Working in public service has its challenges but knowing that you’re making a positive impact on the lives of many is more than rewarding. Joining us today is Rep. James Talarico, the Youngest Member of the Texas House. In this episode, he shares his journey to serving in public office and how his mother served as his inspiration. In his chat with hosts Claire Campos O’Neal and Nichole Abshire, James also talks about his advocacies for education and marginalized groups and how he’s using his position to help those in need the most. If we want to change a flawed system, we need people in office making policies that will facilitate and create meaningful changes in the state and the country. They also discuss the different processes of election, selection, and appointment into office, as James explains why a one-party rule is bad in any country. Tune in to learn more about James’ meaningful work and how you can contribute to helping elevate your community.
Watch the episode here
Listen to the podcast here
Rep. James Talarico, the Youngest Member of the Texas House, Reveals the Secret to Public Service
In this episode, we interviewed Representative James Talarico. He represents the community in Northwest Austin and happens to sit on the House Public Education Committee. He does a lot of special work around public education policy in this committee. We learned many wonderful things from him. He is a great person, so eloquent, very impressive. What did you think, Nichole?
Yes, all of those things. He lives up to the hype. If you look around, you will find that there is some James Talarico hype, and he earns it. That is for sure. He is right in line with the amazing people we have interviewed. He is great at taking complicated issues, boiling them down to what is essential, and also making a case for why democracy is important. I know we didn’t talk explicitly a whole lot in this interview about democracy but I feel it’s the underlying current. That’s why I’m tossing it in there.
Democracy, at the end of the day, is about people and relationships. He is top of mind with that disclaimer. He talks about vulnerability, listening to one another, and removing our blinders. I appreciate that from an elective representative because your job is to represent all kinds of different people. It’s important to move forward with that mindset. We learned a lot. He was delightful. I hope you all enjoy this episode.
Representative James Talarico, thank you for being with us on the show. We are excited to learn about you, how you got into politics, your work on the House Public Education Committee, and all of those fun things. We always like to start back from the beginning. What were you like when you were younger? Did you grow up in Texas?
I grew up here in Central Texas. I was born in Round Rock and grew up in the Wells Branch neighborhood, over the county line in Travis County, in the district that I’m now running in, the House of Representative District 50. I was a problem child. I got in trouble a lot in school. I was always in detention and getting referrals, usually for talking too much in class and being disruptive.
I was social, which would later turn out to be handy in politics but it was not handy when I was supposed to be sitting still and listening in elementary school. That experience is what led me to focus on school discipline issues and school and prison pipeline issues. It’s personal to me. I was not a good kid when I was younger but thankfully, because of extracurricular, I learned how to harness some of those impulses into something productive.
What did you enjoy learning when you were a kid? What subjects?
I always gravitated toward reading, writing, History, Social Studies, and things about people and stories that tend to be how I learn and communicate best. I have always admired math, science, and analytical people. It’s not usually how my brain works. The humanities and liberal arts are always what I gravitate toward.
I’m a fellow liberal arts person.
I can’t remember which side of the brain.
I get it mixed up too. Maybe the left is the more creative side.
The side that doesn’t understand numbers. That’s my side.
If we were analytic people, we would know this.
My sister, on the other hand, is on the number side of the brain. She grew up to be an accountant. She is precise and much smarter than I am. I’m glad there are people like that in the world.
Growing up, I’m curious. Did you come from a family that was politically involved? Did you all talk about politics around the dinner table, or was that like, “We don’t discuss those things?”
Certainly, it was the former in my case. I was born to a single mom who had to leave an abusive situation like many moms do to make sure that I was taken care of and provided for. She worked at a hotel in Austin. We found a little apartment in East Austin, where we lived. That experience of being a survivor of domestic abuse, being a single mom, and being working class led her to become politically active. She volunteered for Planned Parenthood and also for TARAL, which back then was the Texas Abortion Rights Action League. It later became Texas NARAL Pro-Choice and now is Avow.
It had a long history as an organization but back when she was volunteering in the early ‘90s, it was called TARAL. She would bring me after school when I was in kindergarten to the TARAL office while she was organizing their celebration of choice. She was not a staff member, not paid. She was a volunteer, but that certainly led me on the path that I’m on public service. It was my mom who taught me that we have an obligation to give back and try to change systems that are unjust.
I’m always curious what people’s bread crumbs or touchpoints look like to get them where they are now. It sounds like you witnessed a lot of that service when you were younger and are now emulating it because your mom was like, “Let’s go. We are going to go volunteer.”
I thought my mom would have been a great candidate and public servant. She didn’t get to go to college. She didn’t have the fancy degrees that I have, which allowed me to do this work. There are millions of people like her, organizers, and volunteers on the ground who we need to do a better job of uplifting and putting them in these positions. As you all know well, there are a lot of barriers to entry, running for office, and being in public service. My mom would have been great at it, and there are lots of people like her who would be great at it too.
That has been a recurring theme. You are about to touch on it, Claire.
