When state Rep. Jason Villalba was first elected to the Legislature in 2012, he was described as the future of the Texas Republican Party.
Five years later, representing an affluent North Dallas district that Hillary Clinton carried and whose constituents include former President George W. Bush, Villalba is one of only three Hispanic Republicans in the Legislature. During his years in Austin, he has been a loyal and outspoken advocate for House Speaker Joe Straus and an unabashed admirer of Gov. Greg Abbott.
Yet despite his talents and ambition, Villalba remains literally and figuratively a back bencher in the Texas House. Denied a chairman’s gavel, he is custodian of the House candy jar, his talents thwarted and ambitions blunted as he now closes out a session he calls “my toughest yet,” a self-described Reagan Republican out of step with the continued rightward march of his party.
“The conservative grass roots and Lt. Gov. (Dan) Patrick and his followers can say, ‘We moved the needle materially this session from where it was last session, and last session we claimed it was the most conservative session in Texas history,’ ” Villalba said this week, in the session’s waning days. “So I think it’s a real win for Lt. Gov. Patrick. I think he had an excellent session. Did he go as far as he wanted to go? The answer to that is ‘no.’ But I think he got further than he expected to get.”
But for Villalba, with tough votes on sanctuary cities, transgender bathroom policy and abortion, “There have been more times this session when I felt icky when I drove home, just gross with what the body had done, that I never felt before.”
Even if Villalba and the other legislators are able to return home with the end of the biennial 140-day session Monday, after Friday night’s dramatic dueling news conferences between Straus and Patrick, it appears increasingly possible they will have to return for a special session that would further strengthen Patrick’s hand.
Already, thanks largely to Patrick, who set its tone and tempo, the 85th session — on issues from immigration to abortion to “religious liberty” — represented a high water mark for tea party conservatism in Texas.
“The last session was the most conservative in my experience, and this one was more conservative and comfortably so. It wasn’t a stretch. They were very much in their own skin,” said Bill Miller, a leading Austin lobbyist who represents interests across the political spectrum. “I tell clients: ‘We’re the most conservative state in the country. We’re a big, broad, diverse state, but we’re the most conservative state.’ ”
Of Patrick, Miller said: “He’s driven the agenda of the state, and he’s played his cards beautifully. He’s taken the appropriate hostages at the appropriate time in an appropriate way, and it has produced the result that he’s desired.”
But that was before Friday night, when Straus said the House, come what may, would be pushed no further on “bathroom” legislation, and Patrick replied that, if so, Straus had made a special session, which only the governor can call, inevitable.
“Despite tensions, the session is not yet over,” Abbott spokesman John Whitman said in a terse statement on a tense night. “The taxpayers deserve to have the Legislature finish their work on time. Only the governor can determine when or if there is a special session, and if so, what issues are addressed.”
Of Abbott, Miller said: “He plays his cards when he wants to play them, but I think his nature is judicial, to let the process work, to say, at the time and place of his choosing. … He doesn’t meddle much. That’s not his style.”
“It suits the lieutenant governor perfectly,” Miller said. “Abbott’s style leaves a pretty big gap, and Patrick is happy to fill it.”
For all the under-the-dome talk about Abbott’s passivity, step outside into the rest of Texas and Abbott seemingly stands alone.
“He’s the most popular figure in the state, and no one’s put a glove on him,” Miller said. “He’s the governor. He’s going to have the final say on everything” — whether it’s deciding on a special session or the vetoes that will follow the regular session.
On Friday night, Straus and Patrick were, in dramatic fashion, essentially laying their cases before the court, awaiting the governor’s judgment.
“Does Gov. Abbott really share the same philosophy as (Lt.) Gov. Patrick?” Villalba wondered. “I don’t know the answer to that. I would have said when he was running, ‘No.’ I would have thought he was cut from more of the George W. Bush cloth than he is from Patrick’s. I don’t think we’re seeing that.”
