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Delia Garza is on the move

Monday, January 4, 2021 by Sumaiya Malik, Reporting Texas

Delia Garza is blazing a trail of firsts: first Latina on Austin City Council; first Latina mayor pro tem; and soon, the first Latina Travis County Attorney.

“I stand on the shoulders of other Latinas,” Garza noted. “There were four before me who tried,” she said. “Even my own (seat) on the City Council would not have been possible without a change of government,” she said, referring to the switch to single-member districts the city made in 2014.

Garza grew up in the majority-minority city of San Antonio. “When you grow up in a city where you are not a minority, it’s really interesting coming to a city where you are,” she said. She bought her first home in Southeast Austin in 2003 when Austin was still trying to hold on to the small college-town feel.

“I think Travis County and Austin have changed so much for the better,” Garza said. “We are growing. We are getting to be more progressive.”

Reminiscing about her early career as a rookie firefighter, she recalled how, during one public engagement, a young Latina began to cry with joy at seeing someone like herself in uniform.

Garza has made some tough career decisions in the past, going from being a firefighter to running for City Council and now winning the election for Travis County Attorney. “I went into the runoff really thinking I wasn’t going to win,” Garza said – but she did win. “Our community chose the outsider, because I think that’s where change comes from,” she said.

Of course, 2020 has been an unprecedented year with the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We got a lot of calls about people losing their jobs, and I have a lot of people in the service industry and in construction, and initially in the pandemic we closed construction sites too,” Garza said. When everything was shut down, her office started receiving calls from the community about needing help with rent, food and utility bills.

“We actually used our rainy-day fund for the initial round of RISE funding,” she said, adding that they were able to get money to people fairly quickly by distributing the funds through nonprofit organizations.

The RISE Fund made $15 million available through RISE 1.0 and another $10 million in federal funding through RISE 2.0.

Garza believes that more housing is the way to address Austin’s affordability crisis. However, she noted that since it’s against the law in Texas to require developers to include affordable housing in their projects, the city must look for ways to incentivize developers to build more affordable housing.

As vice chair of the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board of Directors, she strongly supported Project Connect, because it “gets people to their jobs and to schools, and to higher education,” she said. “The government should subsidize it because of the benefits that it brings.”

Garza has been working hard on criminal justice reform. During her time on Council, she pushed to set the goal of ending racial disparity in policing. “If we can minimize racial disparities, it obviously helps, the further you get down that pipeline,” she said. Pointing out that residents of Northwest Austin are less likely to get pulled over and arrested than people in Southeast Austin, she said, “There’s obviously bias in our policing that we’re hoping to address.”

Garza found it painful watching the protests against police violence in Austin after George Floyd’s killing.

“There were police officers there who were employees of the city of Austin. (To) come in, and kind of clash with people who were just wanting to exercise their First Amendment right, because they had been so affected by the George Floyd incident … that was really hard to watch,” she said.

“I hope my colleagues (on City Council) continue to have the courage to have those hard and uncomfortable conversations because there’s no way we’re going to fix these really tough problems,” she added.

Reflecting on her experiences, she said, “It’s just been a complete honor to be able to serve this city six years as a firefighter, and six years as a Council member – you really learn so much about what the city already does. I honestly think anything I do in life will be easier, and I think I’ve done the hardest thing in my life.”

Now she’s looking forward to her role as Travis County Attorney, where she will work to minimize racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

This story was written by a journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin. The Austin Monitor is working in partnership with the UT School of Journalism to teach and publish stories produced by students in the City and County Government Reporting course.

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