Every Catholic girls’ school has one student who is Little Miss Perfect. To the endless irritation of her peers, she never misses class, always does her homework, raises her hand to answer every question, bosses her classmates around, and is as prudish and humorless as the nuns. But don’t be fooled by her saintly exterior; beneath it lurks an iron will.
Senator Zaffirini is that girl all grown up. After her first session in 1987, she was honored for never missing a single vote, something no other senator in Texas history had accomplished. Ten years and more than 15,000 votes later, her record remains unblemished. What does she credit for her success? The discipline she learned at a Catholic high school for girls, of course. Her work ethic is frightening. She arrives at her office at four in the morning. She eschews conviviality and almost all lobby contact: Anyone who wants to bend her ear about a bill better arrive before sunup. Her colleagues’ attitude toward her can best be summed up by Winston Churchill’s famous retort to Nancy Astor, the first female member of Parliament, who had fumed that if she were married to him she’d poison his coffee: “If I were married to you,” said Churchill, “I would drink it.”
But Zaffirini is not out to win Miss Congeniality awards. She is out to pass bills—and she passes them by the truckload. Her legislative program will touch millions of lives on subjects that really matter: cracking down on tobacco sales to minors; toughening standards for nursing homes; establishing a fund for trauma care; broadening health insurance coverage of diabetes, mastectomies, and immunizations; and preparing state government to handle the new federal welfare system. That prissy personality actually works for her because colleagues find they would rather support her bills than explain to her why they don’t.
In previous sessions she carried these attributes too far. Two years ago she caused an uproar by trying to wrest Laredo’s state university away from Texas A&M and put it under the aegis of UT, only to be thwarted in the House. This year, however, she intervened when fellow budget negotiators were trying to grab Aggie projects for their districts by insisting (to the total shock of many onlookers) that A&M be allowed to set its own priorities. Could Zaffirini be mellowing? Not likely. This is, after all, a woman who once dismissed a warning that a budget-cutting session was a bad time for her to be a budget writer: “If knives are being handed out,” she responded, “I want one in my hand.”