Two women were in charge of security at the Texas House this year. It was the first time ever.

The sergeant-at-arms is the chamber’s chief law enforcement officer. She works as liaison between the House and the Texas Department of Public Safety, ensuring the safety of House members and staff.

By Sergio Martínez-Beltrán, The Texas NewsroomDecember 22, 2023 9:45 am,

From The Texas Newsroom:

Brianah Wallace still remembers when, a few years ago, she came into the Texas Capitol to interview for a position within the sergeant-at-arms office.

As she was waiting for her interview, she noticed someone else in the room – another woman.

Her name: Kara Coffee.

“I remember sitting right next to her and being like, ‘who is this cool woman? I hope she’s not interviewing for my job because she’s definitely going to get it,” Wallace said.

Both got jobs at the office — Wallace as a messenger, and Coffee as a supervisor.

But in 2023, they made history.

Coffee, 36, is the first woman to be the Texas House of Representatives’ sergeant-at-arms. Wallace is the first Black woman to serve as assistant sergeant.

The sergeant-at-arms is the chamber’s chief law enforcement officer. She works as a liaison between the House and the Texas Department of Public Safety ensuring the safety of House members and staff.

She’s also in charge of a group of college students who serve as House messengers. And that’s not all.

“We also, you know, bring in and decorate the Christmas tree,” Coffee said. “So we have a little bit of managing terrorism and safety – and Christmas trees.”

Overcoming challenges

Coffee’s path to the Texas capital wasn’t a straight line.

She’s from Tonganoxie, a small town in Kansas of about 6,000 people. She has lived in London. She’s worked in film operations for a film festival. She’s done marketing and worked for a nonprofit serving people with HIV.

Coffee landed with the House Sergeant-at-Arms in 2020 as a supervisor, but it wasn’t always easy. When she became assistant sergeant in 2021, she said she got pushback for trying to fill the office with more women.

Still, Coffee says she’s hired people with talent, who are coachable, and who want to do a good job.

Kara Coffee, the first woman to serve as sergeant-at-arms of the Texas House, talks to a colleague in her office on Dec. 15, 2023.
Patricia Lim / KUT

Coffee has also received comments on her appearance — including her clothes. Many of those comments have been posted to social media accounts that follow the Texas Legislature closely, complimenting the bright-colored clothes she wears.

She started wearing bright colors after her body changed due to an eating disorder. She gained weight after starting medication to treat depression and anxiety.

“I said, ‘OK, I’m going to do some dopamine dressing, I’m going to wear bright, fun outfits, like I want to be excited about getting dressed,’” Coffee said.

She added the decision also pushed people to reconsider how they traditionally see authority figures.

“I’m taking care of death threats to the members while wearing a lime green pantsuit,” Coffee said. “So, that’s how I’m living my life.”

Brianah Wallace

When Coffee became the head of the Sergeant’s office in January, she promoted Brianah Wallace to assistant sergeant-at-arms.

Wallace, 26, is the first Black woman to hold that post.

“I remember telling my mom I wanted to be the first Black president of the United States, and then Obama did that,” Wallace joked. “So, I was like, ‘OK, I’ll do sergeant-at-arms.’”

Wallace was always interested in politics, and working there gave her the opportunity to get involved without the politicking.

She sees Coffee as a mentor on how to do the job – something Wallace said is refreshing. Coffee has also vouched for her and other people of color, she added.

“I would hope that I can pave the way for more people of color to just know that they are capable of being in spaces like this,” Wallace said. “I think that’s very important.”

Now Wallace wants to continue changing the culture of the House’s sergeant-at-arms office.

Brianah Wallace, the first Black woman to serve as assistant sergeant-at-arms of the Texas House of Representatives, poses for a portrait at the House Chamber on Dec. 15, 2023.
Patricia Lim / KUT

“I’ve made it like a personal passion of mine to really take care of our staff,” Wallace said. “It fuels me and it feeds me with joy.”

Coffee said she sees it as a priority to help change the office by “being supportive of our staff and guiding them towards resources, whatever that may be, and listening to them.”

Both women have received support from many House members, including House Speaker Phelan.

In a statement to The Texas Newsroom, Phelan said both Coffee and Wallace, “stand as role models for a new generation of Texans who can break the glass ceiling to reach great heights based on merit, intelligence and commitment.”

Coffee and Wallace told The Texas Newsroom they appreciate Phelan’s approach to office culture, and how he’s implemented policies that create a better work environment.

A moment that comes to mind is when, in May, the Texas House voted to expel former Rep. Bryan Slaton, R-Royse City, after a House investigation accused him of inappropriate sexual conduct with an aide.

Right after the vote, Coffee went up a ladder and physically removed Slaton’s name from the voting board.

“I think there are so many women that were watching or saw those pictures that just replaced that name with somebody else in their own head,” Coffee said.

The House that day served justice, she said – something she appreciates, especially as being the first woman in her role.

She hopes these moments are part of her legacy. She hopes those who work in her office can see that you can stand up for what’s right. She also said she wants to have a positive impact on their lives.

“That’s how you live on,” Coffee said. “That’s immortality.”

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