AUSTIN, Texas —The representative and aspiring preacher hadn’t planned to deliver a sermon when he went to work at the state capitol that morning.
Sitting in a drab committee room last month, Texas Rep. James Talarico, among the youngest members of the statehouse now at 34, was slowly getting fed up as he sat through a hearing for a bill that would mandate putting the Ten Commandments in every public school classroom in the state. A week prior, he’d sat through a committee hearing on a bill that would allow chaplains to replace guidance counselors. He was already dreading another floor debate scheduled for later in the day for a bill denying gender-affirming health care. So by the time the Ten Commandments came up that morning, Talarico had had it.
He looked squarely at the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Candy Noble, whom he acknowledged as a fellow “devout Christian,” before letting loose a two-minute and nine-second exchange that would go viral on TikTok and Twitter, racking up more than 1 million views on Twitter alone.
“This bill to me is not only unconstitutional, it’s not only un-American, I think it is also deeply un-Christian,” he told her, as she stood motionless. “And I say that because I believe this bill is idolatrous. I believe it is exclusionary. And I believe that it is arrogant, and those three things, in my reading of the Gospel, are diametrically opposed to the teachings of Jesus.” He cited Matthew 6:5, in which Jesus urges his disciples to not pray publicly like the hypocrites.
Six days later, he went viral again for calling out Texas lawmakers after a mass shooting in Allen, Texas, that left eight dead. “There is something profoundly cynical about asking God to solve a problem that we’re not willing to solve ourselves,” he said on the house floor.
David Axelrod, the veteran Democratic strategist, praised Talarico on Twitter. “WATCH THIS:” California Gov. Gavin Newsom tweeted. “Preach,” former Education Secretary Arne Duncan cheered. After both videos went viral, he received 12,000 calls and emails in a week’s time, a volume that would typically be closer to 300.
“The thing that warms my heart the most,” he told me, “is people who say, ‘I’m an atheist, agnostic, or I left the church or I left religion. But this is the kind of Christianity I can believe in.’”
Many politicians start their mornings by saying a prayer or two. Talarico is a bit more devoted.
On a Monday morning this spring, a little more than a mile from the hulking Texas Capitol, Talarico was literally navigating the divide between church and state as he steered his 2016 Chevy Colorado pickup into a parking space on the serene, live oak-dotted campus of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. It was just past 8 a.m., and he was late for his weekly New Testament class, one of two seminary classes he took this past semester. Last August, he enrolled in seminary to get his Master of Divinity — which, with any luck, he’ll receive in 2025 in order to become a pastor, right around the time he might begin to look at running for governor in 2026.
On days like this, Talarico is something of a theological Clark Kent; the back cab of his truck is his phone booth, the place where he changes from jeans into a suit, transforming from a seminary student into a state legislator. As he opened the door to grab his leather briefcase, he revealed his uniform of a navy blue suit, white dress shirt and burgundy tie hanging above a pair of black leather Luccheses, the storied Texas boot brand, with his name and the Texas House of Representatives seal stitched into them.
Talarico darted to class, slipped into the back row and pulled out his MacBook and the New Oxford Annotated Bible. Inside these walls, he is a student like anyone else. The professor asked for volunteers to read a few portions of Paul’s epistle to Timothy. Talarico spoke up, reading a passage about appointing leaders. Outside these walls, he is seen as an up-and-coming leader, one who is likely to run for statewide office someday.
Religion and politics have always been intertwined for Talarico. He grew up the son of a single mother going to St. Andrew’s Presbyterian, a church that the Rev. Jim Rigby had turned into something of a refuge for progressive Christians in Austin. Rigby began ordaining gay and lesbian clergy in the 1990s, and, as a result, was put on trial by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) denomination. Rigby remains Talarico’s pastor and encouraged him to pursue seminary. He even invited Talarico to deliver his first sermon at the church last fall. Talarico chose the subject of abortion — not exactly a topic you’d expect a pastor to tackle. “Did they teach you in Sunday school that Jesus Christ himself was a radical feminist,” he asked the parishioners that day.
