State Rep. Robert "Bobby" Guerra, D-Edinburg, assumed his legislative title a bit earlier than expected. He was sworn in Sept. 25 by House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, to replace former Rep. Veronica Gonzales, who took an administrative position at the University of Texas-Pan American. Guerra, the managing partner at the Willette and Guerra law firm, was unopposed in a special election this year. He was able to take the seat early rather than wait until after the Nov. 6 election, in which he now faces re-election.
Guerra filled Gonzales’ seats on the Public Health and Border and Intergovernmental Affairs committees. He said he is learning as much as he can about the two committees and how they affect his community. And he's also working on his re-election — he faces Miriam Martinez in the general election for House District 41 on Nov. 6.
The former Hidalgo County Democratic Party chairman said education, health care and infrastructure improvements for the Rio Grande Valley are high on his list of priorities. Guerra talked with The Texas Tribune about what he hopes to accomplish between now and January — and beyond, if he’s re-elected.
The following is an edited version of that conversation.
TT: You didn’t follow a traditional path to the Capitol. What was your road to election like?
Guerra: When Veronica Gonzales, who is a dear friend, originally made the announcement that she was not going to seek re-election and was going to retire, I received phone calls from community leaders asking if I would seriously consider taking this task on and running to carry on the good work that she’s done. My daughter is in her last year of high school, the boys are out of the house and this is a good time to take this on. I’m the managing partner at this law firm, I sat down with them, and they were all very supportive. The other thing I did was check with the community. We made the decision, and Veronica Gonzales has endorsed me, and it’s been a long year and a half.
When Veronica took the position at the university, she had to resign from the Legislature. Pursuant to Texas law, the governor is required to call a special election, which fell on Nov. 6, regular election day. At that time, I already had an opponent who had already filed for the general election, and she missed the filing deadline for the special election. So I was sworn in and have begun my service. I’m 59 years old. I didn’t just wake up one day and decide to run for representative. My family has a history of public service. It’s my turn to do my part.
TT: What are your first orders of business as a new representative?
Guerra: It was an honor to be sworn in by the speaker of the House in the House chambers. I found the speaker to be very gracious, and we’ve had some good discussions and I think we’re going to work well together. It is a very unique opportunity to better get up to speed on the issues that are important to the Rio Grande Valley prior to the legislative session. I’ll go to my first hearing on Oct. 15 in Austin for the Public Health Committee. I am starting to understand more details on the present issues facing public health. I know more of the intricate details, and I have a lot more to learn.
Last night I met with a group of physicians and dentists, and we talked about some additional issues. I’m doing my very best at getting up to speed on the issues. I usually read a lot of novels at night. These days I’m reading a lot of policy.
TT: What is your plan of attack for Nov. 6? Do you think there is an advantage to being an incumbent?
Guerra: We’re not taking this campaign for granted. We’re working very hard, focusing on getting our message out and making sure the community understands the importance of the campaign. I’ve got two things I’m spending a lot of time on – I’m learning about these two committees and the issues facing us, and another thing I’m also focusing on is to build relationships with some of the committee members.
There are going to be an unprecedented number of new freshmen coming into the 2013 session — there are 30 members who didn’t seek re-election. There is a certain amount of seniority that goes with this unique opportunity to serve earlier than January. We all serve at the pleasure of the speaker, but there is a certain amount of deference paid to folks with a little more seniority, and I’m hoping that will help me and my committee appointments. Public Health Committee is one that I’m very pleased to serve on, and I’m hoping I will be reappointed to that committee. Obviously education is a huge issue down here in the Rio Grande Valley. All I can tell you is I’ve had discussions with the speaker and expressed the areas of my concern, but I don’t want to be presumptive in any way.
TT: How did the 2011 legislative session impact District 41?
Guerra: Education is very important to our area down here. We live in a unique part of the state in that the Rio Grande Valley has an excess of 1.2 million people. District 41 is very unique in that we have many folks that have gone away to college and come back as professionals. We have a huge medical community here. Many entrepreneurs, engineers and architects come back to the community, and they want the same thing for their children: a good foundation to get a college education. We need to restore the funding for public schools. I’ve visited with many public school teachers. Their schools are having to request exemptions to allow them to have more students in their class because they don’t have enough classrooms for all the students. We’ve got to get back to basics and put the money in education.
TT: If re-elected, what would be your primary goals for 2013?
Guerra: We need to slow the train down on the managed health care that has impacted so negatively our area. When the managed care hit this area, as an example, we had over 20 small pharmacies close overnight. Many of them are in smaller communities, and they cannot compete with the big chain pharmacies. They provide unique services like delivery of medication for people on dual enrollment — Medicare and Medicaid. This area is probably one of the fastest-growing areas in the nation, and along with that comes growing pains. We have a big population of folks that are at or below the poverty line. We need to focus on the elderly’s needs, the dual enrollment situation. Many physicians are having a very hard time with what’s happened with managed care. I’d like to see the train slow down a bit, and hopefully I can help build those relationships with fellow legislators in helping them understand as best we can the negative impact this has had on our communities.
Infrastructure dollars are also huge. We need better highways and bridges. I was born and raised here. Both sides of my family, maternal and paternal, have been here since the 1750s. I went away to school and came back and started my firm. When I grew up, we didn’t have rush hour.
This is about creating jobs, and we can’t create jobs without commerce moving. We can’t create jobs if we don’t assist our community college with technology advancement to get these kids educated and out in the work force. We’re in one of the most populated areas in the state, and we don’t have an interstate highway.
I think the biggest issue at this time is creating jobs, which we can do by helping our university and helping our community college.