Election 2022

Out legislator Celia Israel is running for Mayor of Austin to shake up the “good old boys” club

Out legislator Celia Israel is running for Mayor of Austin to shake up the “good old boys” club
Photo: Campaign Photo

“Representation matters.”

Celia Israel – an out lesbian legislator in Texas who is now running for mayor of Austin – returned to this idea often in a conversation with LGBTQ Nation.

Israel, a founding member of the Texas House LGBTQ Caucus, arrived at the Texas State House as a representative for northeast Austin in 2014. “Our first legislative session was the stupid bathroom bill, which got national attention.” From there, she said, it was all downhill.

“The last legislative session in 2021, it was the worst legislative session that any of us had ever seen. We made it easier to get a gun. We made it harder to vote. We did not fix the grid. Lord knows, we’re one of those states that refused to expand Medicaid. And we had three special sessions on voting rights and on telling trans kids you can’t wear a goddamn basketball uniform right now. It was horrible.”

Now Israel is poised to become the first Latina woman and first out LGBTQ person to serve as mayor of her adopted hometown, taking on what she calls a “white boy business community” mired in the status quo.

Israel grew up in El Paso, the daughter of a second-generation Mexican-American mom and a “hillbilly” dad from North Carolina. If you’ve been to El Paso, Israel said, “then you know that the people there are all charming and good looking.”

Growing up in a border town “was about cousins and commerce. That was where you went to Juarez to have good food and get some shopping done. It was a great bicultural experience.”

Israel’s Austin roots go back to her time as a student in the state capital.

“I didn’t feel connected to my Latina-ness until I came to the University of Texas, where I was suddenly one of the few dark headed kids on campus, and I connected more to my Hispanic culture.” Israel laughed. “My Spanish got better.”

She got her start in politics in Austin after she witnessed one of the greatest political takedowns in American political history, when the Texas state treasurer and candidate for governor, Ann Richards, slayed then-Vice-president George H. W. Bush at the 1988 Democratic Convention in Atlanta. “Poor George,” Richards drawled. “He can’t help it — he was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”

Israel knew instantly, “I want to be a part of that.” Still, she felt then that the way into politics and onto Richard’s campaign would require an invitation, which she wrangled from a white professor at UT. “I think that’s part of our cultural challenge, is thinking we need to be invited, instead of just showing up. Just go and make your mark.”

Richards was elected that year, and after a stint volunteering on the campaign, Israel landed a job in the new governor’s appointments division. Israel describes Richards as her “political mother.”

“I was not directly reporting to her. That would have scared the shit out of me. She had piercing blue eyes and you really didn’t want to be questioned by her directly.”

Celia Israel and her wife, Celinda Garza, kiss during Pride
Celia Israel and her wife, Celinda Garza. Photo by John Cuba Lewis.

After Richards lost reelection, Israel kept up with local politics and earned a real estate license. Along the way, she met her “feisty Latina” wife, Celinda Garza, whom she’s been with for 27 years. Asked why she waited so long to marry, Israel replied, “I was just determined to get married in Texas. None of this ‘fly over to Massachusetts’ for me.”

They’d planned to tie the knot on the Texas House floor last summer, but work got in the way. Israel was among two planeloads of Texas House Democrats who broke quorum and fled to Washington, D.C. to stop a GOP voter suppression bill and lobby for national voting rights legislation. The couple married – in Texas – in October.

This year, Israel decided to leave the legislature and set her sights on her adopted hometown.

She said the Democratic establishment in famously blue Austin has a long history of “anointing their favorite Democrat and saying, ‘Here’s what we can work with.’ And then that’s who gets elected. And what the good old boys did not count on was a well-regarded member of the legislature who happens to be Latina, and lesbian, and a realtor, being able to raise money in her own right to challenge the status quo.”

Asked how she’ll take her advocacy for LGBTQ issues in the State House to Austin City Hall, Israel returned to representation. “Representation matters. I’ve seen that happen as a member of the State House. Young kids like looking up to me and thinking, ‘Perhaps I can be involved in this realm.’ So just by being me as mayor, being out in the community and not getting stuck at City Hall, is my vision of how I can be helpful.”

Israel added, “Austin is always in like the top-five in terms of LGBTQ per capita population. And it won’t continue to be that if we continue on this track of being an exclusive city. So housing is a big issue for the LGBTQ community here in Austin. It transcends so many things.”

“When I have had to speak up for trans kids on the House floor, it’s, it’s difficult,” said Israel. “It’s emotional. But friends have pointed out that at least the kids today have somebody to stand up for them. The eight year-old Celia didn’t have somebody to stand up for them. And that’s the difference, right? Is that we become people of influence. And we have a voice, and representation matters.”

“I didn’t imagine when I became a member of the State House in 2014 that I would have to defend, defend and defend LGBTQ families, and trans kids in particular, over the course of my career. It’s not why we serve, but we stand proudly behind who we are.”

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