Delia Garza, city council member and county attorney, is ablaze with plans to change the criminal justice system.
By Jenny Hoff, Photos by Rudy Arocha
In today’s political climate, a candidate needs to fight through heated campaigns, put out fires on a regular basis and resist the urge to accept failure. For Delia Garza, Travis County’s newly elected county attorney, these skills have defined her career.
“Once you’re a firefighter, there are not many things that can intimidate you,” says Garza. She sits in a quiet corner of her East Austin home, connecting over video as she has had to do for months. Add to that running a campaign, working as an Austin City Council member, as well as mayor pro tem. “Maybe that’s a life lesson: When you do something hard, the next thing doesn’t seem as hard.”
To run for office and win as the first Latina Austin City Council member and be the first Latina mayor pro tem, and when she was a firefighter, to become the first woman elected to the Austin Firefighters Association, Local 975’s executive board, Garza couldn’t be afraid to forge her own path, no matter how hard or intimidating it seemed. While part of that fearlessness may simply be her personality, Garza says a lot of it comes from forcing herself to overcome her failures instead of letting them define her.
The first time Garza tried to become a firefighter she didn’t get hired. Although she grew up in San Antonio, where her father had been a fire chief and then fire marshall, Garza had never really considered that career path for herself. She studied journalism in college. When she began looking for a job that would get her to Austin, she discovered that the AFD was hiring. Naturally athletic and ready for a challenge, Garza decided to try out and felt deflated when she didn’t succeed. So she tried again.
“I think that says a lot about who Delia is as a person,” says her longtime friend Mike Martinez. Martinez was part of her oral interview panel when she applied for the firefighter job. He later got her involved in the Austin city council when he served as a member. “She is just the type of person where, if she makes up her mind to do something, you can guarantee she is going to follow through. Even if she might not be successful initially, she has that leadership quality to learn from her mistakes and accomplish what she set out to do.”
That kind of determination is what has pushed Garza to fight for causes she believes in, even if they could cause a public backlash. She was a proponent of reducing funding for APD, voting to reallocate certain divisions to other departments and increase funding for mental health professionals to respond to situations where they could be more helpful. She’s also been at the forefront of fighting for resources for Austin’s homeless population, believing that while allowing people to camp out in the city might be controversial, it’s necessary to confront the problem as a community.
“Because of people seeing it more and it being an issue, we have dedicated more resources to it,” she says. “We passed a huge affordable-housing bond, the biggest the city has ever seen. At the end of the day, the people who need help the most are never the ones with the loudest voices on an issue. I wanted to do this because I wanted to help people who need it, and they are rarely the ones at the table.”
While Garza didn’t necessarily intend to follow in her father’s footsteps as a firefighter, his own activism has played a role in guiding her to fight for the underdog. Although he hadn’t completed more than an eighth grade education because he couldn’t afford shoes for school, he rose through the ranks in San Antonio’s fire department, not only as a chief and fire marshall but also fighting for union rights. While working full time and raising a family, he went back to school and completed a university degree, graduating the same year she graduated high school. While her mother never completed a college education, Garza and her sisters say she is one of the most self-educated women they know. She taught them to pave their own way instead of relying on someone else.
“She’s always in our heads telling us we could do anything we want. We just have to work hard for it to get it,” says Lisa Armstrong, one of Garza’s two older sisters. “I think because we were all girls, we were also taught to do everything. We mowed the lawn, changed tires and never thought of things as girl roles or boy roles. Garza became a firefighter, our other sister became a game warden. I think that’s because there were never boundaries to what we could do.”
Pushing boundaries is what Garza plans to do as county attorney. Aiming to reduce the racial disparity in Travis County’s criminal justice system, she considers her new role to be more than just putting criminals away. It’s about helping people avoid prison through more use of sober houses and other county resources.
“The county attorney is a gatekeeper in a lot of ways and can decide if they are going to prosecute certain crimes,” she says. “You can decline to prosecute low-level drug charges or things like criminal trespassing. Sometimes people just have nowhere to go.”
Garza says her career and life goals have always been more about advocating for others than just rising to the top. As a firefighter with multiple leadership positions and on track to go higher, she decided to quit and apply for law school when she turned 30 years old. She believed there was a different type of public service she was destined to do.
