ASU alumna reflects on her path to becoming Phoenix mayor's chief of staff

By

Emily Balli

Lisa Fernandez became interested in politics early. Her mom, Charlene Fernandez, is well known in the world of Arizona politics, having worked for Congressman Ed Pastor, former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano and now serving as the Democratic leader of the Arizona House of Representatives. She said it was her upbringing that initially sparked her interest in politics, but her time at Arizona State University that motivated her to pursue a lifelong career in the field.

“I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, but I thought if I ended up teaching or if I went to law school, a political science degree would still work because it's so versatile. But then I found that it was a great program and I stuck with it because of the professors,” Fernandez said. “To me it really feels like it all started at ASU.”

Upon earning a bachelor’s degree in political science in 2009 from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Fernandez went straight into the campaign world. She spent a year in Washington, D.C., working as a staff assistant for her hometown congressman, Raúl Grijalva. She then moved up to the position of finance director, and eventually went on to serve as finance director for other organizations and campaigns including the Maricopa County Democratic Party, Arizona Democratic Party, Andrei Cherny for Congress and Cheri Bustos for Congress. 

She continued in politics for three years, working as campaign manager for Kate Gallego for City Council, as a campaign consultant for Ruben Gallego for Congress and as campaign manager for Greg Stanton for Mayor. In 2016 she briefly departed from politics, serving as the chief development officer of Educare Arizona. From September 2016 to March 2019 she served as the vice president of Resolute Consulting.

She made her return to politics in 2019, becoming the chief of staff for Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego. Fernandez said her path has come full circle, serving on ASU’s Alumni Board and sitting in on the mayor’s quarterly meetings with ASU President Michael Crow.

“It's really interesting to engage with the president of the university, someone who I wouldn't have interacted with otherwise,” she said. “Getting to work with the university that helped bring me up is pretty unique and really exciting for me. ASU is all around us and involved in so many things. I've been really proud to see how the university has grown since I was there as a student.”

This fall, Fernandez will add The College Leaders to several other recognitions she’s received for her work over the years, including Arizona List’s Rising Star Award in 2015 and the American Association of Political Professionals 40 Under 40 in 2018.

She shared with ASU Now about her experiences at The College, challenges she's faced throughout her career and more.

Question: How did your program at ASU help prepare you for your career?

Answer: When I got into college, I assumed in political science you mostly just learn about campaigns. But you really get to see all aspects of the political process from doing campaigns and elections, to statistics, global politics, the origins of political systems and the history of it all. Although we're in a challenging and difficult time, there's always something that we can look back on that helps give us an idea of how we can move forward. So I do think there's a level of history and government background that helped prepare me for this. But really the experiences I had and the relationships I built at ASU gave me the outlet to get to know the candidates, volunteers and people who helped me elevate myself in the political world. 

Q: What is your favorite part about your chosen career path?

A: I think that most people who are in the role of chief of staff of a mayor of a large city like Phoenix have a very different background than I do. Some have 30 years of government experience, some have corporate backgrounds. Having campaigns as my background is very different. But understanding the politics and knowing how to engage and work with people, managing up, managing down and helping to work with the mayor, the city manager, the city council and our staff as well — it's a really unique job. I don't think there's another job like this in the city or in the state. It's so much fun and it's great, but I would say what's most exciting for me is being in this role and having a different background, being a native Arizonan and a Latina.

Q: Have you faced any challenges throughout your career? If so, how have you overcome them?

A: Being a young Mexican woman in the workplace can sometimes be challenging. I pride myself in being from rural Arizona, but sometimes being in the city of Phoenix with people who have been in Phoenix for generations can be challenging. I'm not always looked at as the same because I'm from Yuma. There have been times where I've been shut out of things, not listened to or ignored. There have been times where people have taken credit for my work or not given me proper credit for things. Throughout my career, I have absolutely been the only woman, the only minority and the youngest person in the room all at the same time. That's a challenge because you have to balance your experience, your perspective and your background that not only uniquely sets you up for that job, but gives you a perspective that you have to share with the room. But you have to be able to do it in a way where people are able to take your opinion, listen to it and use it. You just have to kind of roll with the punches, but overall, working hard and continuing to grow relationships and building people around you who are loyal to you is how you can continue to move up in whatever professional world you're in.

Q: What has been your biggest motivation to succeed professionally?

A: Knowing that everything we do here on a day-to-day basis helps improve the community is what drives me. It is the outside world that we want to change and we want to better our community. I also don't ever think about what's next in life or what's next in my career. I am really focused on what's right in front of me, and what's in front of me is trying to work with our team and the mayor to make Phoenix the best city it can be.

Q: What advice would you give to students in The College?

A: Really take the time to get to know your professors. Find the things you're passionate about and find outside work. Don't be afraid to volunteer your time. I've seen too many young people that were either in college with me or after who wouldn't take a position because it wasn't paid or wasn't exactly what they wanted or it wasn't glamorous. I did a lot of grunt work for a long, long, long time and am still not afraid to do it. If I have to jump on the phones here and talk with a constituent, I do it. And I know how to do that because I was kind of brought up on that. So the more work and time you put into doing the grunt work, the more it's going to pay off and you're going to have a better understanding of whatever it is you're doing.