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In Austin, TX, First Latina To Win City Council Seat Makes History

Image: Delia Garza

Delia Garza, a former firefighter and attorney pictured at left with the navy suit, made history as the first Latina to be elected to City Council in the city of Austin, Texas. Garza is seen being interviewed by a Univision reporter on Nov. 4, following her win. Delia Garza campaign

AUSTIN --- Delia Garza, a firefighter-turned-lawyer and political upstart, has made history, becoming the first Latina to win election to the City Council in this the nation’s 11th-largest city.

Garza, a 38-year-old Mexican American, garnered 66 percent of the vote to trounce three male opponents, all Latinos, in Tuesday’s historic elections.

“I’m excited. This is a long time coming … We’ve broken one of maybe the last glass ceilings and barriers there was to break in Austin,” a jubilant Garza, surrounded by supporters, told NBC News late Tuesday night at the South Austin restaurant where she launched her campaign in April.

A Democrat, Garza ran on a platform of exploring ways to make Austin more affordable, and on improving transportation in this traffic-choked capital city, among the nation’s fastest-growing.

“I’m excited. This is a long time coming … We’ve broken one of maybe the last glass ceilings and barriers there was to break in Austin,” said the city's newly elected first Latina City Council member.

In a decidedly red state and Republican stronghold, Austin is thought of as a bastion of liberal principles. But though Latinas have won election to the state Legislature and to county offices based in Austin, until Tuesday they had yet to crack the City Council. Some longtime political observers say the city’s old at-large election system was at least partly to blame because it gave an advantage to candidates with ties to entrenched political interests in areas of the city with small Hispanic and African American populations.

But for the first time, Austin voters cast ballots Tuesday to fill 10 City Council seats from within newly drawn geographic districts, with the mayor’s post filled, as before, by citywide balloting. Previously, a seven-member council was elected citywide. Voters approved the change in 2012. Austin had been the largest city in the nation not to have geographic districts.

Proponents said the new election system would usher in an era of new faces and diversity, giving minorities a greater voice in how their city is run, particularly for residents in parts of the city which have long felt neglected. Eighteen Hispanics, including five Latinas, ran in seven council districts Tuesday.

One other Latina could join Garza on the council. Susana Almanza, a longtime neighborhood and environmental activist, made the runoff in a crowded race for the District 3 council seat.

“I often joked that I didn’t know I was a minority in San Antonio,” Garza told NBC News. “When you grow up and you see leaders that look like you, you don’t ever think for a second that, ‘I can’t do that.’ Then I moved to Austin and it was very apparent quickly that there were not a lot of Hispanics in leadership positions.”

“Garza’s election is a major step forward. I think it’s important that there finally is a Latina that represents the community,” said Peck Young, a prominent political campaign strategist for more than 30 years in Austin who led a grassroots effort advocating for the change to elections by geographic districts. Young is director of the Center for Public Policy and Political Studies at Austin Community College.

Hispanics have a rich history in Austin. Mexican Americans predated the arrival of English settlers here, and a surging Latino population drove Austin’s growth overall during the last decade. Hispanics now make up 36 percent of the city’s estimated 885,000 population, augmenting their imprint on the city’s cultural identity. (The city’s Anglo share of the total population dropped below 50 percent in 2005.)

But Mexican American history is steeped as well in a dubious legacy. Mexican Americans suffered discrimination in the 1800s and more recently have felt the effects of a political isolation not of their own making. The City Council has rarely had more than one black and one Hispanic member, thanks in part to an agreement by white power brokers and in existence for decades which reserved two seats on the council, one for a black to seek and another for a Hispanic.

Political players long have contended that Anglo political interests decided who would win those two seats. Under the old at-large system of voting, said Young, Latino voters could never really elect someone of their own choosing because a viable Latino candidate had to have the blessing of the Anglo community.

“You had to be either be tied to the liberal Anglo progressive or business community,” Young said. “Frankly there was never a Latina that had sufficient ties to one or the other to be elected.”

“The days where a handful (of) people played kingmaker are over,” Sheryl Cole, an incumbent council member, said in her concession remarks Tuesday, the Austin American-Statesman reported. Cole, an African American, sought the mayor’s job but did not make the runoff.

Garza’s groundbreaking election embodies the promise of geographic representation, that someone without connections to the “big power broker world” has a legitimate shot to win, said a Garza supporter and longtime grassroots activist.

In Austin’s history, only a handful of Latinos have been elected to the council, including Gus Garcia as mayor.

Garza’s groundbreaking election embodies the promise of geographic representation, that someone without connections to the “big power broker world” has a legitimate shot to win, said Jacob Limon, who supported Garza and who joined grassroots organizers in campaigning for the election system change.

A native of San Antonio, Garza followed her father Joe’s footsteps to become a firefighter. She credits him and her stay-at-home mom Celia for inspiring her to dedicate her career to public service.

“I often joked that I didn’t know I was a minority in San Antonio,” Garza told NBC News. “When you grow up and you see leaders that look like you, you don’t ever think for a second that, ‘I can’t do that.’ Then I moved to Austin and it was very apparent quickly that there were not a lot of Hispanics in leadership positions.”

Most recently, Garza was a state assistant attorney general in the agency’s Child Support Division before giving up the position to run for the council. She has been involved in community-based efforts advocating for affordable housing and education, and also was active in the campaign to switch to geographic representation elections.

“Delia has a great resume of service, but maybe not all of the connections and the insider power base to get elected under the old system,” said Limon, chief of staff at the Texas House of Representatives.

Limon said it’s important for young Latinas to have role models like Garza.

“I think her election will help Latinas all around Austin,” Limon said. “They will have a role model and they will see the political process isn’t closed to them. Look at Delia.”

Garza said she was excited for “the little Latinas growing up.”

“Hopefully this will be something attainable for them too now,” she said.

Young said he expects there will be a number of viable Latina candidates in Austin city politics under district elections.

Now, he said, “It’s what you know, not who you know.”