Support Independent Journalism. Donate today!

Texas House Candidate Celina Montoya Is Running To Expand Medicaid and Fund Public Education

She is running for a historically Republican-controlled seat, and if she wins, it could help turn the state House blue.

Texas state House candidate Celina Montoya.(Photo via Celina Montoya’s campaign)

By the time Celina Montoya decided to run for Texas House District 121 in 2018, it had been nearly two decades since a Democrat had even run in that district. She didn’t win, but she came within about 8.5 percentage points of her opponent, Republican Steve Allison, with a little less than $200,000 in funding. Now, Montoya’s running again—this time, with the endorsement of former President Barack Obama and over $600,000 in campaign contributions.

District 121, which includes parts of San Antonio, is one of the Republican-controlled seats Democrats are hoping to flip next week. Like most of the other districts Democrats have their eyes on, the last state House of Representatives race there was decided by a single-digit margin. And the district voted for former U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke in 2018, when he narrowly lost his U.S. Senate battle against the incumbent Ted Cruz. Montoya’s top priorities are expanding Medicaid and fully funding public education.

Montoya grew up in the district. She and her six brothers and sisters were raised by their mother, whom Montoya credits with teaching her hard work and sacrifice. She studied journalism at Northwestern University in Illinois and worked for The Medill Innocence Project, an organization that helped exonerate wrongfully convicted people, while she was there. She  returned to her home state to work for Texas Public Radio. 

“As a reporter,” Montoya said, “I got to see my community in a way I didn’t get to growing up. I could see why it was so important for us to provide public education, because that wasn’t a guarantee.”

She later left public radio to help start Literacy San Antonio,  a nonprofit that works to increase childhood literacy. Now, Montoya is the vice president of community and government relations for Alamo Fireworks, a family-owned company founded by her husband’s great-grandparents. She says her varied life experience has improved her understanding of the issues faced by people in her district.

I sort of came to this world of politicking kind of in a way that a lot of unsuspecting folks do,” Montoya told The Appeal. “I admired people in this community, supported them through my own volunteer work, and I think, like a lot of people, 2016 was a real turning point.”

Montoya said she was dismayed by the results of the presidential election and wanted to do more. So she began working with more local groups, trying to influence policymakers and decision makers in her community.

“But when my own state representative decided he wasn’t going to run again, there was an open seat in my district, and it seemed like a good opportunity to make a difference,” Montoya said. 

Democrats could flip the Texas House of Representatives for the first time in almost two decades next week. About 30 of the chamber’s 150 seats are seen as competitive, including the one Montoya is vying for. To take the state House, Democrats need to pick up nine seats and retain the ones they have, including the 12 they gained in 2018.

If Democrats win the House, the GOP stronghold on the Texas government would end. Their win would put a dramatic stop to conservatives’ ability to push their preferred policies on prominent matters like abortion rights, energy policy, and Medicaid expansion, and it would give Democrats a seat at the redistricting table. Texas has the second-largest congressional delegation in the country, and next year, the state’s U.S. House seats—and the Texas Senate and Texas House—will all be redistricted. If the Republican Party can keep control of the state House, it will be able to draw districts that improve its chances of keeping control of the state legislature and increase the likelihood of retaking control of the U.S. House. 

The upcoming redistricting process is a big concern for Montoya. Texas could add two or three House seats to its already large congressional delegation next year, and the state has a reputation for partisan gerrymandering.

“This is an issue,” Montoya said. “We’re seeing voters who don’t see their leadership reflecting their ideals and backgrounds. It is diluting the voices of voters, and sometimes even packing them in to singular districts to limit their influence.”

Besides giving Democrats a say in the redistricting process, a break in Texas’s Republican trifecta would mean that if Montoya wins, she’d have a better shot at passing legislation to support Medicaid expansion and public education funding.

Texas has the highest rate of uninsured residents in the United States. Most Texans support expanding Medicaid, and a recent policy brief from Texas A&M University found that expanding Medicaid in the state could bring $5.4 billion in federal funding and could provide nearly one million low-income Texans with health insurance. Yet the Republican-controlled legislature has refused to expand Medicaid.

“One of the most important things we need to get done is expanding Medicaid in Texas,” Montoya said. “We’re seeing some really dire effects [of the lack of healthcare access in the state], particularly as a result of this pandemic … about 30,000 Texans lost their jobs as a result of this pandemic, and when that happened, they also lost their healthcare. And these individuals would be eligible for Medicaid if it was expanded.”

Montoya says she wants to reduce the cost of prescription drugs, make sure insurance companies don’t deny people coverage for pre-existing conditions, and protect access to reproductive healthcare and abortion services.

Investing in the state’s public education system is another top priority for Montoya. Texas ranks 42nd in the nation when it comes to public school education, according to Education Week’s 2020 Quality Counts report card. Montoya says she wants to fully fund schools, increase teacher and support personnel pay, and oppose any further cuts to education funding.

“Education is also something near and dear to my heart,” Montoya said. “I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the teachers I had growing up. … [Teachers] don’t receive the support they need, whether that’s in funding or flexibility to protect against comorbidities they’re risking in this pandemic.”

Allison, Montoya’s opponent, took office in 2018 after the former District 121 representative (and former House Speaker) Joe Straus retired. Like his predecessor, Allison has portrayed himself as a moderate, though he did vote to increase penalties for protesting against pipelines in 2019. He is pro-life and is supported by the National Rifle Association. According to his campaign website, some of Allison’s top priorities are providing property tax relief, supporting public education, and incentivizing job creation.

“I’m a mom, I’m a business owner, I’m someone who grew up in a place that I thought was the same kinda place I want my kids to grow up in,” Montoya said. “But too many of us today don’t feel like our kids have the same opportunities [we did].”