In special election to replace LGBT ally Rep. Strama, political leaders see Celia Israel as top contender to take the seat or make it into a runoff
AUSTIN — The race to replace former state Rep. Mark Strama in Austin’s House District 50 is a crowded one, but lesbian real estate agent Celia Israel is one of the top contenders in a possible runoff, LGBT political leaders said this week.
Strama, a Democrat who held the seat since 2005, resigned from office over the summer. The special election is to fill the remainder of his term.
Israel is one of three Democrats in the race. She said she’s worried about the Democratic vote being split among them, but she hopes to come out on top because of her experience.
Israel, who has lived in Austin for 31 years, began her political career as an aide to former Gov. Ann Richards. She later worked at the General Services Commission for the historically underutilized business (HUB) program, which allowed her to travel across the state and work with women and minority business owners.
“I’m the only one who’s worked in state government at the executive level and at the rule-making level,” she said. “I feel because of that experience it’s going to make me a better state rep. State employees are a big part of the district, and they want to know that you understand their job.”
As the first person in her family to go to college, Israel lists education reform among her top priorities in her campaign, as well as healthcare and equality issues.
“I feel strong,” Israel said about the race. “We’re at that stage in the campaign where you’ve identified your positives, you know who’s for you and you got to get them out to vote.”
The other Democrats in the race are businesswoman Jade Chang Sheppard and former Travis County Assistant District Attorney Rico Reyes.
Sheppard was the early frontrunner in the race, but Israel has pulled in a number of Austin-area endorsements from clubs and organizations.
Sheppard also has donated to several Republicans in the past, including George P. Bush’s political action committee, the Hispanic Republicans of Texas, as well as to state Rep. Angie Chen Butto, R-Richardson. Sheppard also donated to San Antonio GOP City Councilwoman Elisa Chan in 2011, though she reportedly asked for her money back after recordings surfaced of Chan calling homosexuality “disgusting” earlier this summer.
On the Republican side, chiropractor Mike VanDeWalle is the lone candidate. While gay businessman and gun-rights activist Michael Cargill planned to run as a Republican in the election, he decided not to run and instead endorsed VanDeWalle.
Cargill said he wanted there to only be one Republican candidate in the race in the Democratic-leaning district Republicans are hoping to reclaim. He also has an opportunity to take a position with a gun-rights organization in the state. However, if VanDeWalle doesn’t win, he said he’d consider running for the seat next year.
“If he doesn’t win, I’ll be looking at running in the primary,” Cargill said.
The Washington D.C.-based Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund and the statewide advocacy group Equality Texas’ political action committee have endorsed Israel.
Victory Fund spokesman Jeff Spitko said the organization is excited about Israel’s campaign. The group normally only endorses candidates that have a high chance of winning.
“We are incredibly impressed with Celia and have high expectations and hopes for the race,” he said.
The House race is one of the Victory Fund’s annual “10 Races to Watch.” The list was released this week and lists the most critical races across the country for the LGBT community on Election Day.
Spitko said another LGBT victory in Texas would greatly help equality issues in the Legislature after the election of state Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-El Paso, last year. Gonzalez is the only openly LGBT lawmaker in the Legislature and has endorsed Israel in the race.
“Both are pillars in the Latino and LGBT community in Texas,” Spitko said. “With Celia added, that would essentially create a caucus within the
House of Representatives in Texas, which would be critical for the LGBT community.”
Chuck Smith, executive director of Equality Texas, said he thinks Israel’s many years of political work in Austin and in the district have helped her make strong ties in the area. He said he thinks she can win and at least make it into a runoff.
“I certainly think that she can win,” Smith said. “I certainly think that the fact that she is a known quantity, that she has been active in municipal and county politics and civic service for a long period of time gives her an edge in terms of voter recognition and hopefully that will carry over.”
With voter turnout in special elections always low, Smith said turnout is everything for the race. But Israel launched her 2014 campaign for the seat back in April after Strama had announced he wouldn’t seek re-election, so she had an early start to campaigning before Strama’s resignation over the summer.
“She’s the best candidate,” Smith said. “She has waged a very strong field campaign. She was the first one talking to voters door-to-door and has continued to do that.”
Smith said Strama was “a long-standing ally” during his time in office and was one of the original authors of the anti-bullying legislation that passed the Legislature in 2011. He said it’s vital to keep an LGBT ally in that seat, and while any of the Democratic candidates would likely be good on LGBT issues, he said Israel’s experience sets her apart.
“In [Strama’s] absence, that does make it important that the district stay in the hands of an LGBT ally,” Smith said. “Celia is far and away the best candidate for the position based on her experience and her knowledge.”
Early voting started Monday. Election Day is Nov. 5. A possible runoff would take place Dec. 10.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 25, 2013.