Blowing up: Neave onstage at a November fundraiser. Eric Celeste

Politics

Victoria Neave Had a Great First Year in the Texas Lege*

*Except for the night she crashed into a tree.

Constituents and friends had come from every part of Victoria Neave’s district—most of Mesquite, part of Lakewood, and south Garland—to kick off her run for reelection. The hall at Winfrey Point on White Rock Lake was packed with supporters on a night in early November, and the mood was festive. The aesthetic was more “small-town prom” than “fundraiser for a young political star.” On the stage, a DJ in a snap-brim hat and “Tejanos jam” t-shirt spun “Boogie Shoes.” The crowd, majority Hispanic, noshed on homemade quesadillas and sipped from cans of Coke kept on ice in a large Coleman.

The music stopped, and a parade of North Texas politicians made its way to the stage to praise Neave, a state representative voted “Freshman of the Year” by House Democrats. State Representative Rafael Anchia, for whom Neave served as an intern more than a decade ago, noted they did not vote in lockstep because Neave has a diverse district (increasingly working-class Hispanic; overall about 45 percent white, 55 percent minority), and she works to serve all her constituents. State Representative Nicole Collier from Fort Worth said Neave wasn’t afraid to “speak up and speak out” on women’s issues. State Representative Ramon Romero Jr. told a joke in Spanish that, from all indications, was very funny.

It was Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, though, who addressed the reality of what Neave was up against. “It will be a dirty campaign,” he said. The crowd booed. “Not on our part, but on their part.” More boos. “They will talk about things in her past!” Booooooo!

That reads sillier than it played in the room. Because of course Neave’s Republican challengers will talk about her past, as Neave will talk about theirs. But everyone in the hall knew what Jenkins meant. They will talk about it. The night. The incident. The drunken driving arrest in June that made a rising young political star suddenly vulnerable in the eyes of Republicans who desperately want to reclaim Texas House District 107.

How vulnerable? “Extremely,” says a Hispanic politician who knows the district well. “It was a very tight race before. And they can’t beat her on policy. She’s respected, she works too hard, and she got bipartisan bills passed. What do they have, then? Her arrest. It’s a divisive issue. And they’re going to hammer her with it.”

They don’t have much else to hit her on. She had a tremendous first session, authoring or co-authoring an astonishing-for-a-freshman five bills. She stepped into a vacuum and helped lead and plan the Dallas Women’s March after the presidential election. Her personal story all but comes complete with tinkling piano: father came to America with a sixth-grade education, opened his own TV repair shop in Mesquite, drove her in his beat-up truck from the barrio of Pleasant Grove to Ursuline Academy of Dallas so she could get an outstanding education. From there, she worked for politicians on various campaigns, went to law school, worked in a big firm, then established her own practice. Not much to hammer there.

A week after the Winfrey Point fundraiser, Neave nods when asked if she knows what’s coming over the next year of campaigning. “To be in this business, you have to have a thick skin,” she says. “I have to be able to take it, and I expect to take it. We’re going to take whatever punches they throw.”

Neave won’t give any details about the night that aren’t in the police report, but what is known will provide plenty of fodder for her opponents. Her blood alcohol level was nearly twice the legal limit when she crashed her BMW into a tree in East Dallas. She told officers, “I love you, and I will fight for you,” and invoked her Fifth Amendment rights to remain silent otherwise. Once released, she issued a statement saying, “I am so grateful that no one was hurt. I am deeply sorry and will accept the consequences of my actions and will work to make this right.” In October, rather than fight the charge, she pleaded no contest, a decision for which she was praised in the Dallas Morning News.

A few things strike me about that. One, Republicans will use it to tarnish her in ways both obvious (campaign mailers with her mug shot) and subtle (mocking social media posts). Two, if we’re being honest, that’s one of the least-embarrassing DWI stories I can imagine. She told officers she loved them and will fight for them. That’s pretty defensible drunk talk!

“To be in this business, you have to have a thick skin,” Neave says. “I have to be able to take it, and I expect to take it. We’re going to take whatever punches they throw.”

Three, I’ve talked to nearly a dozen Dallas-area politicians about the political fallout that will come from that night, and the response is always a version of: “There but for the grace of God …” The political machine is fueled thusly: ego by day, alcohol by night. Seemingly every day, there are office- or campaign-related happy hour events, dinner events, post-dinner events, and post-post-dinner-event drinks on a politician’s schedule. The campaigning, hand-shaking, deal-making, and alcohol drinking never end.

For example: the night Neave was arrested, I spent the evening drinking bourbon and rum with a half-dozen politicians in an undisclosed location, except to say it was nowhere near where Neave was that evening. (Such sessions are off the record so that everyone may speak freely.) Much of the discussion centered on Neave, specifically what a fantastic first session she had, passing five pieces of legislation with bipartisan support, including a bill establishing a funding mechanism to clear an enormous backlog of untested rape kits. The next morning, one of the politicians texted me the news: “Could have been any of us.”

None of which is meant to excuse Neave’s recklessness, nor does she make excuses. She knows it’s her actions going forward that matter. Friends tell me she decided to quit drinking after that night, saying that because she’s barely 5 feet tall, she doesn’t trust herself with even one glass of wine.

But even though her response has been a textbook example of owning up to her actions, the damage was done. I told Neave that D Magazine had named her Best Politician in its annual Best of Big D issue but changed the award at the last minute after her DWI. More important than losing such accolades, Republicans began licking their chops.

One of the first to file had all the makings of a tough opponent for Neave. Deanna Metzger is a young Republican politician running her first race. She grew up in Mesquite, graduating from North Mesquite High School. She says she will go after Neave’s “radical voting record.” She comes from at least a bit of money. She lives in a house that’s on the tax rolls for more than $700,000.

The problem for Republicans is that Metzger’s house is in Fort Worth. ABC Channel 8 revealed that the Mesquite house that Metzger claimed as her residence when she filed to run for District 107—and from which she later voted—was a modest home in a poor area of town that Metzger owned but did not live in. Which led to a claim being filed against Metzger and a possible felony charge for voting from a residence where she doesn’t live.

For what it’s worth, Metzger put out a statement saying this was an attack by Democrats. I know the person who took this information to both Channel 8 and to the person who filed the complaint against Metzger. He is a longtime Republican and did not even tell Neave he was gathering this evidence against Metzger. Regardless, the drama speaks to the desperation Republicans feel in trying to hit Neave while she’s vulnerable, before she becomes entrenched and her DWI becomes old news.

And this is where I disagree with those who say she’s vulnerable. I think the political world is soaked in booze, and she got caught up in that. I think people understand that, and she handled the aftermath in a stand-up fashion. I think Republicans in North Texas have no credible candidate to run against her and no way to hurt her on issues that matter. I think a year from now, she wins reelection, and then Neave won’t ever again have to think about the mistake she made, from a political standpoint.

From a human standpoint? “I think about it every day,” she says. “I’m so glad that nobody got hurt. That day, I said I was going to accept responsibility, and do everything that I can to make it right. So that’s what I’ve been trying to do. We’re trying to do everything we can, to earn the trust, earn the respect of our constituents. I also think about, you know, when your parents teach you that when you fall down, you can either stay down, or you can get right back up. I’m back up.”

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