Meet Our Candidates: January Contreras for Arizona Attorney General

The time to fight back — and fight forward — for reproductive justice is fast approaching. The stakes are high in this year’s state election, with candidates for governor, secretary of state, attorney general, and other races on the ballot. The Arizona primary election will be held August 28, 2018, and voters need to be registered by July 30 to cast their ballots. Reproductive health has been under attack, both nationally and statewide, but Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona has endorsed candidates who put our health and our rights first. Get to know them now in our series of “Meet Our Candidates” interviews, and make your voice heard in 2018!

[A]lthough January Contreras has never run for an elected office prior to now, she has spent her career close to politics and devoted to public service. Her experience has included advising Gov. Janet Napolitano on health policy and serving on President Obama’s White House Council on Women and Girls.

Last year, Contreras announced her bid to become the next Arizona attorney general, a position that serves as the chief legal officer of the state of Arizona. The attorney general represents and provides legal advice to the state and defends Arizona’s people and businesses in cases involving financial, civil rights, and felony criminal violations.

“We are our best when we work to protect the well-being and rights of all of us.”

During Napolitano’s tenure as attorney general, Contreras worked in the office as an assistant attorney general, with a focus on prosecuting criminal fraud cases. More recently, Contreras set her sights on leading the office, because she felt the state was at a “very important crossroads.” As she told the Arizona Republic, “for too long, the special interests have treated the office as their personal law firm.” As attorney general, Contreras wants to serve working families and small businesses and, as she told the Washington office of The Guardian, “fight hard” for “people in vulnerable positions.”

Fighting on behalf of those at risk is a cause that has been close to Contreras’ heart. Contreras has served on the board of the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence and was instrumental in establishing the Council on Combating Violence Against Women for Obama’s Department of Homeland Security. More recently, she co-founded a legal aid organization for women and children who are victims of abuse, Arizona Legal Women and Youth Services (ALWAYS). In addition, Contreras has been a lawyer and advocate for youth in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects undocumented immigrants who arrived as children from facing deportation.

That background puts Contreras in stark contrast to the incumbent attorney general, Mark Brnovich. Last year, Brnovich pushed to deny DACA recipients in-state tuition at Arizona’s universities — and this year, he has pushed to deny them driver’s licenses. Brnovich maintains his hostility toward DACA recipients, also known as Dreamers, in spite of the overwhelming support the program has — nationwide and within Arizona. A recent CBS News poll found that 9 in 10 respondents believed Dreamers should be allowed to stay in the United States. An Arizona Republic/Morrison/Cronkite News poll in 2016, which gauged the views of voters in Arizona, also found that a strong majority opposed the idea of deporting undocumented immigrants.

Brnovich has also been called out by the political action committee EMILY’s List for a “long and shameful record of pushing an agenda that rolls back the clock on women’s health care rights.” Last year, EMILY’s List added him to their “on notice” list, which the organization uses to target candidates it seeks to replace. The announcement cited a temporary rule Brnovich had imposed that required abortion providers to turn over records related to fetal tissue, in spite of patient privacy rights. Brnovich has also backed the idea that businesses should be allowed to deny coverage for contraceptives in their employee health insurance — and the idea that universities should be immune from Title IX lawsuits in response to campus sexual assault.

Contreras is the only Democratic candidate challenging Mark Brnovich, and she generously took the time on April 20 to tell us more about herself and her campaign.

Please tell us a little about your background.

I’m a mom, attorney, and proud Arizonan. Growing up in Phoenix and Mesa, my mom worked nights to support our family and achieve her dreams of being a homeowner and obtaining a higher education. When I was very young, my grandparents chipped in to care for me, and when I was a preteen, I took over caring for my sister, who is a decade younger than me. The values that I learned from my family — responsibility, integrity, and perseverance — have stayed with me throughout my own family life and career.

After graduating from the University of Arizona, I decided to go to law school because I never wanted to be powerless to fight for myself or the people around me. Lucky for me, when I couldn’t afford an LSAT prep class, the U of A law school mailed me a set of books to study at home. I started law school soon after.

Once I passed the bar, my public service career began. I’ve served our state as a deputy county attorney, assistant attorney general, assistant director at AHCCCS, and advisor to Gov. and Secretary Napolitano. It was my pleasure to serve as a designee on the White House Council on Women and Girls, where I focused on combating violence against women. When I returned home from the Obama administration, I founded Arizona Legal Women and Youth Services (ALWAYS) to provide free legal services to kids and young adults dealing with homelessness, trafficking, abuse, and the foster care system. Seeing a young mother go from a state of distress to holding her head high feeling safe and empowered was my reward on a regular basis. When I became increasingly concerned about the direction of our state leaders, and an incredible retired judge stepped up to take the helm at ALWAYS, I knew it was time to once again step up to take on more responsibility.

It’s a privilege to be the Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona-endorsed candidate for attorney general. My husband of 23 years, my two teenage sons, and, yes, my unstoppable mom have been with me every step of the way since I launched this campaign last June. (In fact, so have my tías, cousins, and dad. You’ve got to love big families.) When I win this election, you have my word that the values that have guided me every day in my career will never sway. We are our best when we work to protect the well-being and rights of all of us, and I promise to do so every single day as your next attorney general.

Over the last nine years, Arizona taxpayers have paid $1.7 million in court and legal fees to defend unconstitutional laws impacting abortion. What do you think about the resources Arizona has spent defending these laws?

