On this episode, you’ll hear from Isabel Longoria, a French-Mexican-American policy and public affairs professional from Houston, Texas. Isabel, a queer Latina, ran against an incumbent on the Houston City Council in 2019 and narrowly lost by only 16 votes. Isabel shares what the experience was like, what she learned, and how she’s pivoted into a new exciting role leading voter innovation in Harris County.
Check out the Highlights:
2:09 – Isabel’s personal background and influences
3:26 – How Isabel got involved in Texas politics back in 2011
6:10 – How Isabel began to consider running for office herself
8:10 – What to keep in mind when deciding where and how to run for office
10:58 – How being gay impacted Isabel’s experience running for City Council
14:07- Isabel takes us back to the 2019 City Council race and loss aftermath
17:56 – How Isabel got help launching her campaign as a new-comer with no name recognition
19:37 – The hardest parts about running a campaign
22:43- Isabel’s advice to anyone interested in running for office
25:24- Isabel’s take on career strategy using design think principles
Links Mentioned In Episode:
Sponsor, The Art of Applying – Get $100 off a Quick Call if you mention the ECM Podcast
Isabel’s LinkedIn – Reach out to her if you’re a young BIPOC interested in running for office!
Isabel: It’s tough to take on an incumbent and every single incumbent in Houston won, but I am proud to say that all of the incumbents who ran in the Houston City Council elections last time won by 55, 60 or greater percent. And so, I’m the only one that got close, 0.02% close, to taking out an incumbent. And I’m pretty dang proud of that.
Priscilla: Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killin it on their career journeys. I’m your host Priscilla Esquivel Weninger – proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat each Friday, as we dive into a special guest’s story, and hear all about their challenges, milestones, and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career, or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place! Let’s get started.
Priscilla: Hey everyone! Today you get to hear from the amazing Isabel Longoria, a Mexican-French-American and proud Houstonian who is also a policy and public affairs professional. Isabel has been heavily involved in politics & policy in Texas for over 10 years, and in 2019, she ran against an incumbent for a Houston City Council position and lost narrowly by only 16 votes. In 2020, she led voting innovation for Harris County during the election, and shortly after was sworn in as their first-ever Elections Administrator. This interview did take place before we found out the results from the 2020 election, so just keep that in mind as you listen…She is such a wonderful example of resilience, true public service, and paying it forward to queer communities and communities of color who are interested in running for office. If that is you, make sure you hit her up on LinkedIn as she is very open to helping people fo’ free.
Priscilla: Hey, everyone. I’m really excited to have Isabel Longoria on today’s episode to talk about her career in public service. Thank you so much, Isabel, for being with us.
Isabel: I’m excited.
Priscilla: Yeah. So why don’t you kick us off by telling us a little bit about yourself?
Isabel: So I am Houston born and raised. I’ve loved Houston ever since I was born. My dad’s a Mexican immigrant and my mom is a French immigrant. So I’m a first generation Houstonian along with my brother, and, yeah, we’ve got an interesting dynamic of being the epitome of that melting pot here in Houston, different cultures, different regions of the world, but always, always feeling like I’ve had a place in Houston. Yeah. I’m a big nerd for pretty much anything public service, talking about urban policy, and I think that comes from growing up in Houston and my dad being an architect….it really helped frame for me growing up how we design communities and what it means to build up that environment and how communities interact in spaces big and large. And one thing I like to point out too, is that both of them, that French and Mexican side, my grandparents, my uncles, were all part of city council in their cities, ran for state legislature and were heavily involved in politics. But no one knows that for me here in Houston, and it doesn’t apply, (laughs), once you actually get to the city you love and end up growing up in and living in.
Priscilla: Yeah. So before we get into that, I want to hear a little bit about what your experience was like at UT Austin LBJ School of Public Affairs. How did you use those two years? What did you get involved in?
Isabel: I ended up working at the legislature. So I first started checking mail for a state representative and she said, “Hey, the legislature’s coming up in Texas. Do you want to work to get extra credits while you’re at policy school?” I said, cool, why not? I’ll make a couple extra bucks. And it was the 2011 legislative session. I was working for the head of the democratic caucus, Jessica Farrar, and I fell in love with it. I was Head of Redistricting for her, I worked on the Democratic Women’s Caucus and every day was an exciting adventure in new policy and new things to do. You could do education and transportation and women’s health and all of these things. And I actually started specializing in a way that maybe some of the folks at LBJ had more of that consultant or non-profit kind of real-world business experience, I now had that political experience.
Priscilla: Where did life lead you after graduation from LBJ? What did you do next, and how did you figure that out?
