Rose Vela is no stranger to taking on establishment-backed candidates — and unlike most who run upstart campaigns, she has a winning record.
It’s how she got her last two jobs. In 1998, running as a Democrat, she defeated one of Gov. George W. Bush's appointees to the 148th District Court. In 2006, as a freshly minted Republican, she dislodged a widely respected 15-year incumbent on the 13th Court of Appeals for the spot she currently holds.
This year, in a GOP primary brawl, she's taking on a state Supreme Court justice appointed by a governor with the most formidable political machine in recent Texas history. Vela, who herself sought the governor’s appointment, is challenging Eva Guzman, who is weathering her first election since Gov. Rick Perry named her in October to replace Scott Brister, who resigned. In November, the winner will face Tyler-based trial lawyer Blake Bailey, who is running unopposed in the Democratic primary.
Rumors that Perry has leaned on groups to support his choice and an ill-timed nod from state GOP head Cathie Adams have given the contest an aura of intrigue. Adams endorsed Guzman while running for party chair — a post that has a tradition of neutrality — but news of her support didn't come out until after she was elected. And when Guzman earned Perry’s nod, Vela’s husband, Filemon Vela, who is a Corpus Christi-area attorney, told the Associated Press that an ally of the governor's urged him to renounce his support of Kay Bailey Hutchison and donate money to the Perry campaign if he wanted his wife to secure the spot.
Guzman’s fans say her experience and strong reputation as a jurist ensure her appointment won’t go down in the books as an example of Perry cronyism. “She is very intelligent, extremely hard working. She wants to make certain that she thoroughly researches the issues beforehand, that she thoroughly addresses them, and that she gets it right,” says Republican Wanda Fowler, a former Houston appellate judge who served with Guzman on the 14th Court. “In a nutshell, she's extremely diligent and extremely hardworking.”
Guzman herself denies that the governor has lent any special help to her campaign. “Oh my gosh, what is he supposedly doing for me?” she says, laughing into the phone. “I sure would like to know, because I haven't seen my own family in a week. If Gov. Perry was doing so much, I'd probably get to go home.”
A former Houston Court of Appeals judge, Guzman appeared on stage with Perry and Sarah Palin at a Super Bowl Sunday rally in Cypress, but she says that was due more to her relationship with state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, and that she hasn’t been anywhere else with Perry on the campaign trail. "Everything I've gotten, I've gotten on my own,” Guzman says. “[Vela and I] both interviewed for everything, and the people who interviewed us chose who they believe to be the best candidate for Texas.”
Even if she didn't have the heft of the Perry apparatus behind her campaign, Guzman would still maintain a significant advantage in the primary. Challenges to incumbent candidates, especially those appointed by a sitting governor embroiled in his own acrimonious primary race, make many Republicans squeamish — an unease expressed by Robert Pate, the Republican district court judge whom Vela unseated back in 1998. He says that as a Perry supporter, he was disappointed that Vela didn’t honor the governor’s appointment “and allow Justice Guzman to run unopposed and serve in the Supreme Court.”
When asked about her possible upper hand, Guzman points to the rigor of the appointment process. “When you get the appointment, you are thoroughly vetted. Every opinion I ever wrote got checked out by a team of legal experts. My bar polls were checked out. My memberships in all these legal and scholarly organizations,” Guzman says, adding that “it's probably easier to put your name on the ballot than to get an appointment, because they take it so seriously.”
Most law firms and interest groups will only donate to incumbent candidates in contested judicial primaries, and that’s reflected in Guzman's war chest, which almost quadruples what Vela has raised. Guzman also hails from Harris County, home to about a fifth of the state's Republican primary voters. Nueces County, where Vela lives, is a traditionally Democratic stronghold.
Though newly appointed judges frequently attract primary challengers their first time on the ballot, at the Supreme Court level they’re rarely defeated. The most recent exception was in 2002, when Steven Wayne Smith ousted Perry appointee Xavier Rodriguez, a loss some court-watchers attributed to the perils of having an exotic name in a down-ballot race.
Vela said she’s aware of the “uphill battle” she faces. But she points to her victory on the 13th Court of Appeals in 2006, when “nobody thought I had a shot in the world,” as proof she’s not daunted by a tough fight.
When she won that race, she became the first Republican ever elected to that court. It was also the first time she was elected as a member of the GOP, but Vela, who notes that her family "always voted Republican,” says her commitment to conservative principles is anything but a new development. “If you wanted to be in public service [in South Texas], you had to run on the Democratic ticket,” she says, explaining that her official entry into the Republican fold came after a recognition that her values aligned more closely with its ideology, adding that “it wasn't an opportunistic thing to do," since it’s “still really hard to get elected on the Republican ticket” in Nueces County.
Pate, who lives in Corpus Christi, disagrees with Vela’s characterization of her conversion, saying that she struck him as “a very ambitious person who has never hesitated to do what she needs to do to advance herself.”
If other Nueces County Republicans disapprove of their appellate judge’s bid for higher office, they aren’t going public with it. Mike Bergsma, who’s running for GOP county chairman and served two terms on the Republican state executive committee, says the local party is “wholeheartedly supporting” Vela's candidacy and that she is going to “wipe up” in her home county.
"Just look at our qualifications"
Unlike other GOP judicial races this cycle, the contest doesn’t fit into a neat framework of a plaintiff’s bar vs. defense bar clash. Though Guzman has secured the endorsements of tort-reform lobbying powerhouse Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the news release broadcasting it also praised Vela’s “judicial insight and clear legal reasoning.” And Vela, at least, has accepted money from both sides of the divide.
Still, some tort reform advocates catch a whiff of the plaintiff bar coming from Vela’s direction. Her husband practices personal injury law. Tom Phillips, a former Texas Supreme Court chief justice and Guzman’s campaign treasurer, says that while he isn’t sure which way Vela's judicial record leans, her platform contains “code words that are increasingly being used by Republican candidates that are backed by the trial lawyers’ group” — that is, references to “activist judges” and phrases like “respect our juries.”
Then there’s the aspect of the race that has been discussed the most: that Guzman, who, as the first Hispanic woman on the court, finds herself challenged in a Republican primary by a fellow Latina, in a state where just 7 percent of attorneys licensed by the Texas Bar Association are Hispanic.
But don’t mention the contest’s historic nature to either of the candidates. Vela, who says “reporters seem to be asking about it more than anyone else,” thinks “people should get past that and just look at our qualifications.”
“I don't think Latina has anything to do with it,” Guzman says. “She's been in our party for about three years. In 1998, when she first became a judge, she chose to run against a then Gov. Bush appointee … [and] she called him too conservative.”
“Your judicial philosophy is most important," she adds, "and mine is consistent — and conservative."
[Editor's note: An earlier version of this story mixed the resumes of Rose Vela's husband and his father. Filemon Vela was a federal judge and Vela's father-in-law; Filemon Vela Jr., her husband, is a Corpus Christi attorney.]