Legislative duo reflects on ASU experience, path to state politics

By

Christopher Clements

For husband-and-wife legislative duo Arizona Sen. Juan Mendez and Rep. Athena Salman, Arizona State University was more than just an academic incubator: It was where the couple first met, and it marked the beginning of their political careers.

Mendez, who graduated from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 2008 with a degree in political science and a minor in justice studies, went from being a state representative to a state senator in 2017.

And Salman, who succeeded Mendez in his seat as a state representative, graduated from The College in 2011 with dual degrees in political science and economics.

The two first met in college when Salman gave a presentation to the ASU Young Democrats, of which Mendez was a member.

“Afterwards, I had the happenstance of sitting next to him, and was really impressed by all the cool questions he was asking me about the projects I was working on,” said Salman. “(I met him) just that one time, and then we didn't talk again until four or five years later when we ran into each other at the Phoenix rock climbing gym in Tempe.”

Mendez and Salman both say their experiences at ASU positively influenced their political careers. For Salman, being a senator in a university with the size and scope that ASU offers gave her an appreciation for what might lay ahead in her career.

“You really are dealing with issues that are equivalent and on par with the issues that you would deal with if you were running a small city,” she said.

Salman said she also gained experience building relationships with other student leaders on campus, a skill that eventually transferred over to her role as a public figure.

“It transferred not only in the work that I did between college and the legislature, but especially now as the House Democratic whip — being able to lead other leaders in a unified vision,” she said.

According to Mendez, who served in the House for two years before reconnecting with Salman, serving can be a little alienating. He said having both of them serving in the legislature and getting to see someone else go through the process has provided perspective.

“But there's sometimes where it's like we're in totally different worlds.There could be days, sometimes it could be weeks, where she’s somewhere else and I’m somewhere else, and we could be arguing on totally different types of topics and issues,” Mendez said. “So sometimes it feels like we're right next to each other and sometimes it feels like we're worlds apart.”

Salman echoed their shared experience: “There's pros and cons to having a significant other in the same line of work. But I think for the most part it's been exciting. It's been nice to share that experience together.”

According to Salman, both she and Mendez started out with a similar vision of “wanting to build an Arizona that's inclusive, that's very much protecting the equal rights of everyone here.”

“And that means investing in the public good, especially our universities,” she said. “One thing that Juan just constantly reminds me is we're making the change, we're making the difference, and it's for the long haul. Nothing's overnight, but if you keep at it, ultimately, in the long term we will succeed.”