Some say the political career of Delia Garcia began in the womb. After all, she did attend President Jimmy Carter’s 1977 inaugural festivities in utero.
Between that auspicious beginning and her 2004 election as a state representative, Garcia constantly found ways to serve her community.
Her seemingly genetic bent for public service has already gifted her with a place in Kansas history: She’s the first Latina — and the youngest woman — to serve in the House.
Garcia, who earned a degree in minority studies at WSU in 2002, began her work at the statehouse in January 2005, when she joined the ranks of such notable fellow Shockers as Susan Wagle ’79, who was elected to the Kansas Senate in 2000, after serving in the House where she became the first woman elected Speaker Pro Tempore (1994-98).
One day this February, Garcia graciously allows us to shadow her through a “typical day” in the legislature, if there is such a thing. Today, her legislative activity begins at 8:30 a.m. when she joins House minority members in a caucus meeting. She enters the room and greets her colleagues, eager for the day’s business. Then, she’s off to a meeting of the Commerce and Labor Committee, one of three House committees on which she serves.
Her youth — she was 27 when elected to represent House District 103 — doesn’t limit her ability to get things done. Says Sen. Donald Betts Jr., “She has the characteristics of a leader who lets nothing stand in her way in order to make things happen for those she represents.”
Garcia grew up in the district she now serves, which is home to many Latino families and a burgeoning Latino business community. The third of five daughters of Carmen Rosales ’76, Garcia is a granddaughter of Rafael and Connie Lopez, founders of Wichita’s longest-running family-owned Mexican restaurant — Connie’s Mexico Café, established in 1962.
There were many indications that a life in politics would not be an unexpected choice for Garcia. When her mother was pregnant with her, the family held a political fundraiser for presidential candidate Carter in the back rooms of the family restaurant. “They like to say that’s how I got the bug,” Garcia says with a laugh. The family later attended Carter’s inaugural festivities in Washington, D.C.
Garcia’s committee meeting ends early because of the tabling of a potentially controversial workers compensation bill. She takes advantage of the unexpected break to catch up on the progress of several other bills. By 11 a.m., the floor of the house chamber is buzzing with the conversations of legislators preparing for the convening of today’s session, during which nearly two dozen bills and resolutions will be up for consideration.
When Garcia was in high school, her parents divorced. The rift in the family provided its own set of challenges. She realized she had to decide how to handle the stress. She knew she could give herself over to drugs and alcohol to “escape” the situation, or she could opt to focus her energies in a positive way. She chose the latter path.
In her sophomore year, she was invited to attend the annual conference of the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute in Chicago, where her leadership skills were nourished.
In 1994, her ability to lead others was recognized by President Bill Clinton, who awarded her an Outstanding Youth Community Service Award. Garcia’s involvement with USHLI, the American G.I. Forum and the League of United Latin American Citizens afforded her key opportunities, including college scholarships and learning about successful Hispanic politicians, business people and educators, who served to motivate her to excel.
One of her role models, she says, is America’s first Hispanic mayor, Henry Cisneros, who was the subject of her senior research project.
The House session adjourns for lunch, but it is a working lunch for Garcia. The Sedgwick County delegation meets regularly to hear and discuss concerns from constituents. Today, representatives from Wichita are expressing concern over a bill they think might limit business growth in the city. Garcia works through lunch, then checks in on a Health and Human Services committee meeting, before attending a meeting of the House Committee on Federal and State Affairs.
Committee members are considering HB 2615, which if passed would repeal a 2004 law allowing un-documented immigrants to attend state universities at the in-state tuition rate.
Garcia knows this bill’s passage would dash the hopes of some of her constituents to receive a college education. She sits in the crowded chamber and listens intently as arguments are made.
“Rep. Garcia adds a voice for her constituents that would not otherwise have been heard,” says Betts. “Because of her sacrifice and fortitude, she has blocked legislation that would have hurt her community if she was not in the legislature to share her wisdom, knowledge and understanding.”
The meeting extends 25 minutes past its scheduled end time, which has Garcia rushing to her third assembly of the day, the Judiciary Committee meeting.
Garcia’s time at WSU taught her to question, search and never give up. Larry Ramos ’98, director of TRIO Talent Search/Project Discovery at WSU, reports, “Her tenacity and conviction are what I believe contribute most to her success. If she runs into a roadblock she finds another way.”
In 2000, Garcia was instrumental in founding WSU’s chapter of Kappa Delta Chi, the first Latina sorority in Kansas. While working to found the chapter, she met Betts Jr., who was working to found the WSU chapter of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity while he was studying at Friends University. A friendship developed, and the two worked on several campaigns together, eventually arriving at the state legislature, he in 2002, Garcia in 2004.
Garcia went to St. Mary’s University in San Antonio to pursue a master’s degree and see — up close — what made the Latinos in that area so successful. A semester away from graduation, she learned that the House seat for her home district was being vacated.
At the same time, she was offered a position in the San Antonio city manager’s office. She decided to run for office and used her campaign as her final internship, thus meeting the requirements for graduation and earning her degree in the midst of campaigning. She says the job in San Antonio was a possibility if she didn’t win the election. “That’s the epitome of my life,” she says. “Possibility.”
Garcia’s work in the legislature is full of possibility. Last April, she was selected to attend the Bowhay Institute for Legislative Leadership Development held in July in Madison, Wis.
Last October, she was recognized for her accomplishments by mana, a national Latina organization, and received a Primera Award for public service. The awards ceremony was held at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, in Washington, D.C.
And in February she participated in the first Policy Institute conducted by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials ever held in Kansas. The topic was public school finance, and Garcia chaired the session that addressed the need to engage the public and build support for public schools. “The investment is in young people,” she says, “and I want to be involved with that.”
Ramos credits Rep. Garcia with “clear-minded thinking” and the rare ability to offer “a fresh view of the issues.” Garcia describes her role in the legislative process this way: “We discuss issues, and I can raise my hand and ask, ‘Well, why can’t we look at it this way?’”
She adds, “That’s the best part of being a state representative — just being there, at the table.”