If it seems like Margaret Gómez, a commanding presence despite her diminutive stature, has been in public office forever, maybe that’s because she was first elected Constable in 1980. After three terms, she resigned to run for Travis County Commissioner (Precinct 4) and has been serving in that capacity ever since. She was the first Mexican-American woman elected to both of those offices in Travis County.
A lifelong Democrat, Gomez has worked on numerous campaigns and championed a variety of causes, including literacy, civil rights, public education, infrastructure and the environment. She is a summa cum laude graduate of St. Edward’s University, with a Master’s degree, and has been honored as Woman of the Year by the Texas Women’s Political Caucus and Outstanding Hispanic Woman by LULAC.
The day after Tuesday’s election, we talked about our still-very-blue oasis.
QUESTION: What are your thoughts on the election, now that the dust is beginning to settle?
GOMEZ: We’re still a Democratic county! That’s good given what happened with Republican redistricting. That’s what I’m looking at, and more than 60 percent of the people here voted straight Democratic. We have Democrats everywhere in the county, and given the chance, they’ll vote straight-party ticket. Our turnout was good, too — 37 percent for early voting and 61 percent overall.
QUESTION: After several failed attempts over many years, voters finally approved a change in the way we elect the Austin City Council. That’s a non-partisan institution, but how do you feel about it?
GOMEZ: I feel really good about the passing of the 10-1 (geographical representation) plan. That was a real coalition and had a broad base of support in the community. I’ve always been a real believer in coalitions. That’s what I grew up with in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when I first got involved in politics in Austin, and that’s how President Obama just got re-elected. You have to bring people together to work in coalitions.
QUESTION: You’ve been active for more than 25 years. What changes have you seen in local politics?
GOMEZ: People come and go, and we hear all kinds of opinions. I served on two charter commissions for single-member districts and each time we recommended them, but they kept failing. People have had different opinions about how to do it, so we kept trying. We’re a democracy, so there ought to be involvement from the greatest number of people. I think we learned from those other attempts and tried to do it better each time, and that culminated in this election.
You know, the county has always had single-member districts. When I go to the Commisioners Court, I vote on issues that affect the whole county, not just my district (Precinct 4). I don’t really think there’s a danger of ward politics, which is what people worried about when they voted against it. We don’t serve in isolation. You can’t get much done with just one vote.
QUESTION: Austin and Travis County are growing like crazy. Do you worry that we’ll lose our long-time Democratic majority?
GOMEZ: I think sometimes we fail to explain to others why we feel the way we do here. Instead of explaining how we got there, we have a tendency to say, “Trust me.” People want to know more, they want to know why, and everybody wants to be included. That’s part of the democratic process. It’s messy and time-consuming, but it’s the best process. We need to make sure we make that connection with people.
QUESTION: The 2013 Legislature will convene in a couple of months. We’re lucky to have good Democrats representing us in the Texas House and Senate, but Republicans don’t seem to like us. What will Travis County be watching for this time?
GOMEZ: We always have to look out for any revenue caps they put on us. We always talk with legislators about property taxes and appraisal caps. We have to be concerned about any tool that may limit our revenue. We’re concerned about slashes in education and human services. Counties have a mandate to provide emergency assistance and housing for indigents, so we have to pay more when they make those cuts. When there’s not enough money for public education, those students drop out and wind up in our criminal justice system. Water, of course, will be a huge issue for us, so we’re preparing to deal with that. Transportation is always an issue. When the state doesn’t have money, the county winds up putting up the funds.