Run for Office - 7 Questions with Daniel Hernández Jr.

by Elizabeth Rowe (She/Her)

Run for office - Daniel Hernandez Jr.

Run for Office - An Interview with Daniel Hernández Jr.  

Daniel Hernández Jr. was born and raised in Tucson, Arizona. He's a first-generation college student who attended the University of Arizona and while in college, interned for then Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and was the first to administer first aid to her on that day of the tragic attack on her life. Daniel was inspired by Congressman Gifford's commitment to public service, so he decided to run for office and was elected to the local school board, becoming the youngest school board president in the district's history. I do remember that starting in 2017, Daniel then went on to serve at the Arizona State House as one of the youngest members ever elected. As a representative, Daniel co-founded the House LGBT Caucus and worked with both Republicans and Democrats to pass bills to protect survivors of sexual assault. He also worked to secure over $20 million for counselors and social workers to help pass a bipartisan budget to invest in K-12 funding in Arizona. Daniel is currently serving as the Government Affairs Director at Stand for Children in Arizona. This week, we asked Daniel 7 questions about his career path and experiences.

Listen to this interview with Daniel Hernandez on the How to Win a Campaign podcast

So we start most of these conversations because we want to show our readers the breadth and depth of the different ways that they can get involved in politics. Can you take us back and talk to us a little bit about how you got started in politics?

Yeah. It was 2007. I was sitting in a high school history class, American History, and I was looking around the room at a bunch of older white men staring back at me. They all happened to have been former presidents. So I asked my teacher, who was the AP American Government teacher, “When was the last time a woman was president?” And he said, “Well, that's never gonna happen because women are too emotional to be president.” And I said, “Oh, well, if women can't be president, interesting. When was the last time a man of color was president?” He said, “Well, that's not gonna happen for a long time either.” And I didn't really like that answer. A couple months later when Hillary Clinton, then senator from New York announced that she was running for president, I said, “I don't know anything about politics, but I do not accept the premise that women are too emotional to be president.” As we are seeing in this current fight happening in Congress, the people who seem to be incapable of being leaders are the men in Congress. Because Nancy Pelosi had no problems counting, and yet we keep seeing man after man lose the speakership: John Boehner, you know, and all of the other men that have come since. So, I signed up on the website not knowing what to expect. I was a very nerdy 17/ 18-year-old and really loved reading the news, but didn't understand politics. My family was completely apolitical. My dad hadn't voted in 20 years until I made him re-register to vote in 2008. My mom didn't become a citizen until 2016. So fun fact, she's never voted for me because she wasn't eligible to vote for me in any of the races that I ran for election. And I got a call from a group of older Jewish women who happened to be the leaders for the Hillary campaign here in southern Arizona. They affectionately called themselves the Ententes for Hillary. They took me under their wing and showed me all the naughty Yiddish and Hebrew words that you're not supposed to say in front of polite company.

More importantly, what they taught me was the value and the importance of building community and relationships. So, I started going to events and knocking on doors. I got the political bug. I went from wanting to go to medical school to help people to going on a path where I started lobbying at 18 at the Arizona State House. By the time I was 20, I passed my first piece of legislation and disappointed my parents more by coming out as no longer wanting to be a medical student and coming out as gay. When I switched my majors, I think that was more devastating than anything that had ever happened to them before. I started working as a volunteer and then eventually as an intern for Congresswoman Gabby Giffords.

It was funny because the same women who had been the Ententes for Hillary then became the Yentas for Gabby when Hillary dropped out of that race in 2008. So it's been a really interesting way for me to get there. I'm now part of a political family that includes three state reps because I was a state representative, my sister Alma was a state representative, and now my sister Consuelo is a state representative. So we started with my mom not being a citizen and my dad not voting. In 20 years to now, three of the kids have been state elected officials and we all got elected under 30 to the legislature.

So take us back and talk to us a little bit about your experience interning for Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. What was that like?

