October 25, 2006 - For political newcomer Lena Saradnik, this race is about defying conventional wisdom.
Conventional wisdom says a Democrat can't win a House seat in state Legislative District 26.
"Conventional wisdom tells us bumblebees can't fly," Saradnik fires back. "I do believe we can win this district."
It's a moderate district, Saradnik repeatedly said - a statement that was thrown around a lot before the primary, but didn't prove so true on election night.
Staunch conservative David Jorgenson, who had no political experience and got into the race late, nearly got more votes in the Republican primary than an incumbent whose family has served the district for 40 some years. And his "Reagan Republican" running mate, senate candidate Al Melvin, beat out three-term moderate incumbent Toni Hellon for the party's nomination.
But if a recent LD 26 candidate forum at the Nanani public library is any indication, Saradnik may be right. It was a packed house with most of the people wearing Saradnik stickers. The crowd seemed so heavily Democratic that Melvin told someone next to him that the crowd was "hostile."
"Democrats really haven't won this district," Saradnik said. "But I wouldn't be running if it wasn't possible."
Saradnik thinks Jorgenson's claim of Steve Huffman's former seat only increased her chances. Huffman was term limited and ran for the District 8 Congressional nomination, but lost to another staunch conservative, Randy Graf.
"This district historically doesn't vote that way - so conservative," she said. Incumbent Pete Hershberger is a Republican who votes moderately.
So the 59-year-old is giving it a shot.
She's running with improving public education as her No. 1 priority, followed by working to make health care available for all state citizens. She said she wants to make Arizona a more business-friendly environment and also preserve Arizona's "unique and precious" natural environment.
She has lots of goals, but in some cases Saradnik is short on specifics.
For education, she puts it this way: "We are ranked close to the bottom in everything that's important, and we lead in things that we shouldn't," Saradnik said.
"We lead the nation in teen births, but are trailing the nation in helping those mothers stay in school, learn a trade and be able to support those children that they're having."
One of the biggest problems is the lack of vocational instruction. She's a big supporter of Proposition 400, which would implement the Joint Technical Education District, or JTED, a program that would expand career and technical training for high school students in Pima County.
"If a child is not going off to college, what options do they have?" she asked. "We don't have an awful lot of jobs that people can go right out of high school and make a livable wage."
Saradnik is an advocate of increasing the minimum wage, and can be heard time and again saying it costs $27,000 per year to have a car and apartment in Arizona.
"Education feeds into our economy," she said. "Every business that relocates here looks at the quality of the K through 12 education and if we don't have that, it's hard to attract those high-tech jobs," she said.
Instead, Saradnik said, Arizona will continue to get companies with call centers relocating to Tucson. Those jobs only pay between $10 and $13 an hour, she said.
Reducing the class size and increasing teacher pay also are two key factors to Saradnik's better education plan.
She said Arizona is losing teachers to other states because they can offer them better pay and signing bonuses.
"I talked to a teacher with 25 years of experience and she just topped $40,000," Saradnik said. "We need to increase teacher pay."
She didn't explain where the state would get the money to pay for raises, but said the Legislature needs to re-prioritize its budgeting.
She's not a fan of the federal No Child Left Behind education reform plan, and thinks "teaching to the test" takes away from a child's creativity, she said.
Saradnik said she gets her knowledge on educational policy from being married to an educator for 35 years.
Her husband, Steve Saradnik, a professional baseball player before he got into teaching, taught high school social studies and later became a department head. The couple chose Tucson to retire after falling in love with the mountains when Steve's pro team had spring training in Tempe in the 1960s.
The rest of her educational expertise comes from personal Internet research and a friend and advisor, Rex Scott, a vice principal at Ironwood Ridge High School.
Saradnik, unlike Jorgenson, doesn't support vouchers.
"Vouchers are untested," she said at the Nanini debate. "It is fundamentally wrong to take public funds and put them into private schools."
Securing the border has been the most talked about issue in this election, but it isn't on Saradnik's platform.
Walking door to door on a Saturday in mid-October, Saradnik asked registered Republicans, Independents and those with no party registry what state issue is most important to them. Almost all said the border.
"More and more, it's about the border," Saradnik said after the second voter mentioned it.
She gives all the voters a pretty similar answer.
She said she's in favor of a comprehensive plan that involves verifiable identification cards, employer sanctions and some kind of a guest worker program. Her plan sounds almost identical to what Hershberger has been saying.
"We've got a deadbeat partner in Washington who's not doing their job," she tells voters, referring to the federal government.
"There's a lot of people not doing their job," one resident retorted.
Saradnik has said she is not in favor of a fence.
"I don't believe it will work," Saradnik said. "Maybe in some high traffic areas, yes. But what would it do to the environment? What will it do to our psyche? It's not just fencing people out, it's fencing us in, too."
Saradnik is big on talking about the original problem.
"The core reason people are coming over here is because people below the border are earning 25 percent less, so as long as there are people starving in Mexico, they're going to find a way - either under that fence, over that fence or around that fence."
The best way, she said, is to work out a guest worker program.
"The best one is the McCain-Kennedy bill," Saradnik said. "It's not perfect, but it's a start, and it's not getting any traction. And I don't know why."
The immigration legislation, introduced in May by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), lets employers hire foreigners under temporary visas if the employer can prove that they were unable to hire American workers under the same job. The new visa-holders could change jobs and apply to stay in the United States. They would be issued tamper-proof identification. Workers already here illegally would be allowed to legitimize their status, but they will have to go to the end of the line, pay an expensive fine and back taxes.
Saradnik thinks of herself as a mediator, and believes she will be able to work well with other legislators.
"I really want the voters to know that I'm open-minded and I can listen to all sides of the issues," she said. "I will listen and investigate. I'm a hard worker."
Before deciding to run for office - a decision that took months, and a course on women in elections, to make - Saradnik worked as a senior administrator for Dr. Kenneth Pelletier, who runs the Corporate Health Improvement Program with 15 of the country's fortune 500 companies.
Pelletier's program, which works in cooperation with University of Arizona's Program in Integrated Medicine, develops ways for corporations to curb the high cost of medical benefits through prevention and management.
"She oversaw the development of research grants, organized our entire conference and had to relate to the medical directors for all the companies," Pelletier said of Saradnik. "She was far more than an employee. She just did, not great, but a fantastic job in every way."
Donna Branch Gilby, chairwoman for Pima County Democrats, said when interviewing potential candidates for state elections, they look for someone who's at a "good place" in terms of family life, career and health and whose "mental state is at the top of its game."
"And someone who doesn't have skeletons in the closet," Gilby added.
Saradnik had all those qualities, Gilby said. She's an excellent listener and is open-minded.
"She started out volunteering at headquarters," Gilby said. "All of the other volunteers who her commentary on the news or whatever, said 'you should run.' She would always say no, no, no."
But after the party formally asked her again, Saradnik finally said yes.
After a summer of door-to-door campaigning, Saradnik still is hitting the pavement, and with a lot of energy.
"You know, after all these years, I'm still idealistic," she said of the election and life in general. "I guess I'll always be optimistic."