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Longtime Senator Zaffirini And Political Newcomer Pomeroy Vie For Texas Senate District 21, Keeping Discourse Civil

Courtesy of Zaffirini and Pomeroy
Judith Zaffirini, a Laredo Democrat, has represented the Texas Senate District 21 for more than three decades. Republican Frank Pomeroy, longtime senior pastor of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, is challenging her this election.

Texas Senate District 21 stretches from Webb County on the border through 18 counties all the way up to parts of Travis and Hays counties in Central Texas.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Laredo Democrat, has represented the district for more than three decades. This election, she faces a challenge from Republican Frank Pomeroy, longtime senior pastor of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, where 26 people were killed in a shooting in 2017.

Pomeroy said he was motivated to run for office in part by the political discourse following recent mass shootings in Texas. He pointed to the vocal calls for gun restrictions after the 2019 massacre in El Paso.

“I thought how sad that our election process has become such a football game, if you will, between the Rs and Ds that people, the politicians will just use their constituents rather than empowering their constituents, that they'll use them as cogs in a machine to get reelected,” he said. “And that's when I started looking at the political system as a whole...I realized it was time to try to do something to make the people important again.”

The Republican’s platform includes the protection of gun rights, although Pomeroy’s website says he does support restrictions on those convicted of violent crimes or threats and people who have been deemed mentally unstable.

He also supports term limits, religious liberty and opposes abortion and illegal immigration. But he said he can civilly represent the politically diverse district, including the traditionally Democratic border counties.

“I don't bring up the parties until we've had a great conversation, and nine times out of 10,” he said, “I can say ‘you and I agree on just about everything but you claim to be a Democrat. I claim to be a Republican. But let's both claim that we're wanting to vote what's best, morally, ethically and with personal responsibility for our families.’ ”

In 1987, Senator Judith Zaffirini became the first Hispanic woman elected to serve in the Texas Senate. She has passed more than a thousand bills and said bipartisan cooperation is what’s needed most right now.

“One Saturday afternoon, for example, I got a call from the Laredo Health Authority, and he told me that nine people were in intensive care, and that they were being intubated that we had only one ventilator left in town,” she said. “So we got on the phone, we call the governor's office [Republican Greg Abbott], we call the agencies, we did everything we could… and at approximately 1:19 in the morning on Sunday, the ventilators arrived and nobody died.”

Zaffirini’s online campaign focuses on issues such as expanding access to healthcare, adding and improving jobs, protecting the environment and relocating confederate monuments. But she said her main focus for the 2021 legislative session will be tackling the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“The number one issue will be how to deal with the aftermath of a pandemic, what we have to do to ensure that we set standards and enforce them and abide by them to promote public health. I believe very strongly that includes wearing masks,” she said. “And we cannot have unfunded mandates. For example, the Legislature should not say to all school personnel, ‘you must have masks for our students and teachers.’ We must say, ‘you must have masks and here they are.’”

Pomeroy said he thinks lawmakers have to address the pandemic, but they also have to focus on reopening the economy. He said he thinks people shouldn’t be forced to wear facemasks and said “there’s been a whole lot of fear mongering.”

“I don't believe that we handled this situation properly,” he said. “From the very beginning, I think that we should have done everything we could to protect those who are susceptible to the disease, and not shut down the economy and bring all the economy and families to their knees to where now, the suicide rate, and the hurting in the broken homes, and so much it's going on, because of taking away people's rights. Someone said the other day that the cure is worse than the disease. I agree with that 100%.”

Zaffirini said she thinks public health measures go hand in hand with addressing unemployment and the economy.

“It’s difficult, but the matter of fact is you have to address the health issues as part of any solution to the economy,” she said. “Some people say, ‘Well, we should open this kind of business, and not the other kind of business.’ It's not a matter of what license or what service they provided. It’s what can they do to keep everybody safe. And that is the only way that we can deal with both the economy and with the health issues.”

Henry Flores, a distinguished university research professor emeritus at St. Mary’s School of Law in San Antonio, said Zaffirini has a strong track record throughout the district, and Pomeroy’s challenge faces an uphill battle.

“It's been fairly consistent over the last — I was gonna say something like 14 sessions or so — and Senator Zaffirini has won those, that district by huge numbers,” he said. “I think the smallest percentage she's ever had, she's ever won by is like 61 or 62%. She generally, generally she's also unopposed… and she has a very good reputation in her district.”

Zaffirini said she noticed there had been more tension in this election as compared to previous elections with someone vandalizing her headquarters earlier in October.

But both she and Pomeroy have tried to remain civil. Pomeroy condemned the act and donated $200 to the Laredo Crime Stoppers to help find the culprit.

María Méndez can be reached at maría@tpr.org or on Twitter at @anxious_maria