By STEFAN MODRICH
Nishu Dada made a splash in her entry into the Fort Bend County political scene.
She is a political science and Middle Eastern studies major at the University of Houston and volunteered for Nabila Mansoor, who ran for the District 2 seat on the Sugar Land City Council in 2019. Dada volunteered for another city council candidate in Dalia Kasseb, who lost in her bid to become Pearland’s first Muslim elected official. Naushad Kermally defeated Mansoor to become the first Muslim to serve on Sugar Land City Council.
“It was really cool to be able to represent women,” Dada said. “Both of them unfortunately lost, but it was really cool to be able to work alongside women, because I feel like we don’t really get that representation, especially women in politics.”
Many women in ethnically diverse Fort Bend County have stories similar to that of Dada, a Pakistani immigrant who arrived in the U.S. from Karachi as a 4-year-old.
The Sugar Land resident is the campaign manager for Christian Becerra, who is challenging Jim Shoemake for the judgeship to preside over the county’s 434th District Court. Dada credited U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke for making politics “relevant and accessible” for her and many of her younger peers with his U.S. Senate bid in 2018.
“After that, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m sure he’s not the only person running,’ ” Dada said. “So I started emailing and volunteering to work for local campaigns. I tried to work for women as much as possible.”
And thanks to the efforts of women like Dada, more women have been encouraged to run in down-ballot races across Texas, especially at the local and municipal level in Fort Bend County. One hundred years after the adoption of the 19th Amendment, which gave women in the U.S. the right to vote, two Fort Bend women are running in a pair of high-profile Texas House of Representatives contests.
New Territory resident Sarah DeMerchant, a Democrat, is running against Republican Jacey Jetton for the District 28 seat vacated by outgoing State Rep. Rick Miller.
DeMerchant, a Houston native, said she was inspired by strong women like Barbara Jordan, the first African American elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction, former Texas Gov. Ann Richards and Kathy Whitmire, the first woman to serve as mayor of Houston.
“From my youth, I saw women in elected office,” DeMerchant said. “But because I was a child, and I was young, I didn’t have a view of all of the levels of government, city council, other local mayors. All I knew was what was local and applicable to what my parents put in front of me. I thought it was normal and typical for a woman to be in elected office. It took me to get older and start seeing pictures in the history books to realize, ‘Oh, this is rare.’
“Things are better, but things are not where they need to be,” she added. “There definitely is room for growth, because women are half of the population and a government should work for all of its people, not half or a third of its people.”
Democrat Eliz Markowitz of Katy is running against Republican State Rep. Gary Gates in District 26. A member of the LGBTQ community, Markowitz would be the sixth openly gay woman elected to the Texas House if she wins her race.
Markowitz and Dada both said the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg served as a model of persistence and commitment to equality.
“She was a pivotal, inspirational judicial figure, ahead of her time,” Markowitz said. “She was able to develop theories and ways of thinking of the law for women during a time that equity did not exist. I think her work should be hailed, and I think that as a judicial figure, she should be put on a pedestal for what she did to help further women’s equality.”
Markowitz was also impressed by the late Richards, calling her a “strong, no-nonsense woman.”
“She didn’t take any crap from anybody,” Markowitz said. “She was willing to fight for what she believed in, even if it wasn’t popular with her peers. She fought for what was right regardless of how it impacted her personally.”
Asked what characteristics she felt she shared with Ginsburg, Jordan and Richards, Markowitz said the through line with those giants of Texas history that she hopes to someday be among is a steely resolve and determination to fight for one’s principles.
“I do believe that we all have this quality that we’re unwilling to back down from something that we believe is right,” Markowitz said. “There’s an unwillingness to simply sit on the sidelines and see what will happen. There’s a compulsion to actually take an active role in changing the society for not just for themselves, but for the greater good.”
DeMerchant said the most important quality she hopes to embody and emulate from her political heroes is courage.
“That would be the quality that I admire most about them, and something that I try to have at all times,” DeMerchant said.
DeMerchant said one of the often-overlooked aspects of the national suffragist movement was its engagement with Native American tribes in New York.
“The women in these tribes had an equal voice in selecting the chief and who would run the villages,” DeMerchant said. “And having that equal respect.”
DeMerchant said it is important to remember that African-American women such as Sojourner Truth, Mary McLeod Bethune, Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell, pioneers who risked their lives to advocate for women’s suffrage, never lived to see the same rights as white women.
“While it was a success, there was still more work that needed to be done,” DeMerchant said. “(There was more to be done) for the African-American community, for the poor white community, for the Latino community, for the Italian community, so we have to make sure we’re painting the full picture. And I think our generation is righting a lot of wrongs of yesterday. It has to start somewhere, and I think we are having that dialogue.”
Republican Maggie Jaramillo is running to retain her seat on the county’s 400th District Court against Democratic challenger Tamieka Carter, an Oakland, California, native and longtime Fort Bend resident.
Jaramillo became the first Hispanic judge in Fort Bend County when she was appointed by then-Gov. Rick Perry in 2014. She was born in Tecolotlan, Mexico, and immigrated to California, working in the Starr County District Attorney’s office in Rio Grande City before she moved to Richmond.
She hopes to serve as a bilingual role model to young Latinas, helping to overcome the gap in the often male-dominated Hispanic and Latino legal community.
“When they see me, I hope they realize that it’s something you also can do,” Jaramillo said. “it’s attainable.”
She said she was inspired as a young girl and also later in her teenage years by watching former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Madeleine Albright, who served as Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton, on television.
Jaramillo said she was fortunate that shortly after she became a mother at age 21, she began to pursue her college education and was able to bring her children with her to class.
“Women, we’re worker bees,” Jaramillo said. “We like to get things done. We don’t like to delegate. We’re doers. Women play an important role in any organization where there’s a lot of action, and certainly politics is one of them.”
Fort Bend County Clerk Laura Richard, who has served in the role since 2015, said the centennial has taken on an extra layer of significance because of her daughters.
She said her oldest daughter turned 18 this year and therefore is eligible to vote for the first time. Richard said it makes her grateful for the work of the women who came before her to have sacrificed to make it possible for her and her daughter to exercise their right to participate in the political process.
“Those brave women as Fort Bend County Clerks stepped into this position when women were probably still thought of as second-class citizens,” Richard said. “Even though they had gotten the right to vote, there were still things that women were not thought of as capable of.”
Richard, who has served as county clerk since 2015, said she helped her daughter with a project tracing the origins of the passage of the 19th Amendment in Texas, which was celebrated a year earlier than the national ratification of the right to vote because Texas was one of the first southern states to adopt the amendment.
“This was a great opportunity to not only learn about the movement, but the subsequent movements that advanced women economically and socially,” Richard said. “That legacy that goes before me is very important, and those women are heroes in my eyes.”