Longest-Serving Female Legislator Tells All
Senfronia Thompson on Hillary, Dan Patrick, and why the battle for mental health services is personal.
Senfronia Thompson has quite a busy summer planned. In late July the 77-year-old state representative will travel to Philadelphia for the Democratic National Convention, where she will help nominate Hillary Clinton. About ten days before that, the Houston Democrat will vie with two other candidates to replace departing state senator Rodney Ellis on the November ballot. If the party precinct chairs who are choosing Ellis’s replacement pick her, she will almost certainly win the seat (no Republican is running). It would be a career capstone for Thompson, who, having spent 44 years in the House, is the longest-serving female legislator in Texas history.
Dave Mann: You’re attending the Democratic National Convention.
Senfronia Thompson: Oh, yeah! Big time! It’s just like it was with Obama. I will never again have an opportunity to attend a convention where the first woman will be the nominee. So this is a historic moment for me.
DM: What does that mean to you?
ST: Well, number one, it demonstrates that women can govern. That they’re intelligent enough to understand the magnitude and the gravity of the issues that impact the country and its people. And they have the ability to formulate policies to resolve those issues that are impacting our society.
DM: Did you support Hillary or Bernie in the primary?
ST: I didn’t really support anyone. I didn’t do too much in many of the races. I had a brother who started losing a little bit of weight around July, and we thought it was great. But then September came around and he’d lost quite a bit more, and we did get a little concerned. In October we found out he had lung cancer, stage IV.
DM: Oh, no. I’m so sorry to hear that.
ST: He died in February. So I just kind of took some quiet time, you know? I just said, “These people can really do without me.”
DM: What are your thoughts about Donald Trump?
ST: I’ve been very disappointed in Mr. Trump. I used to watch his programs on television, but I’ve been very disappointed. I believe from the depths of my heart that God created every person, every human being. I believe he created the animals. And I believe he’s the supreme being of mankind. He’s our great architect. And when you start demonizing people because of their ethnicity, their religion, their disability, that’s not the American way. That’s not what Americans believe. It doesn’t show statesmanship. It creates so much divisiveness among people, just when we’re getting people to understand that we’re all a part of the great grace of humanity.
I’m totally disappointed in him. I bought his books. I used to think he was this great businessman.
DM: Do you think this time in politics is especially divisive? How does it compare, for you, to earlier decades?
ST: It reminds me of George Wallace. I mean, why should I be penalized because I’m black? Why should you be penalized because you’re white? Why should I be penalized because I’m a woman? Why should you be penalized because you’re a man? It just seems like we’re going in the wrong direction socially. The stuff they’re talking about is pure trash. And to see a person who’s supposed to be as intelligent and as smart as Mr. Trump—you could expect it from someone who’s uneducated and who’s always around people whose minds are in the gutter. You could expect that. But not from him, not from a businessman like him.
DM: Are you concerned that even if Trump loses the election that some of that divisiveness would have a lasting impact?
ST: It’s a great concern. He has created a big price tag on the credit card of America. And by that I mean, we’re going to have to spend billions and billions of dollars trying to undo the mind-sets that he has put in place and the divisiveness and the bigotry. How do you ever move forward if you take fifty steps back?
DM: You’ve been involved in Texas politics for a long time. How have you seen the role of women in politics change?
ST: When I was first elected, women were just a little bit above the girl that makes the coffee. They would put you on committees that were dealing with families. It took a long while for women to evolve to serving on major committees and chairmanships and things of that nature. Barbara Jordan kind of set the tone when she was in the Senate. She became a force, a very strong voice in government. That kind of helped pave the way and cut some trails that women could walk. But there’s still a double standard for women in politics. There’s a greater expectation for women to do things, to resolve issues.
DM: You’ve been in the House for more than forty years. Why did you decide you wanted to run for the Senate?
ST: Well, I think I’ve done a lot in the House. I’ve been real blessed to do a lot of good work in the House. I think the Senate offers me an opportunity to broaden my influence to be able to do bigger things.
DM: If you win the Senate race, are there any particular issues you’d want to focus on there?
ST: Yes, there are. I was just dying to get to them. I was glad you got to it. One of the things Speaker Joe Straus, in his infinite wisdom, did was to put together a select committee on mental health. I want to give society a shout-out for getting to the point where people can openly talk about mental health without feeling demonized, without feeling less of a human being because there’s something that they may need help or treatment with.
