By Catherine Chojnowski and Jose Nieves Herrera
In 2013, Mary González, a freshman state representative, stood on the Texas House floor to give her first opposition speech. She was arguing against a bill that would weaken standards for colonias, unincorporated mostly rural communities that lack vital infrastructure, such as sewage systems and roads.
As she began her speech, a prominent Republican leader walked up behind her and held two fingers up in the air, signaling to other legislators that they should follow González’s lead and vote against the bill.
Winning the support of that Republican, Byron Cook, the former Republican Texas House State Affairs Committee Chairman, was key to defeating the colonias bill. It was also a sign that González, despite her liberal-Democrat pedigree, had developed bi-partisan credibility—a necessary trait in an overwhelmingly Latino, but socially conservative, district and one increasingly rare both in Texas and nationally. Representing a district that is neither completely Democratic nor Republican, Gonzalez has won support across ideological and party lines.
Texas State District 75 encompasses east El Paso County, and the towns of San Elizario, Socorro, Clint, Fabens and Tornillo. It includes six school districts and over 260 colonias.
González is an unlikely candidate for cross-partisan appeal: she is relatively young, 37, single, outspoken and openly a member of the LGBTQ community. Upon first being elected, she explains that she faced a certain degree of backlash from the community.
Initially, she said: “Nobody wanted to be my friend.”
González’s championing of agricultural issues and public education, however, helped her gain the support of her colleagues early on.
“She looks for ways to bridge divides, and she promotes policies that create conversations rather than push people into familiar camps,” said Representative Joe Moody, a colleague in the Texas State House.
González’s relationship with Byron Cook who would become her mentor also helped solidify her bipartisan credentials. One day, Cook told Gonzalez she was the same age as his daughter. “He said on this House floor, you are my daughter,” González recalled.
The two were an odd duo: “He’s this tall, skinny, older conservative Republican, and I’m this short, little, Mexican, fluffy Latina,” said González.
As a legislator, González strong support for public education, a key issue for both parties, also has won her bipartisan support. She authored House Bill 89, which mandated that school districts with high drop-out rates allocate part of their school funding “for developing and implementing research-based strategies for drop-out prevention.” Another bill authored by González, created measures for assisting homeless and former foster-care students enrolled in public colleges and universities.
“I feel since I’m a rural Democrat, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to connect with some rural Republicans because we still have the same issues,” she said.
Currently serving her fourth term in the State House, she is a member of the appropriations and public education committees, and has served as vice chair of the Local and Consent Calendars Committee since 2019. This year, she also was appointed to the Legislative Budget Board, one of the most powerful boards in the state.
González, who once taught at the University of Texas at Austin and served as Assistant Dean for Student Multicultural Affairs at Southwestern University—she has a doctorate in Cultural Studies in Education—said her academic background helped her bring “different tools” to her job as a legislator.
González lives in Clint, a rural town just outside El Paso, where she grew up, and raises goats. In the legislature, she also has taken a leadership role on agriculture issues. For example, she co-authored a bill that enforced a strategic plan by the Department of Agriculture to prevent crop diseases and pests in the state, and has supported a bill that would mandate animal-tracking to prevent and identify the source of disease outbreaks among livestock. She also championed policies important to the dairy and pecan industries “because they would open up economic opportunities for her district,” said Moody.
“I end up creating these really interesting alliances with rural Republicans because of the work that I’m doing in agriculture,” she said. “When they need something in agriculture, they come to me to help them explain it to the Democrats.”
Despite her bi-partisan support, her gay identity has caused some tension among her constituents, on occasion, and she said that if her opponents had brought her gay identity to light during her initial election, she would have most likely lost. She compared the ongoing support of her constituents, despite ideological divisions, to her relationship with her father, who is a conservative Republican.
Border politics, however, is where González’s bi-partisanship ends; she strongly opposes Republican wall building. Although most of Gonzalez’s constituents identify as conservative, 90.6 percent are also Hispanic. Yet, many constituents know someone, or are related to someone, who works for the border police—a well-paying occupation in her district. When addressing issues relating to the border, González tries to maintain an objective tone; she said she tries to identify the “root of the problem,” while also trying to “highlight its complexity.”
One problem that continues to confound González is low voter participation. Out of the nearly 200,000 constituents in her district, only around 10,000 participated in the last primary election. Gonzalez ran unopposed in her district’s 2020 Democratic primary, and has run unchallenged by a Republican in the general election since first winning office.
González blames the lack of political interest to years of voter suppression that has “done so much over generations to tell people not to vote, not to care, not to know,” and a lack of cultural consciousness by those trying to engage potential voters with donations. In an attempt to engage the youth in political issues, she holds assemblies in schools throughout her district, reminding future voters that their participation can make a difference.
“I’ve been working very hard over the last decade to show that democracy is vital to the ways that we live and that there are good elected officials in the world,” González said.