Meet the two women who made it a historic year for the Texas State Legislatures
ALINA SELYUKH, HOST:
2023 was a long year in the Texas state House. The governing body held four special sessions and an impeachment trial of the state's attorney general. They passed controversial legislation that got tied up in court, including a ban on gender-affirming care, a bill limiting the power of local governments and one of the strictest immigration laws in the country. But Texas Newsroom political reporter Sergio Martinez-Beltran says there was another quieter moment that stood out from the noise this year in Austin.
SERGIO MARTINEZ-BELTRAN, BYLINE: When I think about 2023 in the Texas Legislature, a few words come to mind - historic, sure, but also messy and complicated. But one moment, a positive one, stands out to me.
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DADE PHELAN: Have all members voted? There've been 147 ayes and zero nays. The resolution is adopted.
MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Some quick backstory before I get to it - last spring, the House voted unanimously to expel former State Representative Bryan Slaton for inappropriate sexual conduct with a female aide.
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PHELAN: The chair directs the sergeant-at-arms to bar the former member from the chamber.
MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Right after the vote, House Sergeant-at-Arms Kara Coffee went up a ladder and physically removed Slaton's name from the voting board, something she hoped was cathartic for other victims of abuse who were watching.
KARA COFFEE: I think there's so many women that were watching or saw those pictures that just replaced that name with somebody else on their own head.
MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: That's Coffee, the first woman to ever hold the position of sergeant-at-arms in the Texas House of Representatives. That makes her the chief law enforcement officer in the chamber.
COFFEE: And we also, you know, bring in and decorate the Christmas tree. So we have a little bit of managing terrorism and safety and Christmas trees.
MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Coffee landed with the House sergeant-at-arms in 2020 as a supervisor. But she says she got pushback for trying to fill the office with more women. So when she became the head of the sergeant's office in 2023, Coffee promoted Brianah Wallace to assistant sergeant-at-arms, meaning both top security jobs are now held by women for the first time since the Texas Legislature started in 1846. And there's added significance for Wallace, the first Black woman to hold her post.
BRIANAH WALLACE: I remember telling my mom I wanted to be the first Black president of the United States, and then Obama did that. And so I was like, OK, I'll do sergeant-at-arms.
MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Wallace was always interested in politics, and working as a sergeant is a way to get involved without the politicking. She's been mentored by Coffee, who is white and whom Wallace says has vouched for her and other people of color. Now Wallace wants to help others in the same way.
WALLACE: I would hope that I could pave the way for more people of color to just know that they are capable of being in spaces like this. I think that's very important.
MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Coffee says she also wants the public to understand that authority doesn't have to look like a man.
COFFEE: Women have been taught, like, if you wear a hot pink suit at work, you're not going to be taken seriously and, you know, whatever. And OK, cool, people can believe that, but for me, I'm - you know, I'm taking care of death threats to the members while wearing, like, a lime-green pantsuit.
MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: In the meantime, both women say they want their legacy to be that they changed the culture of the Texas House sergeant-at-arms office.
For NPR News, I'm Sergio Martinez-Beltran in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.