We are eager to get into that piece of it. The piece of how public office is. It seems like it is inaccessible to a lot of people because of the pay or lack of pay and the time commitment. We are hoping to get into that with you because it’s a problem.
When I was elected, I was the youngest member of the legislature. It’s particularly hard for young people to run for office because you usually need a giant network of wealthy people to fund your campaign. Young people tend not to have that unless you come from money or come from wealth. You tend to have this political and social infrastructure.
You got to be able to afford to serve in a part-time position, whether it’s the legislature, school board or another position like that. That tends to be very difficult for young people. It was not easy to get in this position but we desperately need more young people to do so because, as you all know, the issues that we are facing and the challenges that we have to overcome impact young people in particular.
We don’t want to segue too soon, do we?
Yes, it’s getting us off track.
We will get in there. We will get a little bit into not right when you are starting to run but as you are in getting into college, were you already thinking, “I want to be an elective representative?” What was that leap from college to deciding, “This is the step I want to take to serve my community?”
I always knew I wanted to do service in some capacity. That comes from what my mom taught me and also from my faith and the church I grew up in. When I was in college, I did a lot of grassroots organizing around affordability and accessibility issues. I went to the University of Texas for Undergrad. They were trying to hike tuition while I was there. It was right in the middle of the Great Recession. I was there from 2007 to 2011.
I worked with a bunch of other student organizers. We had students march to the Capital, had them testify, and had them lobby. That was my first experience in the state capital. I was from the outside, trying to get them to invest in higher ed and invest in financial aid to allow more working-class students to go to public universities like UT.
Was that successful? How did that go?
It’s more expensive than ever before to go to college. In the long-term, it was not successful. As is the case with all organizing, you are living a larger story. You may not succeed success in your particular circumstance. You may not succeed success in your particular lifetime but you are hopefully part of a much larger movement working toward a common goal.As is the case with all organizing, you're living a larger story. You may not succeed in your particular circumstance, you may not succeed in your particular lifetime, but you're hopefully part of a much larger movement working toward a common… Click To Tweet
People across the country are waking up to the fact that higher ed needs to be transformed, more accessible, affordable, relevant to people’s lives, and inclusive of all kinds of people. As we know, the higher ed system in America and Europe was not built for all people. The challenge that we have in this country is how do we transform it and rebuild it so that it can be for everybody and anybody.
We have a conversation, and I’m about to be mindful of the order of our episode. James, we recorded an episode with Chris Tackett There were 1,000 great takeaways but a couple of the big ones that you touched on were the idea of redefining winning. We are thinking about shaping the conversation and letting that be one of the ways that we look at winning. I feel like that’s what you are touching on. Maybe it didn’t exactly reach the hoped-for goal but you certainly can change and open up the conversation. I wanted to dig into it a little bit. I’m curious. How do you define public service? What does that mean and look like to you?
When I say service, I’m using the broadest possible definition of giving back to a community, and that could be as small or as large as you like to define it. It can be in elected office, which is how I am serving at the current moment. It could also be in a public school where I used to serve as a public school teacher. Nurses, first responders, and members of our Armed Forces serve every day through their profession. It’s also people like my mom who worked at a hotel during the day but also found time to volunteer their time, talent, and treasure to a cause larger than themselves that would impact the entire community.
Service can look different depending on your circumstances and your passions but it’s different from living a life for yourself. Making as much money for yourself as you possibly can. Doing things that only benefit yourself or your immediate family, which is how our culture tends to encourage that in almost every way. A life of service is much more rewarding and fulfilling. Living a life for yourself can leave you empty at the end of the day, in my experience.
Tell us about the transition from being a student at UT, you are going to the capital and pushing for this change that you want to see, to thinking, “I could be one of those elected representatives.”
That joke didn’t happen until later. I was still very focused on an issue. This seems to be true for a lot of people who run for office. They were involved in a particular issue. Claire, I know that you were involved in education issues in your community. That was true for me. I was motivated by this idea of educational equity and everyone having access to education.
Education is not about getting a job, a degree or making money. It’s about self-actualization and waking up to who you are and what the world is. That is something that every human being has a right to. In this country and state, it is only available to folks who have money and tend to come from places of privilege, whether it’s an economic or racial privilege. That was what I was working on at UT.
When I was there, there was an organization recruiting. It was a new organization at the time called Teach for America. There are a lot of different folks who have different opinions about it. There are certainly some problematic aspects of the organization. When I was a student, they approached me and said, “We can give you the opportunity to go teach at a school that needs good teachers.” I signed up, went, and interviewed with a school in San Antonio ISD. I was hired by that principal. I taught sixth-grade Language Arts at Rhodes Middle School. That experience changed my life in many ways and put me on the course that I’m on now.
It was an incredibly difficult job, the hardest job I have ever had. I have done a lot of things since then but by far, being a teacher on the Westside of San Antonio was the most difficult job. I loved my students, fellow teachers, and the members of the community that I was a part of. That was the transition. It was from a student organizer working on higher education issues to being a public school teacher working on K-12 issues.