Isabel: It was just a natural progression. So after having worked at the legislature, I developed those contacts of people who were in the Democratic Party. And when I graduated LBJ that summer, I got a job working on Democratic campaigns, right? Those were my contacts. Seemed like an easy enough thing. And I always thought campaigns would be for me, just something I did until I found my real job. (Laughs.) So I started working on Democratic politics in South Texas and Houston, because that’s where my family’s from. And then, you get to know more people, and through that, I always told two of my contacts that I wanted to get back to Houston. And so there was a special election for Senator Sylvia Garcia in Houston. Jumped back on that race. It was a quick two month race. She won and I ended up working for her. And so then became my cycle of working at the state legislature doing policy work, and then in the interim, working in Houston on the community organizing and district office side, and through that always kind of political campaigns in the background, because I just started getting that specialty. I mean, that’s, that’s what I know. That’s where I have my contacts and I’ve really developed a strategic mind for it.
Priscilla: How many campaigns did you work on for, for Sylvia Garcia?
Isabel: So I worked on Jessica Farrar, Sylvia Garcia, twice. But in South Texas, I worked on two House races. In Houston, I worked on the Ann Johnson race, the first time against Sarah Davis. And now she’s back running against Sarah Davis. So that’s five. I’ve also advised on the Wendy Davis campaign for governor and various races here in Houston. And I’ve actually, I don’t charge to work on these races in Houston, especially if it’s for young progressives or young people of color. I love, love, love, breaking that barrier, and getting away from paid consultants and saying, “Hey, here’s my advice. Here’s what I would do. Let me connect you to the people who can help you”, because I want to break down that barrier of entry for anyone interested in running for office, and for too long, quite frankly, it’s been a good old boys club, even on the Democratic side in Texas. And it’s great, I know some of those people, I know they do great work, but I still want to break down that barrier. I still want to give radical access rights to the kind of information that can help people run for office.
Priscilla: During this time, while you were running all these campaigns, did you ever imagine that you yourself would be running for office? How did that idea come into play?
Isabel: Yeah, I started seeing people doing it more and more, and I realized that elected officials are just human beings, just like the rest of us and that they had the same passion for public service. And I think for me it helped demystify it that it wasn’t, it wasn’t something where you had to be born a Kennedy and you get to be part of a special family that does this, especially when you’ve listened to Senator or, now Congresswoman, Sylvia Garcia’s story, where she grew up on a farming family just outside of Corpus. That she worked her way up by going through law school and then becoming a municipal judge through networking here in Houston, that she’s now a Congresswoman. And I think for me, it really put it into perspective that what is more important for an elected official is to have that passion and then to have the skills of being able to talk to people, policy analysis, strategic negotiation…which are all things that I’ve developed in my time at LBJ and in my other jobs. And then, being able to watch it in action so many times at different legislative sessions started putting in my head that, yeah, hey, I think I have the skills to do it. And now the question and the question always for me was, where can I be an authentic community leader? So it’s not about moving into a neighborhood and six months later running to say that I’m running…Where’s my place, where’s my city, right? Where’s my group that I really want to defend and take care of? And then how can I work to really earn the respect of that community to serve them and to represent all of us in office?
Priscilla: Yeah, I respect that so much about you because you’re right, I think that people can be strategic sometimes about, “Oh, there’s a seat, an opportunity that can be flipped. I’m going to move there.” That kind of thing. But I think you’ve been intentional about slowly building the community, like from the ground up.
Isabel: I can’t reiterate it enough. Even coming back to Houston and running for office later in city council, I’ve always gotten the message of, “Hey, you’re great, but we don’t know your family, right? You’re not one of the Garcia’s or Ninfa Laurenzo’s, right?” Or one of those families that have been in Houston, Mexican-American, for decades and decades that has the family that everyone knows. And so it’s interesting because I try to share my story of, “Hey, if you go to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, people know my family, we ran for mayor. My great grandfather was head of the, essentially the state’s legislature in Tamaulipas. You go to Northern France, people know my grandparents as running on city councils. So I have that legacy, but it doesn’t translate here. And so then it was even more important…and there is some strategy, right, of who I was working for, of being with Sylvia Garcia and taking on the jobs in her office that weren’t necessarily glamorous, but they put me in front of a lot of people, like being her driver. You get to meet everyone that she’s meeting when you’re the driver. And then later on really thinking about the civic clubs and wanting to be involved in and making sure I led with service. So it wasn’t just, “Go and run to be treasurer of whatever civic club”, it was, “How can I be going to the community garden day? How can I be going to the house building day? How can I be going to every single civic club meeting?” So I learn what’s going on and I integrate myself into the community because I don’t have that name to fall back on.
