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Celia Israel seeks to be a progressive voice for Austin

Friday, August 12, 2022 by Sean Saldaña

Celia Israel announced her run for mayor early, on January 11, almost a full 10 months before election day. She said her motivation to run was her desire to tackle the biggest issues facing Austin today: affordability and transportation.

Israel is no newcomer to politics. First elected to Texas House District 50 in 2014, she’s maintained the position ever since. During her time in the Texas Legislature, she belonged to the Women’s Health Caucus and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, and helped found the Texas House LGBTQ Caucus.

She’s also been a supporter of loosening voting restrictions, advocating for online voter registration and allowing student IDs as a form of verification, though those have yet to come to fruition.

Last summer, Israel was part of the cohort of state Democrats who left Texas for Washington, D.C., breaking quorum to keep the Republican-dominated Legislature from passing Senate Bill 1, a law that made it more difficult to vote in Texas. By refusing to be physically present, Democrats were able to temporarily stall the passage of the bill. The effort made national headlines and became a rallying cry for progressives, but if there was any victory for Texas Democrats, it was a moral one. After about a month, momentum fizzled, the Dems returned to Texas and Gov. Abbott signed SB 1 into law.

Reflecting on the effort and its eventual unraveling, Israel’s feelings remain unconflicted. To her, it was a clear defense of voting rights: “We will look back and know that there was a gaggle of Texas Democrats who uprooted and took the fight to Washington, and I’m proud to have done that.”

Reflecting on her campaign for mayor, she has one overarching observation: “It’s going good. We’re hustling.”

As election day inches closer, Israel is intensifying her community outreach. On one Saturday in late July, she attended a school supply drive and an art festival; more recently, she went to a Tejano music concert in East Austin.

“There have been and will be lots of concerts on this campaign,” she notes.

Progressive positioning

With the passage of Austin’s GRACE Act, an ordinance that seeks to decriminalize abortion in the city, it became clear that Celia Israel was positioning herself as the progressive choice for mayor. At the press conference announcing the ordinance’s passage, Israel stood beside Mayor Steve Adler, most of City Council and state Reps. James Talarico, Sheryl Cole and Gina Hinojosa. She was even given the opportunity to speak, saying, “We’re not just alarmed, we’re not just indignant, we’re angry. We’re awoke. Our claws are out and we’re ready to fight.”

Her progressivism is reflected in her endorsements so far, both in number and prominence. They include the LGBTQ Victory Fund; the Latino Victory Fund; LPAC, an organization that seeks to put LGBTQ women in office; U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro; Travis County Attorney Delia Garza; state Rep. Vikki Goodwin; state Rep. Donna Howard; and former Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir.

Still, as progressive as Austin is, tapping into that well doesn’t guarantee victory. Campaign finance documents released in mid-July show that while Israel has raised an impressive $253,305 so far, she’s still far behind former Austin Mayor Kirk Watson, who has raised nearly $1 million. As of now, Watson is considered to be the favorite. He recently came under fire after releasing a set of housing guidelines he said he’d implement as mayor. Among them was, “let Council districts adopt their own code reforms.”

Israel jumped on the proposal, saying that further localizing code reforms would allow wealthier districts to put a halt to housing construction and isolate themselves from the city.

“The most troubling part of Kirk’s proposal is his plan to give each Council district the right to veto changes they deem undesirable, from apartments to duplexes. Civil rights advocates worry this is a return to redlining, while forcing all new housing options onto the east side, kicking displacement and gentrification into overdrive,” Israel wrote in a letter to the editor in The Austin Chronicle.

Her letter – which pulls no punches – marked a more aggressive turn for the mayoral campaign. On July 28, Watson’s campaign clarified the proposal, saying it was more about cutting through red tape, moving away from an all-or-nothing approach to code reform and incentivizing districts ready to build more housing. In a statement, Watson said, “I think Austin wants to hear possible solutions to the city’s problems much more than it wants to hear … that someone is a bad person for offering new ideas. I’m saying, let’s try to have a new conversation.”

There’s a sense within the Israel campaign that the exchange was a win. Israel responded to the clarification by tweeting out a meme of Homer Simpson trying to hide behind the bushes, with Watson’s face superimposed over Homer’s.

Policing and public safety

In the Notley/Monitor poll from last month, crime and public safety ranked as the second most pressing issue on people’s minds. On the issue of policing, Israel has been mostly silent thus far; it isn’t even mentioned on her campaign’s website, except for a passing reference to her tenure on the now-defunct Austin Police Monitor Board.