It was an interesting time. So I had two different experiences because I had the internship on the campaign and then I had the internship in the congressional office. So the campaign was intense, exhausting, and emotionally draining for a year where the internship in the congressional office was five days long. On the fifth day of my internship in the congressional office was when the shooting happened. So that experience was all of those things but in a very protracted schedule and timeline. I think for me, when I started interning in the congressional campaign I wanted to just get to know her and get to know the people around her. So I became that ubiquitous teenager that everybody hates, but they also love because they'll do whatever you need them to. So anything they needed, I showed up and I did.

I didn't have a car at the time, so my parents had to drive me, which meant that you didn't just get me a lot of the time, you got my entire family. So I think when we were going and doing things, I was the Spanish speaker, I was the one that they turned to and said, “Hey, we want someone who's not 40 in the room. You're 18, come to this.” It was a really interesting experience because I got exposed to a lot of people and a lot of things that I never would've had the opportunity to do otherwise. So I think one of my first pieces of advice to people is to go and volunteer in a campaign. If you show up enough, people will start giving you responsibilities and things to do. And it's a really interesting experience because you're learning things by doing, as opposed to being in a classroom and being told, here is how government works, here's how campaigns work, here's a Ph.D. dissertation on how to win a campaign.

It's like, we need you to go knock on doors. We need you to step envelopes, we need you to do this, we need you to do that. So the congressional campaign was really interesting because it was my first foray into being a campaign volunteer other than the Hillary stuff. And the Hillary stuff was really different because she wasn't an ephemeral figure. She wasn't someone that I could touch or see or talk to. And I actually didn't meet Secretary Clinton until she was Secretary of State. And after the shooting, I got invited to meet with her one-on-one in her office. Gabby was someone that I could ask a question to and be annoying in her face and be like, “Why did you, why do you people do this? What is going on here?” And that's I think something that I've come to appreciate so much, that when you work with candidates and you volunteer, you're talking to people as people, you're not seeing the scripted thing that people want you to see on TV that are campaign consultants, no offense to Martine.

You're getting the unvarnished raw; they're exhausted and you're staffing them at an event and all they want is a Diet Coke. They're just burned out. You get to see people in a really kind of primal and raw way when you're working and spending a lot of time with them. I think that's so important because then you get to see what kind of person they really are. Is this someone that should be in office? For the most part in the interactions that I've had with candidates, I've learned the most just from observing, just watching and seeing how you interact with other human beings. Are you rude to servers? Are you rude to the barista? I think if nothing else for me, my family has placed upon me this belief that everyone has something to contribute to make the world a better place. It could be a small thing or it could be a big thing, but we all have something and we should all treat each other with respect and, you know, make sure that we're being nice to each other. And that was something that Gabby also impressed upon us because she said, “Whether somebody's eight years old or 80, you treat them well and you treat them with respect because they are all people that deserve to be respected.”

You spoke about Gabby’s commitment to public service. You also spoke about the tragic shooting where you were the first to administer first-aid right before the EMTs came. Talk to us a little bit about how that has shaped your experience or perspective.

Yeah, I think one of the things that's really important for people to know is in my family, our grandmother taught us a really important lesson that was in Spanish, which is [“Mi granito de arena”], which for you non-Spanish speakers means putting in your grain of sand. It was this thing that she taught to all of her 80 plus grandchildren which was that no matter how big or how small, we all have something to contribute to make the world a better place. At first I thought that the way of doing that would be going into healthcare and trying to help people one-on-one. As I got a little bit older and I started working on campaigns, particularly working for Gabby's campaign I learned the power of being a voice for those who didn't have one. I think growing up in a very loud Mexican family, I didn't understand the concept of people not being able to speak up for themselves.

But then I started working for her, learning and understanding that people need advocates. She's actually the one who talked to me about the idea of advocacy and lobbying. It was after working for her as a congressional campaign intern that I did my first advocacy internship. So at 18, I started going to the Arizona state capital and learning more about policy. So when I shifted and said, I no longer wanted to go into healthcare, I want be an advocate, it was because I had passed my first piece of legislation at 20. And I wasn't a high-paid lobbyist. I was a student who really believed in the right to vote and in democracy, and we had passed protections and made it easier for young people to be able to vote. But when we did that I realized that the impact that I could have was so much greater than one-on-one as a physician or as somebody in healthcare because the bill that I passed now impacted a quarter million Arizona students at the three state universities.

