Richard Moya, political trailblazer and the first Mexican-American elected to public office in Travis County, died early Thursday after a battle with prostate cancer at age 84.
Moya, a Democrat, rode the first wave of successful Hispanic political activism in the county when he was elected to the Travis County Commissioners Court in 1970.
Former Austin Mayor Gus Garcia said that Moya was a brilliant politician in Austin, maybe the best in Travis County.
“Knowledgeable, astute, street smart,” Garcia said. “These are just but a few of the characteristics that describe Richard Moya.”
Politics runs in the family. His daughter, Lori Moya, served on the Austin school board from 2006 to 2014.
“He meant the world to me,” she said. “He was my best friend. He was my mentor. He was my coach. He was my conscience. He was my sports buddy.”
Moya was elected commissioner for the precinct representing the heavily Hispanic district in the southeastern portion of the county, where there were large pockets of poverty. His path was cleared when parts of East Austin north of the river were redistricted into Precinct 4.
He credited his election to the galvanizing effect on the Hispanic community of 252 workers who walked off their jobs in 1968 at the Economy Furniture factory, demanding better pay, benefits and workers’ rights. After winning union recognition in court, the strikers and an emerging coalition of Mexican-American organizations helped Moya get elected.
“The strikers walked the picket line, then came back to help my campaign,” Moya recalled at age 82. “A week before the election, John Treviño got six kids to run my campaign for nothing. But we really needed $1,200 for radio ads. I’d already borrowed money from my dad, so I talked to the strikers. They got $21 a week on the picket line. When they got paid, they gave me their checks.”
“He really appreciated what they sacrificed for him,” Lori Moya said. “And what it meant to his election.”
Other Latinos would soon follow Moya into office. Garcia was elected to the Austin school board, and state Rep. Gonzalo Barrientos (later state senator), a confidant of Moya’s, was elected to the Legislature, where he would serve until 2006.
Along with Austin City Council Member John Treviño, Moya was known in the 1970s as part of the “Brown Machine,” according to Garcia. It was also the nickname of Moya’s printing press, which saw a lot of political action.
Moya worked hard to reform welfare and hiring programs at the county. He pushed to add a child abuse unit to the district attorney’s office and to improve emergency services, rural transportation, mental health services and road maintenance.
After his first bruising election, Moya went on to win three more terms, leaving office in 1986. Moya summed up his old-fashioned political sense as: “If you can’t get the whole thing, take what you can get.”
He later served as deputy chief of staff under Gov. Ann Richards, then branched out, mostly into business ventures.
“He was the most accessible political leader to Hispanic voters,” community leader Marta Cotera once said. “And they came out in droves to vote for him. His great humor helped overcome the extreme antagonism and racism he faced. Once when he was falsely accused of using county materials to paint his house, he responded that, in that case, perhaps he should find out why his mother was still billing him for the supplies.”
Moya said he was inspired by the example of Roy Guerrero, who organized activities for Hispanic children, later doing it in an official capacity for the city of Austin.
Pete Moya, Richard’s father, was raised on a ranch and sold ice in the summer and firewood in the winter, door to door. His mother, Bertha Ramos Moya, was born near Saltillo, Coahuila. She had worked on the assembly line at the AusTex Chili Company in downtown Austin. They settled on Willow Street in East Austin, where Moya’s mother insisted he attend nearby Metz Elementary School instead of Zavala Elementary School north of what was then East First Street, where Hispanic children were routed.
Moya later attended Allan Junior High and Austin High before working in the printing business as a union pressman. He served briefly in the Army during the Korean War; in 1953 he married Gertrude “Gertie” Garza. They would have celebrated the 65th anniversary of their engagement the day he died.
Moya leaves behind his wife, his daughter and grandchildren Jeff Delgado, Teresa Delgado and Misty Moya Welch. Memorial services haven’t been finalized.
He got to know the courthouse crowd by serving as an investigator for the Travis County Legal Aid Society. He was also active in the East Austin softball leagues, where a lot of key networking took place.
Moya’s legacy is visible in tangible ways. For years, residents of his precinct called for a park as nice as those in whiter parts of the county. They have one now: Richard Moya Park, 100 acres of woodlands and ball fields along Onion Creek, although it has been heavily damaged in recent years by flooding. It should reopen later this spring.
Former state Sen. Barrientos summed up Moya’s moment in history.
“In the 1960s, there was a convergence of events, nationally, locally — from civil rights and the movimiento and the Vietnam War — that called for a time of leadership,” Barrientos said.” Because of our background and because of discrimination of minorities, it was difficult to step forward. Richard Moya was one of the first to step forward. He changed lives.”