Eventually, I decided that the work I was doing as an organizer, teacher, and nonprofit leader was inadequate to transform the systems that were holding my students back. I could be as good of a teacher as I could be in room 112 at Rhodes Middle School. I was a good teacher. I was nominated for the Rising Star Award in the district for new teachers. I was good at my job and loved it but I was still only helping about 150 kids a year. After they left my classroom, they were to go back into that broken system.
Desmond Tutu has a quote, “You can keep pulling people out of a river, but at some point, you got to look upstream and figure out why they are falling in the first place.” That was the feeling that I had. That search led me straight to the Texas Legislature because that is where education policy is primarily crafted.
I think about that all the time about the systemic change that has to happen to improve things overall holistically. That resonates a lot with me.
Claire, especially in education, that part of the conversation tends to make people uncomfortable because if you are teaching poor kids how to read, you are called a saint. If you start asking why those kids are poor in the first place, suddenly, you are a radical. That transition to system-level thinking and system-level action is necessary but it’s also disruptive, and you get a lot of pushback. Suddenly, you are not the nice teacher who is serving kids on an individual basis. Now you are trying to question the entire system in which your kids and their families live.
I find we put restraints on ourselves too sometimes. We tried to be sensitive about how we think of this show and position ourselves because there is this looming accusation of being partisan and overly political. It’s wild how powerful that threat feels. We had many conversations about what we are talking about democracy, access, and interrogating systems. That is not partisan.
I’m someone who believes that everything is political. When people draw lines saying something is or isn’t political reveals what they take for granted and what they think is normal or what’s acceptable. It’s always interesting to me when people use the term political and label something as political when in fact, everything is.Everything is political. So when people draw lines saying something is or isn't political, it really reveals what they take for granted and what they think is normal or acceptable. Click To Tweet
We have our mini episodes where Nichole and I talk about our broader issue, and something we are going to discuss soon here is what is the purpose of public education. It’s interesting because a lot of what it gets into is this invisible machinery that is impacting children’s experiences but someone created that machinery. What does that look like? We are trying to help reveal that through this show.
It’s very much working down in education policy. You realize how much of what I’m trying to do. What we are trying to do is trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. This was not designed to serve all children like the Black and Brown children that I serve on the Westside of San Antonio. The system was not meant for them now. I believe, because I’m doing this, that we can make a system that works for them and serves them and their families. I believe that with every fiber of my being but that’s not the system we had, and that wasn’t how it was designed. Once you come to that realization, it becomes a lot easier to do this difficult work because you realize how difficult it truly is.
I want to get back to your run but I also want to stick with this thread. Do you feel like the people that you are working with agree with you on these that public education wasn’t designed to serve all children? Where do you find your base? You then can build that from there.
I don’t think they realize it, especially my Republican colleagues, because they are the ones who are in charge. It matters a little what my Democratic colleagues and I believe or think at the legislature because we don’t have power in any formal sense. The only power we have in the minority is to use the rules to kill or weaken bills and use relationships to try to convince our colleagues to do the right thing but we can’t pass a bill and implement policy on our own.
When I say my colleagues, I’m talking about my Republican colleagues. I always try to treat them with authentic love and respect, as every human being is entitled to. It also makes it easier to try to always assume the best intentions and believe in someone’s growth. Even someone who passes and votes for morally horrific legislation, still, always believing like I used to believe in my students that they can get better is critical to this job. That is easier said than done. I fail all the time. Sometimes, when I’m angry, I write people off and say they are irredeemable. I try to remember that. I don’t believe that.
Back to your question. If I’m thinking from the most empathetic point of view, my colleagues are limited by their experience. I know that because, as a White straight guy, I have the same limitations, those same blinders. Thankfully, I have been able to have some experiences and relationships that have helped take off some of those blinders but a lot of my colleagues still have the full set that they were born with. The challenge is how do you lift those blinders for folks? The best ways are through experiences and through lived experiences.
I worked on legislation that didn’t pass to try to get every legislator to teach for a day in a public school because being on the ground, being with people and communities, is part of lifting those blinders and seeing how systems impact real people in real places. To them, growing up from the point of privilege, going to a public school that worked for them and graduating, getting a good job, becoming successful, and being in the legislature, that all work pretty well.
When you look back on it, you think, “That system is good. We need some tinkering around the edges but it’s good.” If you are one of my kids from the Westside, you have a different perspective on how that system does not work and is not intended to work for you. The answer is no. I don’t think my colleagues realize the extent of the problem or the roots of the problem. I’m still learning about it too. I put myself in that same category.
I will ask one more question now that we are down this path. What has helped you or what do you think helps them start to remove those blinders? Is it testimony? What’s impactful?
It’s the human connection that can sometimes happen in testimony but the testimony is hard. You are in a performative space. You are physically disconnected. I can share this story. One of the best organizers in the capital is an activist named Ash Hall. He does a lot of work for the trans community in Texas and is an outspoken advocate for trans kids in particular.