The shooting cemented in me the desire to try and be an advocate and take that voice and that advocacy work that I'd been doing before, but now focus it in a different way. Now six people are murdered who don't have a voice anymore. And I saw it as my responsibility to try and be a voice for those who were taken from us on January 8th, 2011. I envisioned in my mind going to work for somebody like Gabby or Gabby herself on Capitol Hill after I finished at the University of Arizona. But, now, I was in the spotlight and thankfully not messing it up too badly. There were plenty of mistakes I'm sure that were made by me, but being able to speak to what was happening and the issues, particularly around gun violence, made me realize that maybe all this time I've been thinking about helping other people because I was afraid of being the one out in front.

Now that I'm out in front, I'm realizing that maybe I should be the one doing these things. So I was approached in June of 2011 by several people in my community to run for the school board in Sunnyside because I'd already been lobbying at the Arizona state legislature on higher education issues. I was still at the University of Arizona. It was only three years since I graduated from high school, so it was a very bizarre thing. And I said, “I don't know anything about being on a school board. I don't know anything about elected office, but I'm willing to learn and I'm willing to work hard.” And I think that was such an important thing that I didn't come in thinking I knew everything. I was fully informed about being completely ignorant about all of the things that had to do with schools and with the school district. So the shooting really cemented in me my desire to continue to serve and to help advocate, but in a very different way because now that I was out in front, I realized that I had a powerful voice that I could use to help others and not just work behind the scenes like I always thought I would when I moved over to the advocacy world.

Could you talk a little bit about sort of what it was like for you in the House Representatives to work across the aisle with both your party and Republicans to get actual legislation passed?

Yeah. So here's the fun thing: I got elected at 26. I was one of the youngest members ever elected to the Arizona State House. But even though I was one of the youngest members ever elected, I already had eight sessions under my belt before I even started. So it was this really funny cognitive dissonance for a lot of folks because I had a lot of experience, but I was also a third their age in some instances. So it was really funny because I think the biggest thing that I had to overcome was this idea that I was young and I didn't know what I was talking about. I think part of what I had to learn to do was kind of own my space and get my colleagues to understand that yes, I may be 26 and you have a kid that's my age or younger, but I actually am the same vote that you are here in this building and there are 60 of us and we all share equal responsibilities to our constituents.

So you're not gonna just write me off and ignore me because I'm younger, and you have to listen to what I say. And it was really funny because the people that I think were the hardest to work with were my Democratic colleagues. After all, so many of them had been there for so long in the minority that they had this, and I don't wanna disparagingly say this, but this mentality of permanent minority. Like they weren't out there trying to get us into the majority and they weren't thinking strategically on how to actually move legislation. It was, “Well, we're in the minority and the Republicans don't wanna give us anything, so we don't have to try, we're just gonna drop a bunch of bills that aren't gonna go anywhere and that's fine.” And I came in and I'm like, “I am not here to sit on my laurels and get nothing done.”

So the very first thing that I did was I started meeting with my new Republican colleagues. I had several relationships from before, but I started meeting with them because I knew that the only way to get things done, being in the minority in the Arizona State House and being one of four openly gay members, and the youngest member of the legislature would be by building relationships. So I took them to lunch, I took them to coffee, I got to know who their kids were. One of the things that I like to share is I used to go on an annual dove hunt with my Republican colleagues. There's a farmer in Yuma County, which is on the Arizona-Mexico border, and every October he would host a dove hunt where he would invite all 90 members. And every year there were maybe two or three Democrats that would come. It was usually me and my sisters that would come because as much as I work on gun violence prevention, I'm a better shot than most of the Republicans, which always surprises them. But it also allowed me to show them that I'm not the big scary gay liberal who's trying to take their guns away. Instead, I'm the serious policy maker who's willing to come and drive, you know, four hours to get to know you and your family and build that relationship. And there were a lot of times when my colleagues on the Republican side would tell me, “I can't vote with you for this reason, but I know why you're doing this.” And a lot of people don't consider that a win, but the fact that they're at least aware that what they're doing is wrong was a win for me because it was losing forward.

