The Jeffersonian: Politicks, Sports, and Culture

Monday, March 28, 2005

Bexar County Dem Squabbling

The Express-News had an article yesterday about State Rep. Mike Villarreal's willingness to work with the Republican leadership, and the price he may bear for this in the 2006 elections. The centerpiece of the argument rests on his committee support, but House floor opposition to House Bill 3 (HB 3). Villarreal's reasoning?

"Villarreal said he was the only Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee 'who fought as hard as I could to make an onerous bill less onerous. But in the end, it was too bad of a bill, and I could not vote for it' on the House floor. The attacks, Villarreal responded, are coming from 'a few people who are committed to some notion of a 'pure' Democratic party."
The harshest criticism comes from State Senator Leticia Van de Putte, calling his committee support of HB 3, "repugnant" to her. This of course, should come as no surprise to San Antonians, as Van de Putte has never supported Villareal.

But Democrats aren't the only ones bristling at Villarreal.

"He voted Republican in committee, got some things that he favored inserted (in HB 3), only then to vote Democratic when it got on the fllor," said one high-ranking Republican who would comment only if he was not identified."
Villarreal takes credit for language in the bill that increases the number of businesses subject to the franchise tax from 150,000 to 475,000. Villarreal has also taken heat for his support of tuition deregulation and tort reform in previous legislative sessions.

But reducing Villarreal's legislative career to tort reform, tuition dereg, and his committee support for HB 3, doesn't do it service. Villarreal runs a great consituent service program, and he can win re-election on nearly that alone. He was the Legislator of the Year in 2001 for the Texas Association for Education of Young Children, and continues to be a leader in early childhood education. Villarreal has been a strong supporter of the University of Texas- San Antonio, and the UT system, authoring numerous bills for tuition revenue bonds and co-authoring last session's bill to put a student on the UT system Board of Regents. Villarreal was also the Redistricting committee's vice-chairman last session, fighting valiantly to keep Republicans from circumventing democracy. Finally, Villarreal has been a huge supporter of the GLBT community, (authoring bills attempting to end GLBT workforce discrimination) and a player on the school finance scene as a member of the Select Committee on School Finance last year.

At the end of the day, Villarreal's committee work and voting explanation make sense. If Villarreal had voted no in committee, would he have been able to expand the franchise tax? Probably not. It would have made no difference had Villarreal voted no- Republicans had the votes to move it out of committee to begin with. So he tried to work around the edges and ameliorate the bad parts of the bill. At the end of the day it wasn't enough, and he voted against it on the House floor. It's not that hard to put together.

Because of his refusal to toe the party lines on a handful of issues, Villarreal has faced consistent primary opposition. Names already being spread around for 2006 are- Mayor Ed Garza, former City Councilman Bobby Perez, and Ken Mireles. Not that it fazes him though. Villarreal was first elected to the State House when then-State Rep. Leticia Van de Putte was elected to the State Senate after Gregory Luna passed away in 1999. Villarreal either won or lost the District 115 special election to Roberto Vasquez by 1 vote in 2000 depending on whether you look at the Secretary of State Elections page (lost by 1 vote) or the Bexar County Elections page (won by 1 vote). Because of write-ins, a run-off was held, with Villarreal beating the Van de Putte backed candidate by a 310 vote margin. One month later, Villarreal faced the same opponent, endorsed again by Van de Putte, in the Democratic primary election, beating him by over 1100 votes.

In 2002, Villarreal faced former City Councilman Roger Perez in the Democratic primary. Villarreal's district had been obliterated by the Legislative Redistricting Board in 2001, placing his home in childhood friend's Trey Martinez-Fischer's district, only to be restored after the map failed to pass DOJ review. In the meantime, Villarreal had announced his campaign against County Commissioner Paul Elizondo (another way to stick it to Van de Putte), switching back to his state house district after it was reinstated. Perez, brother-in-law to Henry Cisneros, had been looking for another political perch to roost from after being term-limited out of City Hall in the mid '90s. Brought into the race by supporters/surrogates of Van de Putte, Perez lost to Villarreal by over 1,000 votes.

Now to truly understand the dislike between the Van de Putte (sometimes called the Edison High School machine) and Villarreal camps, one needs a quick San Antonio history lesson. Older, first-generation Latino elected officials (Henry B., Gregory Luna) had caused a logjam in the San Antonio political scene by staying in power for 20,30 years. Younger pols could either spend 4 years on City Council and maybe make a try for Mayor, try and knock off a state rep, or pay homage to a current state rep and wait your turn. And to keep themselves in power, pols started to form almost familial relationships. Elizondo's the godfather to Van de Putte's children, and vice-versa, staff shuffles back and forth between them, and they keep an eye out for potential rivals, doing whatever they can to squash them, ensuring that their political machine is the only viable one in town. So when Luna's seat opened up, those who had been paying their tribute to Van de Putte, waiting for their opportunity (Roberto Vasquez), were ready. Except, no one saw Villarreal coming. And since he doesn't owe anything to Van de Putte or the Edison High machine, he can vote his own way and not worry about potential electoral repercussions.

I do find it credible that Ed Garza would think about running against Villarreal. A FoC (Friend o' Cincinnatus)- who is a strong Villarreal supporter- recounts a story where, after taking a class Garza was teaching at UTSA, was asked by Garza if he would ever run against Villarreal. After replying no, Garza asked if his support and fundraising ties would make a difference in his answer. When answered again with 'no', Garza proceeded to backtrack and say, "that's alright, I like Mike... it's just sometimes he tries too hard." But while I find the rumors credible, in the end, I don't believe Garza would run. This isn't his political base, his old city council district is a few miles west of HD 123. He doesn't have the best record to run on either. And it's going to take someone with credibility and a strong network in the district to try and put up a quality challenge. Garza's network is too spread out over the entire city.

Ken Mireles doesn't work either. He just finished running against David Leibowitz a year ago in a entirely different State House district. It's going to be hard to justify the switch as something other than purely political. Plus, at the end of the day, he's just not the politician Villarreal is.

Bobby Perez, or his top lieutenant from his City Council days- Thomas Aguillon- would be the most likely choices. Perez' old City Council district makes up about 80% of Villarreal's House district, and Perez was seen as mayoral material a couple of years ago. But he is more of a backroom wheeler/dealer, I see him getting beat the same way that Roger Perez did- by simply being outworked. Aguillon has the connections to try and do it, but he ran to replace Perez in '03 and came in third, not making the run-off. If either Perez or Aguillon runs, you can be sure that as platinum members of the Edison High machine, they'd get Van de Putte's support.

All in all, this is about Democrats-once again- eating their young just so one ethnic machine can keep its stranglehold on its power base. Villarreal, at 33 years old, is probably the most important Bexar County legislator committee-wise right now (holding seats on Ways and Means and State Affairs). He's shown his ability to be progressive while at the same time work as a consensus builder. He doesn't run negative campaigns and works his district relentlessly. He's exactly the sort of pol we want on our bench right now, just waiting to be called up to the Big Show. Why certain Dems keep trying to knock him off is baffling to me.