Celia Israel’s Got ‘Both Feet on the Ground’
What the historic race for mayor meant for her, for Austin, and women in Texas politics.
Celia Israel was front and center during Bidi Bidi Banda’s live music set at Future Front Texas’ benefit for reproductive justice.
“We’ll talk soon,” she said, standing nearby.
Familiar Tejano melodies play, and Israel starts a cumbia circle. It’s a cultural sign that spotlights her genuine will to lead, and to have a lot of fun doing it.
It was another Latina in politics, Texas state Representative Lena Guerrero, who pushed a young Israel to do so.
“She was the first person who ever told me that I should run for office, and that was empowering,” Israel said in our phone interview. “And I remember saying, ‘Yeah Lena, but you know I’m gay. They won’t vote for a gay person.’ She said ‘Jita, you’re in Austin!’ She had this saying, ‘Jita, aqui estas en Austin.’”
“Go where they don’t expect you to go,” Guerrero advised her. “And that’s what I did with this mayor’s race. I went where they didn’t expect me to go,” said Israel.
And so, as an openly gay Latina, Israel ran a historic grassroots campaign that focused on community. It worked. She was the top vote getter with 41 percent in the November 8 general election, and her performance was shocking. Kirk Watson was heavily favored, already serving as the city’s mayor, twice (1997-2001). His upset wasn’t supposed to happen, but it did.
“The business community in Austin usually dictates who their preferred Democrat is—that person is anointed and that person is elected,” Israel later wrote in an email. “The traditional machinery that dictates winning candidates were all working against me.”
Despite raising over $750,000 for the campaign in her own right, she was largely outspent by Watson and his team.
“I was swimming upstream the whole time,” Israel told the Texas Observer.
Neither candidate earned 50 percent of the ballot, so a runoff election was held on December 13. Here, Israel lost by 1 percent, or less than 1,000 votes overall.
“Why can’t this city elect a qualified woman, Celia?” her friends asked about the runoff election results, afterwards.
It’s early February now, and she’s had some time to think:
“I’m proud of my record in public service in the community, to the city, to the county, and to the state of Texas. And like people said to me on the race, ‘Yeah but Kirk is so experienced.’ I learned to counter that, and say at what point do we say to a woman of color, you are also experienced, and you deserve our consideration? I found my voice in this campaign from that perspective.”
A couple weeks later, Israel is a featured speaker for Austin Community Foundation’s Hispanic Impact Fund. “Regardless of where you were on this race, or other races, Austin needs the voices of people of color,” she told the audience. “And Latino leaders need to be not just at the table, but running the table.”
“She ran an unapologetic campaign, and she talked about the things that voters cared about,” said Jim Wick, local political consultant and former Mayor Steve Adler’s campaign manager. “She ran with a lot of grit.”
“There’s probably some disagreement over how much of an asset or a liability Celia’s ethnicity was in the election,” he continued. “One of the reasons why Celia did as well as she did is because as far as mayoral elections are concerned—it was probably the youngest, most diverse electorate that’s ever voted for a mayor in this city, in the general election.”
According to Wick and Israel’s deputy campaign manager, Mallory Hart, runoff voter demographics tend to lean older and whiter, though Wick said the share of conservative votes is about the same.
“There were a lot of people who told her that she really didn’t have a chance or a prayer to even come close,” Wick told the Observer. “She didn’t listen to those people.”
“The good ol’ boys weren’t happy with us last night! The people spoke loud and clear—Austin, Texas is NOT for sale,” Israel posted on social media, after her general election win.
“Ya’ll reference the ‘good ol’ boys’ a lot, what is that?” the Observer asked Hart.
“It’s the fact that a mayor from the turn of the century would be running again in 2023 after serving,” she said. “A candidate like Celia doesn’t come up every election.”
Known for her work in transit advocacy, Israel was nicknamed “The Transportation Queen” while serving four legislative sessions in the Texas House of Representatives from 2014 to January 2023.
Officials are elected every two years, and there are currently no term limits.
“Why is it, that in your last session, you were unable to pass any bills?” Watson asked Israel in the mayoral runoff debate, locally televised by KVUE, on December 5.
Watson left his position in the Texas Senate after 14 years. The two were allies at the Capitol.
“It’s an insult to someone you used to work with, and a friendship you used to value,” Israel responded to his question.
“In 2020 I was the chair of the pack that was designed to flip the House into Democratic control, and the Republican leadership didn’t like that I did a good job,” she told us, adding to the debate’s context. “So that’s politics.”
“The speaker of the House determines committee assignments, and leadership can put their thumb on the scale to keep your bill from being passed, and that’s what happened,” she said.
“What happened to Celia is that she did exactly what she was asked to do,” Democratic Texas state Representative Donna Howard told the Observer by phone.
They were desk mates, and are close confidants, with Howard being a visible support system along the campaign trail.
“Nobody was pushing me to leave my seat. I pushed myself out because the city that molded me was in a very painful place,” Israel said. “I believe that I had the unique experience to raise these issues around housing and equity, and affordability, for the right reasons.”
“That’s a perfect self-assessment,” Howard said when we read Israel’s quote to her. “The opening was there and she knew that she had the ability to become the leader that could move Austin forward.”
“She worked damn hard to be able to represent more folks in this community who felt that they had not been represented before,” said Howard. “She had the experience, and the compassion, and the recognition of the need for inclusivity, and the skills to be at the helm.”
“I got both feet on the ground,” Israel said. “Ultimately I think that’s what helped us be a successful campaign, although we fell short. We went up against the odds, and we changed the narrative in the race.”
“So are you done with politics?” we asked.
“Oh, hell no.”