Sensitive Servant

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Council Member and Mayor Pro tem Mike Martinez didn’t take a traditional path to politics, but that hasn’t hindered his ability to build consensus nor altered his sensitivity to issues impacting a range of demographic groups.

Over the years, his interaction with the city’s LGBT community has taken a range of forms. When Martinez was in cadet training in the Austin fire Department in 1992, department-wide diversity training had just recently been instituted. His class was in a room with a bunch of senior firefighters and as cadets, they were scared of saying the wrong thing. Lt. Jan Wesson, a longtime veteran of the AFD, stood up at that training event and came out as a lesbian.

“It was the most moving experience I could have had,” said Martinez, adding that the AFD had typically been a very white male dominated place. “The LGBT community in Austin makes our city what it is–they keep our leaders at the forefront of progressive issues and welcoming community values. They are Austin.”

With the diversity training in place, that was the beginning of a push to embrace all facets of the city’s community, via outreach and other means, at the AFD. “Very rarely do you get to have those deep, meaningful conversations with people who you don’t know well.”

Even so, his personal experience with discrimination began as a child growing up in the small town of Caldwell, Texas. Martinez and his sister were banned from the local public swimming pool because of their ethnic background. At that time, their home was vandalized with racial slurs. He recalled his mother’s challenge of injustice, calling lawyers, asking questions and contacting the American Civil liberties Unit.

“As a little kid, I told my mom, ‘I’m gonna run for mayor and I’m not gonna treat you or anyone else differently,’” said Martinez, adding that his best friend in junior high school was gay. “I just saw him as my true best friend–I see people for the goodness in their hearts and not for anything else.”

One month after graduating from the fire academy, he was nominated and elected vice president of the Austin firefighters association. As the face and advocate of the AFD in the community, he first became a diversity trainer, teaching the entire department everything he’d learned, and he was eventually elected the president of the association. That was Martinez’s path to politics.

“Running for office was the best decision I ever made,” said Martinez, who was elected in May 2006 and chosen to be mayor pro tem by his colleagues thereafter. “The biggest challenge we face in Austin is being this hip city that everyone wants to be a part of without eliminating other parts–other people: poor people, people of color, people who are transit dependent, blue-collar workers.”

A murder in southeast Austin on April 18, in which a Hispanic man, upset about his daughter’s relationship with another woman, was arrested for killing his daughter’s 24-year-old girlfriend and her 57-year-old mother, drives home the need for much more dialogue, diligent community outreach and a broader understanding of LGBT issues amongst all minority groups.

“I think it’s important to reach out and educate the Hispanic community about allies and groups that do exist, such as Out Youth,” Martinez said. “For me, it’s not only awful that it’s a hate crime. I feel like we, in the Hispanic community, have to take this opportunity to appropriately respond.”

Martinez added that while he believes the incident has promoted more dialogue, it’s an ongoing effort that must continue throughout the city.

The council member has regularly attended human rights Campaign events and marched in the Austin Pride Parade. He’s also passionate about the issue of homelessness and has served with Mobile loaves and fishes since 2006. “We have to start addressing the homeless problem from a policy perspective,” Martinez said adamantly. “We’re gonna have to build affordable housing and transitional housing everywhere in this community if we want to truly address the issue.”

Martinez lives with his wife, Lara, and their son Alejandro in east Austin, a neighborhood he’s proud to call home. His son turns 13 in June and Martinez doesn’t shy away from discussing controversial issues. “One of our best friends is Skip Avis and he’s a dear friend,” Martinez said. “Alejandro loves him, he calls him ‘aunt skip.’ he asked me, ‘why would anyone want to mistreat him because he’s gay?’ I can’t explain that. There are people that are close-minded.”

Martinez is loving his current role in city government but open-minded about potential future opportunities. “My early childhood experience in being treated differently due to the color of my skin is the catalyst for why I serve in public office today,” he said. “Not one single person should have to experience that treatment due to ignorance.”

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