The Honor of Public Service

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by Editor Pete 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. The former educator also owns and operates Zaffirini Communications.

So she knows how to express herself. Zaffirini answered email questions from Editor Peter Szatmary. Here’s the unabridged Q&A with her.

You’ve made several inroads. You’re the first Hispanic woman to be elected to the Texas Senate and to serve as its President Pro Tempore. You’re also the highest-ranking woman and Hispanic senator in the Texas Senate. Discuss such distinctions.

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 PresidentPro Tempore and Governor for a Day. My reaction always is the same: I remain chagrined that no Mexican American woman senator preceded me when I was elected in 1986 and that it took so long to elect a second one, Senator Leticia San Miguel Van de Putte, in 1999, and even longer to elect a third one in 2013, Senator 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, my experience empowers me to continue to play a leadership role in identifying priorities, resolving problems, passing legislation, stopping or amending bad legislation and striving for better funding. It 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 7 women senators 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 senators 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 Democratic 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 noviembre!” (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 Governor 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.

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.

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, Senator Wendy Davis and Senator Leticia Van de Putte.

You’ve been a Texas State Senator (D-Laredo) since 1987. You chair the Government Organization Committee, are co-vice chair of the Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence, and Transparency, and are a member of the Legislative Budget Board and of the Finance, Higher Education, Health and Human Services, and Administration committees. You also were Chair of Higher Education (2006-2012) and Chair of Health and Human Services (1993-2000). What are some accomplishments in the roles that make you especially proud?

Because of my committee assignments, I am uniquely positioned to make a difference for the families of our district and our state, particularly in the higher education and health and human services arenas.

As a member of the Senate Finance Committee and of the Legislative Budget Board, I have advocated for funding for our public schools, colleges and universities. What's more, after participating in a multi-decade effort to create a four-year university in my hometown of Laredo, I was delighted to pass a 1993 bill that accomplished this: Texas A&M International University opened in 1995 with the authorization to offer doctoral degrees and joint degrees with other institutions.

In the health and human services arena, I passionately and proudly carry the banner for persons with intellectual, emotional, and physical difficulties. My highest mission includes reducing the waiting lists for services and eliminating some. In 2013, for example, I was delighted that we eliminated the state's waiting list for critical mental health services.

In 2009 the Texas Health and Human Services Commission was processing fewer than 59 percent of food stamp cases on time and had more than 42,000 cases pending. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst appointed Senator Tommy Williams and me to oversee corrective actions. Under our collaborative oversight, Texas' hard-working eligibility personnel cleared the backlog and reduced the number of pending cases statewide to fewer than 3,000.

You’ve sponsored 795 bills that passed and cosponsored another 400 that also became law. Which stand out?

In 2006 we passed legislation authorizing tuition revenue bonds for Texas colleges and universities, thereby allowing them to build the critical labs, classrooms and other educational facilities necessary to accommodate our state's booming student population. To address the issue, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst appointed the Senate Finance Subcommittee on Capital Funding for Higher Education and named me to chair it. Working with Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes and the Higher Education Coordinating Board, we developed an objective evaluation and ranking system for every tuition revenue bond proposal. In doing so we moved the legislation from the arena of political power and influence into an objective and fair process based on criteria.

During the 2006 Special Session Gov. Rick Perry stood by his commitment to add Tuition Revenue Bonds to the agenda after we passed a school finance bill. On the Thursday night before the session ended on Tuesday, Governor Perry added the bill to the agenda. Against tremendous odds, I worked tirelessly with Lt. Gov. Dewhurst, Speaker Tom Craddick and others through the weekend and passed my bill on Mother’s Day.

The Chair of the Senate Finance Committee at the time stated that the bill was dead in the Senate and tried to kill it. We prevailed, however, and passed a bill that provided for the issuance of $1.9 billion in tuition revenue bonds for 66 construction projects at 48 institutions of higher education.

In 2009 it was my pleasure to author Senate Bill (SB) 9, which eventually passed as House Bill 51 and promoted the pursuit of excellence, reinforced the importance of research and philanthropy and created a pathway for our emerging research universities to become national research universities.

