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She Leads Texas: Judith Zaffirini

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Sen. Judith Zaffirini is the highest-ranking woman and Hispanic in the Texas Senate. This is how she leads Texas. 

By Anna Lassmann

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, is not a newcomer to politics. A member of the Texas Senate for 32 years, she has been paving the way since 1987, when she became the first Hispanic woman elected to the Texas Senate. She’s currently the highest-ranking woman and Hispanic in the state Senate. This is how she leads Texas.

Her mornings: “It’s changed a lot. In a different time, I used to get up at 2 in the morning and I would be in the office by 4 or 5 in the morning…[when]I was chair of higher education. But that was under Bob Bullock and then under [David] Dewhurst. … Now I don’t [do that]because Democrats are a minority and I’m not chair of a committee, so I go later. I get up early, but I work at home instead of the Capitol, and I don’t go to the Capitol until I need to be there, typically.”

Her decision to run: “If the governor or lieutenant governor were to tell me to pick one issue and only one issue, it would be higher education. That is the primary reason I ran. Laredo was the biggest town in Texas without a four-year university, and my No. 1 goal at the time was to get a four-year university for Laredo and I thought I could get it in 10 years. I was elected in 1987 and I gave myself until 1997, but I passed the bill in 1993.”

Her passion for health: “Part of that general platform that I’ve had since 1986 is health and human services in general, with a focus on the very young, the very old, the very poor, persons with disabilities and veterans. I started working in the area of health when I was 5 years old—5 years old! I was a first-grader. One of my classmates had polio and one of my cousins had polio. Through a man who was the president of the March of Dimes…we started raising money for March of Dimes. But I started in first grade…working every year for the March of Dimes, addressing the issue of polio. And today, polio has been eradicated in the United States.”

Her time as a woman in the state Senate:“When I got to the Senate, there was only one woman, only one woman senator, and she had served with 30 men. And that year, two of us were elected and so, all of a sudden, there were three. … We were number six and seven in the history of the state of Texas. In 1987, we were number six and number seven. Can you imagine? And I was the first Mexican-American woman elected to the Texas Senate. We had never, ever had a Mexican-American woman. And people used to ask me, ‘Aren’t you proud to be the first Mexican-American woman in the Senate?’ and I’d say, ‘Proud? I’m disgusted. Why did it take so long?’ But today in the Senate, there are nine women, so we’re almost a third of the Texas Senate. Today in the Texas Senate, there are more women than had ever served in the entire history of the state of Texas when I got elected.”

Her funny campaign story: “When I was first campaigning, there was this elderly man in one of the counties, and it was a time when the primary was in May and the runoff was in June. And he said in Spanish, ‘You’re running for the Texas Senate?’ And I said, ‘Yes, why not?’ And he said, ‘Well, everybody knows women are supposed to stay home to clean house.’ And don’t ask me where these words came from, but I said, ‘Yes, sir, that’s exactly what I’m doing. I dusted off in May, swept up in June and I’m going to mop up in November.’ ”

Her travel schedule: “Typically, what I do during session is I come up [to Austin]on Sunday evening and I’m here Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and then we extend to Thursday and then I go back after session, unless I have hearings or meetings. So, I drive back and forth, but I travel with staff, so, for me, travel time is work time. My vehicle is organized really like an office and the different parts of the car have different meanings. What I’m going to process is in one part of the car; what I’ve already processed is in another.” 

Her relaxation:“I unwind in a second with my grandson. Everything else goes out the window and I just focus on him. We’ll play with trains and trucks, and I used to have an office here with just a few toys and now it’s a playroom with a big computer and desk. It’s hilarious. … And I absolutely love to read, so I read every day. Every single day, I do some pleasure reading. On my Facebook, I keep a list of the books that I read and I review them. Recently, I haven’t reviewed them because I’m reading a series. … I’m on number seven of 11. It’s The Saxon [Stories]series. It’s just a wonderful series by Bernard Cornwell. It’s just wonderful.”

Her Austin fun: “I like to go out to different places. My favorite is [University of Texas] games, the football games. I’m an avid, avid sports fan. I love going to UT football games and love going to basketball games too. I just haven’t been in a long time. And then I like to go eat with family and friends. I don’t enjoy going out to all these legislative parties and things, but I love going out with my family. That’s just great, great fun.”

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