If I can deviate just a little bit, if I can take a side journey: I had a daughter, and I lost her to drugs back in 1996. And she left a thirteen-year-old kid. And you can imagine, I’d already raised my kids and all of a sudden I’ve got to start raising a kid all over again. I got my grandson [who was struggling with the loss] some professional help, but his daddy and I were not on the same page. Not that we were against each other or fighting each other. We just had different philosophies when it came to mental health. And he told my grandson, “Son, your grandmother is getting you some help because she thinks you’re crazy.” And that statement traumatized him to the point where I could never get him to go back for assistance.
So I was excited about being on this committee. The most significant thing we learned is that if we can identify mental health issues early in childhood and treat them, that person has a greater opportunity to lead a normal life. We also found out that women who suffer from post-partum depression, it’s not a two- or three-day baby-blues deal. It may last a long time. And the person we point to, who helped us recognize the gravity of the problem, unfortunately, is Andrea Yates. We had to lose five kids to learn that lesson. The unfortunate thing now is, we give women who are on Medicaid sixty days—either get with it in sixty days or too bad. What happens if they need more treatment?
And we also learned that the insurance coverage that you may have—if you happen to go to a psychiatrist or something like that, it depends on how the insurance companies interpret [their policy] as to whether they’re going to pay for it or not. So some doctors are accepting only cash money. That eliminates a large swath of the population who cannot afford to go to the doctor and pay up front. So they just go silently untreated.
My position is that jail is no facility for mental health. I’m not proud of having people in jail to get mental health.
Some of the positive things: We’re learning that schools are now integrating with groups who do talk therapy and that nature, and they’re moving their facilities next door to the school, so they’ll be accessible to the students, and not only are they working with the student, they’re working with the family. ’Cause if that student is in a dysfunctional family, they’re just whistling in the wind if they give treatment at school and they go home and it’s undone. That’s a plus.
Of course, there’s going to be an abundance of things in the session, like foster care. And let me tell you, the foster care problem—a large portion of the responsibility has to be borne by the Legislature. Caseloads are too high. We’re going to have to gut up and do what is needed to get this thing done.
DM: Historically, there hasn’t been the political will to spend much more money on the foster care system. Do you think after some of the recent media coverage that will change?
ST: The stories have always been there. I used to do legal work for kids in the foster care system. I had a single mother in my district who did a good job rearing her children. Her children had kids of their own; they ran into problems. One of her grandkids was in foster care, and the woman came to me and wanted to get this kid back. So I began to do my investigation, and I found out that her granddaughter had been moved to several foster homes. In one, she ended up in the emergency room, drunk. I said, “How in the world did this twelve-year-old kid end up intoxicated in an emergency room?” They moved her from that home to another one. Later on, she became pregnant at thirteen, fourteen years old.
The problems have always been there, but they’ve never been highlighted.
DM: But you feel like the pressure has been turned up on the Legislature?
ST: Yes, I do. That’s the reason why I think we’re going to be forced to do something about it. If the pressure is strong enough, we’ll do a much better job.
DM: I want switch gears a little bit. We’re talking a couple of days after the Supreme Court ruling that struck down Texas’s abortion law, HB 2. What were your thoughts on the ruling?
ST: I was glad they struck the bill down, because I thought it was too broad, that it was overreaching. It bothered me because it closed down facilities that women really need. I was glad that it did fail.
DM: Do you have any concerns about the loss of the two-thirds rule [which had stopped bills from being brought to the Senate floor unless two thirds of senators consented]. I know Senator Ellis talked about that, in his decision to leave the office. Is there less of a chance to get things done in the Senate?
ST: Well, the two-thirds rule has been voted on and is gone, and there’s nothing we can do about it because we don’t have the votes to bring it back. So the thing I look at is, how do you work within the system that is present to achieve your goals? And that’s what I’d be looking at. Of course, that rule had a great benefit and a great historical significance, but it’s something that’s over with now, and we have to move forward.
DM: How do you think you’d work with Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who’s also from Houston?
ST: He and I have worked on things together before. I support my leader in the House, Joe Straus. And when I’m in the Senate, my leader is Dan Patrick, and I’ll support Dan Patrick. I’ll look to work with him on those issues that I can work with him on. He and I worked on several bills. Let me tell you what he did for me one time: I worked on a bill that my good friend Rick Perry vetoed, the equal pay bill for women. Wendy Davis was carrying this bill in the Senate. The session was just about to end. I went over with my staff, and we worked the Senate floor. She had to have 21 votes to bring the bill up, and she didn’t have them. We finally got up to 21 votes. Then she had to get 25 votes. And Dan Patrick came up to me and said, “How many votes you got?” I said, “Twenty-three.” He said, “I’ll be your twenty-fourth.” I said, “Thank you, Dan.” And then we got to 25 and we got the bill passed.
We may not see eye to eye on all the issues, but there are issues we agree on. I recognize him as the leader and that’s who I’d be working with.