By Mike Tully

en español

An aspiring writer became a warrior for justice after what he calls the “most formative experience of my life.”

It was 2001. Pima County Democratic Party Second Vice Chair Joel Feinman was in El Salvador interviewing survivors of that country’s bloody civil war for a play he intended to write, when it hit him that “the world didn’t need another mediocre writer about oppressed people…I could be of best use fighting for those people.”

The Tucson native, now Pima County Public Defender, has been fighting for oppressed people ever since, and brings his passion for justice to the Pima County Democratic Party leadership team.

“I try to give voice to issues that either go unnoticed or that are more difficult to talk about that I think are really important to parts of our community that are underrepresented, even undervalued, and the parts of our community that don’t have the advocates that I think they should,” Feinman said.

Feinman earned a bachelor’s degree in Latin American History from Northwestern University in 2000, followed by a master’s degree in Latin American studies and a law degree from the University of Arizona College of Law. He joined the Public Defender’s office in 2007.

The issue that drives him more than any other is prison reform. He ran on it when he unsuccessfully challenged Barbara LaWall for Pima County Attorney in the 2016 Democratic primary.

“It’s what I’ve dedicated my professional life to,” said Feinman, who recently wrote an Arizona Daily Star op-ed decrying Arizona’s high incarceration rate and the Republican-controlled legislature’s failure to address it. Arizona has the nation’s fourth-highest incarceration rate and spends $20,000 more annually on prison inmates than students in Arizona schools.

But Feinman, noting the GOP’s shrinking legislative majority, sees a bright side. He “absolutely’’ believes that Democrats can take control of one or both legislative chambers in 2020.

But first comes this year’s City of Tucson elections in November: mayor, city council, and a ballot initiative to designate Tucson as Arizona’s first “sanctuary city.” The PCDP Executive Committee voted to endorse the initiative, a move that Feinman proposed. He believes that the PCDP should uphold values, not just help elect candidates.

Joel and fellow Peoples Defense Initiative supporters

“It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “We can’t just post Facebook memes about Trump’s horrific immigration policies and how we have to protect our neighbors to the south and be our brothers’ keeper. We actually  have to change the City Code to make sure that we do all we can to keep people from being deported when they shouldn’t be deported, and that we do all we can to make sure that our Tucson police officers don’t racially profile people and don’t cooperate with the federal government to tear families apart.”

The initiative’s supporters have until July 5 to gather enough valid signatures to make the November ballot. Click here for more information about Tucson Families Free and Together.

“I’ve tried, and I’ll continue to try to push the party to demand that we actually hold our candidates accountable to the values that we are supposed to stand for,” Feinman said. “I don’t think it is enough for a candidate to just attach a ‘D’ to their name and for us to march in lock-step behind them. I really want us, as a party, to insist that our leaders, candidates and elected officials walk the walk. They have to uphold our values because … if we don’t have values we are fighting for, then what’s the point? Why do we even exist?”


– He climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with his mom, Peggy Feinman, in 2007.

– He coached the Cholla High School Mock Trial Team from 2007 to 2009.

– He lives in LD3 with his wife, Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation social worker Haley Smith, and their dog, Maude.

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