In the health and human services arena, I am proud to have authored and passed legislation creating and enhancing the state's organ donor and immunization registries; implementing Child Fatality Review Teams to confront the problem of child deaths in Texas, requiring state agencies to use respectful language when referring to persons with disabilities, streamlining the Medicaid application process and providing for continuous medical assistance eligibility when children are transitioning from Medicaid to CHIP or to private insurers.

Your voting record is 100 percent; you’ve cast 51,693 consecutive votes as of 2013? Which come to mind and why?

My 100 percent voting record reflects my commitment to my constituents. I am determined to study the issues and to vote according to the best interests and greatest needs of Senate District 21, not according to my personal agenda. In 1989, for example, I voted against the Senate bill to raise legislators’ salaries, only because I knew my constituents opposed it. When I went to the polls and voted as an individual, however, I voted for the increase.

My insight was accurate: Our district voted overwhelmingly against the Constitutional amendment.

What factors do you consider when deciding on how to vote on a particular bill?

I always consider how it will impact the families of Senate District 21, balanced with the best interests and needs of the families of Texas.

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 income, health outcomes and civic engagement. As Mirabeau Lamar said, "a cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy." What's more, a strong higher education 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 economic 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 healthcare is a right, not a privilege, making affordable health care 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, CHIP and other programs for very young, the very old, the very poor and persons with disabilities.

Your political career upholds Phi Kappa Phi’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.” You’ve received approximately 750 awards for your legislative work, public service and communications expertise. Which do you hold especially dear and why?

My commitment to academic excellence and preparation for public service crystallized at The University of Texas at Austin, but my earliest motivation to excel in these regards came from the Ursuline nuns. My teachers at St. Peter’s Elementary School and at Ursuline Academy in Laredo, they instilled in us a lifelong commitment to lead, to serve and to excel: Our motto was Serviam (“I will serve”), and this is the standard by which I live.

All of my awards are meaningful, and I share all of them with the many constituents, advocates, stakeholders and others who have partnered in our success. In 2013 I was especially delighted to receive the Mary Holdsworth Butt Award from Mental Health America of Texas. I also appreciate greatly the several awards I received from my beloved alma mater, The University of Texas at Austin, including its Distinguished Alumni Award and the Presidential Citation. I am especially fond of being named not only Mister South Texas by the Washington’s Birthday Celebration Association in Laredo, but also an Honorary Nun, Sister Judith, by the Sisters of Mercy.

On a personal note, I loved it when my son’s kindergarten class gave me a plaque recognizing me as “The Best Cooker in the Whole World.” (I used to bake for the students and particularly enjoyed sending them baked goods in the shape of whatever letter was the subject for their Show ‘n’ Tell. On “G” day, for example, I sent them green cookies shaped like girls, guitars and ghosts. On “T” day, I sent them a chocolate cake shaped like Texas and inscribed, “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You.” I truly enjoyed baking for my son and his friends.)

Numerous buildings are named after you: Laredo Community College’s library, Texas A&M International University’s Student Success Center, an elementary school in Laredo, and a residential substance abuse rehabilitation center in Edinburg. Much to feel great about, and much live up to, huh?

These honors are especially meaningful because the students and clients served in these buildings are the motivation for my work in the Texas Senate. Since there is so much left to do in the higher education and health and human services arenas, these issues will continue to be among my highest priorities.

You earned B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in communications from The University of Texas at Austin. And you operate Zaffirini Communications. How do your training and business help your political endeavors?

I am a communications specialist. Through my business, Zaffirini Communications, I provide professional communications services, including consulting, workshops and seminars, one-on-one coaching, keynote addresses and writing. The skills I use regularly in my business also serve me well in the Texas Senate, where it is critical to persuade others via effective written and oral communication.

The three degrees that I earned from UT-Austin empowered me to succeed by mastering higher-order critical thinking skills, problem-solving, writing and other communication skills, tolerance for opposing perspectives, appreciation for diversity and commitment to excellence and to the pursuit of truth. For this, I will be grateful eternally.

