Many Texas lawmakers use campaign expenses to pay for the use of one vehicle, the rationale being that they don’t want to get much wear-and-tear on their personal vehicles for governmental duties.
But Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) leases two cars using money from her campaign account, a Lincoln Navigator with monthly payments of $991 that she uses and a Chevrolet model with monthly payments of $409 for members of her office staff.
She recently told The Texas Monitor that she initially used her own vehicles after her initial election to the Texas Senate in 1987.
“When I was first elected, I used a personal car and put more than 100,000 miles on it and 100,000 more on my husband’s and realized that this was a personal expense for a state-related purpose,” she said.
Zaffirini ranked second in the Texas Senate in The Texas Monitor’s examination of lifestyle-oriented campaign expenses that include car leases, out-of-state travel, gifts for constituents, and living expenses in Austin. Between the years of 2007 and 2016, she spent a total of $683,180 on those four categories alone.
More than $280,000 of that was for vehicles, including 219 expenditures for $207,318 in lease payments to 11 different vendors. Zaffirini has also spent $35,252 on car insurance, $27,699 for repairs and maintenance, $5,323 for car washes, $4,305 for navigation services and satellite radio, and $265 for registration fees.
Zaffirini’s greatest spending category was in gifts, with a total of $310,649. Her favorite vendor is Personalized Promotions, with which she made 36 purchases for a total of $127,890. Descriptions for the expenditures indicate she bought imprinted pencils, imprinted coolers, legislative cups, and other various imprinted materials.
She’s also bought plenty of knick-knacks from the Texas Senate, 58 expenditures of $36,621, including calendars, flags, and gavels. Amazon has received $29,824 of Zaffirini’s campaign money, primarily for books to give as gifts. She’s also spent a combined $29,593 for gifts from the Capitol Gift Shop and the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum.
Zaffirini, who is active in the University of Texas alumni group Texas Exes, has spent $4,360 in campaign money for UT football tickets and $12,085 overall on athletic event tickets.
She has also used campaign funds to upgrade computer equipment — in a big way. Zaffirini has spent $38,117 since 2007 at Apple Store, $18,170 at Dell, and $15,534 at Best Buy.
She also prefers to use campaign money to pay her membership dues in various organizations, including the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum ($2,350), Philosophical Society of Texas ($5,385), Los Caballeros de la Republica ($1,550) Society of Martha Washington ($375), and Laredo Theater Guide ($100).
Zaffirini has spent $59,935 to rent property from Raj Doshi between 2007 and 2010, according to the expense reports, which show no other property she has rented in Austin since then.
In the capital city, Zaffirini has spent $21,998 for membership dues and meals at Headliners Club, out of $32,218 total spent on meals in Austin.
While most of her Texas Legislature colleagues on The Texas Monitor’s list have some pretty extravagant travel expenses paid for with campaign funds, Zaffirini has proved frugal in this category, with the only out-of-state expenditure a $215.91 hotel bill in San Francisco. She does, however, have more than $10,000 in airline expenses with no listed destinations. These include American Airlines ($7,533), United Airlines ($1,975), and Continental Airlines ($1,714).
Like others on the list, Zaffirini has been able to build comfortable campaign coffers thanks to noncompetitive elections. She faced zero opposition to re-election in 2016 and even when she’s had challengers during her 30 years in the Senate she’s never failed to capture less than 65 percent of the vote.
She has received more than $5.6 million in total campaign contributions since 2007, with her largest donors Border Health PAC ($145,000), Carlos M. Zaffirini, Sr. ($108,000), and Charles C. Butt ($93,784).
The top industries donating to Zaffirini are health (an estimated $457,700), education (an estimated $270,000), and legal (an estimated $187,000).
Laura Friedenbach, deputy communications director for Every Voice Center, which aims to give everyone a voice in the political system, said reports on Texas lawmaker campaign contributions and spending shows that stricter rules are needed on how candidates raise money and how they spend it.
“When we have a political system in which politicians rely on large contributions, instead of support from their constituents, politicians feel less accountable and more free to act in ways that their constituents may find shameful,” she said.
Contact Johnny Kampis at [email protected].