What kind of legislator was Celia Israel?

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Mayoral candidate Celia Israel served four and a half terms in the Texas House

Celia Israel was a freshman in the Texas House and just starting her first legislative session when current Austin Mayor Steve Adler assumed office in January 2015.

During the eight years that Adler sat on the dais at City Hall, Israel cut her teeth in political intrigue, public policy, and legislative maneuvering at the State Capitol just blocks away. She’s now hoping to translate that experience into winning the mayor’s job and replacing the term-limited Adler, who will step down January 5th.

Israel is one of two leading Democratic candidates in a six-way contest for the position, the other being former State Senator Kirk Watson. She has run a mostly issues-based campaign focused on affordable housing as her top priority, while also casting herself as the candidate who best reflects Austin’s diversity. If elected she will be not only the first Latina mayor but also the first openly gay mayor of Austin.

Yet Israel’s claim to be qualified for the position of mayor rests largely on her time of service as a state representative, a role that has gone largely unexamined in press coverage thus far. So what did Israel accomplish as a state legislator? What role did she play? The Bulldog investigates.

Veteran fighter

Israel currently ranks as the 68th most senior member of the 150-member House. She has served four regular legislative sessions and four special sessions. She also served a partial term in 2014, during which there was no session, after she won a special election to replace a resigning member.

This experience is relevant to the role of mayor because the mayor in Austin’s system of government fulfills a largely legislative role. Under the city charter, the day-to-day administration of city government falls to a hired city manager, not to the mayor. Austin’s mayor presides at meetings, but his vote counts the same as any other council member and he has no veto.

But in the public’s mind the mayor is still the leader who drives the agenda, bears overall responsibility for what happens in city government, and commands the bully pulpit to further initiatives. The position is therefore one that requires a mix of legislative and executive abilities.

The record shows that only eight bills authored by Israel ever became law, and four of those did little more than tweak an existing deadline or procedure (more on that later). Only once did she hold a leadership position as vice chair of a committee. In her final session in 2021 she was relegated to committee assignments that had little to do with the district she represents: Insurance, and Culture, Recreation & Tourism, the committee that oversees state parks—even though there is no state park in Israel’s House District 50, which covers northeast Austin, half of Pflugerville, and Wells Branch.

Of course, that doesn’t tell the full story. Israel was serving as a member of the political opposition at a time of intense political rivalry between her party and those in power. Her committee assignments and legislative priorities were at the mercy of the Republican leadership of the chamber. When Israel joined the legislature, the Democrats controlled just a third of seats in the lower chamber, a share that has since climbed to nearly 45 percent.

Israel’s eight years in office were marked by two bitter presidential election cycles and hard-fought policy battles over election laws, healthcare, taxes, spending, and local control. Only in 2019, the so-called “kumbaya session,” was there a relative respite in the feuding.

Israel addressing a rally for Medicaid expansion at the Texas Capitol, March 4, 2019 (Twitter/@CeliaIsrael)

Israel proved herself not only a capable foot soldier on this battleground but also rose to a leadership position within the Democratic caucus. She served as a spokesperson for the party in floor fights over healthcare, the ‘bathroom bill,’ public education, and other issues, and she became a regular speaker at rallies for different progressive causes.

“She’s absolutely taken a leadership role,” said Israel’s deskmate on the House floor, Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin). “She is someone who spends a lot of time collaborating and getting information and working the floor to talk about issues, even across the aisle.”

Although Israel had played a leading role in battling certain Republican priorities, she still had good relationships with fellow legislators of both parties, “and I think when she speaks people tend to listen,” Howard told the Bulldog.

As leader of the Texas House Democratic Campaign Committee in 2019-2020, Israel played a role in safeguarding the 12 seats Democrats had flipped in the prior cycle. However, Democrats failed to pick up nine seats needed to take control of the chamber, despite Joe Biden’s win on the presidential level. KUT described this outcome as “the big flop,” The Atlantic as a “failure that could haunt Democrats for a decade,” and Politico called it an “abysmal showing,” pointing to Texas as the biggest Democratic disappointment in all the statehouse races nationwide.

Israel said afterwards in an online panel discussion hosted by the LBJ Library, “We had three House races that were lost by less than one percent, we had seven House races that were lost by less than five percent … more than 11 million Texans voted. That’s a good thing. We’ll be digging into the data to see what happened.”

She also blamed a potential “Trump effect” that had boosted GOP turnout and made loyalists of the former president less likely to split their ticket: “We’ll see if this was the year of Trump effect…or if this a trend.”

