ANTIGO, Wis. (AP) — When Stefanie Mach takes the oath of office as an Arizona state legislator in January, she will have taken another step on a journey of over 6,000 days filled with a lifetime of challenges.
Mach, 32, daughter of Mike and Sharon Mach of Antigo, was involved in a brutal automobile accident on June 14, 1997 that left a companion, a 19-year-old Elcho man, dead and her with life-altering injuries.
“We’re very proud of her,” Sharon Mach says. “She’s never let anything stop her and she’s done everything she has ever wanted to.”
That seemed improbable moments after that crash. Mach and her companion were returning from an Elcho High School post-graduation party when their vehicle ran off the road on a dark night. That incident was not serious but when the two exited the automobile, they stepped on an electrical line that had fallen when their car grazed a utility pole. The coroner suggested that the two were probably holding hands but “since I don’t remember and no one else was there, I’m not sure what happened,” she says.
Her companion, who bore the brunt of the electrical charge, died almost instantly while Mach was airlifted to the University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison with extremely critical injuries. By the time she was well enough to return home to Antigo, she had lost an arm, was legally blind in both eyes due to cataracts caused by the accident, and carried significant scars. She lost her sight totally in one eye several years later.
“If you’re already at the bottom, there is nowhere to go but up,” Mach says. “What do you do after your life has changed so dramatically?”
What Mach wanted was to get on with her life, first completing high school on schedule and then taking on the challenge of college.
“I was always curious. The accident didn’t affect my brain,” she says. “So I started school and after I completed a year, I went for another year, and then another and eventually got my degree.”
She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in four years, carrying a double major.
“Failure was never an obstacle,” she says. “People expected me to fail. They had few or no expectations of me because of my injuries.”
With her sense of public service honed by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Mach dedicated a year of service with AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps), responding to a flood disaster with the American Red Cross, teaching elementary school, building part of the Appalachian Trail, maintaining a wildlife reserve and helping to construct five houses with Habitat for Humanity.
“That taught me powerful lessons in how society works together to solve problems and help one another,” she says. “It taught me to be creative, adaptive and persistent in order to achieve independence and success for those in need, and to expect more for our community and ourselves.”
Mach applied those lessons in the non-profit sector, working for a variety of organizations in various capacities around the world and eventually earning her master of public policy degree from Brown University in Rhode Island.
It was while she was at Brown that she was introduced to Arizona, spending summers with a youth development leadership organization and eventually making the trip west from Washington, D.C.. on a permanent basis. The decision to run for political office to combat what she saw as a dysfunctional, one-party system, came soon afterward.
“My fear of what is happening in the state politically is greater than my fear of being in the public eye,” she told the Tucson Weekly in a pre-election interview. “I know I can help. I’m not willing to stand by on the sidelines waiting for someone else to do the work that needs to be done.”
Mach’s district of 250,000 people is located in east-central Tucson, an urban area smaller than Langlade County. Created through a 2010 redistricting, it forced Mach into a spirited and very public election that brought her face — and visible signs of her injuries — to thousands of people.
“People maybe did look at me twice physically before looking at my policies,” Mach says. “But it only took a second look because then people realized there was substance behind my appearance.”
During the campaign, when she spoke of the need for improved health care, voters understood that she had firsthand experience, and when she talked of the need for improved education, voters knew that she was the first member of her family to graduate with a bachelor degree.
“I think it gave me more weight,” she says. “People understood that these issues affected me on a personal basis.”
The vote count was interminably long, but by the end of last week, Mach had surged to a 3,000 vote lead, even if the win remains unofficial.
Mach will be a minority legislator in a state that is evenly split between Democrats, Republicans and Independents, the fastest growing segment. But there is no longer a supermajority in the statehouse and Democrats are gaining a voice and some bargaining power.
“I hope that everyone will be willing to talk,” she says, adding that her long-honed skills in conflict and crisis management and world experiences can be a valuable asset. “That’s my hope.”
And since Arizona relies on part-time legislators, she will continue to operate CM Concordia Consulting, which she co-founded and specializes in non-profit and political consulting to address societal problems and positively impact communities.
Mach knows her journey is has just begun.
“I’m used to adversity,” she laughs. “I’ll be fine.”