During the horrible debate about the UIL Bill that discriminated against trans children in sports, he wrote a personal note to the former Chairman of the Education Committee, Dan Huberty. It wasn’t about policy. It was about who Ash is as a human being, what their experience has been like in life, what this bill would’ve done to them, and what it’s doing to trans kids across Texas. I remember Dan Huberty coming to me on the floor and showing me this little letter.
It was on a little piece of paper. It wasn’t even long. He taught me about how much it touched him. I don’t think we ever got Dan all the way to a no-vote. I do know that he helped us try to slow down the bill. I know he had some significant doubts. We might have been able to push him over the edge if we had had enough time. I remember thinking that Ash was brilliant to strip away all of the talking points, the policy, and jargon and get to like that human-to-human connection. That’s the only way that I ever learned. The only way I have ever changed is from a connection with another human being. That is true in politics and in the policy.
I appreciate you sharing that story because something else we want to do in this show is to help give people tools on how to have their voices heard and how to feel that they can change people’s minds. We have to do a little bit of that to move things forward in the direction we want or stop things if we don’t want them to happen.
This is true on campaigns too. These are two sides of the same coin. Campaigns, politics, and policy go hand in hand. You can’t have one that the other. It’s true on both sides of the ball that you have to be vulnerable. Think about our relationships in real life, your partner, your spouse, your child, your parent. None of those relationships come to fruition without vulnerability. That is the center of it.
Stripping away all the masks that we wear, that’s true when you get up to testify and when you meet with the legislator. Don’t have the one-pager in front of you. When you go knock on a door during a campaign, don’t have a script in front of you. Those things can be helpful to set a foundation and to have your facts ready if you need them but strip that away and come up as a vulnerable person. That’s a lot easier said than done, especially for marginalized populations that have to come to the capital in an unfriendly environment and advocate for their own humanity. That is not easy to do. I never had to do that myself but it’s the only thing that will work, unfortunately. It’s necessary.
I’m glad that you acknowledge the difficulty of that. My heart is beating fast. I’m feeling super fidgety because you touched on it. Having to advocate for one’s humanity is a big ask. It’s a lot of grace that you have to extend to the person on the other end. The trans issue hits home for me. I have a child who is non-binary. We had to create a safety folder. It’s challenging, frankly, not to be incredibly angry that I feel it is necessary to justify my child’s existence. Justify my love for them and my desire to give them healthy outcomes to people who it feels like they don’t even want to acknowledge their humanity.
I’m not going anywhere with this, except that I do appreciate that you are acknowledging that it is hard for people. What I find personally frustrating is the lack of curiosity. It bothers me. It hurts my heart, honestly, that folks would create legislation that can be harmful. When they hear that it is harmful on a personal level, aren’t they curious about the harm that it causes? Our family went into a tailspin. This is real stuff. It is a big ask, is all I’m saying. It’s a lot of grace to have to extend to someone who, by all evidence, doesn’t desire your well-being.
It’s something you shouldn’t have to do. We should all know. We are all assuming that but we should say, “This shouldn’t have to be the case.” Nichole, I’m glad you brought up the word safety because it’s not just emotionally uncomfortable. It’s also putting them in real danger, both emotionally and mentally but also in physical danger. The capital is not a safe place for a lot of marginalized people. That is part of the thing that keeps me going when I’m getting discouraged, I’m getting upset, or I’m feeling hopeless. I look at people like Ash Hall, and I’m like, “If Ash can do this in a much harder thing than I’m doing, I have to keep going.”
The last thing I will say is that this is why we have to do this in the community and why people of privilege are part of this community to try to take off as much of the load as we can. I can’t remember which activist told me this and who it was but he talked about the analogy of a choir. In that choir, you can stop singing, and the rest of the choir can carry forward.
When you start singing, they can stop. Everybody is able to carry a burden and take that burden down. If we are going to do this here in Texas, and we are part of a big mission that we are trying to accomplish together, we are going to have to do it as a group and as a community because it’s a lot to ask, especially from the folks who are directly impacted.
We also spoke to Laura Subrin Yeager, who does a lot of education advocacy work. She was saying, “I’m tired.” We are going to find other people to keep carrying the torch because sometimes you need to take a break and rest and get back in it.
Also, find places for joy. The best activist that you meet, you are going to interview some of them. They have this wicked sense of humor. It’s this gallows humor that they have even in a dark place and a dark time because they have this little candle that is still burning, even when all of this is happening and the storm is around them. I tried to learn from them and cultivate that.
Even in dark times, we should find joy, should cultivate joy, and do that for each other. There is a bad tendency in progressive circles to be like, “Things are bad, so we all have to be unhappy at all times.” That’s not how human beings work. It’s also not sustainable. We have to be able to laugh with each other. We have to be able to sing and dance with each other. All of these things still have to happen if we are going to do this over the long haul because this is the long mission that has been happening long before all of us got here.
