Q&A: Sen. Lupe Contreras on getting COVID-19 and legislating to beat it

Senator Lupe Contreras represents District 19 in the Legislature and serves as the Democratic Minority Whip. Senator Contreras was a member of the bipartisan group of senators that voted this week to adjourn the 2020 regular session.

Contreras is looking ahead to an anticipated special session in Arizona with a narrow focus on issues related to COVID-19. For Contreras, legislating in response to COVID-19 is personal, as he and several members of his family came down with the virus not long ago. I called Contreras to hear about his personal battle with COVID-19 and the policy battle he plans to wage against the virus in special session(s) to come.



Michael Goldberg: I know that you were infected with the virus along with several family members and you’ve since recovered. Do you think coming down with COVID-19 has influenced the way you see the pandemic, particularly as a policymaker?

Senator Lupe Contreras: Oh yes, 100 percent. As you mentioned, myself and my wife, mom, dad, sister, and niece all came down with it. Coming down with it opens your mind a little more, even though you’re already watching what you’re doing and trying to be as responsible as possible. All of sudden, to start seeing family members and then my wife and I come down with it, it just turned our world around. I think the craziest part about it is being a parent. A lot of people think it’s nothing for kids. Well, it turns into something when you’re scared that your helpless kids are going to get it. The idea that you’re going to give something to your kids that could hurt them, that was the hardest thing.”

MG: The 2020 general session adjourned yesterday. The way I understand it, adjourning the regular session paves the way for a special session with a narrower scope aimed specifically at addressing issues related to COVID-19. Was the desire to hone in on legislation specifically related to the pandemic the primary strategic impetus behind the move to adjourn session yesterday?

SLC: Yes, that was our view not just yesterday but in the past since this has all come to light. We’ve been trying to put all of efforts into ensuring that if there’s going to be anything done, it’s done in regards to COVID-19. There are other considerations, but when it comes down to public safety and the health of everyone in this great state, I think we have to stick to our guns on that.”

MG: Gov. Ducey will set the parameters for the special session and of course it will be completely focussed on COVID, but under that umbrella are there any particular bills or policies that you think need to get done during the special session whenever it occurs?

SLC: There’s going to be a lot to get done in regards to the budget. We streamlined our budget and didn’t get down to the nuts and bolts because we didn’t know how much we needed to put aside. So, we put aside what we could at that time and left the capitol. Now with a special session, we can tighten everything up and plan ahead. If you look at it, any changes that were made to the narrow budget that we put out are COVID related because we didn’t exactly know how much we would need. Now we can go back and dive into it. 

There are going to be some bills out there that could help, but in the eyes of some individuals, they might not think those bills are COVID related. But in the grand scheme of things it is. There might be businesses that close and then all of a sudden you have another business willing to open this way and that way. There are going to be things out there that end up being COVID related in one way, shape, or form even if they don’t appear that way at first.”

MG: The sine die vote was a bipartisan effort but what has the partisan atmosphere been like in the Legislature since the pandemic started? Are there any particular points of partisan tension that you can foresee emerging during the special session(s)?

SLC: I want to stress that what happened yesterday was nonpartisan – it was people working together for the betterment of Arizona. It was all individual senators coming together and agreeing that this was the right thing to do. We put everything aside and showed Arizona and other states that you can put partisanship aside to get the right thing done. You can say that the Republicans peeled off and helped us or that we helped them, but I think it’s more accurate to say that we helped each other. I think all 16 of us understood that we can’t be talking about these individual bills right now, we need to be talking about the common goal. We can come back and get the rest of it done, but this was 16 senators sticking to the common goal.”

MG: Having spoken to a lot of state legislators in several states, there is a contingent of them that are viewing upcoming COVID related special sessions as an opportunity to take on health reform efforts that have been overlooked in the past. Are there specific ways in which you want Arizona’s health systems to look different once the dust settles from this pandemic?

SLC: One of the biggest problems we had was that there weren’t enough tests and testing sites. Also, with issues related to insurance and telemedicine, telemedicine was put out there for entry level things like the common cold or refilling medication. When it comes to COVID-19, I think it’s a quick way to get patients in front of a doctor, one way or another. I work in the insurance industry and I know it’s something that’s been there for the past several years but it’s getting more common, obviously branching out further after COVID-19 hit. Moving forward with medicine, there’s going to have to be more of a push to integrate these services so that the most vulnerable people can be kept away from each other.” 

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.