If she had been nothing more than the first Hispanic woman elected to the Legislature, Irma Rangel would deserve her place in our political pantheon. But she was so much more. She was a mentor, a role model, and a lawmaker who in 1997 passed a bill that changed Texas: It provided that any high school student who ranks in the top 10 percent of his graduating class automatically qualifies for admission to any state college or university. The bill was a response to a federal court decision that prohibited affirmative-action admissions policies at Texas colleges. The prospect of plummeting minority enrollment at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University imperiled the flagships’ political support, state funding, and ability to recruit and retain top faculty. Rangel’s fix saved the day. At UT-Austin, minority enrollment in the 2003 freshman class is higher than it was under affirmative action; as a whole, the class has the highest academic qualifications in the university’s history.
Rangel’s death in March robbed her crabby colleagues of a much-needed example of bipartisanship and goodwill. During her 26 years in the House, she dispensed more sweets than Hershey’s. She kept a large stash at her desk and used it to great effect. “Ooh, baby,” she would say to the conservative country boys. “Vote for my bill and I’ll give you some candy.” Sometimes she could pass legislation by saying little more at the microphone than, “Ooh, this is such a good bill, I know you’re going to like it.”
In her last two sessions, Rangel battled breast cancer, then ovarian cancer, then brain cancer. She took to wearing brightly colored hats to hide the ravages of her treatment; in 2001 a group of women legislators, followed by two male colleagues, honored her by traipsing down the center aisle of the House chamber sporting Rangel-style hats. At the end of this session, her memory was honored in a different chamber and in a different way: with a Senate filibuster that killed a proposal to limit admissions under the 10 percent rule to 60 percent of the entering class. For now, thanks to Irma Rangel, any Texas high school student of any race who is willing to work hard can still earn access to the best education the state offers.