Now we had people who at a human level were at least starting to recognize some of the things that were being pushed by some of their advocacy groups on the far right, particularly from the Center for Arizona Policies, a far right-wing think tank that's been working on a lot of anti-LGBTQ legislation. The fact that they're now stopping and pausing and saying,” I need to ask this person and this organization questions” was a win a lot of times because I was talking to conservative Republican Christians who are now pushing back on the talking points and the stuff that they were getting. And there were a couple of times where I haven't really talked about this too much, but the bills wouldn't make it to the floor because the people who I had built relationships with said, if it gets on the floor, I'm gonna have to vote for it, so I'm just gonna make sure it doesn't make it to the house floor. And that was a win totally.

I think one huge win for me that was really meaningful was in 2019 happened when I was approached because there was a bill that had been passed in 1991, we affectionately called it the No Homo Bill. So at the height of the AIDS crisis a bill was passed to talk about HIV education because there was not a lot of great information about AIDS in the nineties, especially in 1991 when this got passed. So what the compromise was, because this was the compromise that could be done similar to Don't Ask, Don't Tell, you can only do as much as the political reality. We will teach kids about HIV and AIDS so that they hopefully don't get it. But as a part of that, we also have to say that you cannot talk about the homosexual community because if you talk about them, that's promoting homosexuality and homosexuality is inherently bad.

So because it was in the education laws, even though it had to specifically do with HIV and AIDS education, the way that it was being interpreted by school districts was any mention of the LGBTQ community could put our funding at stake. So we're just gonna pretend that they don't exist. So from 1991 to 2019 schools were not allowed to talk about the LGBTQ community or even acknowledge that they existed because if they did, somebody could file a report and then an investigation would happen, and if they were shown to have been promoting a homosexual lifestyle, which was the verbiage in the legislation that got passed in 991, they could have their funding be affected. So when we repealed the law in a very, very strong bipartisan showing, I think it was 55 if I'm not mistaken, out of 60 house Democrats and Republicans that voted to repeal it, and 21 out of 30 senators. That didn't happen because I had a ton of power as the LGBTQ caucus chair that happened because I built relationships and when the moment was right and I was able to build the power over three years of serving in the legislature, we were able to pounce on an opportunity and we repealed it in 2019, which then meant that we could at least start having a conversation about the existence of the LGBTQ community. We will have to have longer conversations about how to do it the right way, but the fact that we're not being prohibited from having that conversation is a huge win and, honestly, one of the things that I'm the proudest of during my tenure at the legislature.

Can you talk a little bit about being the youngest school board president in the district's history, one of the youngest representatives? Can you speak a little bit about why being a young elected official is important, why we need more of them, and how you advocate for yourself once you're in office?

I am often reminded of a quote when I have this kind of conversation with folks, which is Golda Meir, the first female prime minister of Israel, who used to say, "Don't be so humble, you're not that great." So I'm always kind of tempted to be self-effacing, and I think a little bit self-deprecating when people ask me this, but I think the biggest thing is you have to own your experience. And you may not have as long of an experience as other folks, especially those who are twice or even in some cases three times your age. But we have an important experience and we have to live with the consequences of the decisions being made, whether or not we're at the decision-making table. So we live with the consequences of the decisions being made by people in their seventies and eighties who will not be around for the next 50 years to deal with the issues around gun violence, the climate, and the economy.

