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‘We can do better for the working families of Austin’: Why Celia Israel is running for mayor

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Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
/
KUT
State Rep. Celia Israel speaks at the 2020 Women's March ATX at the Texas Capitol.

Next month, the city of Austin will elect its first new mayor in almost a decade.

As election night came to a close on Nov. 8, none of the six candidates running were able to come up with the 50% needed to win outright – so the election is headed to a runoff between Kirk Watson, a former state senator and former Austin mayor, and Celia Israel, who represents House District 50.

Israel joined the Texas Standard to talk about why she’s running and how she plans to tackle Austin’s biggest issues.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Texas Standard: I was thinking about why someone would want this job – you’re in this white hot spotlight – and I was reminded of something that President Joe Biden said years ago. He said: “I never had an interest in being a mayor because that’s a real job; you have to produce. That’s why I was able to be a senator for 36 years” – which is pretty funny. But having said that, why do you want to be mayor of Austin?

Celia Israel: It’s a respect for public service and a desire to do good things. And I’ve heard this same question from friends and family who are like, “that’s a really tough spot.” But Austin is in a tough spot. Every American city is in a tough spot when it comes to housing and affordability. And I can’t help but think about my mom. Her hero was Barbara Jordan. I’m an Ann Richards Democrat, you know, and history runs thick with me and my family. And I think there’s a way for us to do good policy, surround ourselves with good people, and never forget where we came from – and, of course, keep our sense of humor while we’re doing it. The challenges are big, but Austin has become a city that has become accustomed to pushing people out instead of inviting them in. And I have a firm belief that we can do so much better for the working families of Austin.

» MORE: ‘I’m going to defend the values of my city’: Former Austin Mayor Kirk Watson on why he wants the job again

You mentioned affordability and housing prices – this obviously affects Austinites, and Texans more broadly, too. But why has this issue been so hard to tackle here in Austin? And what would you do to turn things around?

These are not new issues for Austin. And as I say often, this race is not about nostalgia and the good old days. We have wrestled with the issues around the red tape and the bureaucracy about building. Although we’re a progressive city, we have become accustomed to being OK with being an exclusive city. And in my book, it’s not community if you expect people to dress your wounds and teach your kids in the heart of the city, but then they go home to their families in Elgin and Bastrop. That’s not equity, and it’s not building community. And we need to work diligently on housing policies.

Highway expansions are happening across the state. You’ve come out against the current planned expansion of Interstate 35, but what do you think the alternative should be for Austin, which is experiencing this unprecedented population boom?

You know, my colleagues and I in the House wrote three different letters to TxDOT to challenge them on their design and their plans. And the advocates, the neighbors have spoken clearly to say they don’t want this TxDOT plan. And we can’t repeat the mistakes of other American cities. Look no farther than Houston, Texas, and the Katy Freeway – just because you expand it doesn’t mean you made it better. And you certainly have exacerbated the environmental impacts.

So this isn’t a generational decision; this is a forever decision for the city of Austin. So I want more transit assets or technology assets. It should be buried, it should be capped. It should bring this city together. But I refuse to accept that we’re getting the best plan that we can from TxDOT.

In the Texas Legislature, you gained a reputation as a progressive, and I’m wondering how that translates into the mayor’s office. I know you’ve been rather outspoken about abortion, voting rights, policing. What is your take on the role of a progressive as mayor?

Well, as a Latina, I certainly recognize, and as somebody whose family has been impacted by crime hitting way too close to home, I support a well-qualified and thoughtful police presence. And I want to make sure that as a woman, as a Latina who has had those fights on the House floor defending our civil rights and having way too many divisive battles over social issues – believe me, I don’t want to have to have those battles, but I don’t think that people understand: the women in our community and in our state are not just disappointed and disgruntled. They’re pissed. Their bodily autonomy has been taken away. So we need to make sure that we will stand firmly with them as are non-profits who had been helping women get safe and legal abortions and health care that they need are transferring to the neighboring state of New Mexico. So I don’t think it’s too much to ask that our local officials stand for them.

What does that mean as a practical matter, though? Would you violate state laws to make it possible for Austinites to obtain abortions? Because, of course, there’s been this long-running battle now between the Capitol and city leaders.

We are the only mayoral candidate to have a policy around this topic. And in a practical manner, no, I don’t want to break the law, but we have to adjust the ways in which those who get pregnant and are having a troublesome time and need to get an abortion – so we will decriminalize where possible, create a safe space for those who, if they’re on their phones at the airport, for example, and searching, “where can I go to get an abortion?” we need to make sure that they also feel supported.

I envision myself being on a cell phone basis with the mayors of Las Cruces and Albuquerque, for example, to say “thank you for supporting our Texans who need to go to your state now to get health care.” What I’m hearing from women is that they want to know that the mayor has their back.

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