Priscilla: Wow. That’s so interesting. I’m from Houston and I really hadn’t even thought about how there are these families that you really need to get to know to be able to play in that space.
Isabel: Oh yeah…Like, here in Houston, there’s the Treviños, the Morenos, there’s even people who’ve become activists lately who I deeply respect and who would become my mentors, but there’s families that you have to fight against and there’s families whose rings you have to kiss. And so I don’t want to…pretend like there isn’t any strategy. I think that you have to be thoughtful about what you’re doing and who you’re connecting with…But for me, it’s always been, I’m going to be thoughtful. I’m going to connect with people, but I’m going to make sure to check my bias. And this is big for me…I’m going to try and read the signs when people are telling me that I’m not the person to run for office, because I think that’s a mistake other people make. And if they’re saying don’t run for office, why? Is it because truly they’re saying you don’t have the experience? We don’t trust you? You’re not getting invited to things? You don’t get invited to speak at things or be part of things? That’s a big sign that people don’t want you around. But if the pushback you’re getting is, “Oh, well, you’re young”…Age is a number, right? “Oh, well, there’s been other families here.” Good and great. Are they running? I don’t know. I think that’s the hardest part quite frankly, of running for office is listening to that community feedback and deciding what’s accurate feedback, what’s an accurate assessment and what’s just people projecting their own fear of the unknown.
Priscilla: When you were thinking about running, did you think a lot about being a woman and do you feel like that held you back in any way?
Isabel: I thought a lot more about being gay. I’m gay. I present very masculine for being a woman. And I don’t look Hispanic enough. So I used to love to say on the campaign trail “Soy Guera, pero no Gringa.” (English Translation: I may look light-skinned, but I’m not Caucasian). I don’t know, getting in that I can speak Spanish, that I have this Mexican background. It’s not necessarily Mexican-American, which, I think actually, was an interesting challenge as well. No, I thought a lot more about being gay. And I know for a fact that later running for city council, it came down to 0.02% difference, 0.02% difference between me and the incumbent city council member who won. And I know without a shadow of a doubt, it was a 16 vote difference, that being gay played into it. And I just adopted very early on, this is who I am. I would hate myself more for trying to put myself in a closet or play it down. And quite honestly, I think it would be disingenuous. I think people have the right to know who they are electing into office and they expect and should expect a certain integrity of authenticity of who you are. I dressed in my jeans and my blazer, and I never hid that I was gay. I put it on all of my literature and material. I had some abuelitas, and abuelitos, more than anything, who weren’t excited about that. And I left it up to them. If that’s something that was going to prevent them from voting for me, they have every right to do that. And that speaks more about what we need to work on in a society, right, than about me and my ability to represent.
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Isabel: But I got to 50/50. I mean, I got to…I think it was 49.98 to 50.02 or something like that.
Priscilla: Yeah, so that’s the perfect segway, Isabel, tell us about your city council race in 2019.
Isabel: So, I took on a city council incumbent, who was a Houston transplant who had run already in the scene in the head for four years. She was running again. She’s a very nice woman. She actually used to babysit me when I was younger and she was friends with my father. Her husband is an architect, so she knew my family and she just wasn’t as proactive and is not as proactive as I would like to see, and that’s why I took her on. It was tough. It’s tough to take on an incumbent and every single incumbent in Houston won, but I am proud to say that all of the incumbents who ran in the Houston City Council elections last time won by 55, 60 or greater percent. And so I’m the only one that got close, 0.02% close, to taking out an incumbent. And I’m pretty dang proud of that.
Priscilla: I guess, the aftermath. What was that day like when you realized how close you were and how did you process it in the days and weeks to come?
