Texas Senator Judith Zaffirini has broken state records by a long shot. She has cast more than 72-thousand consecutive votes. She has had a perfect attendance record—except that one time she skipped on purpose to make a point. She has passed 1,388 bills—more than any other legislator in Texas history. All with bipartisan support—no matter who was in the majority. After becoming the first Hispanic woman elected to the Senate in 1986, the Democrat will become Dean of the Senate as the most senior member this session.
This is Across the Aisle, the podcast on bipartisanship from the National Conference of State Legislatures
I’m Kelley Griffin
Texas Senator Judith Zaffirini has broken state records by a long shot. She has cast more than 72-thousand consecutive votes. She has had a perfect attendance record—except that one time she skipped on purpose to make a point. She has passed 1,388 bills—more than any other legislator in Texas history.
All with bipartisan support—no matter who was in the majority.
After becoming the first Hispanic woman elected to the Senate in 1986, the Democrat will become Dean of the Senate as the most senior member this session.
You might think she is the epitome of patience. You’d be wrong.
Zaffirini: Oh I always say patience is a virtue that I do not have. I do not have it but I have persistence///and when there’s an important goal I just keep working toward it as long as I can, so long as other people are working with me too.
There’s plenty of evidence of her persistence in the state house. Her first initiative took years to finally pass. It was the reason she ran for the Senate—to establish a four-year university for her hometown of Laredo.
She won the Senate race in 1986, but it wasn’t until 1993 the Legislature approved the university for Laredo. Of course, she worked on many other issues too, well on her way to the record number of bills she would pass and would vote on.
But her persistence wasn’t born when she ran for the Senate. It goes way back. She notes she was 9 years old when she set her sights on a boy named Carlos. It was another four years before he noticed her. This year, they celebrate their 59th wedding anniversary.
There’s another aspect to this story: how the young Zaffirini climbed out of failing grades after Carlos said he’d break up with her if she didn’t improve. She buckled down and landed on the honor roll, the high school dean’s list and went on to earn a B.A., a Masters and a Ph.D from The University of Texas.
Zaffirini recalls that Mother Mary Andrew at her Catholic school was handing out ribbons for grades and performance.
Zaffirini: And she said “I have held this blue and gold bow to the very end because when you hear who’s going to get it, you’re not going to believe it.’ Then she said Judy Pappas ///and there was this audible gasp throughout the high school student body and then she said ‘the moral of the story is if Judy Pappas can do it anybody can.”
That proclamation by the nun became the title of a book Zaffirini wrote to motivate children who might be struggling in school.
Zaffirini may have innate persistence, but she also credits much of her success passing bills with what she learned at UT Austin. Starting with Aristotle.
Zaffirini: What Aristotle said was to use ethos, logos, pathos; ethical, logical and emotional appeals. And basically that’s what I do. I blend logical appeals, the content of what we’re working on with the ethical appeals, what’s right, what’s wrong, what do the people need, the emotional appeal when necessary///real life anecdotes, real life examples of the people who need this legislation.
And as a teacher who later ran a communications firm, she says doesn’t try to persuade, but rather inform, which she thinks people are more open to.
Zaffirini: Recently one senator told me ‘I understood everything you said, but I didn’t understand what this other senator said. And I said that’s because he was trying to persuade you. I was trying to explain it to you. He was being argumentative, I was describing.”
Zaffirini says it’s very important not to take anything personal. She recalls the time a constituent letter was so incendiary about a river conservation bill she was carrying that her staffer didn’t want her to read it.
Zaffirini said ‘I’ve read vulgar language before, let me see the letter/// and I looked up and I said Chance, what if he’s right?
She sent her staffer to meet with the man in the district.
Zaffirini Chance came back and he said he’s right. And we changed the bill.”
Zaffirini says being open to ideas—even if they come wrapped in some angry language—is key to getting so much work done. She also makes a point of connecting to her colleagues as friends and learns about their interests and concerns. That helps get beyond the emotions on the surface, she says.
