Elaissia Sears, 24
Elaissia Sears for Justice of the Peace
At 24, Elaissia Sears has already worked in Berlin, Dominican Republic, and South Korea. But after witnessing how children were treated in the court system, decided to run for Justice of the Peace in her Arizona hometown to help dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.
What was the best advice you received before you ran?
Nobody's going to help you. Be prepared to do it all yourself.
If you had a beer with any politician today who would it be?
Ayanna Pressley for sure. One of many poised and powerful black women running and winning elections nationwide. Imagine being the first black congresswoman in your state. A win for Massachusetts!
Tell me a little bit about your district.
I’m running for Justice of the Peace in West Mesa, Arizona. When people hear about Mesa, they think conservative, Mormon, and Republican. However, Mesa is a very large city that is split into two parts. People say that West Mesa is considered the “bad” part because that's where all “the poor people are.” I highly disagree with this perspective. It’s a working-class area, super diverse, and has many thriving local businesses, especially in our Asian business district!
Mesa has been in the news for police brutality for quite some time. Mesa Police Department is currently under investigation by the FBI. In 2016, we were the first city in Arizona to pass a private prison contract. The West Mesa Justice Court has the highest caseload out of any justice court in Maricopa County; there is plenty of work to be done.
When did you hear the call? When did you decide to run?
I was inspired by two major events. The first was my mom running for Mesa Public School Board in 2016. People said that she was crazy and that there was no way that she could win. Regardless, she ran a great, positive campaign with little funds and earned a seat on the board. When that happened, I realized that if a real person like my mom could run for office, so could I. As a lifelong public servant, she always instilled the value of service to others in me, and I knew that I was needed.
After she won, I started working in the Arizona House of Representatives and learning about the legislative process. I initially wanted to refuse the job because I hate corruption and the ugliness that comes with politics. After being convinced, I came to find it was a highly valuable experience that exposed me the intricacies of elected office. At the same time, it made me feel depressed and demoralized because I would overhear legislators having conversations like, “[X person] wrote this bill, so I'm not even going to read it.” One of the biggest takeaways was that a good portion of policy is actually written by millennials in the basement, and not legislators who are using their position to further their own agenda.
The final straw was an afternoon when I was on the Capitol lawn during lunch. I saw these kids in the courtyard, and they were all neatly dressed in the same way. They were setting up chairs for an event and I realized I didn’t recognize them. I asked a legislator what was going on, and she said, “Oh they’re from the kid prison.” I proceeded to walk away and cry. I couldn’t believe it was real. I thought, is this really what we're doing here? I had only recently learned our retirement program for state employees is heavily funded by the private prison industry (which is a complete disgrace), but that was a huge wake up call to action.
I began looking into Justice of the Peace because I'm very passionate about, justice, fairness, common sense in our government. One of my favorite parts about it is that the law is the law, there is no left or right. No petty politics are necessary here. As someone who has studied International Relations, the art of diplomacy comes naturally to me. I spoke to people familiar with the justice courts and was told if I took the training seriously, I would be a great fit. There are an abundance of legislators who run for JP unopposed because they want a bump on their pension (again, funded by private prisons), and then they just sit there and don't do anything to create change. I don’t consider myself a politician, but a community member with the skills for innovative solutions.
Eventually, I want to be an attorney that oversees cases with kids who need someone to advocate for them because they can not advocate from themselves. Whether it’s misdemeanors, drugs, and more, they deserve a fighting chance. This is especially pertinent with the school-to-prison pipeline harvesting our young minds to fill cells and pad their pockets. I can’t imagine what they are going through, and I feel it is my duty to be of service to them. I believe in people over profits. We have to do better as a society.
You're running for Justice of the Peace. Explain to me what your position does, and how does your position affect your constituents.
A Justice of the Peace is a judge that presides over cases under $10,000, small claims, misdemeanors, traffic cases, landlord-tenant issues and more. These are things that normal people are going through all the time at the community level. The office is crucial when it comes to public safety and recidivism. You have an opportunity and obligation to look for the best possible outcome in every case, no matter the circumstances. There are resources like reducing fines and expediting trials. If you're within a certain income bracket, JPs can take that into account to prevent people from losing their jobs or other aspects of your life that may be keeping you barely afloat.