Isabel: (Deep sigh and long pause)…At the time that it was happening, it was happening very quickly. And there were things I needed to do as far as the provisional votes that come in and the final canvas, because at first, the night, the election night, we were only a 12 vote difference. And so my campaign manager and I had decided that after the provisional ballots came in, if we brought it down to 10 votes or less, that we would ask for a recount, because that was statistically so close and 10 is important. In every other recount that’s happened in Harris County, the most votes that have ever been overturned is 10. And so for us, that, that was our marker. And so there was a lot of strategy there and still a lot of attention to, what do we do? How do we get people out? Is there anything we can do? And then, once it was 16 votes ahead, a lot of people wanted me to push to do a recount, regardless, because…right now in City Council, of the 17 members, and that includes the mayor, there’s only one Hispanic person, Robert Gallegos. He is now the only LGBT representative as well, I believe. And so there was a lot of people asking me to do a recount regardless because they wanted another Hispanic person and another LGBT representative on council. And, quite honestly Priscilla, that was the toughest decision of the entire campaign is do I do a recount or not? And we had the money, we had the backing and all I could think is, do I want to put the city through that? What does it mean then to just, like, inflate this drama knowing statistically, we probably won’t close that 16 vote difference? And so it was more important for me at the time to be gracious in that loss and to hopefully use my race then as motivation for why we needed to do more in the future to work beforehand, to help people of color and LGBT representatives run for office than to try fighting over the breadcrumbs at the end. And I say that because several LGBT elected officials decided to stay out of the race or remain neutral or had picked the incumbent side, or mine came back and said, “you know what? I made a mistake. Had I known it would be that close. I would have backed you. I just didn’t think anyone could take on an incumbent.” And that is that’s the one I struggle with the most. Shouldn’t you back who you believe in shouldn’t you back the change that you want to see in the world? And I do hope, and I do think quite frankly, that for at least a couple of years, people will point to my race as a reason why there needs to be more, more access and more resources for people of color, especially Hispanic and LGBT members early on, because there is a possibility if you have good candidates and progressive candidates who run great races to take on incumbents.
Priscilla: When you were running your campaign, were there any PACs or any organizations that really helped you launch this campaign?
Isabel: Yeah. I, I think again, having been in the Democratic politics for a while, right? Most of the biggest strategists in the city, county and state, were my friends, my best friends. So I was really lucky in that they all came to help free of charge. I would say organization-wise Latino Texas PAC, based here out of Houston, came on early and hard and they gave me, I think, towards the end, nearly $10,000 over the run and the runoff, ‘cause there was a runoff, to beat this incumbent. And it was that seed money that helped me make the pitch to unions, that helped me make the pitch to the LGBT caucus that I was viable, that I could raise money and that I had people behind me. So that was fantastic and I give them a lot of credit and honestly, Sylvia Garcia, who I worked with, she came out for me early and said, I know it’s tough taking on an incumbent, we’re cordial, she mentioned that she didn’t think that particular incumbent was doing a good job either, and she wanted to see more Hispanic representation. So she backed me early and that did send a signal to the other elected officials that this is something you should jump in on and they made their decisions as they needed to strategically. So I’m very grateful for those two entities, Sylvia Garcia and Latino Texas PAC.
Priscilla: So I assume that speaking in front of crowds and building relationships comes very naturally to you. What were the parts from the campaign that were a little more challenging or just harder for you?
Isabel: Yeah, so you’re right, speaking publicly – I loved it. I get a big energy kick out of that, and debates were fun. Being on the quote-unquote campaign trail didn’t feel like a campaign trail ‘cause it was all my friends, right? Like I said, it was all the people I’d been shoulder to shoulder with working at civic clubs and doing all this great work. So there were no real new introductions I needed to make. The hardest part was every day I was pretty much alone. You do so much alone on a campaign. I wasn’t a big fancy campaign that had a dozen staff members. I had me and my campaign manager, Rob, who’s my dear friend, almost brother now, who was volunteering, but he had his own family. I had a communications consultant, Ben Hernandez and then I had a field consultant and strategist, Delilah, but basically every day was me alone in my house. I would pick my block walking packet. I would go block, walk alone. And I would come back to the house and do my thank you notes or do some social media, but it’s a lonely thing. A campaign can be a lonely thing. It’s a lot of you on the trail, especially when you’re starting off the first time, a lot of friends coming over late in the night, if they need to help you after work. But the days can be very long. I had to quit my job at AARP to run. So I quit. I saved up a bunch of money knowing I wanted to do that for at least two years. And then it was that for six months, me living off my savings and I had plenty of savings, but I didn’t have health insurance either, and that got very scary. At one point from block-walking so much, half of my right foot went numb and I could not feel it and I couldn’t go access health care. And quite frankly, I didn’t want to, because I didn’t want someone telling me that I had to stop because that wasn’t going to be an option when it’s me just block walking every day. There’s no option to stop. So there were some very scary moments physically of being able to push myself to finish the campaign.
Priscilla: Have you thought about whether you would re-run for City Council or have you thought about maybe even pulling an AOC (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) and running for Congresswoman right away?
