Q&A with Texas Senator José Rodríguez

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Texas Senator José Rodríguez (D-El Paso) might not be new to politics—he served as El Paso County Attorney for 17 years—but he is relatively new to being an elected official on a statewide scale, having been elected to the state Senate in 2010. The 2013 legislative session was his second ever. Rodríguez has put forth and passed a huge number of bills on a variety of issues, also including pro-LGBT legislation. Equality Texas named Rodríguez a “Champion of Equality” earlier this year.

Rodríguez will be attending the Texas Tribune Festival, where he will speak on a panel about gun control.

You’ve passed so many bills! What are your central issues, and how do you pick which things you want to push for?

Look at the 50 bills I passed this session and the 41 bills I passed last session: they run the gamut, just because of my varying interests. You’ll find legislation that mixes education, health care, justice, the courts, children, economic development, energy, the environment. So, for me, it’s just a matter of determining what will further the agenda for border communities like El Paso as far as getting more funding and respect—if you will—from the state of Texas, and also addressing human rights issues like LGBT issues, like voting rights issues, and redistricting is important because of the impact it will have on representation. So, I don’t focus on any one area: I cover a whole lot of ground.

It sounds like you’ve been very successful, despite how crazy-partisan it is on the Senate floor. Can you tell me a little bit about how you’ve gotten the votes you’ve needed to get your legislation passed?

I think you’ll find that on most of the bills that I’ve passed, there’s not a whole lot of controversy. Bipartisanship is available when you’re dealing with issues that are more local in nature, more non-controversial. This last session, my number one bill was to designate our medical school—Texas Tech University in El Paso—as a health science center. We had to do a lot of work on that, but ultimately we got it done. Bills that did not make it, they were more controversial from the standpoint of the more conservative members of the legislature. Those were, of course, the LGBT bill that I filed, as well as my three or four worker protection bills I filed.

What influences your fight for the LGBT community?

What influences me to fight for the LGBT community is my own experiences as a Chicano growing up in the 60s and going through the various movements, the Civil Rights Movement, the Chicano Movement, the Feminist Movement, and what we referred to back then as the Gay Rights Movement, which started in 1968 with Stonewall. I’ve had a lot of friends and some relatives who are LGBT members. I also worked as a lawyer and in legal services for ten years, filing cases in Federal and State Court involving civil rights and discrimination on the basis of unemployment, on the basis of sex and voting rights cases. So, in short, what influences me is my own personal background growing up as a migrant farm worker. I was part of the downtrodden, the people who are not paid well, who have to work under terrible working conditions, who are not respected in this country. All of these issues have had a bearing on my outlook of how I view treatment of anyone. My first time as a prosecutor in El Paso County, we made sure to revise the county guidelines for discrimination—which were your standard prohibiting discrimination based on cases of race, national origin, ethnicity or religion—but we revised it to add sexual orientation.

Do you feel like pushing for this legislation could maybe lose the support of some of your constituents?

My concern about my re-election? Not affected at all from pushing LGBT issues. I’m enthusiastic about it because I think it’s the right thing to do. If you’re going to be a good public servant and work in politics, you can’t be looking behind your back all the time to ensure your reelection because once you start doing that, then that dramatically curtails your ability to do things that are the right thing to do.

That feels very forward for Texas.

That’s just part of who I am. I’m gonna suggest that, if you look at El Paso’s history, El Paso is one of the most progressive cities in the state and even in the country. El Paso was the very first cases, even before Brown vs. the Board of Education, we had desegregation in our schools. Long before people dealt with desegregation in public housing, we had it here in El Paso. El Paso has been at the forefront of those issues.

Will you tell me a little bit about the bill that would give voters the chance to recognize same-sex marriages from other states?

I filed that and I couldn’t get that to a hearing in committee, simply because I couldn’t get the votes necessary. The other bill that I filed was to rescind the existing language in the statutes prohibiting making gay conduct a crime, the so-called “sodomy statute.” That one, we were able to pass it out of the Senate committee for the first time in the history of the Texas Legislature, out of any committee. I just was falling short on the floor of the senate to get the necessary 21 votes. You know, in the senate, you have to get at least 2/3 of the members to hear a bill for debate.

What is it like being progressive in a red state?

You have to have a lot of patience, you have to have faith and you have to have the fortitude to show up day in and day out.

So, you’re going to be be a panelist on the issue of gun regulations at the Tribune Festival. Can we get a sneak peek about what topics you’ll be covering?

I generally will be speaking in favor of more gun control in this state and against the movement in this state to make guns available for everyone in every occasion and in every setting possible. My view is that the second amendment does not allow individuals to have unrestricted access to guns in this country.

Awesome! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to L Style G Style.

You’re very welcome. It’s important we keep these issues at the forefront. That was my purpose for introducing the marriage bill. One reporter asked me, “We just passed this eight years ago, what makes you think you can get this overturned?” I’m realistic about it, i don’t expect we can do that in this session, but I think we are going to fight for a new debate on it. A lot has transpired in the last eight years and even in the last election, with several other states joining the ranks of those that permit marriage for the LGBT community. I think that on these issues, we are going to need to develop strategies to move the progress forward one step at a time. Ultimately, I’m convinced in the very near future, even in the state of Texas, we are going to be able to get there. We have a lot to do.

 

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