At a fundraiser at a home in Highland Park in July, retiring U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison stood in front of about 75 people and repledged her support for Jason Villalba, a 41-year-old partner at Haynes and Boone running to represent District 114 in the Texas House.
“Not one other person in the state of Texas have I endorsed in the primary, even though I’ve been asked a lot,” Hutchison said. She explained why she made an exception for Villalba, and her reasoning was simple: “He’s the future.”
Those were the same words the Dallas Morning News editorial board used when recommending Villalba in the primary, and there are reasons to believe Hutchison and the Morning News are right about Villalba, at least as far as the Republican Party is concerned. He’s young and optimistic, more thoughtful and flexible in his views, willing to work with legislators from all sides. And also, there’s this, in case you didn’t notice: he’s Hispanic.
Though demographics are changing and old battle lines are being drawn and re-drawn, being a Hispanic Republican is still a rarity. Take his district, for example. “There are 482”—Villalba laughs a bit nervously, shrugging—“registered Hispanic Republicans. Out of 93,000.” Not much to work with there. Though that number is maybe enough to swing a primary race—in a July runoff, Villalba defeated former District 107 representative Bill Keffer by 417 votes—it’s probably insufficient to matter in the general election coming up next month, when he’ll face Democrat Carol Kent.
Villalba wasn’t even supposed to make it this far, based on Keffer’s long record of service in the GOP and, yes, his surname. District 114 is affluent, largely white, and spans much of northern Dallas, from Lake Highlands to Preston Hollow, represented since 1990 by Will Hartnett. (Hartnett is not seeking a 12th term.) They weren’t expected to vote for a Hispanic. But pundits perhaps focused too much on Villalba’s status as a Hispanic and too little on his own lengthy history with the Republican Party.
Specifically, his work on Mitt Romney’s National Hispanic Steering Committee in 2008. Villalba first connected with Romney’s staff in 2006. He was looking ahead to the 2008 presidential election and was deciding which horse he was going to back. All of that led to what Villalba calls “a real coup” for his campaign. In late March, during a quick stop in Dallas, Romney took the time to reaffirm his endorsement of Villalba in the District 114 Republican primary. “He will make an outstanding member of the Texas Legislature,” Romney said, calling Villalba a “capable and effective leader.” Romney didn’t endorse anybody else in the country.
But Villalba, in a way, had been building to that point for much longer. He has a story he tells about how he came to be a Republican. Villalba has told that story often this year, so it’s perfectly honed, rehearsed until it fits into the snug contours of a sound bite. “I found Jesus at a church summer camp one year when I was about 7, and then the next year I found Ronald Reagan,” he says, “both of whom had equal influences on my life in a lot of ways.”
That’s the short version. The longer one: when Villalba, a fourth-generation Texan, found Reagan, his parents—his dad was an airplane mechanic and his mom was an administrative assistant—were struggling to keep their family afloat. There was always food on the table, but not much else. He was young, but he noticed.
“But then I saw this guy on TV,” Villalba remembers. “He came on talking about hope and optimism in America. I didn’t know much about politics, but I knew that when that guy started being on television more, things started changing in my house. My dad got a little bit more pay. My mom got a little bit better job. We were able to get gas anytime we wanted it, not just when we needed it. We could actually go on a vacation. Things changed for us for the better.”
Villalba started reading the newspaper, and when he came across issues that mattered to him, he would think about how politicians from both sides would approach it. He always seemed to identify with the one on the right. And so that was it.
“I am not a recovering Democrat,” he says. “I never was a Democrat. I know that probably makes some people look at me with a skeptical eye, because if you weren’t a liberal or a Democrat in college, you must not have lived much.” He laughs.
After leaving South Grand Prairie High School to study finance and economics at Baylor, and then law school at the University of Texas, Villalba came back to Dallas. He didn’t run for public office, but he served as a member on the Dallas Children’s Trust (the board that raises money for Children’s Medical Center), the development committee for the Dallas Zoo, and the Dallas Housing Finance Corporation. And he also is the chairman for the Dallas chapter of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly.
The Republican National Hispanic Assembly works two ways, promoting Hispanic interests within the GOP, while also promoting the party within the Hispanic community. Villalba has been focused on the latter part of that mission for years. He believes the Republican Party appeals to Hispanics—or it should—because most are Catholic (so they’re pro-life) and many own small businesses (which means they’re all for less taxes and smaller government).
Is he right? It’s an important question, as the Hispanic community matures politically, with more seeking office or otherwise getting involved. The answer remains to be seen and, at any rate, it’s probably too late to help Villalba in November. To beat Kent, to really be the future, he’ll have to rely on what he says got him past Keffer in July: “shoe leather and determination.” And if that happens, he becomes an active part in deciding the fate of the Republican Party in the Hispanic community.
“Look, I’m under no illusion that the majority of active Hispanics politically aren’t going to be Democrats,” he says. “But it’s changing. It’s changing because, in Texas, our message does resonate. A guy like me, in a very high Anglo district, was able to win because of the message that we have, which is one that we’re focused on people, the community, and progress. The Democrats have always relied on this idea that, as soon as Hispanics become a controlling majority politically, then the state’s going to be solid blue. But I’ve got news for you: we’re coming and we’re changing minds with data points like me that people can point to. They can say, ‘Look at that Villalba. He’s a regular guy and he won that race against an Anglo who served twice.’ That’s a big deal.”
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