Wasting even one dollar to defend unconstitutional laws is too much. Every woman has the right to make her own reproductive choices under our Constitution, and when Arizona’s elected officials show indifference to this constitutional right, they are reiterating their belief that liberty and privacy don’t count for women. It’s unacceptable not only because these actions trample all over the Constitution, but also because it’s a misuse of taxpayer funds to pursue litigation that is legally indefensible. The attorney general should be committed to upholding the Constitution and protecting the rights of all Arizonans.

The Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate is in danger, although medical experts such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists state that birth control is a necessary component of preventive health care. As attorney general, how would you ensure that our laws serve the best interests of our citizens’ health?

Mark Brnovich has stated, “Today, right now, there’s a case just argued before the Supreme Court — the Hobby Lobby case, dealing with religious liberties. We need an attorney that understands these issues, and is going to fight for our rights to freely practice our religion and associate with whoever we want without government interference.”

Those are the alarming words of the person who I am out to replace. The current attorney general and I stand on opposite sides of a battle over health care. On the health care front, the current attorney general isn’t just after contraception, he has sued to eliminate the Affordable Care Act and all of its protections and coverage. His lawsuit would end protections for pre-existing conditions and adult children coverage, and leave millions with no health care. As for access to convenient and affordable contraception, it’s not just the experts who know how important it is to have preventive health care, any woman knows that it’s vital to being in control of our bodies and our lives. Employers should not be able to interfere with health coverage decisions based on their political or religious views. I will fight for the well-being of Arizonans, including enforcing the laws that provide access to affordable health care and contraception.

Planned Parenthood believes all people should have access to quality health care. How would you protect DACA recipients and undocumented individuals from deportation and harassment from law enforcement, and how would you ensure their access to local resources available to citizens?

Over the course of my career, I’ve had the opportunity to work to ensure that immigrant victims of crime are treated with the same dignity as all other victims, and to serve as a lawyer to vulnerable kids and young adults who were undocumented but eligible for legal status. This work and my clients were a constant source of inspiration for me. While the attorney general does not have a direct role in immigration enforcement, when elected, I will put a stop to the Office of Attorney General being used to push a partisan agenda that targets immigrants. The current Arizona attorney general has been relentless in his efforts to deny students with DACA in-state tuition and driver’s licenses — despite court rulings that were favorable to the students and their rights. As attorney general, I would not have appealed the lower court ruling that reaffirmed DACA students as eligible for in-state tuition, and I would not have defended [former Gov. Jan] Brewer’s unlawful policy to deny them driver’s licenses. I will work to make sure that all Arizonans, including immigrants, know they can come to the Attorney General’s Office for assistance when they are in need of our protection for themselves or their rights.

Mark Brnovich has defended discrimination against LGBTQ individuals — by businesses, schools, and the state — on issues like transgender bathroom use and same-sex couples’ adoption rights. What are your thoughts about these policies, and what is your vision for a more LGBTQ-inclusive Arizona?

When we have an attorney general who is willing to ignore the rights of an entire class of people, we should all be deeply troubled. Without being asked, he took it upon himself to reinterpret state statute to ban LGBTQ families from adopting. Just last year, our Arizona Supreme Court made it clear that all marriages are considered equal in the eyes of the law, so his opinion does not stand. Ultimately, I believe the courts will protect the LGBTQ community from discrimination, but we should not have to constantly rely on the courts to enforce the law; that job belongs to the attorney general. That’s a job I am eager to begin doing.

All Arizonans deserve the right to work, learn, and live with confidence that they’ll be treated with dignity and respect. This is where a more LGBTQ-inclusive Arizona begins. As attorney general, I will put a stop to the use of taxpayer money for partisan litigation and actions that oppose equality for all. I will ensure that my own staff reflects the diversity of our state, and will collaborate with LGBTQ stakeholders and communities and law enforcement across Arizona to reduce hate crimes in our state. I will be an unwavering champion for the constitutional rights of all Arizonans.

Why do you think it’s important that people make their own health care decisions?

Health care decisions are some of the most consequential, private decisions that a person will ever make in her or his life. There’s a reason there are special laws in place to protect the confidentiality of our health records. The information that is shared between a health practitioner and a patient is sacred and will sometimes involve difficult times or decisions. An employer doesn’t belong in that relationship, nor do partisan politicians. As leaders — whether elected or not — we must constantly work together to rebuild Arizona’s safety-net system, to ensure that people have access to health care services, and to fight for the right for each person to make their own accurately informed health care decisions.

Why was it important for you to be endorsed by Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona?

Planned Parenthood is a trusted voice for women. By providing access to services and information when it is needed most, and standing up to fight for the rights of women like those they serve, Planned Parenthood is widely respected across the world. When I served as an advisor to Gov. Janet Napolitano, I traveled all over Arizona and heard stories of women and men about what it was like being uninsured. One constant spot of hope for many of the women — nearly all who worked — was that they could go to Planned Parenthood for appointments when they truly needed to see a health care practitioner. I believe that Planned Parenthood has the trust of Arizona women in their health care, and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona is only going to endorse candidates who will stand on the right side of protection and empowering all people. I am proud to stand with Planned Parenthood, and to have Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona standing with me.

To learn more about January Contreras, visit her website. You can also follow her on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. You can contact us if you’d like to volunteer for an endorsed candidate.