Lillian Salerno pioneered retractable needles during the AIDS crisis and now hopes to replace Pete Sessions in Congress.

Salerno could be among the first new women sent to Congress from Texas in 22 years

DAVID TAFFET | Senior Staff Writer

In a crowded field of candidates hoping to replace Rep. Pete Sessions, Lillian Salerno hopes to distinguish herself from the pack of seven candidates and win the Democratic Primary on March 6.

Texas has 36 congressional districts and only three are represented by women — Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and Rep. Kay Granger, Salerno said. And the last time Texas sent a newly-elected congresswoman — Granger — to Washington was 22 years ago.

This election, voters have a chance to send more women to Congress than ever. In District 3, Lorie Burch is running to replace Rep. Sam Johnson. Jan McDowell faces three opponents to win the right to oppose Kenny Marchant in District 24. And in the six-way primary, Salerno hopes to face Sessions in the fall to represent District 32.

Salerno spent most of her professional life in the private sector but has government experience as an official in the Obama administration.

During the AIDS crisis, Salerno and her business partner addressed a need she saw. Healthcare professionals could become infected with HIV by accidental needle sticks. While that rarely happened, one Fort Worth physician did become infected that way and was forced to retire from her practice. The fear of needle sticks was real, adding to the fear healthcare workers had of treating people living with AIDS. But Salerno’s “safe syringe” transformed the industry.

Salerno and her partner patented a retractable needle that prevents those sticks. The company that had a monopoly on manufacturing needles offered to buy her invention for quite a bit of money but wasn’t going to manufacture it. Salerno refused the money, opened her own factory in Little Elm — now employing 140 people — and saved lives.

When Resource Center’s Nelson-Tebedo Clinic began a needle exchange program in the early 1990s, Salerno’s company provided those retractable needles for the project.

In addition to her business background, Salerno has government experience as well. After working on the Obama campaign, Salerno was appointed deputy undersecretary in the Department of Agriculture. She was in charge of the rural loan portfolio to promote affordable housing and clean water and to connect farmers to markets.

Salerno said her government experience taught her how important it is for both sides to work together. On the day of the Sandy Hook massacre, she was in the White House. In the subsequent weeks, she said, she felt sick as she watched everything proposed by the White House thrown out simply because it was an Obama or Democratic proposal.

And unlike the current administration that blames everyone else, she said, “That happened on our watch,” and she wants to do something so that this time it doesn’t happen again. That won’t happen with Republicans in control of the White House and Congress, she said.

“After a little over a year of Donald Trump, I want to make sure we still have a democracy,” Salerno said. “The only way to do that is win back the House.”

Salerno thinks she’s the best chance Democrats have in that district. To win in an area that includes Highland Park and Preston Hollow, a Democrat has to rely on crossover votes. Her story will resonate better than the other candidates, Salerno said.

The other five candidates in the Democratic Primary are Colin Allred (who won the endorsement of Stonewall Democrats of Dallas), Ron Marshall, Todd Maternowski, Ed Meier, George Rodriguez and Brett Shipp.