AUSTIN — The state lawmakers who won in the November midterm election will be sworn into office in January. But one from Central Texas didn't have to wait until then. James Talarico (D-Round Rock), 29, is replacing a lawmaker who resigned before his term ended. He was sworn into office Tuesday, becoming the youngest member of the Texas House. In Texas This Week, he sat down with Ashley Goudeau to discuss his goals.
Ashley Goudeau: For our viewers who don't live in the district and haven't seen your face before, tell them a little bit about yourself and your road to become a Representative.
Talarico: "Yeah, so my name's James Talarico. I grew up in Round Rock, born and raised. Went to Round Rock ISD schools from kindergarten through 12th grade and went to the University of Texas for undergrad. And when I graduated, I realized how much my teachers in Round Rock had given to me and I decided I wanted to give back. And so I became a public school teacher and actually taught middle school on the west side of San Antonio in San Antonio ISD. And it kind of changed my life, meeting my students and their parents and my fellow teachers. And I decided this is what I wanted to devote all my time to was ensuring that we give every child in Texas an excellent education. So I got my master's in education policy, came back, led a local non-profit here in the Austin area to put technology in the classroom and now kind of elevating my students' voices to the next level at the State Capitol. And I think having a teacher at the table when we make these decisions about our schools and our education system will be a good thing. And so we'll see in a few weeks how that goes."
Goudeau: You've never held political office before, so what really made you say 'I want to be a representative'?
Talarico: "Yeah, so I was kind of tired of seeing folks make decisions about our public school system who had no experience in the classroom as a teacher or as an administrator and decided to change that. You know, I think we've got a lot of lawyers and bankers in office and they deserve a seat at the table too, but I think we need more servant leaders; folks who have a history of serving the community whether as a teacher or as a nurse or a veteran or a firefighter or a police officer. You know, we don't always make a lot of money, but our voices are really important to have at the table. And so I decided to do that to represent my fellow teachers and the students of Texas."
Goudeau: One of the things that's really significant about your win is you're representing District 52 that was Representative Larry Gonzales' district since 2011 is when he started serving and he was a Republican. And in this past election, you were able to turn a red seat blue. What do you think really contributed to that?
Talarico: "Yeah, so Representative Gonzales was a Republican who could work across the aisle with Democratic lawmakers to get things done. And he and I care about the exact same things in this community; education, local colleges and university, healthcare, infrastructure, just kind of meat-and-potato issues. And so he and I have a lot in common even though we're in different parties. And so I think the people of House District 52 are looking for someone who could carry on that legacy; someone who could work with members of the other party to serve the community and I guess that's what they saw in me and I hope to make them proud when the session starts."
Goudeau: You do have to realize and have some comment then on the fact that this is a part of Williamson County. Williamson County has been very red for a very long time.
Talarico: "Yeah, and this is not your granddaddy's Williamson County. You know, things have changed in our community pretty dramatically. As Austin has grown, Williamson has grown and it's a lot of new folks moving into the area and that changes our demographics and our economics, but it also changes the politics. So I think we're seeing a little bit of a different Williamson. That said, change isn't a bad thing. And I'm committed to carrying on the legacy set forth by my predecessor to make sure we're taking care of the needs in our community and in our county. And a lot of this stuff is not a red issue or a blue issue, it's just good public policy and that's what I'll be focused on."
Goudeau: State leaders often talk about having fresh blood, the need to have fresh blood in office and for you, very fresh because you are going to be the youngest member of the Texas House of Representatives. How does that feel? Is that a little intimidating?
Talarico: "Yeah, I mean, it's an honor to be one of the first millennials elected to the Texas Legislature because I feel the pressure to represent my generation in these decision making processes. And it also requires me to learn a lot from senior members who have been a part of this process for a lot longer than I have. But no, my hope is that I just don't get stuffed into a locker on my first day and don't get picked on as the young kid."
Goudeau: One of the things that you said during your swearing-in ceremony that I thought was really significant was you talked about the political climate. You said "the current political landscape is too small for Texas, far too small. Our politics are narrow-minded and short sided. With every border wall, with every bathroom bill, we degrade our reputation and we dishonor our legacy." Those are strong words.
