She’s Running is a FIERCE series highlighting Latinas running for office in local, state and federal elections.
Regina Montoya has been able to live out her dreams in Dallas, Texas, and now she’s running for mayor to create opportunities for the 1.3 million people of her city to realize theirs as well.
At 65, the Latina candidate has spent her entire life shattering barriers and achieving lifelong goals as a civic leader, corporate and healthcare attorney, college professor and nonprofit CEO. The Wellesley College and Harvard Law School graduate served as an assistant to President Bill Clinton, where she was nominated to serve as a US Representative to the 53rd Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations, was the senior vice president of external relations and general counsel at the Children’s Medical Center of Dallas, the CEO of the economics advancement group New America Alliance and a former visiting professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, among so much more.
Most recently, she was asked by Dallas’ current Mayor Mike Rawlings to serve as the chair of the mayor’s task force on poverty, where she helped establish the Children’s Poverty Action Lab that aims to reduce childhood poverty by half within a single generation.
“I want to be sure everyone in Dallas has the opportunity to achieve their highest potential. This has been a dream city for me, and I want everyone here to also live their dream,” Montoya, who ran, and lost, on a Democratic ticket to represent Texas’ 5th Congressional district to a Republican incumbent in 2000, told FIERCE.
This race, however, is much different. To start, the May 4 election is nonpartisan. Even more, Mayor Rawlings is unable to run for reelection due to term limits, so she’s not campaigning against an incumbent.
We spoke with Montoya about why she decided to run for Dallas mayor, how she plans on tackling the city’s child poverty problem, combating federal immigration policy in a majority-minority city, how her previous run for office better prepared her for the mayoral race and much more.
FIERCE: Why did you decide to run for Dallas Mayor?
Regina Montoya: I have been a lifelong resident of Dallas, and I know the issues inside and out. I’ve been the chair of the current mayor’s task force on poverty, and I want to be sure everyone in Dallas has the opportunity to achieve their highest potential. This has been a dream city for me, and I want everyone here to also live their dream.
FIERCE: I know that among your priorities are tackling poverty, education, public safety and home ownership. Why are these issues currently crucial to your city?
Regina Montoya: Starting with public safety, we need to ensure that we have a city that every citizen feels they have the kind of safety and security that makes their life a wonderful one and also make sure first responders receive the support financially they need to do the best job as well. Coming from that perspective, that’s a reason that’s a priority for me that we have a strong public safety system. In terms of education, the mayor can work closely with the Dallas Independent School District and the Dallas County Community College District to create a foundation that allows people to succeed and achieve their dream, that’s why that’s a huge priority. And a strong economy means a strong Dallas. I will help. You know there are 100 thousand children living in poverty in Dallas? That’s why I’m making growing the economy one of my priorities.
FIERCE: Dallas is the third-worst city for child poverty in the nation, and, in speaking with community members, I know that you’ve identified it as a major concern for the people of your city. You’ve confronted this problem as the chair of the mayor’s task force on poverty, but how do you intend on tackling it if you were in the mayoral seat?
Regina Montoya: What I would do is what I’ve been doing already. One issue is reducing child poverty, and I’m already working with the current mayor to put together an organization called the Child Poverty Action Lab that’s working with people in the city and the county, including the Dallas Independent School District and the hospital system to tackle this from every way. Workforce training is another one. How you tackle and reduce child poverty is by ensuring parents are in positions that earn more money that take them out of poverty. This means a parent might need to learn English, get a GED or get necessary certification. I wish I had a magic wand that could solve this problem, but I don’t. What I can do is work on it systemically, work on every part to reduce child poverty. That’s why I felt it was important to work with the mayor and I will continue my involvement with that because that’s important. Another area is transportation to reduce poverty. As mayor, I would be a huge advocate for our Dallas Area Rapid Transit and the City of Dallas Transportation Department to make sure people are not spending hours on a bus or light rail system. I want to increase efficiency and reduce time on mass transit so people get to where they need to go faster. I’d also like to see how we can reduce fares for people living in poverty. Seattle has done it, so Dallas can do it as well. Those are a few examples of working hard to identify the drivers of poverty and how I will tackle them.
FIERCE: One of your campaign’s taglines are “Montoya is running for mayor to put the focus on Dallas’ strongest resource: it’s people.” What would this look like under a Montoya mayorship?
