Oaths, M&Ms and a historic Quran: Texas’ freshman lawmakers begin their inaugural legislative session
By Sneha Dey and Alex Nguyen, The Texas Tribune
“Oaths, M&Ms and a historic Quran: Texas’ freshman lawmakers begin their inaugural legislative session” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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With his hand on a centuries-old Quran, Salman Bhojani was sworn in on Tuesday as one of the first Muslim representatives in the Texas Legislature, along with Rep. Suleman Lalani.
Bhojani’s copy of the Quran is the first English copy to be printed in the Americas. He had purchased the historic text through an online auction to display in his office. He’d like to pass the text down to Muslim lawmakers that follow him.
“There’s a lot of responsibility on my shoulders to make sure I can inspire the next generation of youth and South Asians or Muslims and just generally minorities and immigrant communities that don’t think that they can achieve this,” Bhojani said. “But if I can do it, they can do an even better job because I’m just the first generation.”
Over a year after the Texas Legislature wrapped its third special legislative session in October 2021, it welcomed the return of elected politicians, along with their family members, staffers and advocates for the first day of the 2023 session.
And after midday, the two chambers convened and swore in 181 state representatives and senators, including dozens of new members.
Bhojani, a Democrat who represents parts of Tarrant County, is a history maker among the 26 new House representatives who have now been sworn in. Another legislator in this category is Caroline Harris, who is the youngest Republican woman state representative in Texas, having been 28 years old when she won her 2022 election.
Bhojani had just gotten the keys to his office over the weekend. It’s tucked in a part of the Capitol reserved for newer lawmakers. His staff moved out two filing cabinets left behind from the former occupant. They still have more boxes to unpack and desks to move in.
When he arrived on Tuesday, he found that his desk was piled with granola bars, bananas and water for his supporters. Hundreds of Capitol visitors had come out from across the state and country to see the swearing-in ceremony.
One 14-year-old from the Dallas-Fort Worth area said he skipped school to visit the state Capitol with his dad: “This is more important,” the boy told Bhojani’s wife, Nima.
Bhojani said many of his South Asian constituents do not get involved with politics nor do they understand the inner workings of state government. But he hopes to offer them a glimpse into the political world.
“You’re up next,” he said to a young constituent after the swearing-in ceremony, urging the teen to think about entering politics.
“Our community generally does not get really politically involved. So we don’t know who our elected officials are,” Bhojani said to supporters in the overflow room he booked for the viewing party. “I want to be building a bridge for people and just connecting them with the right people to make things happen.”
Bhojani and Lalani, a Democrat from Sugar Land, are entering a legislature that has been heavily influenced by Christian nationalism in recent years.
But Bhojani insisted state lawmakers can and should think about the commonalities among Texans of different faiths. At an interfaith service on the Texas Capitol steps Tuesday morning, Bhojani preached about righting injustice and leading with compassion.
During his term, Bhojani wants to focus on “kitchen table issues” like building a strong economy that allows small businesses to take off and will prioritize early childhood education.
Still, there’s a lot to learn for the freshman lawmaker. For example, before he files a bill, he needs to check if a more senior member is working on similar legislation so as to not step on anyone’s toes.
He will also need to learn the shortcuts in and around the capitol — in the fervor of the first day, he took a wrong turn on his way back to his office.
Harris, whose recently redrawn and redder district covers parts of Williamson County, won’t have that problem.
Prior to her election, she has already worked for several years as a staffer, bouncing through four offices across the state Capitol including one in the basement and another on the fourth floor that overlooks Congress Avenue and sees a steady crowd of tourists from around the world.
“I do know where the bathrooms are, so that’s very helpful,” she said with a laugh.
Harris woke up Tuesday morning thinking about her volunteers and voters.
“No one can do this on their own,” the Round Rock resident said during an interview in her new office. “It almost brought me to tears thinking about the incredible people on my team, including the voters.”
Tucked away from her office’s lobby where her grandparents, parents and almost all of her 10 siblings were gathering ahead of the ceremony, Harris’ room is adorned with family photos and a brown cow-patterned rug that she had brought from home.
Presents sit on her new desk — including a jar full of red, white and blue M&Ms with her face printed on them, as well as a gift bag from state Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Killeen, that includes containers of green pepper jelly and honey.
“I’m hoping that along with all the good policies I’ll be able to put in place, I’ll also be able to serve as an inspiration to younger people getting involved, and also to women from all walks of life,” she added.
Harris most recently served as the policy advisor for state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, who authored major conservative legislation in 2021, including laws that restrict voting processes and establish a near-total ban on abortions in Texas.
“I have been at the tip of the spear when it comes to getting conservative legislation passed in Texas and know what it takes to hit the ground running on day one and be successful,” she wrote in Ballotpedia’s survey during her campaign.
An hour after the interview, Harris and other state representatives took an oath of office for the 88th Texas Legislature. Standing next to her grandfather on the House floor, she gave him a hug and dabbed away tears.
“This is a building where you can get involved at a young age, you can make a big difference at a young age,” she reflected before the ceremony on her time in the state Capitol.
Now, Harris is planning to use this foundation to push for her priorities including lowering property taxes, securing the border, increasing transparency in health care as well as improving women’s services.
In addition, she wants to be part of the Appropriations Committee, a standing committee that discusses issues concerning the state budget. Newly reelected House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, is likely to make committee appointments in the coming weeks.
“As a freshman, you don’t have quite the capacity to carry a lot of bills as someone who’s been here longer,” Harris said. “I’d love to start there and learn the budget process because I think that that will give me a really good footing moving forward.”
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/01/10/texas-new-lawmakers-2023/.
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