With any movement, you got to bring people in. I don’t want to go to a party where people look miserable.
That’s why when you look at movements in history, the Labor Movement, Civil Rights Movement, and the Women’s Rights Movement. When you think about, in addition to the politics, the music, and culture, those movements inspired and created. They are much more than a policy or a political movement. They are fully fast and multi-dimensional.
Let’s get back to before you are a representative. When did you think, “I could do this, and I’m ready to put my name on the ballot and run to be a state representative?
After, I left the classroom to work at a nonprofit because I was dissatisfied with the scope of my reach in a classroom. I was excited about what this nonprofit was doing. I had some great nonprofits that had helped me in the classroom when I was in the classroom. I was an Executive Director. I was doing fundraising, meeting with foundations and R&D, and working with school districts. I kept running into roadblocks put in place by policymakers.
When I dug a little deeper, I realized those barriers were being put up at the legislature. It wasn’t school boards. School boards tend to implement policy and education. It’s not at the federal level. The federal level is a lot about funding education, not crafting as much policy, although there are some you think of IDEA and other things like that or No Child Left Behind.
The bulk of it is done at the state legislative level. That’s what I set my sights on. A seat opened up in Round Rock, the city where I was born. The Republican was leaving office. President Trump had won that district by one point in 2016. I decided to throw my hat in the ring. I had certain skills. I knew how to organize. I was a good, confident public speaker. I knew a lot about policy given my work in the classroom, my Master’s degree in Education, given my-nonprofit work, and I knew the community well because I have grown up here.
I was like, “That’s enough for me to go ahead and put my name out there.” The rest is history. We were able to cobble together enough support to get 51% of the vote in that election in 2018. I got elected. I was the first Democrat in that part of the county to get elected since I was in kindergarten. It was a big flip, a big change, and it was possible because of countless people, both in the community and from outside of it.
How old were you?
I was 28 when I started the campaign and 29 when I got elected. I was the youngest member of the legislature when I got sworn in. It was an interesting dynamic. A lot of my colleagues were old enough to be my grandparents. Some of them would say that explicitly. They would say, “You remind me of my grandson.” There was a temptation to take offense or something like that but I used it as an opportunity to build relationships with people I normally wouldn’t have a relationship with.
It was also a lot of pressure because there were no twenty-somethings in the whole state government. I was like, “I got to represent my whole generation here at the decision-making table, a generation that is incredibly diverse, incredibly different, and I got to try to be that voice.” One thing I tried to use with that platform, or you do with that platform, is to try to support other young candidates that were running for office, typically at the local level. How you build up to a state legislative run or congressional run is you get people elected to the school board and city council. I tried and continue to try to support young candidates primarily financially because that tends to be the biggest area of need.
What was it like in the beginning when you were sworn in and a state representative? How do you even prepare for a role like that? Do they have training? What happens?
There is an orientation that shows you where the bathrooms are and how your desk button works. In terms of how you be a good policymaker, that has to come from your life experience and the people you surround yourself with. I knew that hiring an excellent staff was going to be the key decision that I made. I brought on an incredible Chief of Staff who has since been stolen away to work on other things by other groups but her name was Michelle Castillo.
She was an amazing leader. She was at the Children’s Defense Fund. She has also been involved in college at accessibility and worked for several other key members, including Rodney Ellis, legendary State Senator out of Houston. I was like, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know how this place runs. I need to find someone who does to lead my office.” Michelle was the person who did that. I would not be the legislator I am now if it wasn’t for Michelle Castillo. Having a great team is by far the most important thing you can do as a candidate or a policymaker.
That’s helpful to know for anyone who might become a rep. It’s like, “What do I do now?” Find a good team.
There are a lot of people who want to do this work but don’t want to be out in front. They don’t want to be a public person. They don’t want to expose themselves to that criticism or attention. I get that, and I sometimes feel that way too. Those people should think about being staff in the Capital because the staff members are what makes that building run. They are the ones who are doing the actual nuts and bolts of policymaking in the state.
A lot of people think they have to be the elected official because that is what you see on TV, and you watch The West Wing. It’s always the person in the room. Being a member of a team or a staff member for a legislator is sometimes more rewarding and fulfilling. You get to do the actual work if you want to do it without all the unnecessary and unfun stuff that surrounds public office. If you are reading this and you want to do politics, think about being a staff member. We don’t have nearly talented enough, imaginative, competent staff members in politics at all levels. The pay is better than being a state legislator.
We talked to Dr. Audrey Young, who’s an SBOE member, and she says, “School board trustees make nothing.” I’m like, “You guys campaign. You work so hard. They don’t have staff.” I know that state reps make very little. What do you make?
It’s not true for every public office. Austin City Council members make $70,000 a year, which is a great salary. The members of Congress make $150,000 a year, which is a nice salary. Some positions aren’t paid. We should make a disclaimer. If you are thinking about public office, you should consider a lot of things. If you don’t come from family money, you should consider what positions pay something. To plug a staff position that gets you a salary, benefits, and retirement.
