case to the media, and it became a national story — she appeared on Anderson Cooper 360 and gave interviews to major network affiliates at vigils for patients who lost their respective battles before the matter was resolved. That did the trick.
Tovar is still trying to save lives now. When the pandemic hit in March, she acted more swiftly than the state, quickly shutting down Tolleson and placing a moratorium on water service shut-offs. Since then, she says she’s worked to provide financial assistance to those who lost jobs; delivered meals to those in need; and pushed for government-sponsored internet hotspots.
“We’re trying to be proactive instead of reactive with responses, but there wasn’t a playbook for Covid,” Tovar explains.
Her methods weren’t always met with applause — in fact, her mask mandate, also put in place ahead of much of Arizona’s other municipalities, earned her a bevy of (often curse-laden) notes from displeased citizens, though some people eventually came around.
She hopes her work will speak for itself. But in difficult times — whether facing an especially tense Election Day, or racism, or sexism, or cancer, or a global pandemic — Tovar leans on the lessons learned all those years ago in her grandfather’s store: to “keep my head high, knowing I belong, that I have every right to be there, that I’m there to serve a purpose.”