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Judith Zaffirini hasn't missed a vote since 1986. Now she's the Texas Senate's first female dean.

'In the Texas Senate, really, we have friendships across party lines,' says state Sen. Judith Zaffirini. 'Austin, Texas, is really not like Washington, D.C. We vote across party lines, with the exception of redistricting and some of the most controversial bills.'
Gabriel Cristóver Pérez
/
KUT News
'In the Texas Senate, really, we have friendships across party lines,' says state Sen. Judith Zaffirini. 'Austin, Texas, is really not like Washington, D.C. We vote across party lines, with the exception of redistricting and some of the most controversial bills.'

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini is a Democrat representing District 21, which stretches from the Rio Grande to the Colorado River and the Valley, but she’s a well-known name all across the Lone Star State.

She has served in the Texas Senate since 1986, and she’s kicking off 2024 with a new distinction as its dean, the longest-serving member in the chamber. Zaffirini is the first woman to find herself in that role.

She was also the first Mexican-American woman to serve in the state’s upper legislative chamber when she was elected, and she is one of only 24 women who have ever served in the state Senate.

The dean presides when the Senate meets as a caucus of the whole but not an official session, Zaffirini said.

“Basically, the dean focuses on the protocol, the decorum, and the efficiency of the Senate,” she said. “And it’s responsible for making the administrative motions of the Senate.”

Zaffirini said it never crossed her mind that she would be the longest-serving member of the state Senate one day.

“I began as number 30 of 31,” she said. “When you’re elected, at the same time, you draw for seniority, and basically we’re considered in the decision making process on the basis of seniority. When I got to the Senate, seniority had a lot to do with who was chair of what committee and who presented the bills. I had a difficult time at first, offering my bills, being recognized for passing bills, because it was done on the basis of seniority.”

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However, Zaffirini had a trick up her sleeve to get her bills passed early in her career.

“I was always present and always on time,” she said. “And under that first lieutenant governor I served under, the senators typically would not arrive until after we finished the morning call. Many would not come until it was time to vote on bills.

“So typically, those who were ahead of me in seniority were not on the floor, as we say, so I would be recognized. So I got to pass my bills even though I was number 30, because I was the only one on the floor who had a bill.”

Zaffirini is dedicated to her attendance at the statehouse. In fact, she holds the record for the most consecutive votes without missing one.

“I have never missed a vote since I took office in 1987,” she said. “So as of 2023, I had cast 72,132 consecutive votes.”

Zaffirini has also passed a lot of bills for a politician who’s been in the minority party for quite a while in Texas: 1,388 to date, with 122 of those in the last legislative session.

“That’s more than any legislator in the history of the state of Texas,” she said. “But I do it by being bipartisan, and that is what I will promote as being dean of the Senate: The need to be bipartisan.”

Zaffirini said it is not unusual for the dean to be in the minority party, since the position is assigned based on years of service. She said her take on bipartisanship in the Texas Senate is an optimistic one.

“I can’t speak for the House because I never served in the House of Representatives, but in the Texas Senate, really, we have friendships across party lines,” she said. “Austin, Texas, is really not like Washington, D.C. We vote across party lines, with the exception of redistricting and some of the most controversial bills.”

Zaffirini said her advice to women – and to men – who are running for office is to be authentic.

“Just yesterday, I met with some Democratic candidates who asked me for advice. One woman asked me precisely that question: How could she answer someone who questioned her ability to perform in Congress because of her responsibilities as a wife and mother?” Zaffirini said. “And my advice to her is the same as I would advise a man, and I would say your No. 1 priority – perhaps faith, if you’re a person of religion – faith first and then family, whether male or female, and then public service and business. And so I suggested to her that she say what I say, which is I hold men and women to the same standards.”

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