For my position, I make $7,200 a year, and that’s about $450 a month after taxes. There are some perks. One is that if you stay in legislature long enough, you get a very generous pension when you retire. That is a perk. You have to be there for eight years or something to get that benefit. Being a state representative also opens you up to being able to do other things outside of that. You meet a lot of people, which can also be something you get paid for.
I have a day job in addition to this. I’m an education consultant. I was fortunate to be able to find a job where I could use my education expertise and be able to do work that is interesting and informs my policymaking. For instance, as an education consultant, I helped set up my brother’s keeper initiative here in Austin with some of our high schools. It was an initiative set up by President Obama when he was in office to help young men of color get to success in post-secondary after high school. That’s work that I was able to do with Austin ISD and my brother’s keeper initiative here in Austin. That’s completely separate from my legislative job and how I earn a paycheck that is livable every month.If you only have wealthy people serving in positions of power, it's gonna skew your policy making. Click To Tweet
If I’m being honest, most of my colleagues tend to be either wealthy ranchers, businessmen or lawyers who own their own law firms or doctors who own their own practice. There are few people like me who work an actual 9:00 to 5:00 job in addition to being a legislator, and not to go on and on, this has bad implications for our democracy. If you only have wealthy people serving in positions of power, it’s going to skew your policymaking and how state government works.
There’s only a handful of legislators who are in my position of still working a job, still having to earn a living, and coming from a background of having to work for a living. I’m an advocate of paying legislators a full living wage. That is sometimes controversial because people don’t like the idea of paying politicians. If you don’t pay politicians, you only have wealthy people serving in political office, and that’s also bad. Pick your poison. Paying politicians a living wage is a much better option.
I once heard someone say that’s smarter than me and said it succinctly, “Whoever is closest to the power should be closest to the pain.” When you have that system of not compensating politicians well, you are going to get people who don’t need to worry about money, and that’s a problem.
Especially teachers, I’m 1 of only 3 legislators who has been a classroom teacher out of the entire legislature. I wanted to go back into the classroom after I was elected. I thought I could maybe teach on the off years, and Ethics Laws in Texas prevent me from working for an ISD. There are many obstacles, even if you are qualified to do a job. I’m still certified to teach in Texas. I could go back into the classroom but I’m not able to because of the Ethics Laws that are in place.
It’s difficult to manage it but if you can, it’s worth it because we need people like that in the position of public trust. The last thing I also say is that I don’t have a family yet. I don’t have a partner or kids that I have to support. That makes it easy for me to do this or relatively easy. I can’t imagine how someone would do this in my position if they were trying to take care of kids or support a family. I can live off ramen noodles when I need to. If I had kids at home, we needed to make sure I was making more money than I did.
We did want to talk about the House Public Education Committee, which you sit on. Before we talk about that, can you tell us how committee selection works? There are all these committees that we have at their legislature, and certain representatives sit on there. A lot of work happens in committee. Maybe a little overview.
There are 150 of us in the state house. We all come from all parts of the state, and all of us getting on the floor trying to make a bill would be chaotic. We got some organization where we are divided into committees based on issues. I sit on one of the more powerful committees, which is the Public Education Committee, which makes decisions for 5.5 million Texas school children. You are selected for committees by the speaker. It’s one person deciding who goes where.
There is some influence of seniority. If you have been there long enough, you can get first bids on certain committees. Besides that, it’s based on the decisions of the Speaker of The House, who is elected by the membership. Hopefully, the body of elected speaker who makes committee assignments is at least partially based on expertise, experience, knowledge, and passion. That’s how the house should work.
I can’t prevent politics from entering the Texas Legislature. Some of it is who was supportive of the speaker when he ran for speaker, who has done what favor for who, and who is on good terms with whom. All that also plays a role in it. It’s a combination of political relationships, expertise, and seniority. That gets you a place on a certain committee. We fill out a preference card like a little index card saying what committees we want to be on in a certain order. The speaker takes that, it goes into a black hole, and the speaker makes their decisions. Sometimes if you have done something that upsets people, you can get kicked off a committee. We will see if I’m back for the next session.
What do you primarily focus on in the past Public Education Committee? You said education policy but what does that policy look like?
It changes based on what’s happening in the state. It’s K-12. There is a separate committee for higher education. I personally think there should be a committee for early childhood. I’m working on that but pre-K-12 is what a bit committee focuses on. Everything from assessment, accountability, testing, curriculum, teacher compensation, teacher training, school nutrition, extracurriculars, and recess.
The whole runs the gamut from things that impact students directly to things that impact the professionals in the system to school finance, which, as you all know, is complicated. There is an old joke in the capital, “Only 3 people understand our state school finance system, and 2 of them are dead.” It’s a complicated system. It sucks up a lot of the oxygen during a session. It is figuring out how to make that system work better for kids and teachers.