Talarico: "Yeah, well I ran for this seat to serve the community but also to make the state that I love so much a better place. I'm an eighth-generation Texan. And my mama was a seventh generation Texan and she taught me that Texas is beautiful and bold and big and that's been our heritage our entire history. Texas is much more than a state; it's a state of mind. It's an idea that has dazzled and frightened and inspired the world for two centuries. And my hope is that we can get back to a place where that idea will continue to inspire the next generation and the generation after that for centuries to come. But the only way we do that is by chasing a vision of this state that's much bigger than our current thinking. We should be having conversations about how to make our schools the envy of the nation. How to make our economy second to none. How to make our families stronger and healthier than they've ever been. Rather than focusing on what bathroom people use or divisive issues on the border. We should be thinking much bigger. That's what Texans do. We're an ambitious, bold, daring state. And we have to get back to that."
Goudeau: Let's talk about some of the issues for the people within the district and within Texas. For District 52, what do you think are the top three issues impacting the people within the district?
Talarico: "Yeah so the top two I think are linked. So one is property taxes. A lot of folks who've lived in my neighborhood that I grew up in are being priced out of their homes. And soon it's going to become a place, if we're not careful, where only independently wealthy people can live in places like Round Rock and Hutto and Taylor. So finding a way to relieve our local property taxpayers and keep these communities affordable is number one. Number two, which I said is closely linked, is funding for our schools. I have a lot of my fellow educators who are paying school supplies out of their own pocket in the richest country in the world, in one of the richest states in the country. We're nickel and diming our educators to a point where they've got to pay for their own school supplies. And we've got schools that are growing really fast in our area, and so that means more crowded classrooms and not enough resources for our students. And the two are linked because, historically, state government and local government split the cost of local schools 50/50. Over the past decade or so, the state government has gone from 50 percent to 37 percent. And the way we make up that gap is local school districts raise property taxes. Back to issue number one. So the two are inextricably linked and we can only fix property taxes if we focus on funding our schools and fixing our school finance system. So that's the number one priority for me going into the legislature is tackling school finance, funding our schools, making sure the state pays its fair share and relieving our local property taxpayers. I would also add as a third issue is infrastructure and traffic congestion and growth. Obviously, anybody who's been in Austin recently knows there's a lot of new folks coming here. And we can't just put our head in the sand and pretend it's not happening. We've got to prepare for the future. There's a study that came out recently that said by the year 2030, folks in this area are going to spend about three hours in traffic to get from Austin to Round Rock every day. And that's unacceptable. I mean, we can't waste our lives on 35. And so we've got to find new ways to build sustainable transportation systems that get folks to and from work easily and allow us to spend more time at home with our families where we should be."
Goudeau: There's a common thread with all three of those issues and that's money. Funding. It's easy to say, let's fix our broken school finance system, but then where are you going to get the money when the state says they're already strapped and there are other things to pay for?
Talarico: "So the good news is there is money in the budget available. It's how we decide to spend it. So I mentioned, you mentioned, my comments about the border wall. You know, securing the border's important, but that's a federal issue. And right now we've got lawmakers at the State Capitol sending almost a billion dollars a year down to the border for increased border security. We increase border security every session to no avail. And I think everybody can agree that it's just political grandstanding, right? There are folks in the other party who want to please kind of the extreme parts of their base and so they use taxpayer dollars and throw it at the border when there's no need to and when the federal government should be footing that bill. And so that's an example and there are many others where there's money in the budget. If we decide to spend it on schools and infrastructure we can take care of our needs. And if not, we'll continue to kind of grandstand and try to score political points. And I'm just not interested in doing that. I'd rather be straightforward with voters and with my constituents and say here's the money and here's where I think we should put it, in things that are going to impact their lives."
Goudeau: It's natural to have a lot of ambition going into your first legislative session. But what do you feel is the one thing you absolutely want to do and want to be known for your freshman year?
Talarico: "Yeah, so I would like to be a part of a school finance solution. We have a new speaker coming into the Texas House, Chairman Bonnen, who has said that school finance will be his top priority. I hope, you know, I'll be a freshman, but I hope as an educator, as someone who has studied school finance and education policy, that I can provide some much-needed expertise in that area. And so if that's the one thing I can help us move the ball forward on, I'll be very happy coming out of my first session."