When asked by KVUE in February about her specific vision for policing in Austin, Israel was a bit cagey, responding first with a story about Sophia King, a mother gunned down by police in Rosewood Courts in 2002 during a mental health crisis. She used King’s story to make the point that “mental health is a big component of what I think police officers are dealing with, and concerted leadership from our nonprofit sector and the city of Austin is in order.” She went on to say that a strong relationship between Police Chief Joseph Chacon and community leaders was important to her.

Israel also expressed sympathy for the demands placed on police officers. Recounting a ride-along she went on – something she plans to do more of – she told KVUE, “our police are being put into very difficult situations and I think the Police Department is changing at the hands of Chief Chacon and I think we should hold them to high expectations.”

In general though, she’s been a reformer.

Last fall, Israel came out against Proposition A, a ballot measure that would have expanded the size of the Austin police force. “If passed, Prop A would force the city of Austin to cut essential services – like parks, libraries and emergency services – in order to spend hundreds of millions more solely on the police department, with zero accountability,” she said at the time.

She also co-authored House Bill 54, known as Javier Ambler’s Law, which barred law enforcement officers from being filmed on the job for reality television.

Serving in the state’s 87th Legislature, she sponsored HB 88, the George Floyd Act, which would have banned chokeholds, seriously curbed law officers’ right to qualified immunity, and required that police intervene if they witness misconduct by other officers. Though that particular law didn’t pass, major parts of it came to fruition in other legislation. For example, SB 69 – which banned chokeholds and requires officers to step in if they see misconduct – was signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott.

The Israel campaign is still working on its official proposal for policing, but in general her focus is on independent oversight and streamlining the removal process of bad actors within the department.

“I know our first responders are proud of their profession. I’m proud of their profession. But I also know that they recognize that when they get someone in uniform that disrespects the uniform and disrespects their oath, then they are doing harm to their profession,” she told the Austin Monitor.

Focusing on the big issues

In the meantime, Israel has focused most of her campaigning efforts on the city’s thorniest two issues: affordability and transportation.

Some of her proposals include reducing parking requirements that raise development costs, streamlining the permitting process to encourage the construction of more accessory dwelling units and hiring a “development ombudsman” to be a point of contact between city departments, cutting down on delays.

She’s also looking for the city to take a more active role in the housing market, providing subsidized housing for teachers, essential workers and lower-income families, saying, “We will partner with AISD, ACC and Travis County, as well as nonprofit partners, to maximize our current real estate holdings and land.”

Israel supports the recently proposed $350 million housing bond that’s expected to be on the ballot in November. If passed, the average home – valued around $448,000 – would pay about $46.60 more in property taxes annually. Others concerned with affordability have voiced skepticism over the bond issue, the logic being that raising taxes makes it more expensive to live in the city, which cuts into the purpose of passing a bond issue in the first place.

With inflation at around 9 percent and a proposed city budget that will raise taxes by 2.7 percent, Israel is sensitive to these concerns. “The bond is one tool, but there’s so much more the city could be doing” to speed up construction in general, but especially on city-owned land, she said.

Another tenet of her campaign has been increasing public transit.

Israel has maintained strong support for Project Connect – the light rail system voters approved in 2020 – even as the price tag for the project has ballooned to $10 billion and will likely involve the city seizing many properties downtown through eminent domain.

Israel’s support and advocacy for transit comes in response to public concern, but it’s also rooted in her upbringing. Growing up, her father was the only member of the family with a driver’s license, something that complicated basic life functions for her family. Today she believes that “transit is freedom.”

This might explain why the lack of reliable public transit in Austin gets her so fired up.

“If we have a nurse shortage – which we do – and that nurse works at Seton on 38th and Lamar, there’s no way on god’s green earth she can afford a house at 38th and Lamar. So what the hell!? She’s moving out to Hutto! So our transportation systems need to adjust,” Israel says.

She represents

There’s one other element of Israel’s candidacy that she feels is crucial: that she is a Latina and a member of the LGBT community. To her, representation in public office matters.

“If we want to engage more people to get involved in the democratic process, it helps that you have people that look like them,” she says. “When I was a 9-year-old girl growing up in El Paso, I didn’t have a Celia to look up to, whether that was LGBT advocacy or advocating for women or advocating for Latinos.”

When Israel announced her campaign for mayor in January, she began her speech by thanking her wife and partner of 26 years, Celinda Garza. She went on to describe how she felt when she first arrived in Austin in 1992 as a scared, excited 17-year-old, 500 miles from home. Before launching into policy proposals she reminisced a bit, recalling when UT football tickets only cost $10, when Stevie Ray Vaughan was a familiar face around town, when there was less traffic ….

She closed the speech: “I will be a mayor for all of Austin and am inviting all of Austin to be a part of this campaign. Please join us.”

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