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"I wasn't raised to be silent": U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela is willing to tussle with colleagues from both parties

Earlier this year, U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela called a fellow Texan in Congress a "chicken-shit" in what became his latest clash with another politician.

Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith moderates a discussion with U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, on Monday, Feb. 13, 2017. 

WASHINGTON — Many members of Congress disagree with the president’s approach to border security. Only one, however, has told him to “take your border wall and shove it up your ass.”

That came from a 2016 letter from U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, a Brownsville Democrat, when Donald Trump was still running for president. At the time, Vela was known as a mild-mannered, perhaps even centrist, representative. As much of Washington has come to realize since, Vela knows how to make a scene.

Since then, he has made news for firing verbal bullets toward both sides of the aisle. In September, he called a Republican colleague "a racist Christian pretender who led the effort to starve America's poor." Two months earlier, he called for the firing of the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, saying the organization was in "complete chaos."

To him, each statement has been completely warranted. Quiet voices don't often get heard in Congress, especially not now.

"I would say I was more straight-forward," he said, rebuking the wording in a Tribune story describing his comments as "less-than-diplomatic."

His latest dustup came in September with U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Midland. The two Texans serve together on the House Agriculture Committee, one of the few remaining places in Congress where bipartisanship is the norm. Conaway and Vela tussled over an otherwise uncontroversial issue: subsidies for farmers, which in the end both members agreed should be disbursed.

The previous weekend, Vela had begun a 28-hour drive from Brownsville to Washington when he got a call from U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, a Democrat from Minnesota who chairs the Agriculture Committee, telling him other Democrats were threatening to withhold payments to farmers affected by tariffs.

“Why would we do something stupid like that?” Vela responded.

The next day, he spent close to 10 hours fielding calls from worried Texas farmers. By the end of the night, efforts to withhold those payments were quashed.

But during a hearing on Capitol Hill, Conaway, who leads the Republicans in the committee, gave remarks calling Democrats “shameful” for bringing any doubt that the subsidies would be dispersed.

That was the match that lit the fire. Vela was silent during the hearing but got fiery on Twitter soon after.

"Our caucus doesn't need to be lectured by a racist Christian pretender who led the effort to starve America's poor," Vela tweeted. "Every Democratic member of this committee championed the efforts to protect [the subsidies] in this week’s ... negotiations."

In a subsequent interview with The Texas Tribune, he called the retiring congressman “chicken shit,” among other epithets.

“Let me just put it this way: There are other members of the Texas delegation that are leaving, and I would not say any of these things about them. So, good riddance," Vela said.

Conaway declined to comment for this story. The comments didn't settle well with other Republicans, however.

"Filemon knows better than to use this type of hateful rhetoric, especially about Mike Conaway of all people,” said U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin. U.S. Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Lubbock, said Vela’s comments "were uncalled for and completely untrue.”

Vela, meanwhile, said his animosity toward Conaway was “a long time coming." Conaway's previous efforts to cut food stamp funding in the 2018 farm bill didn’t sit well with Vela, and he felt compelled to address that amid a completely unrelated discussion.

“I never felt like we really called it out right, and that was an opportunity to do that,” Vela said in a later interview.

It wasn’t clear at the time, but Vela likely had the backing of Democrats in the committee.

“Conaway was out of line,” Peterson said. “Fil was a little more confrontational, I guess you could say, but on my side of the aisle he was a hero.”

Vela hasn't exclusively focused his ire on Republicans, though. Last year, he was one of 16 Democrats in Congress who opposed Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House. A year earlier, he told reporters, “I think you’d have to be an idiot to think we could win the House with Pelosi at the top."

This July, Vela and U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, said the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee “is now in complete chaos” after several black and Hispanic members of Congress voiced concerns over lack of diversity in the DCCC and called for Chairwoman Cheri Bustos to replace the executive director of the DCCC with a person of color.

