You’ve made several inroads.
I’m often asked if I’m proud to be the first
Mexican American woman elected to the Texas
Senate and to serve as its President Pro Tempore
and Governor for a Day. My reaction always is
the same: I remain chagrined that no Mexican
American woman state senator preceded me
when I was elected in 1986 and that it took so
long to elect a second one, Leticia San Miguel
Van de Putte, in 1999, and even longer to elect a
third one, in 2013, Sylvia Garcia.
The three of us have much in common: We represent the families of our districts passionately, but
we balance their needs and interests with those of
our great state. Simultaneously, we prioritize the issues that families care about most, namely, education, health and human services, job creation, the
environment and public safety. Our cultural heritage
empowers us with the insight to help lead Texans as
our demographics change and become increasingly
Hispanic. Above all, we recognize that Texas can
become a greater state only through education in
general, with a focus on early and higher education.
As the highest-ranking woman and Hispanic
senator, I continue to play a leadership role in
identifying priorities, resolving problems, passing
legislation, stopping or amending bad legislation
and striving for better funding. My experience
also allows me to be a role model for Texans of
all ages — always underscoring the importance
of prioritizing faith and family, then public
service and, finally, business responsibilities.
It is as amazing as it is disappointing that only
16 women have served in the Texas Senate, that
the seven who serve today cumulatively are more
than have served at any other time in the history of
our state and that the only three Mexican American women ever elected are serving together today.
We need to elect more, but to accomplish that, we
need to prepare more women, and particularly
Mexican American women, to run and to win.
Women candidates face many additional challenges, even today. As a first-time candidate in
1986, I developed a sense of humor that helped
me deal with some of the difficulties, including
prejudice about my gender. One day, for example, an elderly man asked me, “¿Tú estás corriendo
para el Senado? Si todo mundo sabe que las mujeres se
deben de quedar en su casa para limpiar.” (You are
running for the Senate? Everyone knows women
should stay home to clean house.)
This was when the primary election was in
May, the runoff was in June, and the general
election was in November. I had led three Dem-
ocratic men in May, beaten one in June, and
was campaigning hard to win in November.
I said, “Sí, señor, es lo que estoy haciendo. ¡Sacudí
en mayo, barrí en junio, y voy a trapear en noviem-bre!” (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!)
That man became one of my strongest supporters and later was a leader in Gov. Ann Richards’
election. Humor enabled me not only to gain a
supporter, but also to change his outlook about
women candidates. Women running for office
today continue to face challenges, but the barriers
are nowhere near what we faced decades ago.
It is my hope that as more women run for office, more will advance to positions of leadership.
I am delighted that this year the Democratic nominees for Texas governor and lieutenant governor
are both outstanding women leaders, state Sen.
Wendy Davis and Van de Putte, respectively.
Serving as President Pro Tempore of the
Texas Senate and as Texas Governor for a Day
in 1997 was an opportunity to celebrate the rich
diversity of the families of our district and of
our state. Our celebration focused on motivating
children to dream high and to strive for a better
future through education and public service.
What societal issues preoccupy you?
Higher education is my passion because it has
the power to transform lives and promote lifelong
learning. It also has a beneficial influence on in-
come, health outcomes and civic engagement. As
[Texas politician] Mirabeau Lamar (1798-1859)
said, a “cultivated mind is the guardian genius of
democracy.” What’s more, a strong higher educa-
tion system enhances our success in competing
with other states and countries for job creation
and economic growth. For every dollar invested in
higher education in general, Texas enjoys an eco-
nomic multiplier of $8. At The University of
Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University, the
return is more than $18 per dollar invested.
Because I believe very strongly that health-
care is a right, not a privilege, making affordable
healthcare available for Texas families continues
to be among my highest legislative priorities. My
opinion is that the State of Texas should fund
health and human services at a significantly
higher level. That is why I fight incessantly for
the highest possible level of funding for Medicaid,
Children’s Health Insurance Program and other
programs for very young, the very old, the very
poor and persons with disabilities.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve
learned in politics?
Persistence is the key to success in the legislative
arena. Many good bills are passed only after repeated attempts. In 1995, for example, I passed
Senate Bill 222, prohibiting compulsory lie detector
tests for victims of rape and sexual assault. First vetoed by Gov. Bill Clements in 1989, it passed after
my fourth attempt in four legislative sessions.
By Editor Peter Szatmary
Texas State Sen. Judith Zaffirini understands the honor of her work. In office since 1987, the Democrat from Laredo (District 21) has sponsored 795 bills and cosponsored 400 that became law. Her 51,693 consecutive votes in the chamber as of 2013 signify 100 percent accountability.
She chairs the Government Organization Committee, is co-vice chair of the Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence, and Transparency, and chaired the Higher Education (2006-12) and Health and Human Services (1993-2000) Committees.
Consequently, Zaffirini has received hundreds of awards. Also, educational and healthcare buildings bear her name. Her Phi Kappa Phi membership at Texas A&M International University echoes
the Society’s mission “to recognize and promote academic excellence in all fields of higher education and to engage the community of scholars in service to others”: She helped pass a bill to expand
her hometown campus to four-year status in 1995.
Zaffirini earned B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in communications from The University of Texas
at Austin, working her way through school. She and husband Carlos, a lawyer, have been married
for 49 years; their son, Carlos, Jr., is an attorney and businessman. A former educator, she also owns
and operates Zaffirini Communications.
So she knows how to express herself. Zaffirini answered email questions from Editor Peter Szatmary. Edited excerpts follow.
The Honor of Public Service
For the full Q&A, go online to