Working families are dealing with rent increases. Personally, my rent just went up $100 last month. Evictions are through the roof, and people are going to be coming into court on what may feel like the worst day of their life. The impact of those cases alone is huge. We also have a fair amount of DUIs. Everybody is concerned about that, especially because it is a particularly family-focused community. Just on my street alone, I have four elementary schools. About 60% of cases that come through the justice courts are traffic related.
Adding on to that, you’ve talked heavily about restorative sentencing. For someone who doesn’t know what that is, what are you advocating for?
So when I think about restorative justice, it links back to the education piece because I am a teacher, I am in the classroom. When we see students do something that's wrong, we don't say, “Oh, get out of my classroom forever.” We talk about what happened and really address the root cause of it so it doesn't happen again. That's the same approach that we should be using in our courts versus a punitive system. The normalization of the revolving door of the justice system is a shame. Focusing on how to hold the the offender accountable and making the victim whole, that is what we should be doing. That is true restorative justice.
Now, you have done work everywhere. You’ve worked in Berlin, Dominican Republic, South Korea. Why come home and run in your area?
There will always be time for more work, but as they say, you’ve got to start at home first. The more I got involved in local politics, I just realized, I have to do something here right now before I go anywhere else, because I wanted to be able to come back to Arizona and have a normal life. It’s important to me to give something back. I love Arizona and I want to see it and our people succeed.
What sort of qualities should people be looking for in a JP?
Compassion. You really have to listen to people and meet them where they're at. Nobody is in court for fun (unless you’re there for a marriage, of course!)
Transparency. Somebody is going to be honest, even when it isn’t popular.
Integrity. I just feel (and know) that we have so many people in office that aren't helping people. Strong moral ethics are difficult to teach.
What doubts do you think people will have about you as a candidate?
Oh, people are so confused when I go to their door because I look young for my age. Also, I’m black. Also, I'm five foot tall. I’ve knocked on a door and had people say, “Oh, is this a high school project?” “Are you even old enough to run?” So that kind of shocked people. But once I start talking, they realize I know what I'm talking about.
Holding elected office isn’t a prerequisite to being a JP, the same way being a ice cream man isn’t a qualification for governor. I am not the hand-picked candidate from the establishment. I’m not bought and paid for. I'm just not what people are used to. I don't fit the mold of what people imagine a JP looks like.
It's one of the things that makes people curious. They're also excited because they see someone that can relate to them better than what they imagine a JP to be. The fact of the matter is that I am qualified for the office and am prepared to continue to bring my hard work ethic to the table, all doubts aside.
Would you describe yourself as a progressive candidate?
I kind of hate that word, because I feel like it's been bastardized every which way. But if we're saying progressive versus moderate, I would definitely be on the progressive side.
For me, progressive means someone who is not just moving things forward but is also someone who is inclusive, encourages underrepresented communities, including people of color, women, and working families. Someone who's going to start at the bottom and uplifting those people versus the trickle down strategy. Someone who's really for the people and looking for innovative solutions rather than redoing what we’ve done before. Someone who's just willing to start from the bottom, get to the root of the problem, rip it out and start over. Being progressive is standing up to the establishment and deviating from what is convenient, and working on a better future for us all. That takes a lot of courage.
What advice would you give someone else who's considering running but isn't sure?
Do your research and make sure that you really want to do this. You have to weigh everything because you have to think of who's going to support you. Is there going to be family to support you? Who is going to watch your dogs when you travel? Are you financially prepared to leave your job or take a pay cut? Bless all the mothers that are running for office; just looking at them makes me feel exhausted! It is incredible. It just takes everything. It takes every single drop. If you aren’t prepared to throw yourself into the fire and know that you’ll be burned somewhere along the way, I wouldn’t pursue this. If that’s the case, volunteer for a campaign! Join somebody’s staff. Campaigns are nothing without their supporters, because a campaign isn’t about a candidate: it’s about the message. As long as you are dedicated to a positive message to help us all, you’ve got my support.
The views expressed in this interview are those of the candidate, and do not reflect the beliefs and views of Ballot Breakers or its staff.