A New Voice in the Lege

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Newly elected Texas State Rep. Celia Israel of District 50 (D-Austin) talks goals, parks, and progress as the state’s first out lesbian legislator. “It’s important to have your voice heard,” she says. “The last thing you want to do is give up on Texas.”

One week before the 84th session of the Texas Legislature kicks off, Texas State Rep. Celia Israel took a break from preparing for the intense months ahead to talk about her vision for her new role. She is a newly elected Democrat representing District 50. Apart from representing an important region—District 50 includes Austin— Rep. Israel’s election to the House is also a bright spot for Democrats, as well as an historic moment: her election marks the first time Texans have elected an out gay woman to serve on the notoriously conservative state’s lawmaking body.

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Photo courtesy of Celia Israel

Raised in El Paso, Rep. Israel, the first in her family to go to college, came to Austin to study political science at the University of Texas. She works as a Realtor in Austin (most Texas representatives keep a regular job to supplement their state salaries, which are just $600 per month) and has also been deeply involved in the community, serving on the board of the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, GENaustin, and the YWCA, and taking part in many other local initiatives. During a 45-minute conversation, we touched on her connection to former Texas Governor Ann Richards (in her 20s, Rep. Israel served on the iconic governor’s staff), her goals for this session as she carries the LGBT torch, her take on public service, and her love of college sports.

How did you choose to study political science? Did you intend to continue on in politics when you decided to study political science, or did it just turn out that way?

I’ve always had respect for public service. It takes a lot of time. Once you get involved in it, you either run towards it or away from it. I ran towards it—I enjoy it. I don’t know where that came from: a sports-loving politician. Neither of my parents are political or into sports.

What specifically drew you to politics?

I always tell young people that if you care about issues and helping good people get elected, you should get involved in politics. That’s what I did. I made tons of friends.

Were you disappointed at the results of this recent election during which the Democrats had a dismal showing in spite of Wendy Davis’s high-profile campaign?

This season we worked hard. We made a lot of personal contact with voters. It still was not enough. But when you’ve been through the wringer, the last thing you want to do is give up on Texas. I have a lot of causes I care about. LGBT issues. Public school children. Care for seniors. The costs are too high to throw up my hands.

Talking about LGBT issues, you’re the first gay woman in the Texas legislature, correct?

Mary Gonzalez was the first LGBT woman to serve in the Legislature—she’s pansexual and was elected three years ago. Rep. Glen Maxey was the first gay man. I’m the first gay woman. I’m just a brown-bag lesbian.

Photo courtesy of Celia Israel

Photo courtesy of Celia Israel

Congratulations! How do you plan to go forward once session starts, given your historic role in the Texas legislature?

You know, when you have someone in your family who’s gay, you love them first, before you know they’re gay. In the legislature people will get to know and like me in contexts separate from my sexuality. And in that way I’ll be breaking down walls.

How did your work with Governor Richards impact you?

It definitely shaped me in the way that what you’re involved in when you’re young changes you. Ann was a dynamic woman. Her sense of humor and respect… She treated her constituents like royalty. What I got from her is that I can be me, and that serving is an honor.

The Texas legislature all boils down to relationships. People will work with you because thy like you and want to help you. It’s difficult to get a bill from point A to point B. There are 150 of us, all with different ideas. People can gauge pretty quickly if you’re real or not. Authenticity, I think, is at the core of it. Ann was herself. In that regard, I see myself. I’m pretty real. I don’t know any other way.

“Hopefully we’ll have a breakthrough this year for LGBT families. I think by “me being me,” together with my partner, we can change ways of seeing.” – Celia Israel

What has been the most surprising thing about serving so far?

I’ve been surprised by the level with which your partisan label is diminished once you’re elected. There are a ton of things [Republican legislators] are not going to be able to support me on. But there’s a different dynamic with LGBT rights trending up around the country. Hopefully we’ll have a breakthrough this year for LGBT families. I think by “me being me,” together with my partner, we can change ways of seeing.

What kind of support would you ask for from the LGBT community and allies this session, especially now that the voter-approved  state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage has been overturned and is working its way through the courts?

Know your state rep. Let them know you elected them and you are watching. Call them up and ask them to support [your] family too.

What are you thinking about going into session?

You know, it’s like any new job. You need to figure out who you can talk to and who you can’t. If there are people who decide they’re not going to work with me, that’s their problem. There are some people with narrow viewpoints, but they’re a small minority. And the wave is changing.

I read that Donna Howard (Democrat representing the 48th District) will be your seatmate. Are you excited? I’m picturing it’s like finding out you get to sit by a really cool person in school.

I helped Donna when she ran and have been active in the community on her issues. Donna is perceived as the go-to on public education which I care a lot about. The rules of the House govern what you can do in terms of procedure, so I look forward to getting her guidance and advice. Sitting by the smartest kid in class is a relief for me.

How did you get to sit by her? Are there rules governing seatmates?

No rules. You just talk to people and choose among yourselves. In the Lege, it all goes back to junior high. It was an easy decision.

Photo courtesy of Celia Israel

Photo courtesy of Celia Israel

You’ve already introduced a bill proposing online voting options. Can you talk more about that and your core issues?

I’m an activist at heart. It should be getting easier, not harder, to vote. I’m looking for common administrative things we can do that both parties can agree on. And it’s important to have your voice heard.

Transportation and easing congestion is big. Every Texas city has the same issue. We haven’t stepped up to the plate. I’m hoping to be on the Transportation Committee. The [House] speaker decides who gets on what committee and Speaker [Joe] Strauss has been helpful so far, so I’m hoping to make a good case based on my level of interest and involvement in the issues. Central Texas needs a representative on the committee. Committees are where things happen.

I’m also hoping to be on the Elections Committee. People will see I’m a good team player. Expectations are low when you are a freshman: tradition holds that you just play the role of a sponge, learn the system, and build friendships. Some people come in still in campaign mode. But now it’s about governing, and serving the people in your district. I feel prepared.

You are a busy woman. When you’re not working, what do you do for fun?

My partner and I love state parks, and love camping. We were at Garner State Park in November. We’d forgotten how beautiful it is. I also love Big Bend. I like the thought of going out where your cell phone is useless and you’re just a speck on the earth.

Are there any traditions you are learning about for the first time now that you’re a Representative?

I do have a funny story for you. There’s a club called the Legislative Ladies Club, rooted in the old history of the House, which is made up of the wives of representatives. They invited [my partner] Celinda to join them. She’s a good sport.

Anyway, they’re having a formal dinner at one of the fancy hotels here in Austin. We’ll be sporting formal gowns. And we’re weirdly excited. We’ll be changing understanding on LGBT issues. For some people it will be unsettling, for other people it will be fun. And we haven’t worn long dresses since the eighties.

Interview by Katie Matlack.

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