The Signal recently spoke to state Rep. Celia Israel, head of the Texas House Democratic Campaign Committee and founder of the Texas House LGBTQ Caucus, about the upcoming November elections and Gov. Greg Abbott’s pandemic response so far. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statewide mask order. Is it too little too late?
It’s never too late to do the right thing. We need all of our leaders to use their voice for good and not question doctors. It’s frustrating that it’s taken us so long to get to this point of at least our governor saying wear a mask.
These are weird times we’re living in. I keep thinking about 9/11 when we all came together during a time of crisis. And now our attacker is a virus, and we seem to be more divided than ever. There’s no one trying to bring us together, not in a big way, and that’s sad.
What should Abbott be doing right now in terms of pandemic response that’s been missing?
The tone around masks, sounding the alarm, he and all Republicans have been reluctant to question the president and that’s doing harm to this country.
We haven’t had enough PPE, we haven’t had enough testing, now we’re going into another arc of crisis and we’re finding that we’re in the same situation — not enough testing.
What’s your gut reaction to the news that Texas Republicans are moving forward with an in-person convention in Houston this month?
It’s dumb. I get it — I understand it’s important to be with one another. If you look at it through a partisan lens, yes I have a lot of good friends that I’ve known through Democratic party politics that I’d love to see them in person. But we’re smart enough to know that we could not do [our] convention the way we normally do the convention. We can’t do anything normally anymore.
So, I understand the friendship, the emotion, and the comradery, but none of that matters during a global pandemic. They’re putting other Houstonians at risk. How many people are going to be working that convention? I thought that perhaps when the Texas Medical Association came out strongly with their voice, that would help Republicans see the voice of reason, but it didn’t.
All of the lawmakers in the Texas House are up for re-election. Do you feel like the pandemic is serving as a catalyst for Texas turning blue? Surely, if Trump and Abbott’s pandemic response is inadequate, people are galvanized. But at the same time, campaigns are not holding in-person events, door-knocking isn’t happening. How does this balance out at the ballot box? Do you still see Democrat’s chances as strong as they were before the pandemic in March?
Unfortunately, the issues are so severe and stark, the contrast is clear for me, if I’m going to make a case to a voter who may not always vote Democrat, or may not always vote, period.
I think there’s going to be a wave election coming our way in November. The primary was an indicator in March that people are very interested and motivated to vote. Those numbers are going to be even larger in November.
There’s an array of issues that are being presented to us right now. Of course, access to healthcare. Texas is one of the few states that has yet to expand Medicaid. Oklahoma took similar action to what my bill, which would have said, ‘okay Texas, if you don’t want to pass a law to expand Medicaid, then let’s vote on it.’
My bill was the same bill [as Oklahoma’s], to say to Texans, let’s allow Texans to vote on whether they want more Texans to pull back their federal money and get insurance. Yet again Oklahoma is a gleaming light of progressivism.
So healthcare is an issue that’s going to come up. We cannot also forget — I’m from El Paso, Texas — I refuse to let us forget that gun safety is an issue that has bipartisan support that Texas refused to take action on. You better believe we’re going to remind the voters of that. And then, voting rights. I’m the author of a bill on online voting registration. We’re not going to be able to be at the retail locations like we normally are, to remind people, and say, hey have changed your registration? Have you moved? We’re not going to have that retail politicking about voter registration. If we had online voter registration we would more easily be able to get to people.
And then we’ve got the Texas Republican leadership fighting things like voting-by-mail during a pandemic. That is huge disconnect for me.
And so yes, voters are going to have a stark difference in candidates come November. Healthcare, gun safety, and voting rights are just three examples.
We just wrapped up LGBT Pride Month. You’re the founding member of the LGTB caucus. We just saw this Supreme Court decision guaranteeing work protections for transgender individuals. What are some things y’all are looking to advance in the next legislative session — and also playing defense on?
The big political opportunity is for people to realize that we are only nine seats away from having a Democratic majority in the Texas House. The House elects the speaker, and the speaker controls the tone, tenor, and the content on the House floor.
If your readers believe as I do that we have spent too much time fighting over social issues that are meant to divide us, then look up your state representative, find out who the Democrat is and give them a hand. They need help.
That’s a big way to moderate the crazy in Texas, and that is to take back the Texas House and make sure that the mainstream voter is respected.
I know the plan for Texas Democrats is to target 22 Texas House districts where Beto O’Rourke beat or came close to beating Ted Cruz in 2018. What is the outlook on those races so far in terms of funding and logistics?
On July 15, everyone’s financial reports will come out through the Texas Ethics Commission. I can’t reveal numbers, but I can tell you that the Texas House Democratic Campaign Committee and most of our campaigns that are going to be contentious are going to have very good campaign reports. And of course, this is just the beginning. There’s gonna be an active summer of fundraising as well to make sure these candidates have the resources they need to take their case to the voter.
The fact is there is an unpopular president in the White House. When you’re neck and neck in Texas at the presidential race, the alarms are being sounded on the Republican side.
So I think the wind is on our backs, and I know we have good candidates with a really positive message about Texas. They’re not running an anti-Trump campaign, they’re running a pro-Texas campaign.
We’ve got candidates with good credentials. These women and men are veterans, teachers, they’re respected in their communities. And they’ve got a good story to tell for their state representative districts, so I’m really excited about our prospects this November.
When we look at these competitive Texas House districts, what do we know about the districts and the voters in them? We’ve been hearing a lot about how Republicans are losing suburban voters. In terms of the districts y’all are targeting, can you paint a picture as to where this red to blue trend is happening and what we know about the districts and the voters in them?
Well, there’s a handful of opportunities in the Gulf Coast area and the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The demographic trends are such that — and we’re not just talking about those who have moved to Texas recently — we are a diverse state. We have districts that are not representative of the electorate. We’ve been allowing the politicians to pick their districts, the voters have not been picking their districts. Redistricting of course is a big issue we’ll address in 2021.
But that being said, the electorate as a whole in Texas is young and colorful. And each one of these statehouse races is gonna be making the case to say that your voice is needed and this is your Texas.
Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at email@example.com