Despite the big setback in 2020, Howard said, “I don’t chalk that up to her leadership. Everybody thought things were going to be different, all the polls were off, it took everybody by surprise including the Republicans. Celia worked nonstop as chair of the House Democratic Campaign Committee and organized all kinds of efforts throughout the state to help us get Democrats elected. She took it very seriously and was extremely active.”

The following year, Israel played a role in another political chapter that won Texas Democrats more favorable press. She was one of several dozen lawmakers to break quorum and flee the state in protest of a Republican election bill that set restrictions on voting by mail, banned drive-thru voting, and banned nighttime early voting between the hours of 10 pm and 6 am.

Israel was featured prominently in coverage by The New York Times, TIME, the Austin American-Statesman, The Guardian, MSNBC, and others.

“This is only the fifth time in Texas history where the minority party has broken quorum, and I didn’t make this decision lightly,” Israel wrote in an op-ed at the time. “Whittling away at voting rights is whittling away at democracy.” The controversial election bill eventually passed anyway, after some Democrats returned to the House, restoring a quorum. However, Republicans caved to Democrat opposition on some points.

Legislative accomplishments

The quorum-break in 2021 was far from the first time that Israel has fought to expand voting rights and ease access to the polls. As a freshman legislator, one of her first bills (HB 76) would have allowed online voter registration, using an electronic signature. The law at the time—and now—requires voters to submit a paper form with their actual signature.

Israel argued that the change would save money. In Travis County alone, she said, the county had hired 30 temporary employees to process voter registration applications. Those could be processed more cheaply and with fewer errors if submitted online.

The bill was given a hearing but didn’t go beyond that. Israel also authored legislation to allow students to give their student ID card as a form of acceptable identification at the polls. Again, this bill went nowhere.

Israel laying out one of her bills at a committee hearing in 2019

Israel had more success with a bill that she worked on with Watson, her current mayoral rival. House Bill 1839 in 2015 would have granted state employees more flexibility to work from home or work flexible hours. The bill passed both chambers with bipartisan support but was vetoed by Governor Greg Abbott, who said that the law would be open to abuse.

Nonetheless, Israel succeeded in passing two bills into law in her freshman session. House Bill 735 required the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles to collect information on the number of alternatively fueled vehicles in Texas, including electric vehicles and hybrids. House Bill 1140 required county sheriffs to report certain data relating to the care of pregnant prisoners to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Additionally, Israel managed to secure state funding for an initiative to alleviate traffic on I-35 by diverting truck traffic to SH-130 by offering discount toll rates to truckers who used the route. She was the author of HB 594, which required the Department of Transportation and Texas Transportation Commission to develop such a discount program. Although the bills failed to pass due to end-of-session deadlines, Israel again worked with Watson to get the program included in a budget rider.

“This may not solve all of our traffic problems, but we owe it to Central Texans to do everything we can to think creatively and use existing resources as efficiently as possible,” she said in a press release. “Funding a program to reduce the tolls on the TXDOT portions of SH130 and SH 45 SE for truck traffic represents a concrete action to improve congestion without actually requiring more concrete.”

In the next legislative session in 2017, Israel authored five bills that became law. The most noteworthy was a Good Samaritan measure that had already been passed in 34 other states. It granted immunity from suit to a person who broke into a motor vehicle for the purpose of rescuing a child or other vulnerable person trapped in the vehicle and at risk of heat stroke. “HB 478 allows Good Samaritans to be proactive about saving lives when every second counts,” Israel said.

Israel’s other four bills passed in 2017 amended election laws in minor ways. HB 999 clarified the election date for the directors of water districts; HB 1001 required the completion of an election canvass to be recorded in the minutes of an official meeting; HB 2323 clarified that the filing deadline for a special election to fill a vacancy was 6 pm on the 7th day before the election day (previously, the day had been specified in law but not a time of day); and HB 2324 eliminated an inconsistency relating to the deadline for volunteer deputy registrars to submit completed voter registrations.

In the next session in 2019, Israel introduced a bill (HB 1332) to eliminate juvenile curfews. The measure sought to replicate statewide what the City of Austin had done in 2017. It won approval from the Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee but died in the Calendars Committee.

In all, ten of Israel’s bills that year made it out of committee but died in Calendars, which is a committee that decides what goes for a floor vote. Among these were a bill (HB 1889) to require county jails to report the sex, race, and age of inmates as part of an existing monthly reporting program.

The one bill that made it into law was HB 1421, which required county and state election officers to participate in cybersecurity trainings.

Israel also filed legislation to expand Medicaid eligibility in the state—a major Democratic priority—but the step was largely symbolic, since it didn’t stand a chance of passing and wasn’t even given a hearing.

