These Arizona lawmakers have barely gone to the Capitol at all this year. Here's why

Mary Jo Pitzl
Arizona Republic
Juan Mendez is a state senator from Tempe.

For two Arizona lawmakers who normally spend several months each year at the state Capitol, the building is one of the places they've seen least this year.

Absent since the start of the legislative session in January, Rep. Athena Salman and Sen. Juan Mendez, both Democrats from Tempe and a married couple, have avoided the Legislature, citing the risk of exposing their newborn daughter to COVID-19.

While it’s common for lawmakers to take an occasional day off for personal or other reasons, no one can recall absences that have endured for an entire legislation session, now in its fifth month.

Yet the two Democrats are not AWOL. Their absences are excused by GOP leaders in the House and Senate.

They continue to collect their $24,000 salary and the daily per diem pay, which amounted to $3,395 as of mid-April. On the rare days when they have ventured to the Capitol, they are entitled to payment for mileage.

Three other lawmakers have newborns but come to the Capitol to work. While there are some murmurings of discontent, no one really seems to care enough to do anything about it.

House Speaker Rusty Bowers said he was "shocked" that Salman would neglect her seat by not coming to the Capitol for committee hearings and votes. But he nonetheless has granted her excused absences.

“She chooses to do what is important to her, which is fine by us,’ said Bowers, R-Mesa. 

COVID-19 restrictions lifted for 2022

For the couple, what’s important is keeping their newborn safe from exposure to COVID-19.

Their daughter was born just as the Legislature was convening its annual session. Both had asked the GOP leadership for permission to work remotely, as was allowed in 2021 when employers everywhere were trying to figure out a safe way for people to keep doing their jobs.

But that was not allowed under new provisions that took effect in January. Legislative leaders removed almost all COVID-19 protocols and required lawmakers to be physically present in committee hearing rooms and on the House or Senate floor.

For those wary of COVID-19 exposure, they allow virtual attendance, but only if a lawmaker comes to the Capitol and participates from his or her office.

That wasn't safe enough for the first-time parents. Salman and Mendez worried the crowded space at the Legislature, particularly in the House, coupled with optional mask use would increase the risk of exposure.

Both say they have been COVID-19-free during the pandemic and have restricted their interactions to a small circle, relying on grocery pickup and virtual meetings even before they knew they were pregnant.

Salman showed up at the Capitol once, in April, and said she was appalled at the conditions.

“I wish our windows opened," she said of legislative offices. "They’re sealed shut. The ventilation is not great.”

The couple protested the lack of a work-from-home accommodation on social media and in interviews. 

"The Republican majority is playing political games with the health and safety of our baby, something we will not compromise on," the couple said.

The Arizona Department of Health Services states that children under age 1 might be at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19. Salman said she's wary, especially since there is no vaccine yet for children under age 5.

“We’re learning that this disease can cause disability," she said. "Entering year three (of the pandemic), we don’t know the long-term effects. I just don’t want to gamble.”

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Absences excused by GOP leaders

Legislative leaders said they couldn't recall any instances where a lawmaker was gone the entire session.

Bowers noted that Rep. Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren, D-Red Mesa, had a baby around the same time as Salman and was able to attend committee hearings and participate in floor votes.

The Legislature has no formal policy on maternity or paternity leave, so lawmakers are left on their own to decide how much time to take off. Salman considered the first 12 weeks of her absence as maternity leave, consistent with her advocacy for paid family leave insurance benefits.

Despite his criticism, Bowers has granted Salman excused absences.

"I'm just trying to be nice," he said when pressed for his reasoning. 

Unexcused absences are viewed as black marks on a lawmaker's record and political opponents often cite them in campaigns.

Asked if he would grant a yearlong excused absence to a Republican lawmaker, Bowers said that wasn't possible. The Republicans hold only a one-vote margin in the House. If he were to lose a member for the entire legislative session, he'd have to find Democratic votes or face gridlock.

In the Senate, President Karen Fann said she continues to mark Mendez as excused because he presented a doctor's note advising it was not safe for him to attend in person. That is allowed by Senate rules, she said, although she was skeptical of the senator's wariness as he is running for re-election.

Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, took a few days off earlier this year when his second daughter was born, but he otherwise has worked at the Capitol. 

Work to do outside the Capitol

But there's more to being a lawmaker than showing up at the Capitol, Mendez and Salman said.

"We’re still executing and fulfilling the duties of our office," Salman said. "Journalists, locally and nationally, still reach out to us for issues we’ve cultivated expertise on."

Although they can't vote from home, they said they watch legislative proceedings online, work with stakeholders, and take part in virtual conferences and webinars. 

Mendez came to Senate for several votes, including February's vote that raised the expenditure limit for schools, sparing them deep budget cuts.  

"Constituent services have been uninterrupted this entire session as well," they wrote in response to questions from The Arizona Republic.

In a later interview, Salman defended the per-diem payments they continue to receive. Her colleagues continue to receive per diem even though the Legislature is currently in session only one or two days a week while budget work continues in closed-door meetings.

Plus, she added, “We worked remotely away from the Capitol last time (in 2021) and got per diem.”

Lawmakers in Maricopa County get a daily subsistence fee of $35, although it dropped to $10 a day on May 9 after the legislative session surpassed its 120th day.

The couple said they intend to be at the Legislature to vote on the budget, as well as whenever a deal is struck on water legislation.

And they're hopeful that, by next January, a vaccine for very young children is developed and can ease their fears of attending legislative sessions in person.

Who's looking out for Tempe?

Their prolonged absences don't appear to have ruffled constituents, although at least one state senator is bothered by the situation.

Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, said Mendez's absence is tantamount to abandonment of his seat and could be grounds for expulsion.

With both Salman and Mendez absent for votes, their district is left with only one voting representative, Melody Hernandez, who also is a Democrat.

But Democratic caucus leaders and House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding have respected the couple's decision.

“Absolutely she’s missed by her caucus,” Bolding, D-Laveen, said of Salman. “But absolutely, we will not ask her to risk the health of her newborn.”

Bolding, himself the father of a newborn, said his role as leader of the House Democrats put his decision to be present in the Legislature in a different light.

“Serving as the minority leader, there comes a little bit different levels of authority,” he said. “It’s not lost on me that I have a newborn at home.”

Senate Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, said some Republicans had talked about a motion to expel Mendez, but said it would never pass because it would need Democratic votes to do so.

Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, left, talks with Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, during the opening of the Arizona Legislature at the state Capitol, Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, in Phoenix.

Mendez and Salman said they have received lots of support for their stance.

"Some voters have gone as far as to thank us for spotlighting the struggles parents are facing with children in their household that are too young to be eligible for the vaccine in a world that is leaving them behind," they said.

Both are running for re-election and do not have any challengers in the Aug. 2 primary. Given the heavily Democratic makeup of Legislative District 8, they have a strong chance of winning in November.

That would assure them of a return to the Capitol next January, if they choose to go.

“I’m pretty confident the vaccine will be available by the start of the next session," Salman said, adding it was a key factor in deciding to run again.

Reach the reporter at maryjo.pitzl@arizonarepublic.com and follow her on Twitter @maryjpitzl.