‘I don’t blame Straus’
Two years ago, Abbott and Patrick, each in the first session of his first term, celebrated what they were happy to christen the most conservative session in Texas history.
But it was a session tempered, in ways that Abbott quietly appreciated, by Straus. Just as Straus has as speaker spared his members votes they would rather not take, Straus spared Abbott bills he’d rather not have reach his desk — like a repeal of in-state tuition at public colleges and universities for students in the country illegally, a top target of Patrick and the tea party that Straus quickly squelched last session and didn’t return this session.
But, said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, “last session, we were just coming out of an election. This session, we’re going into one.”
Also, Henson said, noting the newness of Abbott and Patrick to their jobs last session, “even masters of the universe have a learning curve.”
On Jan. 9, the day before the session opened, Patrick called a news conference to announce that he would never run against Abbott for governor.
“We are a great team,” Patrick said. “We work well together. We agree 96, 97 percent of the time. I can’t even name the 3 percent we don’t.”
Instead of a potential rival, Abbott found in Patrick a skillful and aggressive ally, in complete control of a compliant chamber, pushing the governor’s priorities through the Senate in record time. Among Abbott’s four emergency items was a ban on sanctuary cities, which Abbott made sure to brand as his own.
Abbott appeared several times on Fox News and other conservative media outlets, addressing what was, thanks to President Donald Trump, an on-fire issue that Fox had fanned over the years. The governor ran as hard against Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez for what he contended were her sanctuary city policies as he had against Wendy Davis when she ran against him for governor, even threatening to seek to lock her up if she persisted.
But the issue had a fateful impact on Straus and the House
“The House cracked; the centrist conservative wall certainly had some fissures this session,” said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones. “Straus’ ability to hold back legislation that he and his allies did not like was reduced compared to the last session.”
Straus’ lieutenants, said Jones, were still pretty good at bottling up most bills they didn’t like, but the sanctuary cities measure was too big to stop.
“He couldn’t kill sanctuary cities altogether,” Jones said. For Straus, said Jones, the calculation was “all 94 of my members have to compete in a Republican primary, and unlike me, they don’t have a war chest that’s in the seven figures.”
“The best he could hope for was the watered-down version that emerged from committee,” Jones said.
“I don’t blame Straus,” Villalba said. “Straus is one man, and he had a duty to let the body vote.”
But the watered-down bill that emerged from committee was souped up on the House floor, with an amendment by Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, head of the House Freedom Caucus, that allowed a police officer to ask about a person’s immigration status when detained, even before arrest.
For Democrats, Jones said, Straus should have been able to stop Schaefer from prevailing — “You’re the speaker, and you couldn’t get one quarter of your delegation to vote against it, including several key members of Team Straus, people who benefit politically as well as financially from having coveted committee assignments.”
Villalba, who blames his lack of a gavel on the insularity of Team Straus — it is Straus’ fifth term as speaker, tying the record for longevity — voted with the Democrats against the Schaefer amendment, though he backed final passage of the bill.
One lesson of the 85th session, said Henson, is that “Joe Straus can’t save Texas from itself all by himself. There’s got to be some more players that are engaged.”
The business lobby looked after its own interests with its usual skill and success, Henson said. But it didn’t step up as it might have in the past on sanctuary cities and bathrooms.
In 2011, Gov. Rick Perry, like Abbott this session, made ending sanctuary cities an emergency item. But back then Bob Perry, the Dallas homebuilder and Republican megadonor, ultimately stepped in and effectively killed the bill. But Bob Perry died in 2013, and there was no Bob Perry figure this year.
‘A real success story’
Straus attempted to draw the line on the bathroom bill, which would restrict bathroom use to biological sex as noted on a person’s birth certificate — what he described as a “contrived” answer to a “manufactured” problem, harmful, hurtful and entirely unnecessary except as a pander to the party’s primary base.
State Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, was dismayed when the House State Affairs Committee in April even “stooped to the level” of holding a hearing on the legislation.
