State Rep. Dr. Geraldine Peten began her political career following the end of her contract as a school principal in the town of Pinion in 2008. Energized by the prospect of the country electing its first African-American President, she switched from education to political activism.
Peten worked on the next three Barack Obama campaigns and became a noted Democratic organizer. In 2017 her name was put forward to replace Jesus Rubalcava, who resigned his House seat in LD 4 amid questions about his use of campaign funds.
Peten was appointed to the Arizona House in August of 2017. She joined one other African-American in the 90 member body and is the only African-American woman.
Peten’s appointment came during a volatile session of the Arizona legislature.
Peten stepped into a session defined by the me-too movement and a massive statewide teacher walkout to protest education funding. She says she was a bit naïve about legislative processes, but was truly “shocked” at the lack of civility on the state house floor. On her second day at the Capital she attended ethics training. She could not know how quickly that training would come in handy.
“I’m sitting at my desk and right in front of me was another Representative. He had his computer open and his screen saver was a Confederate flag. Ironically, we were on the part of the presentation on ‘if you see something, say something’. So I did,” Peten says.
The situation was resolved. Peten’s colleague agreed not to stop bringing that particular laptop to the house floor. Peten says things snowballed from there, and never really improved. But she says going to college during the Vietnam War prepared for life to be somewhat “stormy”.
The Red for Ed teacher walkout was a high point for Peten. She says she was incredibly proud of the 75,000 teachers who marched on the State Capitol and showed up each day in the House gallery.
“Their presence was strong. And intense. And their passion drove home how drastically education is underfunded,” Peten says.
The walkout is the reason the Legislature gave teachers raises, according to Peten.
“The belief that they were trying to push was that they were going to do this anyway. They were going to give the teachers a 2020 raise. No they were not. They weren’t doing anything until 75,000 teachers in red t-shirts marched on the Capitol,” Peten says.
The debate over teacher pay and school funding led to another incident highlighting civility issues in the House. Peten says her reaction on the House floor to a proposal to give teachers tax credits to buy school supplies led to her being impugned. Peten thought the plan was an insult to teachers and said so, but House leadership thought her remarks wet too far.
“I was told that I shouldn’t say that, that it wasn’t just crumbs. But it was. But I didn’t know Rule 19 very well then. Now I do,” Peten says.
Rule 19 is a House rule that bans the use of personal attacks or insulting language. It also bars members from questioning the motives of their colleagues or misrepresenting their words or actions.
Peten says teachers agreed with her assessment that the tax credit was not enough. She says the message she received from teachers is that education needs permanent, dedicated funding.
Rule 19 would come up again for Peten in April of this year. She and the only other African-American in the Legislature stood to protest an opinion piece published by one of their colleagues. The piece included use of the N word within some quoted song lyrics. Peten joined fellow representative Reginald Bolding in condemning the article but their protest did not get far.
“We both were impugned. Basically we were told to shut up and sit down,” she says. “That whole climate of bullying, intimidating and silencing you. I felt that throughout.”
Peten says she can pretty much count on one or two members always rising to counter her if she speaks on the House floor. “And not really be nice about it,” she says.
Despite the civility issues and the racist undertones to some of her engagements with her colleagues, Peten says it is important that she is there. She is the only African-American woman and feels a responsibility to add her perspective and to bring some diversity to the body.
“It’s not just being African-American. I speak out for the under-privileged, the disenfranchised. I look at the world through a different lens. I grew up in Newark, New Jersey. My mom was a single mom. I was a single mom. And so, I have some sense of what the struggle is like,” Peten says.
But Peten is realistic about progress. She says, like the state’s education funding crisis, things happen over time, in small ways, before they seem like big problems that have been around forever. Similarly, her presence in the Arizona Legislature is a continuing step toward progress.
Peten admits to a bit of a learning curve regarding the more rural areas of Legislative District 4. She says the amount of technology used in agriculture surprised her, but she also wonders why the state and the region have not made science, technology, engineering and math a priority given how advanced farming has become. Peten is also educating herself on water issues, and has taken and planned several tours of the Yuma area to get a better understanding of water rights and water needs.
Peten is virtually guaranteed a spot on the general election ballot as she and her fellow incumbent, Charlene Fernandez, are running unopposed in the primary.
A third candidate, Sara Mae Williams, is running on the Green Party ticket.
The Arizona Primary Election is August 28th. The general election is November 6th.