When Kimberly Yee ran for a full term in the Arizona House of Representatives in 2010, political consultants had a few suggestions on how to address her Chinese heritage.
One said she should use her husband’s last name — Mar — which somehow seemed less Asian, even though he is also of Chinese descent. Another suggested she drop her last name altogether from campaign signs, which would simply read: “KIMBERLY.” Yee was taken aback.
“I said, ‘I’ll find out on election day whether Arizonans are ready for their first Asian-American woman in the legislature,” she said in an interview with Roll Call. The campaign signs had her full name.
It turns out Arizonans were ready, and the self-described “family values, fiscal conservative” Republican from Phoenix has since made her mark on a host of issues, including abortion and education, while also digging into the underbelly of state government. In her time in office, she’s butted heads with the state's Republican governor, Doug Ducey, on appointees that she felt were unqualified.
Yee is a rarity, both in Arizona and in the U.S. — a deeply conservative Asian-American politician, a rarity she is hoping to change in the coming years. She has been recognized nationally — the Republican National Committee called her a “rising star.” A run for higher office seems inevitable, and she said she’d be “interested when the time is right.”
But before that, the mother of two boys under age three is poised for another Asian-American first: majority leader of the Arizona Senate, for which she is running unopposed in the fall.
“She’s smart and she’s determined” said Andy Biggs, the outgoing Republican Senate president who is running to replace retiring GOP Rep. Matt Salmon. “When she finds an issue she wants to work on, she’s dedicated to it.”
Dean Martin, the former state treasurer who has known Yee for 16 years, starting when she was a staffer on the state Senate Education Committee, agrees. He said she is one of a handful of people he’s run into in state politics with whom he could trust his life.
For Martin, it was a personal moment that stands out. In 2009, his wife Kerry died in childbirth. The child, a son, died three days later. Kerry Martin had been collecting her husband’s press clippings and other memorabilia for a scrapbook. Yee, who was Dean Martin’s communications director, spirited the scrapbook away, finished it, and later presented it to him. “That just tells you the type of person she is,” he said. “She knew what that would mean to me. I’ll never forget that.”
Remarkably, as a high schooler, Yee was a witness before a state Senate committee that she would later chair. In 1992, her principal censored a school newspaper article she wrote about drug dealing in the school parking lot, along with a caricature of him. A state senator, Stan Furman, caught wind of the incident, and attempted, unsuccessfully, to pass a bill granting a few free speech protections for students.
Yee is a staunch abortion opponent, and the first bill she sponsored, later signed by Gov. Jan Brewer in 2011, requires doctors to give all women in the state seeking abortions an ultrasound, while providing them the option to first see pictures of their ultrasound and hear the fetus’s heartbeat. She also sponsored a 2012 bill that banned most abortions after 20 weeks — that law was struck down in federal court. Another of her bills, which has also been blocked in federal court, requires doctors to inform women using the abortion drug RU-486 about the possibility of “reversing” their abortions; Planned Parenthood called her stance “junk science .”
Opponents complain that such legislation has only one purpose: to wind up in court as a possible challenge to Roe v. Wade. “The purpose of this bill is just to continue our state being mired in a lawsuit in federal court,” Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, told the Associated Press in February.
In 2014, Yee blocked a medical marijuana bill, prompting a veteran’s group to lead a recall attempt on her seat. The effort ended when she agreed to work with advocates on the issue.
Yee prides herself on doing her homework, asking questions, on reading every bill that comes her way, which she says is a habit going back to her time as a staffer in both California and Arizona — she served in the administrations of California Republican Govs. Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger. It is this attention to detail, she believes, that helped her turn back Ducey’s pick to run the state lottery, Tony Bouie. When she dove into his background, Yee said she found all sorts of red flags.
“I made a call to the governor’s office,” she said, and told them, “You have given me a person with a questionable financial background, no government experience, no administrative experience.” Bouie, who had been allowed to serve a year without Senate confirmation, resigned his office in January, a day before he was to meet with Yee and amid press reports of improprieties. She has also uncovered abuse of the per diem system at one state agency, which led to resignations and overhauls that passed this year.
“She’s principled yet strategic,” said Biggs, who says one of her biggest strengths is bird-dogging matters that fly under most people’s radar. Adds Martin, “Even when she was an analyst, I kind of knew she was going to do something special.”
Correction 3:30 p.m. | An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Yee's hometown. She lives in Phoenix.
Correction 5:15 p.m. | An earlier version of this story incorrectly described an abortion law in Arizona. The law requires doctors to give women seeking an abortion in the state an ultrasound and to make the images and sound of the fetal heartbeat available to them. It does not require the patients to view the images or hear the heartbeat.