By Marcelino Quiñonez
State Representative Charlene Fernandez is not a fan of missed opportunities and has dedicated her entire life to ensure no one misses an opportunity.
Charlene was born in Yuma, Arizona, to Antonio’ Tony’ and Carmen Ramos. From a young age, she was inspired by her parents’ example of service to their family, friends, and neighbors. Her father subscribed to the LA Times and would come home every night after work to read the newspaper. On Saturdays, he would sit in his chair, and together with Charlene, they would read the Times. It was in these simple moments, Charlene first developed a sense of civic duty and began to understand social injustice and inequalities. Listening to her father’s voice reading the daily injustices suffered by people that looked like her and the countless lives of Latino men lost in the Vietnam War, Charlene’s sense of duty was forged.
Carmen was a stay-at-home mom who took exceptional care of her children and their well-being and did seamstress work to help ends meet. Both of her parents were only able to graduate 8th grade at that time; high school for most was unattainable. The cost of textbooks made high school too expensive for most. Years later, one member of the AZ State Legislature would change this by introducing a bill that made high school textbooks free. This legislative action has always made an impact on Charlene and her views on service. It taught her the people elected to serve matter. Charlene learned from her parent’s many things. Every year around tax season, Charlene and her siblings had to clear the dinner table because neighbors and friends would stop by to have Carmen complete their taxes. Charlene would sit with the adults in the room and listen to their stories. From a young age, she understood listening was part of leading.
Tony and Carmen knew the importance of voting and never missed an election. They knew that if things were to change, they had to be present, and their votes said to everyone they were indeed present, and their lives mattered.
In high school, Charlene looked for opportunities to serve and would be elected treasurer of her Freshman Class and be active in student government for four years. She began a lifelong relationship with her government teacher, Mr. Robert’ Bob’ McLendon, who would eventually take leave as an educator to serve in the Arizona Legislature. He provided her a glimpse of what was possible. Bob McLendon served as the Democratic Caucus Minority Leader, a position that Charlene would hold many years later.
After graduation, Charlene worked in her hometown and then married. She and her husband, Sergio, would have three children: Brian, Carlye, and Lisa and have two grandkids: Ozzie Ortiz and Isadora “Dizzy” Ortiz. Initially, Charlene was a stay-at-home mom, and then one day, she realized that she needed to seek higher education to reach her full potential. With the support of her husband, children, and family, she enrolled at the local community college, Arizona Western. A place that would later induct her into their Hall of Fame. Everyone would do their part because we know it truly does “take a village.”
After graduating from Arizona Western, Charlene walked into the Northern Arizona University – Yuma registration office with sweat in her palms and lots of dreams in her heart. Charlene quickly realized, though, that she was not financially prepared to attend the university. She was devastated and heartbroken. She took a couple of breaths and was ready to leave when the Admissions Officer, who noticed the change in Charlene’s demeanor, excused himself for a moment. He returned soon after and said to Charlene, “Congratulations, you’ve earned a one-semester scholarship to attend college.” It was in this exchange Charlene realized, “We all need that village. We don’t do this alone. We all need someone to lift us.” She was lifted that day, and little did that individual know just how many others would be lifted over the years with that scholarship. Charlene would earn her associate from Arizona Western College and her bachelor’s from Northern Arizona University-Yuma.
After college, Charlene began working for Arizona trailblazer Congressman Ed Pastor as the Western District Director. Their team opened the first district office in Yuma County, Arizona, where connecting the local community directly to their Congressman was the main mission of the office. Charlene spearheaded a number of projects and initiatives that culminated in bringing a Veteran’s Administration clinic to Yuma County for the first time in history. During the 11 years that Charlene served in this capacity, she gained a sense of confidence in her abilities. Charlene owes a debt of gratitude to this giant of a man, Congressman Ed Pastor.
In 2002, Charlene received a call from her former mentor and teacher, Bob McLendon; Governor Janet Napolitano needed a liaison for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality in Yuma County. Charlene quickly accepted the offer and, for the next 6+years, served in that capacity. She worked with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as well as its counterpart in the Republic of Mexico, to ensure that the air and water in Southwestern Arizona remained safe while ensuring that businesses faced minimal impact. Charlene sat at the table negotiating binational agreements between both countries and felt prepared because she had established a career where she was known to be trustworthy, accountable, and transparent. Those skills would be useful as Charlene continued a career in public service.