“Loving thy neighbor is exhausting, especially in a place like the Texas legislature,” Talarico told me in the campus chapel, as the morning sun streamed through stained glass windows.
But seminary, he told me, is giving him a new and deeper vocabulary to think about changing Texas, and ammunition to fight the culture wars by quoting the same scripture his Republican opponents do — all with a pastoral smile, and as he puts it, deeper knowledge of the stories that reveal essential truths about the human condition.
“Seminary,” Talarico told me later after class in his basement office at the Texas capitol, “helped me crystalize the project we’ve been working on.” Through a series of legislation, Talarico has been developing a policy program that he’s billed as The Friendship Agenda. Based on Texas’ 1930 motto of “Friendship,” his agenda promises to promote everything from “economic friendship” (think medical debt forgiveness, baby bonds and subsidized marriage counseling) to “political friendship” (ranked choice voting and digital literacy, among others) and “social friendship” (“Medicaid for Y’All,” as he calls it).
“We progressives do ourselves a disservice when we discard those central stories,” Talarico said. “In my reading of history, the most successful progressives — whether it’s in the labor movement, civil rights movement, women’s movement, farm workers’ movement — they embed themselves in those stories, and then use those stories to propel their movement forward.”
Talarico first entered the spotlight back in July 2021, when he was one of 51 Texas Democrats who walked out of the state legislature and flew to Washington to prevent a quorum and block voting restrictions. After the defectors landed shortly after midnight, George Hornedo, one of Talarico’s friends from grad school and a former Pete Buttigieg campaign alum, decided that he wanted to help his buddy make the most of the moment. Hornedo looped in another Buttigieg alum, Andrew Mamo, to help him prep. They saw something in Talarico that reminded them of their former boss — he had it, whatever it was. Intellect. Sagacity.
Talarico had served as the executive director of student government at the University of Texas and then got his master’s in education policy from Harvard but came home to Texas soon after. He taught middle school on the west side of San Antonio — he had family there, and it was the closest place he could find a teaching gig. He eventually moved back to Austin as an educational consultant. In the 2018 midterms, at just 29, he flipped his suburban Austin, Trump-leaning district blue, winning it by 2 points, one of only a handful of Texas Democrats to do so that year.
When he landed in D.C. that night in 2021, Talarico had never done national television before. But thanks to aggressive pitching by his friends, by the next morning, he was everywhere. On his first day, he scored his first viral moment during an interview with Fox host Pete Hegseth. In a contentious exchange, he challenged Hegseth to state that Trump lost the 2020 presidential election. Hegseth couldn’t bring himself to say it. Instead, he accused Talarico of being a prop of Washington Democrats.
“I’m an eighth-generation Texan,” Talarico responded. “I’ve only been in D.C. twice in my life … I’m a former middle-school teacher who ran for office just to try to make my community better and I swore an oath when I first got elected two years ago to uphold the constitution.”
He gained 20,000 new followers overnight, and the clip scored nearly a million views.
Tony Coelho, the veteran Democratic talent scout who plucked Terry McAuliffe from obscurity to help the Democratic National Committee with fundraising in the 1980s, told me Talarico should be considered for a speaking slot at the DNC’s convention next year. Like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, Coelho said, Talarico is a politician with “strong views and round edges.” He continued, “This kid, in my view, is one of the best I’ve seen.”
By 2021, Republicans saw Talarico as such a threat that they redrew the lines of his district to remove the more liberal sections of town and skew the lines in Republicans’ favor. Rather than testing that fight, Talarico moved over to a neighboring, more solidly blue northern Austin suburban district. He won with roughly 80 percent of the vote. “Texas Republicans tried to get rid of me,” Talarico said at the time, “but my community has my back.”
After seminary class, Talarico climbed into his truck and headed north on I-35 to his old district. At a food truck called Taqueria Jaguar’s, he ordered two bacon-and-egg breakfast tacos. “Why would anyone order any other kind of taco when breakfast tacos are an option,” he said.
