State Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, sat in his office in the far reaches of the Capitol extension hallways usually reserved for newer lawmakers, and talked about how he found his political inspiration at a young age.
“I say I found Jesus at summer camp when I was 7 years old. I found Ronald Reagan when I was 8 the following year,” said Villalba, 41.
He credited Reagan’s steady but firm leadership in helping him shape his ideals.
When faced with potentially contentious issues, “I always ended up believing in what the Republicans were saying,” said Villalba, a lawyer whose specialties include securities law and corporate law.
“I don’t believe that the government knows how to spend my money better than I do,” he said.
During his campaign, some Republicans held up Villalba as a symbol of the party’s growing popularity with Hispanics, though he said he was motivated only by the issues facing his constituents. But after being sworn in, he has faced criticism from some members of his party.
Critics have said he was too moderate, citing his prediction that the Republican-dominated Legislature would soften its tone on the federal Affordable Care Act.
But Villalba said that such criticism only distracted from his mission. “I am not interested in ideological battles,” he said. “I recognize there are certain hot-button issues out there that people who write certain blogs like to focus on. Those are important to those folks, and I am not denigrating that. But I am down here to represent all of my district, and that includes Democrats and that includes people who might not have voted for me.”
Last month, Villalba became a target of Empower Texans, an influential conservative group, when he said that if the federal health care overhaul were the law, he preferred state control over federal mandates on how it was instituted. He said on Twitter that if unified state refusal failed to dismantle the law, he would prefer that Texans institute changes to the state’s health care laws themselves over “the jack boot of the feds.”
Michael Quinn Sullivan, the president of Empower Texans, responded on Twitter. “It’s not leadership to put on the enemy’s uniform and do their paperwork,” he wrote, taking issue with what he saw as Villalba’s adopting a softer stance on the issue.
Villalba shrugs off what he calls the "cherry-picking" of his statements. But he does find it necessary to reaffirm his conservative credentials.
“I am against Obamacare, and I am fighting to dismantle Obamacare, and I will do anything I can on the floor of the House of Representatives to see that Obamacare is never implanted in the state of Texas,” he said.
Sullivan said the exchange on Twitter spoke for itself. But he also called Villalba a good ally and a good friend. “We have areas of disagreement,” he said. “That’s allowable. That’s the funny thing about the democratic process.”
Although Villalba does not see himself as a symbol of Republican outreach to Hispanics, he does say that for the ranks of Hispanic Republicans to grow, there must be a moderate tone in the party on issues like immigration.
“It’s important that Republicans recognize that we have to reach out to Hispanics in a new and fundamentally different way than we have in the past,” he said. “This last election cycle proved we are not reaching my brothers and sisters in the Latino community in a way that will be helpful for us. We do have to change the way we perceive the issue.”
He said that he was learning Spanish, but was doing it more for his daughters than for political gain,” Villalba said. “My parents didn’t speak Spanish, but the demographics are changing. We need to be able to communicate with folks who might not speak the same language.”
But he said that learning English and assimilating should be required of immigrants in the United States illegally who want to become citizens under current immigration overhaul proposals, but he does not espouse the talk that proved to be an Achilles’ heel for the Republican Party last year, which included favoring mass or self-deportation.
He does not, however, favor blanket amnesty. The day after his law firm partner and friend, state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, filed a resolution urging the Legislature to support federal comprehensive immigration overhaul, Villalba said he would like to see more dialogue on the component that calls for a path to citizenship.
Villalba has also said that the state should restore some of the cuts made to public education in 2011, but with a caveat.
“I think we need to restore those cuts, or some of those cuts,” he said. “But I say throwing money at the problem isn’t the only solution.” He said that any dollar placed back into the system should be coupled with a true and comprehensive education overhaul, including the expansion of school choice.
The hallmark of his first session is likely to be a bill he filed soon after a shooting at a Connecticut elementary school that left 26 people dead, including 20 children. Villalba filed House Bill 1009, dubbed the Protection of Texas Children Act, a measure that would allow for schools to hire marshals who have undergone 80 hours of training and could use force only during a shooting.
But when he announced his intent three weeks before filing the legislation, critics pounced and labeled him everything from reactionary to pandering. Anchia said the initial reaction supported his questions about the direction of the legislation.
“When he initially started talking about it, I expressed my concerns about it,” he said. “I didn’t disagree with the principle about having increased security on campus. It’s just how you get there that I had a difference of opinion.”
Villalba said his legislation was more than just letting teachers have guns, something he acknowledged was problematic.
“Who is against protecting children? I think we have crafted a middle ground,” he said. “I think our legislation is straight down the middle. I don’t think anyone objects to having law enforcement in the schools.”
But Anchia is not short of praise for Villalba, who he said took initiative when he campaigned toward the middle.
“He bucked the trend during the last cycle when he ran as a moderate,” Anchia said. “That was a risky proposition.”