Zaffirini: ’ve never brought up a bill in the Senate that I haven’t passed and that’s because I work with people. It’s not that it’s my bill, it’s the bill that I have worked to develop with other people.”
There are limits to this bipartisanship of course. Conflicts have happened over a variety of hot-button topics, including redistricting—the issue that ruined her perfect attendance record when she joined other Democrats in breaking quorum. .
Zaffirini admits some issues are intractable. But in the Texas Senate, members still manage to work together on most bills before them.
Zaffirii We always have to remember we disagree about so many issues and we differ so much/// we try to work together and work out our differences and this is critical to success and it’s critical for the people that we represent.
Republican colleagues were eager to talk about their respect for Senator Zaffirini. Republican Senator Donna Campbell heard from Zaffirini before they ever met.
Campbell: I won my election in 2012 and she called to congratulate me. So even though a different party and somebody she didn't know, she still welcomed me over the phone after I won.
They became fast friends and have lined up on legislation frequently. Campbell remembers a few times when she thought her vote was ‘no’ until Zaffrinii made her case.
Campbell : I clearly remember she was working on banning texting while driving, and I was just not for that. I wasn't for the government getting in, telling me what I can and can't do with regard to texting. 17:20 ish So I had said, no, no, no, and we ended up talking for about an hour over the phone as I was driving, but it was hands-free - laughs - by the end of the conversation. I said, okay, because I felt that she was right
Even their disagreements are pretty agreeable.
Campbell: I have, and she's had to tell me no. She'll chuckle and say, no, can't do that. And I'll look at her on one and she'll say, can you be with me on this one? I'll say, not on this one, but check with me again. So it's just very cordial and still in such a very friendly manner. There's not been any no, that either one of us has said that has caused any animosity or hurt feelings.
Republican Senator Paul Bettencourt works with Zaffirini on bills, including his recent major property tax reform measure.
Bettencourt : Her nickname is Z, alternatively Lady Z et cetera (laughs) And she would literally put out a book of Senate rules and procedural motions. That was really mandatory reading for all the Texas state senators when they first come to the Texas Senate to read. So I got to know her very early on in my Senate career.
He is in awe of her long, unbroken run of votes which he says is “statistically almost impossible to achieve by mere mortals.”
And no, they can't always find common ground, But she knows how to disagree gracefully, he says.
Bettencourt: When she can't support your bills, she'll take the time to write a nice little note and say, I'm voting ‘no’ on ssb, whatever. So it’s hard to get mad at somebody who writes a nice note and says, Hey, I'm not voting for your bill.
It’s not like Zaffirini is always on an even keel. She’s passionate about her priority issues including health and human services for vulnerable populations and veteran’ care. She can get fired up - like when Gov. Rick Perry vetoed a slew of bills in what was dubbed the Father’s Day Massacre, including her bill on Medicaid. She was so angry she told her colleague she needed time to cool off before addressing it in a press conference.
But camaraderie always prevails with Zaffirini. She says now as the Dean of the Senate, she hopes to foster that with new Senators coming in to ensure bipartisanship stays strong.
New senators like Morgan LaMantia, elected last year. She was 2 years old when Zaffrini first got elected. She remembers when her older sister was in 8th grade and got to shadow the senator at work; that inspired LaMantia to focus on a career in public service.
She says she was actually shocked to win her first election and become a Senator alongside Zaffirini. She wants to carry the mantle—she passed 31 bipartisan bills in her first session and credits Zaffrini with guiding her well.
La Mantia: One of the things she told me ///was you cannot wait until the last minute to try to get that bipartisanship. You need to build those relationships ahead of time. You need to find that common ground.
Zaffirini says her advice to the new Senators, and her reminder for the not-so-new senators, comes back to persistence:
Zaffirini: Remember that tomorrow is another day because sometimes people fail and they get depressed, they get dejected, they get angry instead of realizing it's just part of the process. And you may not succeed today, but if you're persistent, not patient, but persistent, you might succeed another day.
I’m Kelley Griffin. Thanks for joining us for Across the Aisle. . .