State Rep. James Talarico joked that he started the first day of the legislative session by getting hazed.
After he parked his truck in his underground Capitol parking spot Tuesday, two men guarding the garage asked him if he was the youngest member of the Legislature. After confirming their suspicions, they teased that Talarico looked too young to be a state representative.
“One of them told me I look like an intern,” the Round Rock Democrat said laughing.
The men wished him luck before he headed to his Capitol office, a small room filled with gifts from lobbyists, Tiff’s Treats cookies, the lawmaker’s parents and an eager campaign staff.
After besting Republican Cynthia Flores for his open Williamson County seat, Talarico became the youngest current member of the Legislature at 29. But the Democrat doesn’t see his age as an impediment on his ability to lead. Rather, he’s excited the Legislature has another millennial in the lower chamber to “help make sure that generation has a voice at the table.”
The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one.
“It’s an honor,” he said, “but it also comes along with a lot of jokes, too.”
Talarico said he’s used to the wisecracks. It's the pomp and circumstance that comes with being an elected official that requires some acclimation. When he first saw the giant desk and chair in his office, his first thought was that the furniture took up too much space in a room meant to hold eight other staff members, including interns.
His solution? Get rid of it.
“I don’t really work behind a desk anyway,” Talarico said. “Plus, I’d rather work on a couch.”
He and his staff replaced the Capitol desk and chair with a long conference table and couches to allow the state representative to work alongside staff and have a central place to speak with constituents.
“We’re calling it 'the people’s office,'” said Michelle Castillo, Talarico’s chief of staff. “We want to ensure that anyone who comes into this office feels welcome.”
A laundry list of people — from inside and outside of Talarico’s district — had no problem stepping into the open space to make their acquaintances or snag a breakfast taco Tuesday morning. That included a Williamson County Girl Scouts group, lobbyists from the Texas Public Policy Foundation and even former Democratic Texas Sen. Wendy Davis.
“Honestly, I had to let go of a bit of ego because I was excited about him having the big desk and the big chair and nameplate, but when he explained why he was doing it, I said, ‘Yes, that’s exactly how it should be,’” said Tamara Talarico, the state representative’s mom, on her son's new office furniture. “Jimmy knows the district so well, and he wants people to come in and tell him what the real problems are and talk to them openly.”
While Tamara Talarico credited her son with coming up with the idea of renovating his Capitol office, the freshmen admitted to receiving help and advice on policy and legislative issues from more seasoned lawmakers. Shortly after the election, newly elected Republican Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, who joined the lower chamber at 24, took the freshman aside to discuss how to navigate having a seat in the Legislature before turning 30. Talarico said Democratic House veterans like state Reps. Mary González, Joe Moody and Rafael Anchia also took the time to mentor him before he took his oath of office.
“I know the challenges that someone young faces,” said Moody, who was first sworn into office at 28. “You have to convince people that you’re prepared to and are ready to step into a leadership role. The advice I gave to him was that when you face structural opposition because of your youth, it forces you to work harder and smarter to elevate yourself in this building.”
James Talarico said he knows he’ll face barriers in the lower chamber — both because he’s a member of the minority party and the Legislature’s youngest member. But he’s hopeful his House colleagues can look beyond his age and focus on the work ethic that helped him flip a Republican-held seat. Before James Talarico was elected in November, the Round Rock seat was held by Larry Gonzales who resigned from his post in June.
“We’ve been building the grassroots up there for five years and working hard,” said state Rep. John Bucy, D-Cedar Park, a fellow freshmen lawmaker and Talarico’s deskmate on the House floor.
State leaders this year have agreed to focus on bread-and-butter issues like property taxes and school finance. James Talarico feels confident speaking about the latter issue since he’s a former middle school teacher. In the next five months, he hopes to have a role in the school finance debate Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Bonnen have promised will take center stage during the 86th Legislature.
“As a former teacher and non-profit leader,” James Talarico said, “I believe I can provide some unique insight into that issue.”
For his constituents, he’s hoping to address issues related to Williamson County’s infrastructure and protecting the district’s cities from what he calls “overbearing policy proposals” that have come through the Legislature in past sessions.
“I knocked on 5,000 doors to win this seat — our campaign knocked on 100,000 doors total — and we heard directly from people about their hopes, fears and anxieties,” James Talarico said. “We made promises that we would work our hearts out to make their lives better, and I feel the pressure to do that every single day.”
Flanked by his mom and dad, James Talarico along with nearly 149 other state representatives, took their oaths of office Tuesday afternoon. Shortly thereafter, the freshman and his family rejoined his staff and supporters so he and Bucy could meet with their respective constituents.
For James Talarico, Tuesday was “surreal.” And despite starting his morning by hearing playful remarks about his age, he insisted he was ready to put the jokes behind him and get to work.
“We had a campaign that lasted almost two years, so today is the day we start the real work,” he said, the last of his visitors shuffling out of his office. “Now we try to convert the vision we talked about on the campaign trail into reality.
“Today is the day when the work begins and that’s really exciting.”
Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.