There isn’t much subtle about Assembly freshman Connie Conway. The Tulare County Republican who describes herself as “a well-known workaholic” seems to approach her new job the way she approached her old one.
“I was a certified aerobics instructor and personal trainer,” says Conway. “I taught high school P.E., and used to be the health and fitness director at the YMCA.”
Conway, 58, brings that aerobics instructor’s enthusiasm to her new job. She has signed up for six committees, including her role as vice-chair of the Assembly Higher Education Committee, and is ready to spend some of her boundless energy delving into state policy.
Conway is no stranger to the mechanics of state government. She served on the Tulare County Board of Supervisors for eight years, and was president of the county board. She was also the president of the California State Association of Counties, and helped lead the effort to protect local government funding from being raided by the state.
Conway received 43 percent of the vote in a three-way Republican primary that included Becky Maze, the wife of the previous incumbent Bill Maze, and former San Bernardino County sheriff Bob Smith.
Conway says her experience in local government will motivate much of her work in Sacramento. “In a perfect world, I would like to see more dialogue and cooperation between the funding agency, the state, and the administrative agency, the county,” she says. “Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I still believe there can be more communication and opportunity to improve that relationship, but then there’s a little thing called bureaucracy that gets in the way.”
Like many freshmen, Conway expressed some surprise at the way the Legislature does business, particularly through the recent budget showdown.
“For the past eight years, my experience with decision making has been, right or wrong, good or bad, pretty or ugly, we made a decision — and not in a vacuum. We had agendas, we had backup information about what we were doing. And that is one of the things that is most foreign (about the Assembly). There is no information, and it all may change at a moment’s notice.”
Though Conway hails from Tulare, she seems like she would be right at home in Texas. Everything about Conway seems slightly larger than life, from her untamed blond mane to her oversized Eastern California Assembly district, the largest in the state, which stretches from Visalia down to the Riverside County line.
“I‘m guaranteeing the highest gas usage of any member,” she jokes, “I was a truck driver in another life. I represent all of Inyo County, Tulare, and all of San Bernardino except where people live,” she says.
Like all good aerobics instructors, Conway is easy to like. She’s also clear that she’s here to work hard, and is not afraid to demand those around her to work just as hard.
In addition to serving as the ranking Republican on the Higher Education Committee, Conway also serves on Assembly Health, Agriculture, Transportation, Business and Professional and PERS.”
“I’m going to be busy,” she says eagerly. “My poor staff.”
Conway’s bill package is as varied as the district she serves. Conway has introduced 16 bills this year. Two of her bills are spot bills, one dealing with addressing the nursing shortage (AB 492), and another expanding career-technical education programs within the California Community College system.
“Career-technical education is something I’m really interested in. That piece really plays into our economic climate. It makes so much sense in so many ways, and is very cost effective.”
She also has bills targeting contractor fraud (AB 1074), providing transportation resources for foster youth (AB 500), a bill to promote “physician and surgeon wellness” (AB 1094), and a bill that would ensure a passport are considered a valid form of ID when trying to purchase alcohol.
Conway worked in the health care field before running for the Board of Supervisors in 2001. “I worked in sales, marketing and business development for a couple of hospitals and a workers compensation disability management company and also a medical equipment company,” she says.
She held the seat once held by her father, John Conway, who served on the board from 1981-1991.
“He worked for the phone company for 35 years, and ran for office after he retired. In the middle of his third term in 1991, we lost him to cancer at the very young age of 65.”
But it was 10 years before Conway decided to run for office herself. “I don’t know that it was something I ever thought about or planned,” she says. But she clearly takes her elected responsibilities seriously “People may see public service as glamorous, but it is a job.”
That doesn’t mean she doesn’t enjoy the work. She says she loves “the connectivity” of elected politics, and enjoys hanging out with her fellow Assemblymembers.
“In my joking way, I say, OK, I’m a freshman, what clique am I in? In high school, I would have been a jock, but now, I think I want to be a sosh. I’ll tell you at 58 I’m just glad to be considered a freshman in anything.”
While Conway is enjoying her time in Sacramento, she still thrives on connecting with her constituents. “If I really just needed groceries, I’d go at 6 in the morning or 11:00 at night. When I feel like I haven’t seen people in a while, I go to the grocery store at 5 pm. Sure it’s a four-hour trip, but I get to see a lot of people and hear their concerns.”
Beneath the affable, hard-charging personality is a politician who holds very strong, conservative views.
“I have a really healthy respect for taxpayers. One of my little mantras was God bless the taxpayers. They are the support structure for this state,” she says.
And Conway, who did not support the recent package of tax increases in the state budget, says the state should do more to live with the revenues it has. “If we are going to continue to run this business of the state of California on those tax dollars, it’s our moral obligation to do the best we can with what we have. And I haven’t had one constituent call me and say, ‘I want to pay more taxes. Please raise my taxes.’ At some point, we just have to realize that we all have limits. We need to accept that.
“You can’t spend what you don’t have. None of us want our seniors left out in the road in a wheelchair. None of us want to deny help to people who need help. There’s just different schools of thought on how you get there.”