LAREDO, Texas (Nexstar) — If lawmaking were a class, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini would probably write the syllabus.
When pre-filing for Texas’ 88th Legislative Session opened up Monday, more than 900 bills were filed. And sure enough, the Laredo Democrat was again first in line to file legislation in the Senate — this time, the first 44 bills filed for her chamber.
One of the longest-serving state senators and first Mexican-American woman elected to the Texas Senate, Zaffirini began her tenure in 1987 — back when Democrats still controlled the chamber.
“Being on time is important but being earlier is even more important,” she said.
Zaffirini said she’s never had a mentor figure in the Senate but has long been guided by the values and principles she learned from the Ursuline nuns who taught her from first grade through 12th.
“We were taught to be on time, to be respectful of other people’s time and to be there,” she said. “It’s an ethic that I learned from the Urseline nuns, and my staff and I embrace our mantra, which is serviam — in Latin, ‘I shall serve.'”
Over the years, the senator has been honored by lieutenant governors for her perfect attendance record. Yes, perfect — in 35 years, Zaffirini has never been absent or missed a floor vote. During the 2021 session, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick honored the senior senator with a special gavel, marking her achievement.
“She has not missed a vote since 1987,” Patrick said on the Senate floor in April 2021. “Sixty-five thousand consecutive votes — that’s just unbelievable.”
When it came to learning the trade of lawmaking, Zaffirini said she never had any mentors or figures who took her under their wing.
“I mentored myself. I learned by watching other people,” she said. “My very first session, I watched intently, I chose a seat in the back row … I just watched them, especially how they conducted themselves, how they responded to attacks, how they responded to insults, how they handled debate.”
To this date, the senior senator still sits in the back row of the chamber, continually learning from her colleagues in one way or another.
“I actually advise other new members to do the same thing — to pick up the senators they consider the best and to consider the ones that perhaps don’t conduct themselves as well, and learn from observing,” Zaffirini said.
The start of the next legislative session in January will mark the 18th time she returns to the Capitol for a full session. Zaffirini said she’ll be guided by the same principles that have brought her this far.
“It’s a responsibility to serve in the Texas Senate. It’s a responsibility to represent constituents and to be there and to vote,” she said. “It’s not an obsession with work, it’s just a way of life. You work hard, you play hard.”