When Israel tweeted on May 20, “Strong rumors #txlege #gop will finally get their ‘bathroom bill’ on house floor sunday,” she added “#miserablesession.”
“It’s been a miserable session,” Israel said this week. “I’ve talked to more senior colleagues — they’ve been here many more sessions than me — and I say, ‘Is this the worst one?’ and they say, ‘Absolutely.’
“Just the tension, the political tension between chambers, the fact that outside political interests seem to be exerting more force than they should, given their size of the electorate,” said Israel, who first won her seat in a special election in January 2014.
“That kind of fear about immigrants and bathrooms that took up too much this time this session, that’s what makes it miserable,” Israel said. “I want to work on transportation. I want to be able to support online voter registration. I don’t want to be the lesbian on the floor of the House, but there’s times I feel like I need to stand up and say, ‘This is not my Texas.’ ”
Villalba was against the Patrick version of bathroom legislation, but he backed the amendment that House Republicans passed last Sunday — it was ultimately deemed inadequate by Patrick — as a sensible compromise.
“I think it was right in the middle, which is where it was supposed to be,” he said.
Earlier in the session, Villalba thought he had a sensible compromise with a measure that would waive the state fees for churches that want to create voluntary security teams, while still requiring some training and background checks to weed out bad actors.
But his measure failed in committee in favor of a bill by Rep. Matt Rinaldi, a Freedom Caucus member from Irving, to do away with all state requirements on training, licensing, insurance and background checks for these security teams at houses of worship.
Rinaldi said that, because he is with the Freedom Caucus and on the outs with leadership, he could not pass a bill with his name on it. But he succeeded in adding it as an amendment to other legislation.
Villalba said he was done in at the committee level because of three freshman Republicans afraid of opposing Rinaldi and looking as if they were on the wrong side of a “religious liberties” issue that could come back to haunt them when they are up for re-election.
“A major change in policy happened because three freshmen were scared about what far right-wing extremists would think about them and got skittish,” Villalba said.
“They influence the more unseasoned, naive young members,” Villalba said of the dozen members of the Freedom Caucus. “Those young cats, they don’t know better; they’re fearful for their own survival. They’re scared of their shadows. This is the most timid, fearful body I’ve ever seen.”
“They were outsized for their numbers,” Miller said of the Freedom Caucus. “And if you’re a small guerrilla band of political figures, that’s a real success story.”
For tea party leaders, Patrick is one of them, and Abbott is not. He remains an object of suspicion, prone to suspect passions for prekindergarten and the Texas Enterprise Fund and, unlike Patrick, not out front enough on the issues they care about.
“We are disappointed that the governor didn’t play a bigger role in supporting some of his priorities,” JoAnn Fleming, chairwoman of the Texas Legislature’s Tea Party Caucus Advisory Committee, said Thursday.
Fleming is a leader behind a letter Friday to Abbott from more than 50 grass-roots conservative leaders lamenting that Abbott had not put more effort into causes he espouses — “property tax reform, ethics priorities, privacy legislation, pro-life measures and ballot security.”
“If meaningful action is not taken before sine die, ” the letter says, the governor should call a special session, and “anything less is unacceptable.”
“The only way for Gov Abbott to redeem himself at this point is to call a special session where real work on conservative legislation can be done,” said Julie McCarty, head of the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party.
But Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, a longtime Patrick antagonist from their days on the opposite sides of issues in Houston, said Abbott would be crazy to call a special session and “hand the mic to Patrick for the summer.”
Of Patrick’s insistence that he would never run against Abbott, Coleman advised the governor to “just ask (David) Dewhurst,” referring to Patrick’s predecessor, whom he defeated for re-election.
Villalba, meanwhile, finds himself wondering: “Is this worth it? I come down here away from family, making less money away from my kids, away from my wife. I did some really good things for Texas, but I went sideways a lot of the time, not because of my votes but because of the votes that were influenced by ideologues and purity police.”