- By Johanna Salinas
Speaker Therese Terlaje: A balancing act
Division is the nature of politics and Guam's political landscape is no exception to this reality. We are soon to find out how this will play out in the 36th Guam Legislature, where Democrats cling to the majority by a thread.
With eight Democrats and seven Republicans, newly elected Speaker Therese Terlaje can expect a more challenging political process in the legislature. In her inaugural remarks on Jan. 4, Terlaje vowed “to raise the standard to which we will hold ourselves and the government accountable, to continue to advocate for the preservation of legislative authority as representatives of the people of Guam, and most importantly, continue to earn the respect and trust of those who have placed us here.
While she is seen as a progressive — known for championing Chamorro self-determination and protection of Guam environment, especially Ritidian — Terlaje has also gained support from the business community. She was one of the two Democrats endorsed by Action PAC, which noted her support for local businesses and reopening of tourism. In the last senatorial race, Terlaje was the top voter getter.
A lawyer by profession, Terlaje served as legal counsel for the Guam Legislature from 2011 to 2016. She was first elected senator in 2016 and is now serving her third term. Born and raised in Yona, Terlaje earned a bachelor in biology from Creighton University and a juris doctor from the UCLA School of Law.
Terlaje knows the importance of balancing a responsible military buildup with the needs of the people of Guam. As chair of the Committee on Health, Tourism, Historic Preservation, Land and Justice, Terlaje has heard concerns of both the private sector and cultural activists and proposed a middle ground.
Terlaje uses science and economics when reasoning against destructions of native habitats. As a lawyer, she is aware of the importance of logic and research when presenting a case. Terlaje uses her background in law to help navigate her decisions as senator. During her first two terms in the legislature, Terlaje authored 30 bills that had been signed into law.
For this issue of the Pacific Island Times, we asked her a few questions:
What are the priorities of the 36th Guam Legislature?
We are all focused on stability and prosperity for working families. The 36th Guam Legislature must continue critical oversight over Public Health and the Guam Memorial Hospital to ensure that we are on track for recovery with vaccinations, tracing, testing and treatment. We must ensure agencies are meeting benchmarks and removing any impediments to commerce, education and critical resources to raise the standard and delivery of healthcare.
Do you expect the 36th Legislature to be easier or harder to lead with a slim Democratic majority?
Most of the senators who have joined us this term are coming in after a lifetime of government service to the people of Guam. We can use their passion, skills and capabilities to improve policy and communications with the people we represent.
We need to act together as a community and it starts with leadership and a culture of collaboration within the Guam Legislature. I expect that we will all work well together and I hope to raise the standard of accountability we have amongst each other and foster cooperation during my term as Speaker for the benefit of the people of Guam.
What is your assessment of the 35th Legislature? What do you consider its successes and failures?
We can always find areas where we can do better and I believe that enhancing communication is going to be critical for the 36th Guam Legislature so we can act together as a community. When people can’t understand the motives or the priorities of the legislature, they lose trust. I want to continue to encourage more active participation from our constituents because that has been difficult this past term with social distancing mandates.
The legislature was set up as an independent branch, a house where the community comes when the rest of the government is not meeting their needs. It is my goal to continue to strengthen those channels of communication and engagement with the people of Guam.
We must ensure that the policies we pass will benefit all of the people of Guam, especially our most vulnerable and not just the special interests of a few.
What will you do differently?
The people of Guam are tough, but the well-being of many families and our economy are fragile. I will encourage my courageous colleagues, who stepped up during the most challenging of times, to generate the best ideas. I will support and challenge them to find solutions to our immediate problems, while having the foresight and fortitude to deal with long-standing issues that have plagued our island for many years.
The way to address these issues is to lay out all of the facts and data and thoroughly deliberate on the merits of each proposal, not the politics.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Having served as legislative counsel for over 20 years and as a senator for the prior two terms, I have a deep sense of respect for the role that the legislature serves within our system of government, providing the critical checks and balances to protect the people of Guam. I am committed to the preservation of legislative authority and continue to believe that the people of Guam deserve a thoughtful, deliberative and responsive legislature to stand up for them.