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State Senate Showdown 

A political veteran faces a rookie candidate in the Senate race for Legislative District 3

With no Republican challenger in the very Democratic Legislative District 3, whoever wins the primary will in all likelihood win the race for Arizona Senate.

Barring an unlikely campaign from a write-in candidate, either political newcomer Betty Villegas or Rep. Sally Ann Gonzales will represent the district where 51 percent of voters are Democrats and only 17 percent are Republican. The district includes the University of Arizona, neighborhoods such as Menlo Park, Armory Park and Barrio Anita as well as the west side.

Both candidates are using Clean Elections dollars, which means they receive public funds by agreeing to limit campaign spending and private contributions beyond their qualifying $5 donations.

Sally Ann Gonzales

Education, healthcare and public services are issues that Gonzales champions. During the last legislative session, she sponsored bills to restore voting rights to felons, give the terminally ill new care options, expand the diversity of school curriculum and improve education funding for indigenous peoples. But as is common with Democrat-sponsored legislation, none of these bills got a hearing.

"It's important for me that the public knows why my bills are not heard," Gonzales said. "My bills are more controversial, and the Republican legislature won't hear bills they don't like."

She co-sponsored bipartisan bills that were successfully passed and signed into law, such as a bill that waived certain Medicaid-eligibility requirements for Native Americans, a bill supporting employment rights for members of the National Guard and a bill establishing June 2 as Native American Day.

Gonzales says education is the foundation of the economy because when children get a quality education, they have better job prospects, which also benefits businesses. She says public education, particularly for Native American students and English as a Second Language students, has always been lacking.

"Certainly education is one of my biggest concerns," Gonzales said. "We need to fund it fully because education is the foundation that can help anyone. It has helped me to get where I am."

Raised in the Yaqui community of Guadalupe, Arizona, Gonzales' journey has been a roller coaster as she rose from poverty to become a leader in her community.

Growing up with 10 siblings, she spent weekends working with her family doing seasonal field work. She faced a lot of challenges as a child and noticed a lack of services for her fellow tribal members. She credits her mother with teaching her to stand up and fight for what she wanted in life.

She earned a bachelor's in elementary education and then a masters in multicultural education.

She began her career as a school teacher at Tempe Elementary Schools, before she moved to Tucson to teach in Tucson Unified School District.

At the UA, Gonzales coordinated two programs: Manos a la Vida, addressing the needs of women with breast cancer within the Hispanic community, and a program working with Israeli Bedouins and Tucson Yaquis.

Gonzales also administered programs at Arizona State University, such as the Native American Apprentice Teacher Program to train indigenous teachers, and the Arizona Tri-Universities for Indian Education, aimed at encouraging tribal members to attend the university.

Her sense of community and social work, combined with her background as an educator, inspired her to enter politics.

She was elected to the Pascua Yaqui Tribal Council, where she served from 1992 to 1996. In 1997, she won a seat in the Arizona Legislature. She lost a 2002 House race and switched gears to her career in education, serving as the education director of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe. She won the LD 3 House seat in 2012.

Gonzales' agenda includes social services, mental health services and prevention programs to help parents struggling with substance abuse and alcoholism, in order to provide their children with a safe environment. Another priority is healthcare, which she considers a right.

"As a state, we need to provide healthcare to all citizens, whether they can afford it or not," she says.

Betty Villegas

Although she had a long career in Pima County government, Villegas hasn't sought public office before launching her campaign for the Arizona Senate. She says LD 3 Sen. Olivia Cajero Bedford, running for the House, encouraged her to run for Senate. She says she'll use her "fresh ideas and experience on the ground" to better her community.

Villegas said, at the LD 3 primary forum on July 22, that her life and work experiences have prepared her for this job. While she took the floor at the forum to address different issues, she assured the audience if elected, she will maintain open channels of communication with her community.

Villegas' Democratic principles are founded in community involvement and personal experience.

Her early life experiences with family illnesses drive her passion for health care issues. In addition, her family struggled with housing over the years, which sparked an interest in affordable housing.

Villegas had a 20-year career in banking and community lending. Starting off as a service representative for savings and loans, she worked her way up to a Branch Manager and Community Lending Mortgage Officer.  She says these years allowed her the chance to talk and listen to all kinds of people.

She then moved to a 17-year career with Pima County, where she worked on housing-related policies and programs.

"People needed a place to come to get trusted help for housing and resources," Villegas said.  

She helped develop the Pima County Housing Center, a homeownership, down-payment and closing cost program, aimed at increasing homeownership rates for the Hispanic community.  

"We were helping our underserved people," Villegas said. "The outcomes were very positive, and they kept renewing the funding."

She says the program provided money for down payments as well as doing outreach and marketing directly to potential homebuyers. Housing counselors prepared the mortgage and acted as a liaison between the lender and homebuyer.

Education and an inclusive and diverse curriculum are also top on Villegas' agenda. Being married to a retired educator and having a son who's a member of the LGBTQ community drew her attention to the lack of comprehensive sex education in schools.

She says all children deserve a safe environment to express themselves freely and more should be done to ensure children who identify as LGBTQ are safe and protected in their schools.

Villegas is an active member on several boards and commissions, including Latinos in Heritage Conservation, Tucson Pima Public Art Commission, and Mexican American Studies Program at the UA.

More by Dalal Radwan

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