These are all decisions that are going to impact us for the long term, but these are being made by decision-makers who are there for the short term. So I think the first part is realizing that we have a really important voice and stake in the conversation because we're going to be impacted for the long term, and we need to make sure that we understand and that we also have a little bit of humility when we do come into a room, because we do have a story and an experience to tell, but we're also probably not the expert in the room. We have to acknowledge that sometimes we may get things wrong, but being able to admit that you're wrong and that you're learning is an important part of being an elected official if you're gonna be a good policy maker. Because I think there are a couple of different tracks for elected officials. There are the fire breathers who go on social media and love to yell and scream and then get on cable news. There's the people who are just the workhorses who put their heads down and you wouldn't be able to pick them outta the crowd. And then there are the people who I think, and I'm somewhere kind of in the middle, who can be the fire breather when needed because there are some times where you have to go out there and shout and be the speaker at the rally, but then also realize that your job is to be a representative or a school board member or a senator. Your job is to represent your constituents, not to be out there and get all the glory for yourself.

How do you stay inspired to continue to be in this work, in the different ways in which you were involved? What keeps you motivated?

One of the biggest things for me that has been a strong motivator is the fact that you could be the first, but make sure you're not the last. And that we always have to work to try and build up the next generation of leaders, whether they're younger or older. The next generation doesn't necessarily get defined by just people's ages, but it's about bringing new people into the fold and into the decision-making process. So one of my passions has been helping get other people elected, helping train people, and supporting candidates. And I'm not just talking about giving them money, which is always nice and you should always give to candidates, but it has meant sitting and doing call time with candidates and giving them feedback. It's been going and knocking on doors with candidates around the state and in some cases around the country and really helping people understand what is your why: why are you wanting to do this? And if your reason is, well, I want a stable salary and I want to be on TV every once in a while, probably not somebody that you want to help get elected to office. But the people who are really passionate about a specific issue or a specific thing that happened to them, are the things that help me get motivated. I've had a lot of interesting experiences at 33, but a lot of them have come as a result of me taking any trauma or pain and turning it into action and saying, “I have a responsibility to make the world a better place, and I'm not always going to get it right, but I do have a responsibility to try.” And I also love to learn, and I think there's nothing more interesting or informative than being an elected official. Because when I was a school board member, I had no idea about how to manage staff. And at 24 I became the school board president when we had a huge corruption issue. And then I had 1,500 staff reporting to me because I was a board president and I was directly managing staff who were two or three times my age. That was a big hands-on learning experience where I'm sure we made mistakes, but we wanted to do the best thing for the kids that were still in school. And I think the only other thing that I would say is for me, this idea that our grandmother taught us of putting in your grain of sand has also been a big motivator that we all have something to contribute to make things better. And that means putting in your little grain of sand to try and make things better. So it's always a strong motivator. That's why even though I'm not in elected office right now, I'm still working really diligently to try and make things better for Arizona and for people around the country.

So you ran for school board, you were school board president, right? You were in the legislature, and ran for Congress. I don't know if you plan on running again, but was it worth it, serving in office, running, raising the money, knocking on the doors?

I'm really well-versed in looking back and having these great dialogues about the memoirs of my youth. I'm totally being sarcastic and kidding by the way. I think for me, there are so many things that I've done that sometimes it's kind of shocking to me looking back, and people will remind me of some of the things that I've done. But it's a good reminder that there's still a lot of work left to be done. The fact that I still look forward and say, “Here's so many other things that I have to do and that I have to work on,” is a strong motivator for me to stay engaged and involved because I can't tell you how easy it would've been to take a high paying corporate job because I did get offered a couple of those after my years of elected office, but I said, no, I'm going to focus on trying to improve the lives of the kids in Arizona. So I stayed in Arizona and continued to work on education, which has been one of my biggest and most important issues since I was young because I've seen the transformative power of education; both my sisters and I were first-generation college students, and we now all have masters, and my sister Alma is in law school. So we've seen how important and potent the power of education is to people who came from really humble beginnings. Now two of the most important legislators on the Democratic side of the aisle in Arizona are my sisters. And that doesn't just happen. It happens because they've learned that there's a lot of work left to be done.

So now you're serving as the Government Affairs Director at Stand for Children in your home state of Arizona. Talk to us a little bit about the organization's mission. What are you all trying to achieve there?

