Motivated to Serve

March 20, 2017 Nestor Licanto

For the better part of a decade and a half, Therese Terlaje was the legal counsel for the Guam Legislature. She was intimately familiar with the inner workings of the legislative body, and would advise senators on everything from drafting bills and resolutions to legal matters and parliamentary procedures. So why after all those years did she decide she wanted to be a lawmaker herself? “The people I know, they still suffer. Even though they’re hard working, they’re still suffering to make ends meet. So, I just wanted to help them more. I mean I’ve been helping them, I felt, in my private law practice, for many, many years, but I just thought I would be able to make more impact for more people [as a senator],” she said.

For the soft-spoken Terlaje, the decision was not easy. “I’m a little bit shy. Making the decision, that was one thing, but to actually go and put myself out there? There were times I would just sit in my car. I knew I had to get out and wave, but to get out of my car was so intimidating, and I would (instead) drive home. And then I would get home and just get mad at myself, and tell myself, ‘If I’m going to do this, I have to do it.’”

Her desire to help people is what ultimately motivated her to step outside of her comfort zone. “All you have to do is talk to people. Their frustration reminds me of my frustration.  And so I would tell myself, ‘No, no, no, I can do this.’ So it’s like a cycle—I’m totally intimidated by these public appearances, yet I love talking to people, I love hearing their stories. So that’s what kept me going. If I can just get into that room full of strangers, it’s like a treasure. There’s treasure in there. That’s the fun of it, that’s the reward. I love it. It makes me keep going,” Terlaje explained.

It was while she was out campaigning that Terlaje came to understand the depth of the voter resentment. “Many, many people told me—more than I expected—that they were angry, upset. You know they’re being faced with a rise in utility rates, hospital fees, all of these very basic quality of life issues, and then they see pay raises, and then they see ‘luxurious spending’ in the government, I call it.  They just feel like, ‘You’re not living our life. You’re disconnected,’” she said.

It’s the reason she believes that a surprising seven incumbents were swept out of office. “The voters wanted to take it out on somebody, and unfortunately for the legislature, they were it,” she observed.

She also learned in her first run at office that she needs to stay in touch with those who voted her in. She knows that while senators can have plenty of work that keeps them cooped inside the legislative halls, they do so at their own peril. “I think it’s very important that you keep yourself as part of the community. It’s the key, right? The community has to feel that you are with them. And I just think that what happens sometimes is they start to feel like you’re not with them anymore.”

Terlaje is the oldest of 10 children of the late Senator Edward Terlaje and wife Shirley. If there was one thing her dad stressed, it was education. “You get educated or you’re going to be left behind,” her father would tell them. “I think that’s impacted the way I see the world,” she added.

She graduated from the Academy of Our Lady of Guam, and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in Biology from Creighton University in Nebraska, and a law degree from the University of California, Los Angeles where she was the first Pacific Islander to head the Asian and Pacific Law Students Association.

Terlaje is a strong supporter of local culture and helped successfully argue for the implementation of the Chamorro Land Trust Act. She said she draws strength from her elders. “I have a lot of Chamorro women in my life… and to see how graceful they are now despite everything they’ve been through is very, very inspiring for me. That whole generation that went through the war and then rebuilt Guam…I really admire them.”

She also finds inspiration in her three daughters. “It might sound corny, but my children inspire me. It’s kind of like they remind you all the time that life is what you make of it. And they come through it not jaded. They just come with the total hope and belief that we can do that,” Terlaje explained.

She concluded, “What we all want to do is take care of our families. And that’s why when you struggle so hard to do that, even though you’re hard working and responsible, then our government should help more. And I think we can.”

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