'We now have a Republican who has converted to being a Democrat'

When he's criticizing his own party, it's often from the left. That might come as a surprise to some of his early critics.

Vela was a political newcomer when he ran for a newly created Congressional seat in 2012. But to voters in Brownsville, his name was far from new. A middle school and federal court building in the city are named after his father, a late federal court judge with the same name.

In 1971, Vela’s father won a seat on the Brownsville City Commission, joining the wave of Hispanics elevated to public office in the Valley in the years after the poll tax was abolished. Nine years later, Vela’s father was appointed to the federal bench by President Jimmy Carter. In 1999, his mother, Blanca Vela, was elected as the first female mayor of Brownsville. She was later remembered as “feminist trailblazer” in a front-page obituary on the Brownsville Herald.

"The Valley was largely Hispanic and had no Hispanic representation," Vela said of the time when his parents rose to power. "But considering the Hispanic population in the country we are still underrepresented from a national standpoint; we still have to break through the same barrier that my parents had to in Texas.”

Both of Vela's parents were known as conservative Blue Dog Democrats. And his wife, Rose Vela, was a Republican judge at the time he first ran for Congress, something Vela's opponents noted when they tried to pin him as too moderate. Vela essentially clinched his seat in a primary runoff against Denise Saenz-Blanchard, the former chief of staff to former U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz, a Democrat who had represented Brownsville and Corpus Christi.

After her loss, Saenz-Blanchard told the Associated Press, "We now have a Republican who has converted to being a Democrat who I believe is taking a seat from the Democrats."

Seven years later, that assessment is debatable. But there are several Republicans in Congress he is close with.

U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, said Vela’s name was immediately recognizable to him when they started law school together at the University of Texas at Austin in 1985.

“I thought, ‘This kid must be spoiled little brat,’” Olson said. “But I was so wrong about my dear friend Fil.”

Still, Vela's frustrations with the other party occasionally spill over. Often, it happens over issues felt deeply in his district — subjects like border security, immigration and race.

“If you don’t represent a district with a border in it you don’t care as much," he said. "We’re in a tough spot because you have an administration whose number one goal is border wall construction."

In his first term, he momentarily resigned from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus after it embraced — but didn't fully endorse — a Senate immigration bill that he disagreed with in 2013.

Vela's infamous "shove it up your ass" letter came soon after the then-presidential candidate questioned whether U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel could fairly preside over litigation involving Trump because Curiel, who was born in Indiana, had Mexican heritage.

Terence Garrett, a political science professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, said Vela can feel comfortable acting the way he does. His district is relatively safe politically, and is unlikely to be bothered by having an outspoken congressman.

“I think [his constituents] like it. … It plays well politically,” Garrett said. “I think he realizes that he’s on the right side of the major issues, whether or not people pay attention to his record.”

Much of the battle, Vela said, is optics. He often has to rebuke the narrative that the Valley is a dangerous place, while also being the one who has to show around his colleagues when they visit and see the worst that happening there. That stewardship follows him to the halls of the Capitol.

“Often, people will ask me ‘Oh, how are things down there? Things are looking tough down there,’” he said. “And I’m like, ‘No, actually, things are OK.’”

Just last week Vela gave a speech on the House floor calling out the Trump administration for it's "Remain in Mexico" policy, which has caused asylum seekers to wait under extreme circumstances for their cases to be heard. And as one of three Democrats representing the Valley in Congress, each budget deadline since 2016 has been a battle against border wall funding. As one of the communities directly affected by Trump’s central campaign promise, the way Vela legislates on these issues is crucial.

And if that means telling Trump to shove a border wall up his behind, so be it.

“The few controversial things I've had to say in the last three years doesn’t outnumber the craziness we hear from the White House," Vela said. “I think my vocal opposition to Trump has been based on the very fact that since he ran for office he’s done nothing but antagonize Americans of Mexican descent and it hasn’t stopped. Our obligation is to call him out on it.”

“I wasn’t raised to be silent.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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