State Rep. Celia Israel announces run for Austin mayor

State Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, speaks at a candlelight vigil to mourn the one year anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Capitol at the Texas capitol on Jan. 6, 2022 in Austin. (Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune, Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune)

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Outgoing Democratic state Rep. Celia Israel announced Tuesday she will run for Austin mayor.

Israel, who was elected to the Texas House in 2014, said her campaign will focus on housing, affordability and transportation in the city.

“The city that I've lived in since 1982 has become an exclusive city. It's ultra unaffordable and in my view, we are becoming a city that is forgetting the women and men that are building this economy,” said Israel, who moved to Austin to attend the University of Texas when she was 17 years old. “I'm concerned that we are becoming a city that we don't really want to be and I think urgent action is required.”

Israel, who represents parts of north and northeast Austin in the Texas House, said she is concerned by the declining numbers for Hispanic and Black Austinites as part of the city’s population percentage. She said those declines stem from an affordability crisis that has left behind Austinites of color from working-class backgrounds.

Israel, who is a real estate agent, said she’s seen firsthand through her clients how difficult it is to try to live or rent in Austin.

“It hurts my heart to tell clients to just keep driving until you can afford it. It's painful,” she said. “In this great economy, the folks who are really driving this economic engine are getting left behind.”

Israel made her announcement at Parque Zaragoza in East Austin, a traditionally Latino area of the city that has seen housing prices skyrocket in recent years as more affluent white homeowners move in and buy up homes. Parque Zaragoza is a traditional gathering place for many of the longtime Latino families in the area, and Israel — who worked for Gov. Ann Richards’ administration — said she remembers hosting Get Out the Vote rallies there that offered Tejano music and barbecue.

“Anyone who's in Austin politics knows that's a voting location and I hope to run a campaign that respects that,” she said.

Israel said she plans to use her legislative experience to work with the state to help the city resolve some of its most pressing goals. She has close ties to her fellow lawmakers in the Austin legislative delegation but a contentious relationship with statewide Republican leaders who have often directly attacked Austin for the city’s liberal policies.

“I have a job to do, and the state has a job to do, but voters are well served whenever we're working collaboratively and working together,” she said.

In the House, Israel was best known for her work on voting rights and LGBTQ equality. Last summer, Israel was among the House Democrats who fled to Washington, D.C., to prevent the passage of a GOP elections bill that Democrats said would make voting harder in the state. Though Democrats stayed away for a little more than a month, state Republican leaders called additional special sessions to push the legislation through.

In decamping to Washington in July, Israel had to postpone her plans to marry her partner of 26 years, Celinda Garza. The two were married in October by fellow Austin state Rep. Donna Howard.

Israel was a founding member of the House LGBTQ Caucus. She also has worked to invest in transportation infrastructure, which she said she hopes to use to help the city update its public transit system.

If elected, Israel would be the first openly gay and Latina mayor of the city. Gus Garcia preceded her as Austin’s first Latino mayor.

Former Austin mayor and Democratic state Sen. Kirk Watson has also expressed interest in running for the position, as has City Council member Kathie Tovo. Two candidates have formally announced their candidacy: Jennifer Virden, a realtor and former Austin city council candidate, and Erica Nix, a fitness trainer and LGBTQ activist whose campaign documents describe her as a body positivity ambassador.

Austin’s current mayor, Steve Adler, must step down after his second term ends unless he collects petitions from 5% of registered voters to run for a third term. Adler said he did not plan to collect petitions.

The candidate elected in 2022 will serve only a two-year term as Austin tries to align its mayoral races with presidential elections in an attempt to increase voter turnout.