In her final session in 2021, Israel authored 26 bills, none of which passed. One of her bills, HB 443, came up for a floor vote but was defeated by a vote of 59 to 69. The measure was intended to reduce pedestrian deaths. It required vehicles at intersections not just to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks but also to fully stop.

Committee assignments

When Israel first joined the legislature in 2014, she inherited the interim committee assignments of her predecessor, Mark Strama: International Trade and Intergovernmental Affairs and Ways and Means.

From 2015-2018 she served on the Elections and Transportation committees, including two years (2017-2018) as vice chair of the former. In the following session (2019-2020) she again served on Elections but this time was transferred from Transportation to Public Safety.

Lastly, in 2021, despite her seniority and a stated preference to serve on Transportation and Elections, Israel was assigned to Insurance and Culture, Recreation and Tourism.

Israel belongs to several political caucuses, including the Legislative Study Group, the Women’s Health Caucus, the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, and the Texas House LGBTQ Caucus.

Scorecard ratings and awards

During her first term in the legislature, Israel was named Freshman of the Year by the Legislative Study Group, a Champion of Equality by Equality Texas, and a Progressive Champion by Progress Texas. In 2018, Rep. Israel was inducted into the Austin Women’s Hall of Fame.

In a widely followed ranking of legislators from left to right, calculated biennially by political scientist Mark P. Jones, Israel ranked most recently as the 11th most liberal member of the 150-member Texas House.

Israel’s voting record has won her top marks from progressive interest groups, and poor marks from conservative groups and business groups, according to legislative scorecards produced by the lobby groups. Texas Public Interest Group, for example, gave her a score of 89 out of 100 for her votes on government transparency, surprise medical billing, and environmental legislation, among others.

According to Howard, Israel had “a strong connection to the larger community and wanted to make sure that everyone had a place at the table. She went out of her way to solicit input and to be a strong listener and wanted to make sure that whatever was eventually passed as public policy had been vetted through a process that included those who were stakeholders who were going to be impacted by the policy.”

Career and personal life

In addition to her work in the legislature, Israel has worked as a Realtor for Home and Hearth Realty since 2010. Before that she was the Community Affairs Manager for LAN, an engineering firm, from 2006 to 2010.

Israel was self-employed as the owner of Mission Resources from 1999 to 2006. She wrote on her LinkedIn that she performed governmental relations and community relations and was involved in projects such as the redevelopment of the Robert Mueller Airport and AISD bonds.

Israel with a Girl Scout Troop at her Capitol office (Facebook/Celia Israel)

During those years she also served as a volunteer board member for GENAustin, a nonprofit working to build leadership skills and self-esteem in middle and high school girls that was chaired by Steve Adler before he was mayor.

From 2009 to present, Israel has served as a board member of the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and from 2004 to 2011 she served as chair of the Alliance for Public Transportation, a Central Texas nonprofit.

Governor Ann Richards

Israel’s formative political years were in the early 1990s when she worked for Governor Ann Richards as her Appointments Administrator. Israel called this “probably the most exciting job I ever had.” Her role was to help Richards find qualified Texans to serve on boards and commissions.

Israel holds a Bachelor of Arts in Government from the University of Texas at Austin, which she gradated from in 1988. She is married to Celinda Garza, her partner of 27 years.

Israel and Garza own two homes in Austin. Currently they split time between a condo that they rent in North Austin and their South Austin home, according to recent reporting by the Statesman. They lease out the other home.

Trust indicators: Bulldog reporter Daniel Van Oudenaren is a journalist with 13 years experience in local, state, and international reporting.

Related Bulldog coverage:

What kind of mayor was Watson? October 24, 2022

Candidates offer competing visions on homelessness, October 18, 2022

2022 candidates have raised $3 million-plus, October 14, 2022

The man who would be mayor…again, October 10, 2022

Want to get elected but not be accountable? September 28, 2022

Israel and Watson view for endorsements of influential Democrat groups, September 16, 2022

Urbanists vie to replace council member Kathie Tovo, August 30, 2022

Let the mayor and council campaigns begin, August 22, 2022

Updates and corrections: This article has been updated after publication to include comments by State Representative Donna Howard. It has also been corrected to note that Israel, if elected, would be the first openly gay Mayor of Austin, not the first openly gay City Council member, and to note that she owns two homes in Austin, not one.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for the story on Celia. At the end of each legislative session, our Democratic Reps would always hold a town hall at the Millennium Youth Complex Center to summarize the session. I was always so impressed with all our Austin reps but especially with Celia who was amazing to listen to – she worked hard and got things done. I’m grateful that she has stepped forward to run for Mayor.

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