As she cleaned teeth and checked for cavities, Dr. Elba Garcia became known among mothers of her primarily young patients as not only their dentist, but also a sounding board for community issues.
“This street over here is awful. The library, the lake … What happened to the police department?” Garcia recalls. “So I knew there was a need. My office really became a 311 hub-slash-dental office.”
Her clients started suggesting she run for a Dallas City Council seat, a position that her husband, attorney Domingo Garcia, held in the early ’90s before being elected to the state legislature. After obtaining blessing from her family (who reasoned, “You like to complain, and you’re good at it,” she says), Garcia decided to give the 2001 District 1 council race a shot.
Almost immediately, the naysaying began.
“Oh my god, but you’re a woman! Oh my god, but you’re an immigrant! Oh my god, you have an incumbent!” Garcia says, mimicking the skeptics’ responses to her bid for office nearly a decade ago.
“I didn’t listen. Why should I? Public service needs people who believe they can change something. If you’re not part of that crowd, then stay away from it.”
Since then, Garcia has been elected four times — the city charter’s limit for consecutive council service. On June 22, the current mayor pro tem will be succeeded by either Delia Jasso or Justin Epker, who face each other in an election runoff on June 13.
Garcia says she came into office with ideals and expectations, but learned quickly that “this is not Speedy Gonzalez territory. I did it little by little.”
During her tenure, she became known as an advocate for public safety by campaigning among her colleagues to spend half-a-million dollars on efficiency studies for the police and fire departments.
“Tell me — how can a private business run with no study of what’s efficient?” Garcia asks. “We had economic development maps and studies, but nothing on police. It took away the politics. We knew what we needed to do and how many officers we needed to hire without getting into the politics of who says what.”
Dallas Police Deputy Chief Rick Watson of the Southeast Patrol Division says Garcia always supported the police department. She played “a major role” in last year’s installation of 11 security cameras on Jefferson Boulevard, which Watson says he requested of her soon after he took over the division in October 2006. Instead of hitting up the city for funding, which would have been “quite a bit of an undertaking,” Watson says, Garcia approached the Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce and the Jefferson Corridor Merchants Association to fund the effort.
“She even donated $2,000 of her own money toward a camera,” Watson says. “She was there every step of the way and supported anything I needed.”
It also wasn’t unusual to see Garcia on her hands and knees pulling weeds and planting flowers with the Friends of Oak Cliff Parks, says the organization’s first vice-president, Barbara Barbee.
“And not all of the parks we work in are in her district,” Barbee says, adding that Garcia’s avid support of neighborhood parks “is easy to understand. She lives across the street from Lake Cliff Park, and she saw that it needed some attention.”
Garcia also avidly supported animal issues, including building the city’s new animal shelter, part of the bond package passed in 2003. The initial figure was $3 million, which “wouldn’t even replace the old shelter in Oak Cliff,” Garcia says.
Garcia says she’s often asked about the Trinity River Corridor, which she believes “will mark Dallas as a project for the new century.” The seemingly slow progress doesn’t faze her.
“When you’re talking about a project that is 10 times the size of Central Park, expect some changes,” she says. “Whatever I say now, in five years, it will change.”
Most important to her are issues of flood control and public safety.
“If everything is underwater, what good will the rest be?” Garcia says. “If something happens, forget about North Oak Cliff and downtown Dallas — we’ll probably have water all the way to Baylor.”
As soon as she leaves the council, Garcia expects to announce her candidacy for District 4’s Dallas County commissioner job. At press time, she hadn’t officially announced her bid; if she had, she would have been required to step down early from her city council seat. But after her council term ends, Garcia is moving to a house four blocks away, which would position her in District 4 (and take her out of District 3, which is represented by her current next door neighbor, county commissioner John Wiley Price).
After eight years, Garcia says she’s ready to move on, even stating the number of her days left in her fourth and final term before smiling and saying: “But who’s counting?”