You’d need be blind and deaf not to catch onto the underlying message in Jason Villalba’s campaign launch event, during which he announced his mayoral run on Tuesday morning. When it was time to begin, Villalba brought his grandmother, Celia Villalba, out the front door of the house she’s lived in for 60 years, which was the venue for the announcement. “This is where it all started,” she said. His mother did one introduction, and his wife did another, and the couple then stood at a small podium surrounded by their three Dallas ISD-enrolled children. A successful lawyer, former state representative, and Republican, Villalba was adhering himself to the every man. The word “community” was said many times.
“I’m a product of our community, so I believe in the power of community,” he said.
Villalba made official his rumored run, joining a now nine-headed race for mayor of Dallas. Those heads are Oak Cliff businessman Albert Black, who was first to announce; Design District developer Mike Ablon; former city attorney Larry Casto; term-limited North Oak Cliff Councilman Scott Griggs; volunteer and fundraiser Lynn McBee; lawyer and former Hillary Clinton aide Regina Montoya; Dallas ISD trustee Miguel Solis; and Alyson Kennedy, a Socialist Workers Party candidate in the 2016 presidential election who earned 12,467 votes.
Some 40 or 50 people crowded around Villalba’s grandma’s house in South Oak Cliff. Before proceedings kicked off, they ate donuts and drank orange juice while Villalba mingled through, discussing the setting and hinting at his platform. He told guests that politically, he is toward the middle of his Republican tag. This made his stint in Austin challenging. It came to an end in March 2018, when Villalba lost in the primary to challenger Lisa Luby Ryan, who battered him on the campaign trail for voting in favor of a bill that sought to protect LGBTQ Texans from housing discrimination.
The crowd filed through an iron fence into the front yard, forming something of a diamond around the podium, which stood on the sidewalk. Villalba brought out his grandmother and helped her into a grandmotherly chair, wooden with a worn cushion. The first introducer was Poncho Nevarez, a state representative who flew in from his district in far southwest Texas.
“For those of you who don’t know, I’m a Democrat, and that’s not a bad word,” he said. “Neither is Republican.”
Villalba’s mother, Naomi Villalba, spoke about her journey to the United States after her father’s illness brought the family to Dallas. She talked about meeting her husband, Villalba’s dad. She talked about working her way into a better life, eventually working at employee-friendly Southwest Airlines. About the way her son embodied the opportunity the family has been afforded through the years. “He wants to serve as mayor of Dallas so those same opportunities are there for you,” she said. Villalba’s wife, Brooke Villalba, went next, surrounded by their three children, and talked more about the strength of community and about the Villalbas’ debt to Dallas, which her husband seeks to repay.
Then it was Villalba, who spoke for about 20 minutes about his life, his priorities for the office of mayor, and some of the issues he sees the city currently facing. He joked about the 1,500 people running for mayor of Dallas. He talked about how the Villalba family has lived the American dream right from the house that sat behind him, which saw Villalba’s dad born as one of 10 siblings. And, he went through a five-point plan.
First on that list, similar to Casto’s, is a plan to bring help to struggling Dallasites via state legislation. Where Casto’s plan puts in place a new kind of Tax Increment Financing district to freeze property taxes around new development, Villalba’s is to cap property tax valuations for senior citizens who have fixed incomes. “I’ve written the bill. We have people that are willing to file it,” he said. “That will be something that we put forward as soon as I’m elected. I’ll go down to Austin the next week.” He admitted it’ll be tough sledding in the legislature. “I am confident that I’ll be able to get something done that would not otherwise get done for Dallas if I were not mayor.”
Point No. 2 deals with bolstering Dallas’ antiquated basic infrastructure by proactively engaging private companies that provide that infrastructure. He pointed to Atmos Energy’s reactive efforts to replace gas lines, which happened after explosions in February killed a 12-year-old girl.
No. 3 is to push through better pay for police and fire fighters, and to shore up the city’s pension issues.
No. 4: Accelerate Mayor Mike Rawlings’ work with GrowSouth, an initiative for which Villalba served on the board. He called Rawlings’ work visionary but said it’s not enough. Where the city has raised $75 million in private investment, Villalba says he wants to raise $1 billion in private investment. After his speech, he called that number ambitious but said looking at new kinds of investors could yield results. “What if we went to the southern sector and asked wealthy investors and wealthy organizations and philanthropic organizations across the country who care about making sure we revitalize economically disenfranchised neighborhoods?” he said.
And No. 5: to challenge Dallas to change the big things as well as the little things. “Dallas is bigger than potholes,” he said. He dreams of putting pro sports in Fair Park. “What if I told you that in Fair Park, in two years, we can begin the process of putting a major league franchise down? Maybe it’s soccer, maybe it’s baseball, maybe it’s a minor league team or something.”
At various points during the speech, as well, Villalba criticized the in-fighting on the City Council and said his leadership could keep it to a minimum. He attempted to distance himself from candidates—he didn’t mention Griggs’ name, but it was implied—who’ve claimed they’ll be a new kind of mayor and yet have ties to the old way of doing things. “You sure as hell aren’t going to find a new mayor from the same old City Council that’s been keeping Dallas from reaching its potential,” he said.
And as he closed, Villalba came back around to his main point.
“I’m you,” he said. “And that’s what makes me different.”