Texas Capitol in Austin

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The 87th session of the Texas Senate will have representatives steering their constituents through the ripples — or maybe waves — left by the coronavirus pandemic.

Regardless of who wins Texas Senate District 12 in November — incumbent Republican Sen. Jane Nelson faces Democratic opponent and Grapevine resident Shadi Zitoon — officials will serve a state bruised economically and physically by the pandemic.

Jane Nelson mug

Jane Nelson

Jane Nelson

Age: 69

Born in: Flower Mound, Hamilton, Ohio

Employment: Senate District 12

Education: University of North Texas, bachelor’s of science in education and English

The legislative session begins in January. If you could bring one piece of legislation forward during the 87th session, what would that be, and why is it a pressing matter for your constituents?

There is only one bill that constitutionally must pass, and that is the budget. I’m the chair of the senate finance committee, so the budget is the one piece of legislation we have to pass. Without a doubt, you can’t fund any more programs, you can’t fund schools or healthcare programs or programs for domestic violence prevention. That is the one piece of legislation you have to pass. And you know what Texas needs? The legislature needs to focus on our top priorities. It’s going to be a difficult session. Our economy is hurting for a number of reasons. You have to determine the top priority. My parents were a young couple during the Great Depression, when times were whole lot tougher than they are now. They always told me that you have to pick your top priorities and work through those. I’m looking at the budget, and we are going to have to pay for the things we have to pay for. We’re going to pay for education. There are other things we are going to have to pay for, we just have to pick our priorities.

What qualities or skills do you think an elected representative needs to take Texas into the next 20 years?

I’m not sure it’s any different 20 years forward or back. I think the most important skill that I can bring to the table is bringing people together to form a consensus. Texas is a big state with a lot of varying interests, with senators who represent urban, rural, suburban, wealthy, not-wealthy. Coming together, and the skill of bringing very differing opinions together, is more important than ever. This is the fourth session I have been finance chair, and 31 to nothing was the vote on the last budget. That’s because I talked to 31 senators who represent different districts. Part of that is having been a teacher, having been a mom and having a business. I have grandchildren, and I want to make sure they’re growing up in a world where we do things together. I want to work with people who are making their world a better place. We don’t really have that togetherness. I think social media has exacerbated all this, and everybody being locked up. For us to have a successful session, we have to work together.

Texas has been hit hard by the coronavirus. What are some repercussions of the pandemic you predict but your constituents might not be prepared for, and what role does the senator serving District 12 have in meeting that challenge?

You know my initial instinct would be to say the financial aspect, to make sure we have the financial resources we need. I’m not sure the public understands how much its’ going to cost. What people really might not realize — putting on my teacher hat — when I was teaching school, we had something called the summer slide. That was the summer months the kids would be out of school. Teachers would spend the first four weeks of the school year getting everyone back to where they were when the summer started. I think we’re facing the COVID slide, call it. I think teachers know the work and dedication it will take on the part of teachers and parents. They’ve had so much time away from the classroom, the physical classroom. It’s going to be a while before we have our kids caught up to where they need to be. Some will catch up fast, but others might really have to work. We have the test that we give every year, and I don’t think those tests are going to determine what needs to be done. Teachers are more important than they’ve ever been. I’ve always believed that our education system is a priority. That’s our future workforce. If we’re really going to come out of this strong, this economic workforce that’s going to come from our [public] education system have to be ready. We can’t leave any of these children behind.

Shadi Zitoon mug

Shadi Zitoon

Shadi Zitoon

Age: 41

Born in: Fort Worth

Employment: Automotive quality analyst

Education: University of Texas-Arlington, bachelor’s degree in computer science and engineering

The legislative session begins in January. If you could bring one piece of legislation forward during the 87th session, what would that be, and why is it a pressing matter for your constituents?

So it’s really tough to say just one. There are so many things that really need to be done. But you’re asking me to pick one, and for me, it would have to be healthcare. Specifically Medicaid expansion. Nothing matters if you’re not healthy and alive. We need to take care of Texans, and this Medicaid expansion, Texans pay for it in our federal taxes. It’s going to other states. Yes, there’s opposition to the expansion in this state. I get it. I really don’t understand it, though. We’re leaving billions — billions — on the table. And that money would go directly to Texans. I just don’t get the resistance to taking care of Texans. My opponent is an author of the legislation to block it. I’ve had a medical bankruptcy in 2011, so I know what its like to face that. I spent some time in the ICU and by the time I came out, I had a bill that was about $900,000. No one who makes a normal salary can afford that. In Texas, because of the tort reform that has been pushed through, it’s hard to fight these kinds of medical bills.

What qualities or skills do you think an elected representative needs to take Texas into the next 20 years? And do you think you have those skills or qualities?

I have to say of course I think I have them. I think the job of a Texas state senator is this: You’re a problem solver and a negotiator. You are trying to solve the problem of the voters and you’re negotiating with other legislators to get that problem solved. I’m a problem solver. In my business, if something isn’t working for a customer, we have to find a way to solve it. If you do it well, the solution works for the customer and the company. I have 20 years of being that middle man who brings it all together. We also need to understand technology. We’re not moving back in technology. If someone can’t use an email or figure out a Zoom call, they shouldn’t be in office. A Zoom call is not difficult.

Texas has been hit hard by the coronavirus. What are some repercussions of the pandemic you predict but your constituents might not be prepared for, and what role does the senator serving District 12 have in meeting that challenge?

I don’t know if not a lot of people know this, but I don’t think a lot of people are talking about the housing insecurity that is going to come. We have the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] order on it, and I did a town hall about it. A lot of people don’t know how to use [official eviction prevention procedures] and if you don’t know, you could lose your home. There’s no way to bring people home after, either. You might get evicted, and you still owe all that back rent. We have to do something to keep people from being put on the street, But it goes both ways — the people who are renting to people need help, too. We’ve seen record numbers of Texans lose their jobs. You lose your job, you lose our healthcare benefits. You look at COBRA, and that’s not a solution for a lot of people. My wife was transferring between coverage, and the COBRA for my wife and our son was $1,300 a month. Before we can fix anything, we can’t do anything until we get COVID under control. We can’t expect people to get out there again until they feel safe. I consider us, the Senate, as the voice of the people. [Gov. Greg] Abbott didn’t call a special session. We had an emergency plan with steps. He skipped the steps between one and five, where we were supposed to step up testing and tracing. We’re going to have to tap into the rainy day budget. Our schools are already on a shoestring budget, and we’re putting teachers’ lives on the line. With children and the disease, it’s not so much a problem. But they can give COVID to their teachers and their parents. We have to get COVID under control.

LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877 and via Twitter at @LBreedingDRC.

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