Stand For Children is a unique catalyst that works on not just educational equity, but also racial equity. So we don't only just work on education issues, although that's a large part of what I do. We also work on doing things like removing barriers for young kids who've been wrapped up in the criminal justice system. This year we passed a bill that eliminated fees at the courts for juveniles because Arizona was one of the worst states in the country where if you had issues with law enforcement and you were young, even if you were found not guilty, you were getting charged fees. And then if you didn't pay them because you couldn't afford to, it turned into a civil penalty against you. So by the time you turned 18, you could enter adulthood not only with legal issues from the courts but bad credit. So applying for student loans, applying for housing, and applying for some jobs would've been really difficult. So I've been working with Stand now for a little over a year. We have a really ambitious agenda that includes protecting public education funding in Arizona because we have unvarnished growth of the voucher system here that has just gotten out of hand. It's blowing almost a billion-dollar hole into the state budget. So we're working on protecting funding, protecting kids from the real threats, which are not drag queens, but instead not being able to teach history that is reflective of reality. It's messy, it's difficult, but it's the history of our country and we need to be able to address it so that kids can move forward and learn from it. And I think one of the things that I'm really excited about is that we're working to not only elect strong education candidates but once they're in office, making sure we're holding people accountable and saying to our friends, “Now that you have power, we need you to use it to make sure that we're materially improving the lives of the kids in Arizona.”

So the last question we ask everybody: what are some of your favorite podcast books, movies, TV shows you're digging into right now?

Well, I love listening to this podcast. I have actually listened to some episodes.

No, I think if I'm being a hundred percent honest I did take a little bit of a step back from political podcasts because after 11 years as an elected official and being on the congressional campaign trail for 18 months, all I consumed was political. So in August of last year, I went on my first vacation in a very long time where I didn't do anything other than just enjoy myself and have fun. But when I got back one of the things that I started doing was reading for fun again. For the first time in a very long time. I used to love reading when I was a child. I was the kid that was on the baseball field with a book underneath my glove, not paying attention to the game, but reading a chapter book because I wanted to learn more.

So I think the first thing that I've gotten into is reading for fun. So I'm right now reading Patrick Stewart's biography Making It. Patrick Stewart is famously of Star Trek the next generation Captain Picard and also of X-Men. I'm also reading Maria Bamford's memoir, which is called Sure I'll Join Your Cult. I have severe ADD, so I can't just read one book at a time. But I love to read biographies and learn about other people's experiences and see if there's anything that is helpful to me. Podcasts that I'm listening to right now; so it ranges from the very gay to the very silly. So there's a podcast which is a bunch of drag queens and other creators. It used to be called Unbearable and now it's called Sloppy Seconds with Big Dipper and Meatball which I listen to. It's a little not PG 13, it's probably a little bit more R-rated. So that's a fun podcast. And then the other podcast that I've started listening to a lot more is Why Won't You Date Me with Nicole Byer. Because again, going from literally only listening to podcasts about the news and politics to now being like, I need a detox, I need a break. It's been a long time, so let me have some fun. So those are the two things that I'm doing reading for fun and listening to just ridiculous and funny and silly podcasts.

Where can folks connect with you, learn what you're doing, figure out more about Stand for Children, talk to us a little bit about how they can get in contact with you?

Yeah, so the best way of getting a hold of me is on almost every social media, it's @Danielforaz. Facebook wouldn't let me have that, so it's Daniel Hernandez AZ on Facebook, but everywhere else on Twitter/X, and then also Threads and Instagram, although I'm not on TikTok because I am too old for TikTok, even though most of my friends are on it constantly. And I think the other thing that I would say is if anyone is ever interested in running for office, obviously there are a lot of great workshops to attend. I met Martin at one through the Victory Institute back in 2011. It's such a wonderful resource and The Campaign Workshop does really wonderful trainings. But I'm always happy to reach out and do a Zoom call or if I'm in your area, do a coffee. Because I think one of the things that I've been most passionate about is helping get other people into elected office who are from underrepresented communities, whether they be women, LGBTQ+ people from minorities, or low-income folks because these are all voices that deserve to be heard and be at the table.

Thank you, Daniel, for all the work that you do. 

Please listen to this amazing interview with Daniel Hernandez on how to run for office on the How to Win a Campaign podcast

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