The cashier refused to take his money, and the two seemed to know one another. At a table, he offered an explanation: A year ago, a tornado wiped out this same taco truck. Talarico, a frequent patron, reached out to his political donors, raising something like $8,000 for the family — his constituents — to get back on their feet.
During his campaigns, he walked 25 miles across the length of district twice, holding three town halls over 10 hours. But on the first of these walks, he started feeling nauseous and fatigued. He vomited multiple times during the walk — you can see him change shirts on a YouTube video he filmed of his campaigning — but finished the walk and went to bed. He didn’t wake up for 36 hours.
In a state of diabetic ketoacidosis, his parents rushed him to the emergency room, where his blood sugar was 10 times the normal limit. Doctors diagnosed him with diabetes, and he found out the insulin would cost him $684 a month.
He understood immediately the burden that cost would place on his constituents, so he wrote a Twitter thread about the experience that received more than 50,000 retweets. But he attempted to back that up with real change, authoring and passing a bill that capped insulin copays at $25 a month. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed it into law. He’s already notched serious bipartisan accomplishments in his two terms. In his first session, his name touched no fewer than 112 pieces of legislation; 25 became law.
What’s the frenetic pace of legislation all add up to? “I am looking forward to running statewide,” Talarico said. In another conversation, he told me that “Ted Cruz would be fun to debate.” Talarico and his advisers have discussed possibly challenging Cruz next year or Gov. Greg Abbott in 2026. But those close to him say he’s leaning toward a bid against the governor, especially now that Rep. Colin Allred has entered the race against Cruz. Talarico is expected to launch a statewide political action committee, Big and Bright PAC, later this year.
But beyond the mechanics of picking his moment, he told me he is far more interested in reshaping how Texas Democrats talk about their values to voters.
“In our political discourse, you see a white, straight Christian, male Democrat, who’s talking about religion, talking about family values, talking about Texas exceptionalism, and you start to think they are Republican light,” he said. “There’s a theory that that’s how Democrats win, just making themselves more like Republicans. And I reject that.”
“Part of being a good friend is calling out their bullshit,” Talarico said. We were in his office in the belly of the Capitol after his morning of seminary classes and tacos. He had just spent about an hour on the floor of the house, working with Republican colleagues to cosign one of his bills — a proposal that would make it legal to import cheap prescription drugs from Canada — winning over one Republican signatory. Afterward, he wanted to explain how the Golden Rule applies to his sometimes tough rhetoric for Republicans.
“I often think about the example of a tipsy friend who’s about to get in their car,” Talarico said. “It’s like your job to take the keys away. And that may seem hostile. It may seem aggressive, but it’s being done out of love for them and for what you both share.”
He thought back to that morning’s seminary class, and a passage they’d read about believers in the church “all being members of the same body, being limbs to the same body,” he said.
“The tools that had been used to amputate us from each other are things like partisanship, things like culture wars,” he said. “The term ‘religion’ literally means to re-ligament, to re-limb, to reconnect us.”
For Democrats, turning Texas blue is the political equivalent of Lucy pulling away the football from Charlie Brown: Promised, but never delivered, cycle after cycle. As Talarico pointed out during one of our conversations earlier this year, “There is no single Republican who turned the state red.” Instead, it happened gradually — over time.”
Still, for a number of reasons, those who know him say Talarico is uniquely positioned to actually be the Democrat who wins statewide. There’s his political athleticism, of course, but there’s also his age: At one point, he was the youngest elected member of the Texas legislature — 17 years and a generation younger than Texas Democrats’ last great hope, Beto O’Rourke. (Talarico got an inside view of what worked and what didn’t thanks to his role advising O’Rourke on debate prep and throughout that gubernatorial bid.)
Hinojosa, who at 28 is the oldest staffer who works with Talarico, also worked on O’Rourke’s gubernatorial bid last year. I asked her what made him likely to be headed for a different electoral fate than her old boss.
“Time,” she said. “He has time.”
UPDATE: This story has been updated to clarify Talarico’s evolving plans to run for statewide office.
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