A similar question about your teaching. You taught for 13 years including at community college and four-year universities? How has being an educator affected you?

My experience as a college student, instructor and administrator has shaped my perspectives about a wide range of higher education issues and has helped me better understand the unique challenges related to our state's higher education system. I believe strongly in the power of higher education to change lives. Earning three degrees — each with a 3.9 grade-point average — from The University of Texas at Austin opened doors of opportunity for me, and it is my goal to ensure that similar opportunities are accessible and affordable for all Texans. Having supported myself since I was 17 and paying for my higher education without parental assistance facilitate my persuading students to pursue their degrees, even if they have limited financial resources.

Above all, my teaching experience makes me a more effective senator. I have the confidence that I can learn any subject or issue well enough to teach it, which is essential to garnering the votes needed to pass legislation. In 1987, for example, as a freshman senator I learned about low-level radioactive waste and succeeded where the most senior senators had failed: On a vote of 28-2 I passed a bill that required the storage site for low-level radioactive waste to be stored on public land, not private land.

Finally, I love to note that my experience having taught seventh grade boys with disciplinary problems prepared me to succeed in the Texas Senate, where I first served with two women and 28 men in 1987.

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 SB 222, prohibiting compulsory lie detector tests for victims of rape and sexual assault. First vetoed by Governor Bill Clements in 1989, I passed it after my fourth attempt in four legislative sessions. Perseverance is the hallmark of successful legislation.

What have your constituents taught you?

My constituents have taught me that good ideas can come from anyone or anywhere. Some of my best ideas for legislation were suggested by constituents. In 2009, for example, I passed SB 652, which allows driver’s license holders to provide emergency contact information to the Texas Department of Public Safety. Used only to reach loved ones during emergencies, the database enhances the ability to locate next-of-kin in an emergency and secure medical information needed for life-saving care. The bill was suggested by one of my constituents, Laredoan Sally Laurel Vasquez.

You’ve been married for 49 years to Laredo attorney Carlos Zaffirini, Sr., and have one son. Talk about your family’s impact on you.

My husband, Carlos Sr., and our son, Carlos Jr., not only are my inspiration, but also the persons I love and admire the most. What I wish for my own family is what I champion for all families in the Texas Senate.

If it weren't for my husband, I might never have become a senator. We began dating in high school, and Carlos was a straight-A student. He realized that while I was having the time of my life, going into finals, I had straight F's. Shocked, he spoke to me in language that I understood.

“If you don't straighten out, I will break up with you,” he told me, clearly upset with me.
I was 14, and we started going steady when I was 13 and he was 16, but I had a crush on him since I was 9. What do you think I did? I straightened out!

He reached and motivated me in a way that teachers and parents could not. For two weeks he tutored me daily, and I made A's in all my finals — except algebra. Because of his concentrated effort, I passed all my classes, even algebra. From then on, with his encouragement, I was an honor student in high school, on the dean’s list in college, and I earned three degrees from UT-Austin — each with a 3.97 GPA.

Carlos and I were married when I was 18, and he was 21. He earned his law degree, and I earned my three degrees, while we were married and self-supporting. With our son, he continues to be the most positive influence in my life, and I would rather be with them than anywhere else at any time.

We are very proud of our son Carlos Jr., an attorney and businessman, who has always understood the importance of higher education. I'm so proud that he has not only pursued higher education, but also helped others to do the same.

In 2012, for example, he endowed a $100,000 scholarship in my name for South Texans at The University of Texas at Austin, and this year he will do the same at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. He epitomizes my belief regarding what we hope for our children: We don’t want them to be like us, but to be better. We don’t want them to match our accomplishments, but to surpass them. In this regard, my husband and I believe that we have succeeded.

Question not asked you want to answer. Describe an interesting characteristic about yourself.

I always prepare and strive to out-work and to out-think my opposition. My strategy works: First, I pray to the Lord for inspiration, that He guide me in my words and in my actions to say and to do the right things.

Second, I not only prepare, but over-prepare.

Finally, I do Lamaze breathing exercises: I treat my opposition like a mild contraction.

The Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi