FEATURED: Jennifer Saenz, then-Deputy Chief of Staff and General Counsel for Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Hinojosa pose on the floor of the Texas Senate Chamber with one of his many landmark legislative proposals during the 85th Texas Legislature. Saenz, who has extensive experience in the Texas Senate, Texas House of Representatives, and in the private sector, recently established her office in McAllen as part of the the Phenix Saenz government affairs firm, which is also is located in Austin.
Photograph By SENATE MEDIA
“Life isn’t fair, but government must be.” Gov. Richards’ powerful saying is reflected in the legislative career of South Texas’ Jennifer Saenz
Life isn’t fair, but government must be.”
– Texas Gov. Ann Richards (1933-2006)
Jennifer Saenz, who last summer opened the McAllen office of Phenix Saenz, LLC, a legislative affairs firm with business partner Billy Phenix, not only shares that noble belief of the late Texas governor, but continues to live it as a champion for people from all walks of life.
Earlier in her career, she served in top leadership roles for Texas lawmakers, in the following order: Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Robstown, former Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and former Texas Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton.
When Saenz left her post with Hinojosa in mid-January 2018 to become Senior Director of Regional Government Affairs for Magellan Health, the longtime state lawmaker gave her a resounding public endorsement.
“She was my right-hand in finance and healthcare issues. Her energy and work ethic are unparalleled and she is a gifted writer. I appreciate Jennifer’s service and commitment to the constituents and citizens of Senate District 20 and the entire state,” Hinojosa said. “I have supervised and mentored her, but I have also learned from her. We will miss her greatly.”
Given her legacy of successful efforts with Herrero, Gonzáles, Hinojosa, and beyond, no one was surprised when Saenz continued to move up the proverbial ladder, coming back to the Texas Legislature, this time to serve all Texans with the Office of the Texas Speaker of the House, which is arguably one of the three most powerful elected positions in the state.
She served as Deputy General Counsel and Policy Advisor for Natural Resources, Water and Agriculture for Bonnen, as well as chief advisor on natural disaster response, drainage, flood mitigation and all Hurricane Harvey related legislation and budget appropriations. In addition, she consulted with Bonnen and other House members on the requirements of the Texas Public Information Act and ethics laws.
The Texas Public Information Act provides a mechanism for citizens to inspect or copy government records, be they at the local or state level. It also provides that governmental bodies may withhold government documents under certain conditions.
An attorney by profession, she has become one of the more recent former legislative staff members from South Texas who has transformed her in-depth knowledge and successful activities as a legislative staff member at the Capitol into the lobby field.
(A lobbyist in the Lone Star State is an individual in politics registered with the Texas Ethics Commission who are paid to influence the actions, policies, or decision of the 181-member Texas Legislature, statewide elected officials, and state agencies, boards, and commissions.)
With such impressive credentials – including working on governmental relations efforts for private firms – when it was time for her and Phenix to establish their independent firm, she could have chosen any region in Texas to set up shop as a lobbyist.
“One of the big reasons we chose McAllen as our second office location as opposed to the traditional Houston or Dallas, is the Valley is really the center of the future for Texas and the nation,” Saenz said. “It’s the center of international commerce for Texas and economic growth. This is where everything’s happening, the booming population.”
In just her first year as an independent lobbyist, Saenz’ exclusive list of clients includes well-known organizations, such as:
• Baylor Scott & White Health;
• Centene Corporation;
• Great Springs Project;
• Las Vegas Sands;
• Mercy Kids Rehab Rio Grande Valley;
• Texas Apartment Association;
• Texas Association of Builders; and
• Texas Association of Nurse Anesthetists
She insists that as distinguished as are the people and organizations that she currently represents before the Texas Legislature, her moving to McAllen speaks volumes about the greatness of South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley.
“I just left state government at the beginning of January (2020). I live now in McAllen, have a lot of family down here,” she told Steve Taylor, Publisher, Rio Grande Guardian, in a video interview conducted during the summer of 2020. “It’s exciting to be living in the Valley now and creating a consulting and lobbying firm that will work on behalf of our clients to secure much-needed dollars from the state legislature and to enact meaningful change in our communities.”
Her views of deep South Texas are not based on a “rah-rah attitude”, which is generally defined as an uncritical or overly-enthusiastic way of looking at the facts.
Instead, getting to know and work with the people of the Valley on their behalf in Austin is what convinced her to plant deep roots in her newly-adopted home region.
“I became very passionate about advocating for the Rio Grande Valley, and the very unique needs that are here, to the legislators in Austin,” Saenz said “Unless you’ve been here, lived here, worked here, visited here, you have no idea what really happens here.
“We have incredible, top-ranked ports of entry here that really drive our economy in Texas,” she continued, providing as an example the importance of Hidalgo County, Cameron County, Starr County, and Willacy County – collectively known as the Rio Grande Valley – to the well-being of the state and the nation.
A port of entry is a harbor, border town, or airport by which people and goods may lawfully enter a country.
Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, who serves as Chair, House Committee on Transportation – which has jurisdiction over laws and regulations affecting land, water, and air transportation in the state –agrees with her opinion about ports of entry, such as the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge, the McAllen-Hidalgo International Bridge, and the Anzaldúas International Bridge, all located in Hidalgo County.
“We know that those ports of entry (statewide) feed and move the economy of Texas. They are job creators with millions upon billions upon billions of dollars. They are economic engines,” Canales told Mario Muñoz, a broadcast journalist with the Rio Grande Guardian.
Saenz truly agrees with Gov. Richards’ clarion call (a strongly expressed demand or request for action) for Texas government at the highest levels to treat all regions of the state in a right and just manner.
“Given the current economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, its very important the we don’t lose all of the growth that we have sustained,” Saenz said, speaking as a citizen of the Rio Grande Valley and not as a professional lobbyist.
“You need to know how do we navigate the complex legislative system, get connected with key leaders. It’s now more critical than ever that we know how to get the changes we need, not only economic, but housing, education, employment, and we are going to need a lot of creative solutions,” she noted.
With such an arsenal of professional and legislative experiences, almost any of the most powerful lobbying firms based in Austin would have jumped at the chance to get her and business partner Phenix on board their team.
But most of those consulting groups don’t have personal ties to deep South Texas, and certainly, only a handful of state legislative consultants have a physical presence in the Rio Grande Valley – or the vision to foresee the bright future of the region.
“How the culture is different, the family structure is inspiring, how we really rely on consumers from Mexico coming in, the trade,” she quickly listed some of the many attractive qualities of living, working, and raising a family in the Valley. “I’ve seen that first-hand in my many years – in working for more than six years as general counsel for Sen. Hinojosa when he was Vice Chair, Senate Committee on Finance, where I was given so many incredible opportunities to really gain remarkable experience in this process, and learn even more about the Valley.
In case her positive impressions of deep South Texas still don’t convince people of her loyalty to – and confidence in – the people of her new home region, she proclaims another colorful and slightly reworded Lone Star State saying:
“I wasn’t born in the Rio Grande Valley. But I got here as fast as I could,” Saenz beams with pride.
In setting up her McAllen office during the summer of 2020, Saenz – who along with business partner Phenix – share an office on Congress Avenue in Austin, within walking distance of the Texas Capitol complex.
Phenix Saenz, LLC is a government affairs firm providing lobbying, legal and consulting services in all policy areas of state government to a wide variety of clients.
As with the Rio Grande Valley and Austin, which are metropolitan regions of more than 1.4 million and 2.2. million residents, respectively, Saenz knows the challenges, triumphs, and potential of big population centers.
In addition to her decade-long public service, Saenz practiced law in the Greater Boston metropolitan region (population 4.9 million) for several years, focusing on civil and securities litigation before becoming an adjunct professor at New England Law teaching legal research, writing and appellate advocacy.
A native Texan, she graduated with distinction (cum laude) from New England Law, Boston and earned her Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Boston College. She is licensed to practice law in Texas, Massachusetts and the U.S. Supreme Court.
Her immediate family in the Valley features her two daughters, Karma, 8, and Zoey, 10, who she recently adopted from the foster care system about four months ago.
Saenz’ most notable time in the Texas Legislature came with Hinojosa, according to her resume, which featured her following vital duties:
• Coming up with recommendations and decisions on the state budget, local legislative and political matters; and the development of his public policy priorities;
• Crafting legislation and facilitated negotiations between stakeholders and lawmakers on matters related to healthcare, Medicaid reform, natural resources, transportation, regulated industries, oil and gas, water districts, economic development and local government;
• Drafting and helping negotiating passage of Senate Bill 24 in 2013, the historic legislation authored by Hinojosa and sponsored by then-Rep. René Oliveira, D-Brownsville, that created the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and the first medical school in South Texas.
An author is a legislator who files a bill and guides it through the legislative process (also called the primary author).
A sponsor is he legislator who guides a bill through the legislative process after the bill has passed the originating chamber. The sponsor is a member of the opposite chamber of the one in which the bill was filed.
A 25-year veteran of Texas policy-making and advocacy at the national, state and local levels, Phenix brings seasoned relationships, hard work, and a proven record of landmark legislative achievements to his current role as a consultant and lobbyist representing diverse interests in Austin.
A 1995 graduate of the University of Texas Law School, Phenix began his tenured legal and political career as special assistant to then-Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, a Democrat. Upon Bullock’s retirement, Phenix went on to serve at the highest levels of Texas government, including chief advisor and later Environmental and Natural Resources Policy Director to then-Governor Rick Perry, a Republican, and legal counsel to the Senate Natural Resources Committee, and policy aide to then-Chair of the Republican Senate Caucus, Sen. J.E. “Buster” Brown, R-Lake Jackson.
Building on his legal experience in the private sector, Phenix also became an associate of the law firm Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer and Feld, L.L.C., as a public finance attorney serving as bond counsel and underwriter’s counsel for water districts, tax increment financing districts, and other entities.
Today, Phenix serves as President of Phenix-Saenz, LLC, advocating on behalf of a wide variety of clients and industries including private businesses, state and national trade associations, local political subdivisions and others. With a reputation among key leaders and staffers throughout Texas government, Phenix is known for building relationships and achieving results.
A lifelong Austin resident, Phenix is deeply committed to supporting the Austin community through his work as a founding member of the Young Austin Steering Committee for the University of Texas Law School, the Eanes Education Foundation Board, the Austin Young Lawyers Association, and a Life Member of the Texas Ex-Students Association.
Phenix and his wife have four children and enjoy travels at home and abroad.
SAENZ VIDEO INTERVIEW / RIO GRANDE GUARDIAN
The video interview of Saenz by the Rio Grande Guardian is available online at:
For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories that affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (TitansoftheTexasLegislature.com).