Balancing act: Law student juggles studies with state legislative duties

By Linda Laderman
Legal News

Regardless of her jam-packed schedule, Vanessa Guerra saw a rare chance to run for an open seat as a State Representative in Michigan’s 95th District as a risk she was willing to take.

Already a Bridgeport Township trustee, the then 24-year-old Guerra also was a second year law student at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law when she decided to enter the race two years ago.

“I asked myself if I should do this now and I did it because my family said they would support me 100 percent,” said Guerra, who was elected to the State House in 2014, just three years after she graduated from the University of Michigan with a double major in Latino studies and political science.

Besides her immediate family, Guerra was inspired by the legacy of her great-grandfather, Reuben Garcia, a founding member of La Union Civica, a social justice organization that works on behalf of Saginaw’s Latino community.

“Growing up I heard stories about him,” Guerra said. “He was among the first wave of Latinos who came to Saginaw. He was an inspiration.”

Guerra credits that inspiration, combined with some old-fashioned campaigning, for providing her with the tools she needed to win the Democratic primary and the general election, where she garnered more than 70 percent of the vote.

“It was really tough in the beginning. There was a lot of knocking on doors,” Guerra said. “I’d only served two years as a trustee on the township level, but I believed once people saw how hard I worked on my campaign they would say, ‘I know how hard you’ll work for us.’”

While she was a township trustee, Guerra said she recognized the impact of state lawmaking on the township.

“So many decisions are made on a state level,” Guerra said. “I realized that there was only so much I could do as a township trustee. The fact that our cities have lost billions in revenue sharing in the last decade also affected my decision to run.”

Because her time in office is term limited, Guerra said she aims to be a legislator who keeps her focus on public service instead of making promises that she is unable to fulfill.

“As a young Latino woman, I don’t see many of us at the table, so focusing on policy is something I would like to continue to do,” Guerra said. “We get a lot of elected officials who are more interested in politics than public service, who say what they need to say to get elected. I won’t promise things that I can’t carry through to the end.”

Guerra, the youngest member of the House, said she bases her legislative agenda on what she is hearing from her electorate.

“Constituents really help to form what areas of policy I am most interested in working on,” Guerra said. “While knocking on doors, I’ve found their top concerns to be education, public safety, and transparency within state government.

“When it comes to public safety, people are frustrated that we spend more on prisons than public schools, yet they also want the reassurance that those who will wreak havoc on our communities, continue to remain in prison,” Guerra said. “This is a difficult balance and that’s why I’m grateful to serve on the Governor’s Criminal Justice Policy Commission where we are focusing on the
collection of data statewide in order to create more efficient policies.”

In addition to serving on the Governor’s Criminal Justice Policy Commission, Guerra is treasurer of the Michigan Legislature’s Progressive Women’s Caucus and has had an opportunity to listen to President Barack Obama address the legislature about the water crisis in Flint.

“His speech was uplifting and important,” Guerra said. “He talked about the opportunity we have to change things for the kids in Flint.”

With the start of her last year of law school just a few months away, Guerra, who is single, said she doesn’t think the tasks ahead of her are any more demanding than the challenges of someone who attends law school, works full time, and has a family.

“I’ve learned it’s all about time management,” she said.  “We have about an hour-and-a-half drive to and from Lansing three days a week. I use that time to read and prepare for class. Many law students work full time and have families to take care of as well. Fortunately, I have an amazing staff that allows me to accomplish both. I have been able to put constituents first while serving and will continue to do so as long as I serve.”

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