Democrat Ina Minjarez believes that if she wasn’t an outspoken female voice in the Texas House of Representatives, she’d have made a great fitness instructor or personal trainer. That could explain her vitality and drive as a member of the state’s legislature’s minority party.
“Yeah, I love to exercise,” says Minjarez, 45, during a video interview days before the November 3 election. “I will say that the pandemic is giving me a lot of time to do it at home.”
She says working out four to five days a week keeps her head in the game as she readies herself to play defense on the eve of the 87th legislative session. Bills are already being filed and stacking up in large quantities.
Minjarez’s ascent onto the political stage began more than five years ago when then-State Rep. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, ran for a newly vacated seat in the Texas Legislature’s upper chamber. Minjarez won the special election to replace him as House District 124’s new representative. The day after winning her election, she parachuted into the final 30 days of the 84th Legislature, the busiest time of the session.
During her tenure in the Lege, observers have noted the proud El Paso native’s political evolution and rising influence.
“People tend to say that I’m quiet, but I think it’s just because I’m very observant and I listen,” she says. “Every session, I feel that I learn different lessons about the House.”
Through her observations, Minjarez says she’s been able to reap valuable, job-specific skills.
“There’s a process to things, and you figure out there’s a way to talk to people,” she explains. “There are so many different members with different personalities and we may disagree on issues. [Success] depends on your approach and how you sell your idea. But I do feel that I can be a little more blunt than I did in the past.”
Minjarez ran unopposed this election cycle, which allowed her to focus her energy on advocating for gender diversity on House committees.
She explains that substantive committees are most coveted in the hierarchy of the House’s 38 committees. Traditionally, those assignments go to the body’s most senior members. Among Democrats, there are currently 29 female House members, which she says have often been passed over for key committee appointments.
“You have talented, very intelligent women who have served their time, that do the work, but for one reason or another have been overlooked for these substantive committees,” she asserts. “I think it’s important that these key committees reflect the way that the Texas population is looking.”
Thanksgiving will look a little different in 2020 due to the pandemic. I ask her what she’s thankful for this year.
“You’re gonna make me cry,” she says softly. “Sorry if I cry. You know, I’m a pet lover. I lost my baby, my 14-year-old golden retriever last week. This dog has been with me through the most impactful moments of my life. She was my ride-or-die girl. Her name was Pinot. Like the wine.” She laughs through her tears.
She adds that being home amid the health crisis has brought her and her husband closer, and she’s even taught her mother in El Paso how to Facetime.
“You know, as much as the pandemic has been horrible, I’m thankful that I got a lesson in appreciating and valuing my family time,” she says.
COVID-19 has also changed the atmosphere and culture in the Pink Dome, changing the way lawmakers interact with their constituents. Minjarez, who’s on the redistricting committee, was traveling the state for public hearings when the pandemic hit.
“I feel like life stopped,” she says, adding that the rules that govern committee protocol never provided for virtual meetings.
“I’m very concerned. I’m going back to the Capitol in January and the sentiment with the legislators is, at one point or another, we’re all probably going to get exposed during session,” she says. “I think a lot of the legislators feel that, and I’m starting to just maybe come to terms with it that it could be a possibility. [But] I will take all the precautions.”
I ask if she’ll be surprised if she wakes up one morning with COVID-19 symptoms.
She says she won’t. “I will be wearing my mask. I will be washing my hands, I will socially distance, but it’s going to be everywhere.”
After the election, I followed up with Minjarez, this time by phone. Democrats didn’t get the House flip they were hoping for, and she didn’t mind offering a post-mortem critique.
“I think one of the biggest mistakes [the Democratic Party] made was not pounding the pavement and knocking on doors because of their concern for COVID,” she says, pointing out that Republicans largely campaigned as usual. “I think there was a way to do that with CDC guidelines, right? I think they missed the mark on that, and it shows.”
Texas voters expect candidates to knock on their doors and ask for their votes, she adds.
“Of course, I had some optimism that the Texas House would turn blue, but it didn’t happen,” she continues. “I have just grown accustomed to always playing defense as a Democrat at the state legislature. It just sunk in that being defensive and fighting bad bills will continue. So, I really have to work harder in order to get my bills passed, because I’m in the minority party.”
Despite the deep divisions between the two parties, she maintains that it’s important to build bridges with her Republican colleagues.
“It’s the only way to be effective and get things done,” she says.
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