Which issues do you think are going to rise to the top this next legislative session?
Every time I’m asked about this, I want to give them two answers. One is what issues should rise to the top and what issues will probably rise to the top? Let’s start with the first one. The thing we should be focused on is learning loss from COVID. We had expert after expert and educator after educator come to us and talk about the incredibly harmful impacts academically, socially, and emotionally of the pandemic on our kids. Recovering from that is going to take a massive effort statewide. It’s going to take marshaling all the resources of the state government to fix it.
There are some studies from other countries that have had similar natural disasters where there has been a massive disruption in public education, and you can see the impacts of that years down the road. Sometimes the kids never recover in terms of their earnings over their lifetime from that disruption. Learning loss has to be at the top of the list.
Teacher shortage, teacher compensation, and teacher morale. Focusing on our educators has to be right after we talk about student learning loss. The third should be making school finance a major conversation in this session. I’m someone who believes every session should be a school finance session. We got to make sure that the system is serving all of our students, particularly students who come from poor neighborhoods, our Black and Brown students, our English learners, our special education students, and students with disabilities.
Those are the students who need the most attention. There are students of promise, and they are getting the poorest service from our state government. How do you transform that school finance system to work for them and for their families? Those are what we should focus on. I don’t mean to be a pessimist but we will focus on culture war issues that help my Republican colleagues win their Republican primaries.
We will talk about non-existent pornography in schools. We will talk about how we can best whitewash history to shield students and teachers from the truce of what has happened in this country. We will probably focus on ways to further marginalize and discriminate against trans children in the State of Texas and probably LGBTQ students more broadly, not just trans students.
There was this false perception that reminds me of after Obama was elected and people said, “We were a post-racial America.” There was this idea that gay rights were settled in America. We were beyond that. This whole school library groomer’s discussion is showing us that is not true. You have seen some extremists suggest that we need to segregate LGBTQ students from other students. I never thought we would be having that conversation again.
Things we took for granted are going to need some more work and more defense in bolstering. That is probably what we will focus on. It is a travesty because the legislature meets every other year for five months. It’s only 3 months because the first 2 months, you can’t even pass a bill on the floor. We are a huge, diverse, complex state that has huge problems. To try to fix them all two months every other year is insanity, and it is even more insane when you take that precious time and spend it on manufactured crises.
How do we get the conversation back on learning loss, the teacher shortage and school finance? How do we, the reader’s manacle, how do we do this?
I’m going to give you a truer answer but it’s not as immediately gratifying because it’s not like, “Go to www, sign up, and you are done. Send a donation to my campaign.” That seems to be the answer. The true answer is that we need political reform. What I mean by that is changes to our political process and system. It rarely gets talked about because it’s a little more distant from people’s daily lives.The true answer is we need political reform that means changes to our political process and system. Click To Tweet
At the national, we talked about the filibuster. If you go on the street and you say filibuster, most people are going to look at you like you are crazy. It has nothing to do with them sending their kid to school, them going to the doctor or their job but all of us who are in politic to know that filibuster at the national level is holding up progress on all of those things that they care about. This weird word and this obscure rule in the Senate are holding everything else.One party rule is always bad in any country, in any state. One party rule leads to corruption. It doesn't allow for accountability and it leads to bad policy making. Click To Tweet
That is true in the legislature, not a filibuster but I would say redistricting reform gets to the heart of what’s happening with this extreme policymaking that I talked about. The way we draw districts in Texas is screwy. Politicians draw their own districts, which in any other industry and any other field would be an obvious conflict of interest but for some reason, that is how we do it here in the state.
I was a victim of that. I was gerrymandered out of my seat. I was one of a handful of legislatures who were targeted in the redistricting process. I lost the district that I flipped because of that process. Thankfully, I was able to run in the neighboring district where I grew up but I know firsthand how gerrymandering can subvert the public’s will by silencing the power and voices of people in our communities, particularly communities of color.
I don’t want to get too much in the weeds of this but these districts are drawn to be bright blue or bright red, meaning the only way for a politician to get re-elected is to appeal to their primary electorate. If you win your primary, you are guaranteed to win your general because it’s lopsided. We don’t have any more 50/50 districts like the ones I use to represent Williamson County.
When that’s the system we have, it encourages elected officials to appeal to the most extreme elements in their party. In Texas, that means the Republican party because they are the ones in charge. That’s why you see bullying trans children, whitewashing history, muzzling teachers, and banning books. That is why you see that taking up so much oxygen because the system encourages it.
Politicians are rational actors, most of the time. They are going to follow the incentives that are put in front of them by the political system. If you want politics to act differently, you have to change those incentives. That’s my long deep answer to what needs to happen, and anything people can do to hasten that will bring a much brighter day for our state.
It’s a great plug for our election series because we are going to talk about redistricting and gerrymandering. People understand when they think my vote doesn’t matter. It does matter but we can see why you think that because of the invisible machinery. You are not wrong but we are going to try to fix that.