“When she first told me she was leaving the fire department, I said, ‘What are you thinking? You could be the first female Hispanic fire chief in the entire country,’” says Martinez. “But she had made up her mind. I’ve heard her say, ‘Being the first is significant, but it’s more important to not be the last.’”
After law school, Garza was an assistant to the attorney general’s office in the Child Support Division. Eventually she made her way to the city council after Mike Martinez appointed her to a commission debating whether members should continue to be elected at-large, meaning voted in by the city as a whole, or if they should be elected by certain districts. The aim was to better represent areas of town with lower voter turnout.
“I remember reaching out to her and telling her that I’m not sure all single-member districts was the way to go. I thought we needed a hybrid system of some at-large and some district members. She called me and said, ‘I think we should go to all single-member districts. I know that’s not what you would like, but I think we should,’” Martinez recalls. “She did her work on that commission and made up her own mind. And it passed. 10-1 was formed, and she became the first Hispanic council woman in Austin’s history.”
10-1 refers to the change in the city council makeup, switching from seven at-large council members to 10 single-member districts and one at-large mayor. Garza was elected to represent District 2 in Southeast Austin in 2014.
Garza admits that having the confidence to go against the grain and even against the wishes of friends and family isn’t always easy, especially as she has pivoted her career and risked failure in new roles. Like anyone doing something they’ve never done before, she’s faced self-doubt about whether she has what it takes to make the right choices, especially when those decisions affect thousands of people or set precedents for future cases. In the heat of the runoff for County Attorney, Garza faced criticism about whether she had enough law experience to lead such a large department. She only worked for three years at the attorney general’s office after graduating from law school and before running for city council. But she learned a lesson early on that she says has given her the confidence to change course, even in the midst of uncertainty.
“I remember having a conversation when I was a firefighter, talking to a specialist about how I was nervous about taking the test to be certified as a driver,” she recalls. “He told me, ‘You’re never going to feel like you’re ready, but you just have to do it. You’re not going to learn the job until you do the job.’ That had a huge effect on my life. And hearing a man say that showed me that everyone had these insecurities.”
Garza knows she plays an important role in her community. Not only advocating for her constituents and now helping reshape Travis County’s crime statistics, but also as a role model for other Latinas who aspire to lead one day.
“Her very first campaign was a rough one,” says Armstrong. “Even though it was hard for her emotionally, financially and even physically, she knew she wanted to do it and she knew on the other side it would be something for other Hispanic girls to look up to. Now that she is a mother of a little girl, it gives her even more motivation to break these barriers.”
Stepping into an even more prominent role as county attorney, Garza knows she’ll have work to do as she tries to change the current demographic statistics within the criminal justice system. But as she’s learned in her career, sometimes bravery, hard work and the shifting winds of public opinion are all one needs to set fire to a system that seems inflammable.
What is some advice you would give to other women who are considering public service?
1. “Don’t be afraid to fail. I have learned the most when I have failed. That’s when you come back wanting more.”
2. “Public service is hard but you can do it. Women are natural multitaskers, and that’s what you have to do in this job. We want to be compassionate about people feeling heard, and we are willing to negotiate more and maybe be a little less stubborn. It’s an important characteristic and needed in politics. It’s so important to have our voices at the table.”
3. “Over prepare, over prepare, over prepare.”
4. “You’re not going to know the job until you do the job.”
3 Questions for Delia Garza
You chose to come to Austin after college, and you’ve dedicated your career to the city. What are your favorite things to do here when you’re not campaigning or working?
What has it been like campaigning in a heated race for county attorney while also serving as a city council member and mayor pro tem during quarantine?
“My husband is very supportive. I don’t think you can do this work without a supportive partner. But one good thing that has come from this time is I am home much more. I’ll take my little girl on a bike ride, and we finally bought outdoor furniture and are using our backyard more.”
Speaking of being home more, your schedule is pretty busy. How do you balance your public duties with your home life?
“I learned to limit myself to committing to something only three evenings a week, otherwise I would not see my child all day. You have to set those boundaries.”
Delia Garza — Platform for County Attorney:
- Decrease racial disparities in the jail population
- End cash bail
- Fight criminalization of poverty
- Lower prosecution of misdemeanor marijuana possession
- Decline prosecution for low-level theft
- Policy of weapon forfeiture in domestic violence cases
- Enforce environmental regulations