Isabel: Yeah, I’d love to. I would love….I do. I want to be an elected official and be part of that public service. City Council? I don’t know. The reason I ran last time was because there was an incumbent, I didn’t think she would do a great job and everyone else was too scared to run against her because incumbents always have so much money in momentum against them. So there was a clear person who needed to be challenged, even if I didn’t win. And there was always that possibility. I wanted her to go challenged so that we could bring up as a community the other things we wanted to see done. So now I’m looking at, okay, let’s see how the City Council does the next four years, who is doing their job well and who isn’t and what openings are there? I thought about running for County Clerk, that came open in May. It didn’t work out because of where I was financially and COVID-19, but my, my great friend, Chris Hollins won, and he actually brought me on to the office. So now I’m working for him in the County Clerk’s office on elections doing special projects, that’s been fantastic. Had I not run for office I don’t actually know if he would have pulled me in. And then looking ahead….heck yeah. My passion is always getting back to the state level somehow, whether it be state house representative, senator, secretary of state, Lieutenant Governor, I’d love to do the state stuff, but for me, like I said, and what I’ve always started with is, where can I be helpful? and what is the job I’m passionate about doing? Not, what is the job that happens to be open, and so I’m going to do it just to say, I am an elected official. I, I will never be that person.
Priscilla: What would you tell someone like a younger person who was interested in running for office? What are like some lessons or some tips that you would give that person?
Isabel: Absolutely. I tell them to get involved and not just, “Oh, go register to vote or volunteer with the League of Women Voters one night”, truly, get a job working for an elected official at any level, because you learn so much about what the different levels of government do. And one thing I actually challenge young people who say they want to be in a certain level of government, they usually say, every one, I kid you not, if you took a poll, everyone would say they’re passionate about education or transportation. And you say great, why? And they may or may not be able to tell you. And then I say, great, what level of government do you think affects that most? And they will always say Congressperson, and that is always wrong. If you want to do anything with education funding specifically, or education policy, it’s usually at the state level or the school district level. And I know, Priscilla, you know way more about education than I do. If it’s transportation, it’s absolutely at the state or County level. So that’s why I encourage younger folks to actually get a job, an internship, whatever it may be, no matter how quote-unquote menial it may sound, get your foot in the door right now, while you can, while you’re okay living off that $30 or $40,000 a year salary to start off with. So that you see what’s happening, you network, and you get it on your resume right now. Unfortunately, I think people want to wait until later to get those glamorous jobs of chief of staff or head of policy and all those people who are chief of staff or head of policy are people who started off first as a district assistant, talking to constituents, or campaign field block walker. It is an industry that is very hierarchical in that way, so getting in early helps.
Priscilla: Tell us a little bit about what you’re doing now at the County, especially as we get ready for the 2020 election
Isabel: I’m pumped. I am working on special projects for Harris County. So you might’ve heard, we now have 24 hour voting. We have drive-through voting. We’ve changed how we do mail ballots so that they are more easily read by voters, for example, and easier to use. We’ve done some innovation work on the inside and how we perform our analytics and how we actually track our progress. And I think we’ve done an even better job of changing things on the exterior, like the hours and the locations and how we communicate to people. We’re excited! Now I’m at like the heart of democracy running an election, and I’m really excited to be doing that at Harris County and fixing things from the inside out.
Priscilla: I’m really curious. What would you say is your approach to figuring out your career moves?
Isabel: I was listening to a podcast, incidentally, once about design think. So you design something, you put it out in the world, the world tears it all up, right? So, you say this works, this doesn’t work, great. You keep going through the prototyping phase until you find something. Instead of saying, “where am I now, what is my ultimate dream job, how do I get there, and everything that deviates from that path is a failure”….How can I then apply design think and say, “What if everything I do in life is just prototyping and trying new things?” And that completely changed how I thought about my life, is not, “Am I getting to my dream destination fast enough?”, is, “Oh, here’s a fun and interesting job…here’s a place where I can learn new skills, right? How can I go along with this prototype, learn what I need to do, and then essentially either when it’s been fixed or not fixed or when it’s broken or when I’m bored or whatever, how can I say “Good, this has been a wonderful path. And now it’s time for me to prototype something different, right? Or bring something new into my life, or look for that new adventure.” That is something I’d love to share, is like releasing you from this idea that your life is one path and any deviation from it is a failure.
Priscilla: That’s such a cool way to think about our careers. So thank you, Isabelle, for sharing that. Isabel, I have enjoyed this conversation so much…thank you so much for being here with us today. I’m so excited to see what you do next.
Isabel: Yeah. And I always offer, if you find me online anywhere, I always always offer any information or advice for anyone interested in running for office or getting into public policy like us, absolutely for free. Like I started off this podcast, my goal is to break down the barriers for people of color like ourselves and queer people to find their passion and get engaged in politics. So please hit me up and I would be happy to share my connections with you and get you on your next adventure.
Priscilla: Thanks for tuning into the Early Career Moves podcast! Be sure to visit ECMPodcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes, and become a part of our newsletter community! And if you loved this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Have a great week!