On August 20, Celia Israel stood on the Grand Marshall float for the Austin Pride parade with the Capitol behind her.
Celia Israel and wife Celinda on the Austin Pride 2022 Grand Marshall float (Courtesy of Celia for Austin Campaign)
Like most LGBTQ Austinites, she’s been to Pride before, marched and sweated her ass off. She’s respected by much of Austin queer community, including former mayoral candidate and current film star Erica Nix, who dropped out to endorse Israel’s campaign. And nine years in the Texas Lege have left Israel more than familiar with the pink dome at the end of Congress Avenue. But on that hot August night moment, she says, everything was so exciting for a girl from El Paso.
“You know,” Israel says, “I’m just Celia.”
Just Celia, who if elected mayor would be the first Latina elected to the office in any major American city and would also be the first LGBT mayor of Austin. Just Celia, who after graduating UT in 1982 worked for Ann Richards, who would become governor in 1991. Just Celia – even though just being Celia Israel is a pretty big deal. “It’s not that I want people to vote for me because I’m Latina, or because I’m a lesbian,” she explains, “but if it helps people connect to government, then I feel like that’s part of my job to tell people ‘This is your city, this is your state, come in here and, and be a part of it.’”
Getting those disenfranchised and marginalized by current politics engaged is key to Israel’s plans to tackle Austin’s most tangled issue: housing affordability. Her local and state experience as well as political capital represent a chance to make Austin welcoming to all, Israel points out, as does her desire to connect to the different corners and interests of the community. Earlier this year, she even launched a queer-specific advisory committee, LGBTQ Austinites for Celia, at a party hosted by local drag artist Brigitte Bandit.
Drag queen Brigitte Bandit and Celia at the “LGBTQ Austinites for Celia” launch party (Courtesy of Celia for Austin Campaign)
“I want to be a mayor for all of Austin,” she says, “and we have an unfortunate history of being a city that has been racially and economically segregated over the years … people just want to know, where’s my place in Austin? Regardless of whether they’re LGBTQ, Latino, African American.” The rush to keep the ATX spark alive is a touchstone for folks who appreciate the city beyond its tech sector. Israel says fighting for affordable housing is the No. 1 way to do so. To her, this is personal: Austin is her home, and she wants it to be the best it can be. “Austin is the reason why I had the courage to leave El Paso and come here to be the first in my family to graduate from the University of Texas,” she says. “It’s the spirit of Austin that gave me the courage to say to myself, maybe I could run for office, maybe I could have a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives.”
That spirit is what reached out to her as a kid watching 60 Minutes with her mother. While onscreen a gay rights rally marched through the state capitol – not unlike she’d later do in the 2022 Pride Parade – Israel asked her mother what the word homosexual meant. “I remember my mom ignoring me and acting like she didn’t hear me,” she says. “And what that taught me is that we don’t talk about these things, and keep your mouth shut.” That pressure to keep her identity hidden stayed with Israel through her early career, especially since the vibe during her time with Richards was one of prudent pride. “You could be proud of who you were, but you were also careful about who you told,” she recalls of the Nineties, Eighties, and early Aughts. Now, having served not only in the Texas House but also on the House LGBTQ Caucus, she recognizes her own imprint on today’s changing tides – being the person she needed as a young woman for the youth of today.
“I think I’m always channeling that younger Celia because it’s the younger, LGBT Austinite and Texan that I carry with me as I serve in this role,” Israel says, “and that I will serve as mayor of the 11th largest city in the United States.”