State Rep. Celia Israel on imagining a Democrat-led Texas House

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For the first time since losing the Texas House in 2003, Democrats appear poised to break a 17-year trifecta of Republican power in Texas government. 

Sprinting into 2020 after flipping twelve House seats in 2018, Democrats would only need nine more seats to win a slight majority in the lower chamber. 

Doing so would put a quick stop to the runaway train that is the state’s increasingly extreme Republican Party, State Rep. Celia Israel told the Signal. “I’ve been involved in politics since 1989 when I was with Ann Richards’ campaign,” Israel said. “I’ve seen the highs and the lows– and I haven’t seen this type of palpable energy since 1989.”

Joining the Texas Legislature in 2014, the two-term Austin Democrat has been recently tasked with heading the Texas House Democratic Campaign Committee Israel describes as the “project manager” for the wave of new campaigns hoping to secure the nine coveted House seats. 

Voters in the suburbs– the same suburbs whose explosive population growth in the 1980s and 1990s was responsible for the eventual GOP victory in the state– are now fleeing the Republican Party. It’s no wonder House Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s rhetorical panic about Trump “killing” Republicans in the suburbs made headlines; of the 12 flipped House seats won by Democrats last year, all were suburban targets.

“We haven’t had the reigns of power since 2010,” Israel said of the midterm elections that saw Democrats lose more than 20 House seats to a wave of Tea Party lawmakers. “We’ve seen the damage done to the body. The Republican Party has become more radicalized. They seem to gain political advantage by pushing their party further and further to the right.”

Israel cited the 2017 special session called by Abbott to pass anti-abortion legislation and restrict bathroom use for transgender Texans as an example of how the GOP party has forgone basic legislative issues like health care, gun safety, and transportation.

“If you had a Democrat-controlled House, I think we would be a political counterbalance to a radical right element that has been running the party for too long,” Israel said noting that this past session, Republicans were already pressured in more practical bipartisan lawmaking like school finance because of the increased Democrat presence in the House. 

By controlling the House, Democrats would also nominate one of their own for Texas House Speaker, the third most powerful position in the state government. The speaker, who controls the flow, tone and procedural rulings, would make short work of wedge issues, like so-called “religious freedom” bills or anti-abortion proposals. 

Above all, Democrats would have a seat at the table when the legislature convenes in 2021 to draw the state’s new district lines. Texas is estimated to gain an additional three congressional seats by 2020.

Israel said she remembers the era of Texas politics from her youth, before the rise of the Republican Party in the state and when lawmakers competed to make the lives of Texans better instead of passing laws to the benefit of their polarized base. 

“I want Republicans to go home and think, what a great job I did on transportation instead of look, I created a false crisis around religious freedom,” Israel said. “These are not good times, but because we have good record turnout to turn things around, that’s what excites me.”

Photo: celiafortexas.com

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