Editor’s Note: This interview is part of our Running Women project following 15 compelling women candidates in 2018.
Democratic State Senator Katie Hobbs aims to become Arizona’s next secretary of state, and to lead an effort to make Arizona a swing state.
If she wins, Hobbs, who is Senate minority leader, would also become Arizona’s chief election officer. That role would enable her to influence election mechanics, which Republicans have controlled and used to hold on to levers of power in the state.
Arizona has long been red, and Republicans currently control both houses of the state legislature, the governorship and the secretary of state position. However, President Donald Trump won the state with a slim 49.5 percent of the vote, and Democrats are highly motivated to seize some power this year.
Indeed, Hobbs believes there’s a real opportunity to break GOP control, if Democrats can level the electoral playing field. That means battling what Democrats say are Republican efforts to suppress the immigrant vote based on claims that non-citizens and illegal immigrants have been committing voter fraud.
We spoke with Hobbs about the stakes in her race, the powerful role of women in Arizona politics, and her deep ties to the state’s chapter of Emerge America, an organization that helps Democratic women run for office. Excerpts from our conversation, below, have been edited for length and clarity.
You are a sitting state senator in a leadership role. What led you to run for secretary of state this year?
Being in the legislature and serving in the minority for the last 7 years, I know that our legislature is not reflective of the values of our state and that a lot of folks are just really frustrated.
And honestly, I’m tired of losing. I’m tired of losing battles [to Republicans] all the time. I believe the secretary of state’s office is critical to changing the direction of our state and possibly our country, when you look at the presidential election and the potential of Arizona to be a swing state.
The issue is about making sure that every eligible Arizonan is able to cast their ballot and have their ballot counted. I’ve watched the Republicans work really hard to make sure that certain people can’t vote, and I want to reverse that. I think that’s how we change the direction of our state.
I’ve often heard it said that when women run for office, either they have something they want to fix, an issue they’re passionate about or they’re angry about something. What is it for you?
I have so many issues I want to fix. It’s about all the progressive issues that I care about that I’ve fought for in the legislature. I think how to get there is dealing with the voter-suppression issues and making sure that everyone can vote.
There’s this incredible opportunity in our state this year because of all these things coming together at the same time — the aftermath of the Trump election, the fact that our secretary of state is probably the most incompetent secretary of state in the entire country. This is a moment where we have real opportunity to make change, and I was ready to step up and do that.
What did you learn in the Senate that you would bring to a statewide executive role?
Understanding how state government works — and also that sense of how government should be working for the people, and it’s not.
I think coming into elected office with that perspective is really important, because there are a lot of people who I serve with who are just there because they want to destroy government. They want to prove that government sucks and it shouldn’t be there and it doesn’t have an essential role, and that everyone should be Libertarians.
Statewide executive offices have been harder races for women to win. Why is that and how are you taking that on?
Yeah, well, Arizona actually bucks the trend there. We’ve had more women governors than any other state. We’ve had four female governors. And I think we just topped the highest percentage of women in our state legislature. Obviously, I’ll be in a general election with another woman, so we’ll see how that plays out.
Why do you think Arizona bucks the trend and has so many women in office?
We conquered the Wild West, and there’s a lot of this pioneering spirit. We’ve had women in important roles in our state from the beginning. We were one of the first states to send a woman to Congress [with] Isabella Greenway [in 1932]. Now, we have two in our delegation, and two really strong women are running for a U.S. Senate seat. So we’ll send our first woman to the U.S. Senate this next election. We’ve always been really an independent streak of a state, and women have always played an important role in that.
You have a long history with Emerge Arizona. Why did you get involved?
Oh, I didn’t get involved with them; they got involved with me. A colleague I worked with in domestic violence [services] got pulled onto the board. Emerge was trying to get the first class off the ground, and she approached me and was like: “You should apply for this program.” I was like: “That’s really silly, I’m not going to ever run for office.”
I applied sort of kicking and screaming. As soon as I got into the program, I was like: “Oh my God, I’m going to run for office.” I literally would have never run for office if it hadn’t been for Emerge.
You did your Emerge training in 2004 and became executive director in 2013 while you were in office?
Yes. An important part of the program is making sure that you get some campaign experience by volunteering. Kyrsten Sinema was running in my district, and I started volunteering on her campaign. When she won the [U.S.] House seat, she wanted me to get involved in the district leadership at the party level, and so I did. I became the district chair and worked my way up in the ranks in the party.
Then Emerge [Arizona] asked me to serve on the board. So I was on the board, off and on, between 2005 and when they hired me as executive director in 2013. Really, it was my dream job. Our legislature is considered part time — although while we’re in session it’s literally full time — and it’s really difficult to have other employment that accommodates that. A lot of us have to cobble things together.
Why was it your dream job?
When I got into Emerge, I felt like it was the answer to fixing all our problems.
Everybody has their own paths of changing the world, and for me it’s elected office. Not everybody has to run, but you have to have people engaged in the process. The first thing Emerge did for me was engage me in the process.
How is the moment we’re in influencing your race and Arizona politics?
You’re seeing a lot of folks target immigrants with legislation. This whole conversation about voter fraud and this idea that [illegal immigrants] voted illegally, that’s just not true. I’m very clear, when I talk about giving everyone access to the ballot, that I’m talking about eligible voters. And there are eligible voters that we are keeping from voting right now.
What do you expect for the primary and the general, and how you’re going to approach the race?
It’s a statewide race in Arizona. It’s tough for a Democrat. I saw the huge opportunity that we have this cycle, but it’s still going to be an uphill battle.
I’m someone who doesn’t shy away from tough fights. When I ran for Senate, I had served one term in the House, which was 2 years, and I was up against a 16-year incumbent. And I beat him by 20 points in the Democratic primary. I’m expecting this to be a really tough fight. I’m expecting a lot of dirt thrown at me that I don’t deserve, but that happens in elections.
I’m focused on the general election. My primary opponent, he doesn’t have support. He’s not running a real race. He hasn’t shown the ability to raise the funds. So I’m focused on the general. It’s going to be a tough race, and I say: “Bring it.”