In many ways, Charlene had arrived and began to set her sights on other avenues of service. She ran for the Yuma Union High School District Governing Board because she has always been a proponent of public education. She felt she could use that experience and impact the lives of thousands of students, and that is what she did. She would not only serve on the governing board but was elected by her peers to serve as President and Vice-President. Serving on the high school board was an opportunity for Charlene to give back to public education what they had given to her and her children.
Charlene’s name and effectiveness in the state by this point were well known, and as a result, Congressman Raul Grijalva called her to serve as his District Representative. She studied local issues and worked as a bridge between district residents, businesses, stakeholders, and the congressional office. When Congressman Grijalva could not attend events or meetings, he selected Charlene to speak on his behalf. That’s how much he trusted her.
By this point, Charlene had been involved in various capacities in the political spectrum: she had served as a representative of two Congressional District Offices, she had brokered deals across two countries, and had been elected to serve in multiple roles within the Arizona Democratic Party, including the prestigious position of Vice-Chair, as well as Chair of her local Democratic Party. Charlene knew her opportunity to assume elected office at the legislative level had arrived, and she threw her name in the hat. Charlene got to work and connect with neighbors and business leaders and ran an incredible campaign. In the end, she came up on the losing end of her first race for the Arizona Legislature.“Looking back, I realize losing was the best thing that could have happened to me. I learned in that race I would not compromise my ideals and values for a seat. I knew I was a leader, and coming up 154 votes short meant I could rebuild and come back stronger in the future.” She realized all of this and also made the decision she would not challenge the incumbent. A stable party was more important to Charlene than her name as a representative.
As life would happen, the person who won the seat decided he would not seek re-election. A new opportunity opened for Charlene, and with just three weeks to file, Charlene dedicated her existence to that prospect. She canvassed at all hours of the day, made countless calls, and asked friends and family to help in gathering the necessary signatures. In the end, she submitted over 1,000 signatures when she only needed 400. Charlene says, “If you want something bad enough, you’ve got to go for it. There’s no time to rest.” Charlene did not rest, and on November 4, 2014, Charlene Fernandez became State Representative Charlene Fernandez from Yuma. This was the same seat her teacher Mr. McLendon and countless other mentors held. It was a defining moment.
Since then, there is not a day Representative Fernandez has not to lead in public or in private. She learned from her parents to be present, and that is exactly what she has done. In 7 years in the Legislature, she’s only missed one vote. She’s served as Democratic Caucus Whip during her 2nd term. In the 2019 legislative session, she was then elected by her peers to serve as Democratic Caucus Leader for the largest caucus in over 25 years. Since her first election, the Democrats working together under the guidance of her leadership team have gained seats from across the state. Currently, Republicans hold a one-seat advantage; when Representative Fernandez arrived, they had a seven-member advantage. Incremental and important change.
Representative Fernandez is a selfless and inspiring leader. She is humble and thoughtful and effective in her approach. When she is not in the State Capital advocating for Public Education or clean energy for everyone, she spends her time serving on various political committees to increase voter turnout and speaking to the youth, especially young women.
A few years ago, Representative Fernandez was sitting on a panel of elected officials, and as is often the case, she was the only woman. An audience member asked the panel members what had prompted them to run, and one of her male colleagues’ response floored her. He had been approached and asked to run along with support throughout the process, including those coveted and necessary signatures and financial support. Representative Fernandez then began to reflect on her journey and the many things she’s learned on her path. It’s these lessons she imparts to women now: “You don’t have to be asked to do something. You’ve got to go out there and get it yourself. In politics, in business, in all we do, we cannot wait for someone to ask us to do something. Not all of us are that privileged. Instead, we have to stand up and tell the world we are here and we are ready to lead. We have to know at our core that we can do this. I call it FIRE IN THE BELLY.”
Representative Fernandez has fond memories of the many women who have provided inspiration or assistance on her path, including but not limited to Rosie Lopez, Cynthia Aragon, Mary Rose Wilcox, and countless others. They taught her the power of joining forces, the power of lifting each other up with words and actions.
When prompted to reflect on her many accomplishments and incredible service to everyday Arizonans, it’s her family that gives her the greatest fulfillment. “I’ve heard my sisters introduce me a couple of times, and I hear their joy and their pride in what I have been able to accomplish, and that lets me know I’m doing a good job. They are, after all, ‘my toughest critics.’ I know others can do a good job, too; all they need is an opportunity.”
Three days prior to the 2016 general election, Carmen Ramos passed away. Charlene remembers the many things her mother taught her, but one stands above the rest: “Leave things better than you found them.”
In many ways, small and large, in public and in private, Representative Charlene Fernandez has already done just that; every day, she leaves things better than she found them. She never misses an opportunity.