Backstories | Before They Were Lawmakers

3/14/2019

Lives of Lawmakers Before They Landed in the Legislature.

By Suzanne Weiss

Teresa Benitez-Thompson

Teresa Benitez-Thompson’s rise to the leadership ranks of the Nevada General Assembly began with her discovery, as an eighth-grader at Clayton Middle School in Reno, of the challenges and rewards of competitive debate.

Teresa Benitez-Thompson“I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the intense studying and research it involved. I really liked the deep dive,” she recalls. “It proved to be a turning point for me, because I’d otherwise been ambivalent about academics.” She went on to become a skilled debater in high school, winning a statewide competition in her junior year.

In 2002, Benitez-Thompson won another title—Miss Nevada—and was third runner-up in the Miss America contest the following year. Her prize money, along with scholarships from the Nevada Women’s Fund, enabled her to graduate debt-free from the University of Nevada and earn a master’s in social work from the University of Michigan.

After graduate school, she returned to Reno to work in the county adoption and foster-care programs. In her spare time she helped guide the development of the Nevada Empowered Women’s Project. She and her mother, who worked as a waitress in local casinos and restaurants, were among a group of women who founded the project several years earlier to help young single moms living in poverty break free of the welfare system.

Gradually, she came to focus on “finding a way to do the kind of work—policy work—that impacts people,” she says. So when the House seat in her district opened in 2010, “I knew I had to jump at the opportunity.” Her first run for office involved “a very intense primary,” but she won and went on to handily defeat her Republican opponent that fall. She hasn’t faced a primary challenge since and was elected without opposition to her fifth term in 2018.

Described by EMILY’s List, the Washington, D.C.-based women’s political action committee, as “a fearless champion for women and families,” Benitez-Thompson, 40, was nominated in 2017 for the group’s annual Rising Star Award. She has sponsored bills to keep access to contraceptives convenient and affordable, strengthen mental health programs and end the backlog of rape kits at the state and county levels. She also has advanced legislation on education, solar energy and balancing the state budget.

Benitez-Thompson was selected in 2016 to serve as majority floor leader, a job she relishes. “It requires being organized and mastering the details of all the rules and procedures,” she says. “I like navigating the traffic.” She is the first Latina to hold the position.

Benitez-Thompson says she looks forward to the 2019 session, when her party will control both chambers and, for the first time in her legislative tenure, won’t be dealing with a budget “in crisis.” Thanks to a package of revenue-raising measures passed in 2017, she says, the General Assembly “will be able to do something other than just slashing programs.”

Benitez-Thompson and her husband, Jeff, chief meteorologist for KOLO-TV, the ABC affiliate in Reno, have four children under age 8. And for the last eight years, she has worked for a company that provides hospice care.

To manage that demanding schedule, she draws inspiration from her mother, who worked long hours in the service industry. “Sometimes, my two sisters and I would visit my mom at work,” she says. “I was always amazed by her demeanor—calm and composed, despite constant surrounding chaos. It is a lesson I have never forgotten, the importance of staying focused on the job at hand, even when tossed around by stormy seas.”

Allen Farley

Allen Farley is the unlikeliest of policy wonks. Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, Farley spent 37 years in law enforcement, rising from foot patrolman in his hometown of Bessemer, Ala., to assistant sheriff of Jefferson County, the most populous county in the state. Approaching retirement a few years back, he looked forward to having more time for what he enjoys most: gospel music, volunteering with the Salvation Army and doting on his family—wife Muriel, three daughters and nine grandchildren.

He recalls never having more than a passing interest in politics, let alone running for office.

Fast-forward to 2019 and Farley is a political veteran. A Republican, he was elected unopposed to his fifth term in the Alabama House, where he has earned a reputation for hard work, civility and acumen in areas ranging from prison reform to school security to cross-agency data sharing. For the past eight years, he has blossomed into a vocal advocate for reforming the state’s unwieldy budget process, which he believes hamstrings legislators’ ability to plan and invest wisely.

Farley is a champion of apprenticeship programs for young people, family-centered support systems for parolees and expanded access to mental health services. For audiences ranging from business leaders to fellow legislators to community groups, he created a PowerPoint presentation using overlays of data based on the home addresses of prison inmates, Medicaid and social-service recipients, and families living in neighborhoods with underperforming schools.

“What you see is these clusters of failing communities where our money needs to be invested more strategically,” he says.

“If we would take better care of these communities, we could free up a lot of money that’s being sucked up by prisons, welfare programs and families in crisis—and use that money to make all of Alabama better. It’s the right thing to do. Let’s target the 10-year-old child living in these communities right now, and make sure that each and every one of them has as good a chance to succeed as any child in our state.”

Farley says he experienced a sort of epiphany toward the end of his time in the sheriff’s office, triggered by a series of encounters with young men jailed for crimes primarily involving drugs or alcohol. “I was seeing these kids and thinking, I knew your father when he was in trouble with the law, and your grandfather,” he says. “This was the third generation of these families ending up incarcerated. This was weighing heavy on my heart. My whole career, I just kept my head down and tried to do my job and keep people safe. But one day I realized, you know, I need to commit myself to shedding some light on the problems in these communities and help do something about it.”

A major source of frustration for Farley is the structure of the state’s budget. Nearly 90 percent of Alabama’s tax dollars are earmarked—by statute or in the state constitution—for specific agencies or programs. That’s the highest percentage of earmarked revenue among states, and it’s roughly four times the national average. “The way things are, with such a limited general fund, we just don’t have the flexibility we need to be good stewards of our resources,” he says.

Farley is serving on a new budget-reform committee, adding to his duties as vice chair of the House Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security and chair of the subcommittee on criminal justice.

In his legislative work, Farley’s priority is “making Alabama a safe place and a better place when my grandkids have grandkids,” he says. “They can say, ‘Well, my pop was part of the group that was in the legislature back then when certain things were changed, and that he helped make families stronger.’ If I can do that, then I’m a happy man.”

Suzanne Weiss is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to State Legislatures magazine.

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