Regina Montoya: Investing in people means I would be looking for providing opportunities for housing for more people that is affordable. Our first responders are not able to buy a house in Dallas because it’s too expensive. I want to see better use of land banks. We have lots that sit there not being developed. I want to work with developers to use these lots to make affordable housing for first responders and nurses in hospitals that I’ve worked with before. In addition, I would want to see more investment in the workforce and entrepreneurship. I know many people who want to open a small business, but they don’t have the capital or experience. We need to have plans that help them.
FIERCE: It’s often said that the biggest and most effective change is done locally. What are you prepared to do or work on locally to combat the policy and rhetoric coming out of the White House, which has had a direct impact on the state of Texas?
Regina Montoya: Dallas is a diverse city, 25 percent is foreign born, 43 percent speaks a language other than English and 71 percent identifies as people of color. We’ve been a minority-majority city for decades. One thing I take pride in is we were able to recommend and put into place an Office of Welcoming Communities and Immigrant Affairs. We didn’t have that till we focused on the population of Dallas, till we capitalized on the great resources we have, our people, and that’s why I’m running. It’s about our people and making them better. There’s a lot of policy, noise and chatter on the issue of immigrants, and how we deal with that locally is by seeing them as people living in our cities. This is how we welcome people. We have a very strong person running that office, who reports directly to the city manager and they’re already putting together components like English language education, how to become a citizen workshops, identification cards issued by the city, that’s how you do things locally. But you have to know your people and who lives in your city. That’s what I have helped implant and strongly support as mayor.
FIERCE: As a woman and as a Latina, you have already broken barriers in your community and your work spaces. What do you think these identities can bring to the mayoral seat that we haven’t seen before?
Regina Montoya: My experience in so many areas, not just being Latina but often the only or first woman to walk into a room, the first Hispanic woman. I know how important it is to have a different face at the table and that will sometimes create more energy for everyone, because of my experience. I have worked with every aspect of Dallas. My experience has shaped me and given me that rapport. I know how difficult it is coming in when there hasn’t been someone there before them. I can create pathways because I know the obstacles and will work to eliminate them for everyone in Dallas. I know our best resource is our people. Let’s get them opportunities to succeed.
FIERCE: Of course, you are much more than your gender, culture and ethnicity. You have decades of business, legal and civic experience, from serving as the chair of the mayor’s task force on poverty, being President Bill Clinton’s assistant for intergovernmental affairs in the mid-1990s, sitting as the former president of the Dallas Democratic Forum as well as being the senior vice president of external relations and general counsel at Children’s Medical Center of Dallas and the CEO of the New America Alliance, all in addition to your work as a corporate and healthcare attorney. How do you think these experiences and the skills you’ve gained through them prepared you for this office?
Regina Montoya: So they’ve prepared me beautifully. They’ve given me the opportunity to know how you bring people together to the table and work with them. I’ve worked with people of so many backgrounds and perspectives and have learned how to listen. That’s what I can bring to the table, knowing how to listen and work with people. This is important and will make us stronger. The other part is I have had these experiences in the White House, in the United Nations, I’m not looking for something to put on my résumé. I’m looking to do the best job I can for this city and the people of this city — that’s my pledge.
FIERCE: On a more personal note, what would leading and representing your city, Dallas, mean to you?
Regina Montoya: Dallas has been my dream city. I got a great foundation from my parents, who taught me everything is possible. But that became a reality because I lived in Dallas. It’s a city where accomplishment was possible for me through hard work. The dreams I had were possible because I lived in Dallas, and I want to create opportunities for others to follow me in living their dreams. I want to be sure Dallas remains a city that is a beacon of hope, that’s why people want to move here.
FIERCE: This isn’t your first time running for office. In 2000, you were the Democratic challenger to then-incumbent U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Dallas), when he represented Texas’ 5th Congressional district, losing by 10 percentage points. What did that race teach you that you have now incorporated into your mayoral run?
Regina Montoya: This is a nonpartisan race, and on that race I was running against an incumbent. This is an open race without an incumbent. But what I’ve learned is, it was a great experience meeting fabulous people and listening to them and now I have more experience, more opportunities to get my message out when you’re not running against an incumbent. I think I can stay focused on the important issues in front of me.
FIERCE: Finally, I think you can offer a lot to young Latinas who aspire to run for office. Do you have a message for Latinas with political dreams but perhaps see those as unfeasible?
Regina Montoya: I would encourage Latinas to do it. We are in a moment where we are seeing a number of Latinas win state representative positions that we had never won before. They decided to follow their dreams. One of the best advice my parents gave me was to read the book “The Little Engine That Could,” and that’s what this is: following your dream. Don’t let your dream dissipate for you. You can do this, a little at a time. Look for mentors, look for those that can support you. We need new leadership, so I encourage them to vote and to run.