For state Rep. Salman Bhojani, bipartisanship can be as easy as taking a selfie.
The freshman Democrat from Euless is snapping selfies with House members across party lines and in the Senate in hopes of forming connections in the Texas Legislature.
“When I take a selfie, it’s just a starting point,” he said in a recent interview. “Then I get to know about their family, what their priorities are, where their district is and where their heart is at.”
The photos go up on a page of his website called Selfies with Salman. His goal is to capture a picture with every single member of the Legislature; he already has 140 of the 180 other legislators.
Bhojani, 43, a lawyer and former Euless City Council member, made history this session when he and Rep. Suleman Lalani, a Democrat from Houston suburb Sugar Land, became the first two Muslims and first two South Asians to serve in the Texas Legislature.
Bhojani is already establishing himself in the Legislature, creating bipartisan connections, helping to create an Asian American and Pacific Islander legislative caucus, and developing an agenda to promote religious freedom.
“[Being elected was] historic not just for me, but for my family and for the community as well, because there are 30 million Texans in the state and they should have elected officials that represent them,” Bhojani said.
Now, he is trying to establish himself as someone who can reach across the aisle to get things done.
Bhojani was 19 when he immigrated from Pakistan with his parents.
“I felt like this [welcoming attitude] was going to be lacking because there’s such cruel and negative rhetoric against immigrants and against Muslims and people that pray like me.”
But he says he was welcomed with open arms.
Bhojani first became interested in running for office when President Donald Trump, in early 2017, issued an executive order banning visitors from several Muslim-majority countries, he said.
Trump’s executive order, often referred to as a “Muslim ban,” prohibited nationals from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S. for 90 days. After the initial executive order was overturned in federal court, Trump issued two more iterations of the travel ban. The third version of the ban, which also restricted travel from Venezuela and North Korea was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2018.
Seeing the division created by a measure he believed was unconstitutional made him take action, he said. Bhojani traveled to Dallas Fort Worth International Airport to help those being detained.
Bhojani wanted to do more and decided to run for Euless City Council. He lost his election in 2017 but ran again and won in 2018, in a race marred by attacks on his religion.
“We won by 37 votes and made history by being the first minority ever elected to the Euless City Council,” he said. “When you’re a first-generation immigrant, you’re working for your business, you’re working to put food on the table, but you don’t have time to get politically involved.”
Euless has a population of about 60,000, with almost half being people of color. Among them are an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 Tongans, making it one of the largest Tongan communities in the United States.
Bhojani and Lalani are part of a group of representatives forming an Asian American and Pacific Islander legislative caucus. Asians and Pacific Islanders are one of the fastest growing racial groups in Texas, according to U.S. census data. In Tarrant County, Asians, Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders accounted for just over 6% of the population in the most recent census.
At a news conference announcing the caucus, Lalani said that while the AAPI population is rising, the group has been excluded from government.
“Let’s stay engaged because we contribute to the fabric of Texas,” Lalani said. “We contribute to the social, economic, cultural, intellectual and spiritual fabric of Texas.”
Bhojani said that business and education will be top priorities for the caucus. He pointed to the group’s bipartisan membership, including Republican Reps. Jacey Jetton of Richmond and Angie Chen Button of Richardson.
“[The caucus will] focus on the same issues that are important to everybody because, even within the community, there are Republicans and Democrats,” Bhojani said.
Getting established in the Legislature
James Riddlesperger, a political science professor at Texas Christian University, said that with the Legislature only meeting for 140 days every two years, a lot of the lawmakers’ work gets done before the session even starts, putting first-time representatives at a disadvantage. Bhojani also faces the challenge of trying to get things done as a Democrat in a Republican-controlled Legislature, Riddlesperger said.
“Is it harder for a Democrat to be influential from the very beginning than it is for a Republican? The answer is yes,” he said. “But the Texas Legislature also is not entirely partisan. There is an opportunity for working across parties in Texas.”
Riddlesperger said that the biggest challenge for a freshman legislator would be learning the ropes and forming alliances, especially with those in positions of power like the Speaker Dade Phelan and committee chairs.
As a freshman representative and a Democrat, Bhojani said he recognizes limitations of what he can accomplish alone.
“[My constituents] want me to work across the aisle, work on compromise and work on good things that are kitchen table issues for everybody, not just the partisan issues,” Bhojani said. “That’s what my focus will be.”
He wants to see more resources available for startups, better career and technical education options, more support for early childhood education, a focus on mental health, and expansion of telehealth.
A religious freedom agenda
One place Bhojani said he has already found bipartisan support is with a set of bills he filed that are a part of his “Religious Freedom Agenda.”
One bill would allow any religious leader to perform a marriage ceremony. Current legislation specifies that Christian ministers and priests, Jewish rabbis, or another officer of a religious organization can officiate, but the new text removes references to specific religions. Two other bills would expand the list of public school holidays and days on which state assessments are not held to be inclusive of more religions.
Similar bills passed in the House last session, but stalled in the Senate. A Feb. 7 news conference about the agenda included bipartisan supporters from the House and Senate.
“These are steps forward to make sure that everyone from all backgrounds, all religious faiths are able to worship here in Texas,” Rep. Jacey Jetton, a Houston-area Republican co-authoring the religious holidays bills, said to the crowd.
Bhojani said he was blessed that the bills were receiving broad support and that he was proud that the first bills he filed would protect not only his faith, but the many faiths practiced by Texans.
“I want to represent every single person and that just means not just the ethnicity or gender or even the political ideologies,” Bhojani said. “I want to work across the aisle more often than not.”
Claire Stevens is a senior journalism student at UT-Austin. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @clairestvns. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.