The hopeful part is that they can’t gerrymander the state. You can’t change the lines of the State of Texas. I will say that not as a Democrat but as a Texan. We need to elect Beto O’Rourke this fall of 2022 as our governor. I hope everyone can agree with that. Not just Democrats, because Greg Abbott has done more harm to Texans than any governor in recent memory. I hope Democrats, Independents, Republicans, and people who don’t have a party affiliation can come together and elect someone who is going to be infinitely better than Greg Abbott to the governor’s mansion.
That is an immediate thing we can do this fall of 2022. We can’t fix gerrymandering. We can’t fix the redistricting system but we can elect a new governor, a new lieutenant governor, a new attorney general, and bring some fresh leadership. My pitch to new Republican readers, “One-party rule is always bad in any country and any state. One-party rule leads to corruption. It doesn’t allow for accountability. It leads to bad policymaking.” You should vote for Beto O’Rourke, Mike Collier, Rochelle Garza, and the rest of the Democratic ticket to balance out the parties in state government and provide a necessary check on the legislature. That’s my pitch to anybody who’s not a diehard Democrat.
It’s also a good reminder for us. We have been learning that if you care about education, the education commissioner is appointed by the governor. Know that when you are voting as well.
Beto O’Rourke has already committed to selecting an educator to be our TEA commissioner. It goes to show that during the campaign, you should be asking these questions of candidates. Even the candidates in a party that you belong to, you got to hold them accountable. If Beto gets elected governor, we got to hold him accountable. We can’t sign a blank check for someone because they have DNA next to their name. We got to make sure that if Beto is elected, appoint an educator, as he promised, and appoint an educator who is going to serve all students in the State of Texas, not just some.
It’s baffling that you don’t have to be an educator to be the education commissioner.
It’s a great bill idea. They might steal that for me, Claire.
We will let you go very shortly. We have one last thing that we do at the end here. It is our attention mentions where we mentioned something that has our attention. It can be an event you went to, an article, the movie you saw or a book you read but to tag onto yours. The thing I was going to mention was that I went to the Beto rally. It was a fun event. I took my son. It was great to see the other candidates running for statewide office. It was the long center. It was hot but not 100-plus degrees. It’s bearable.
It was nice to be in that environment and to be around people who are passionate about democracy and voting. I encourage anyone to go to a political rally and check it out, be a part of the crowd, ask questions, get to know people, and hear them for yourself because it makes a difference when you are face to face in real life once again, which I got you all ready.
I’m going to recommend the show Dopesick. It’s an incredible exposé on the opioid crisis and particularly the way that greed and capitalism led to the opioid crisis. It puts a spotlight on the particular family, the Sackler family, that sold these drugs, knowing they were addictive to millions of people in pain and led to the mass addiction that we have seen in this country. They were a legal drug cartel. This is a well-done and important show. It shows that art, whether it’s TV, movies or music, when it’s done well and for the right reasons, can shine in such a spotlight on an issue. I highly recommend Dopesick to anybody who wants to know more about that issue.
It’s a double recommend. You all might read that in the future episode.
I don’t remember which one it was that you did that.
It was Chris Tackett because I was like, “Chris, you would love this.” He is all about dark money in politics. I was like, “The way they shielded themselves from any accountability was bonkers.” What you got, Nichole?
Mine is Love on The Spectrum. It is available on Netflix. It’s a reality show featuring folks on the autism spectrum looking for love. It is wholesome and lovely. It will warm your heart. The people that are on the show are excellent social media follows. If you want to have a lovely social media feed, follow all of them and Kaelynn, in particular, gives excellent life advice.
Watch Dopesick. It’s very sobering and lightens up with Love on The Spectrum. Thank you so much, Representative Talarico, for taking some time with us. We know you are busy but we love learning more about public education, public service, and how to get more involved because that’s what we got to do to make Texas better.
Thank you all so much for having me and doing this show. It’s important, and I know things feel hopeless now, but I hope you, all people reading and Nichole, I hope your child, know that there are people who love them and are fighting for them every day in the capital, even when things are dark.
Overall, I do want to put it out there. I am quite hopeful and believe that things will get better. I am not hopeless and sometimes get upset.
I’m feeling much more hopeful after this conversation. Thank you.
Us too. Thank you.
- Representative James Talarico
- Laura Subrin Yeager – Past Episode
- Children’s Defense Fund
- Audrey Young – Past Episode
About Rep. James Talarico
Representative James Talarico is a former public school teacher and education non-profit leader who was first elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 2018.
During his two terms in office, Rep. Talarico has passed historic legislation including the most significant reform to the state’s school finance system in 20 years, the first-ever cap on pre-K class sizes in Texas, a sweeping bill to improve early childhood education across the state, a cap on insulin copays, and a law requiring all incarcerated minors in Texas be given the opportunity to graduate with a high school diploma.
For these major accomplishments, Talarico was named one of the Top 10 Best Legislators by Texas Monthly magazine.