Jason Villalba in the arena (cue the lions)

Good morning Austin:

One of the first stories I wrote when I started this job was a January 2013 profile of two new members of the large freshman class of the 83rd Legislature – Reps. Jonathan Stickland and Jason Villalba.

Stickland, who I visited with in Bedford, was already spoiling for a fight.

“I plan on having the most conservative voting record in the entire House of Representatives,” he told me.

But then, I wrote:

About 30 miles and a political world away, in the tony North Dallas district he will represent (he can count former President George W. Bush as a constituent) in the new Legislature, Jason Villalba offers a more circumspect preview of his tenure.

“I’m a different type of conservative,” said Villalba, a man of elegant bearing. “I was able to win as what I call a Reagan conservative, not any less conservative than those gentleman and women in Fort Worth, but I am more concerned about constituent issues than in partisan politics, about helping people – transportation, water, public education, electricity, bread and butter issues — not issues that galvanize.”

In his narrow runoff victory, Villalba said, “we focused on people, not partisanship, and that was refreshing to a lot of people. Friends in other parts of the state like to talk about issues that are a little more divisive and more interesting. I’m not interested in those issues.”

But Villalba, a merger and acquisitions lawyer with Haynes and Boone, is not without ambitions to make an early mark. “It’s an interesting time to be serving,” he said. “With freshmen and sophomores nearly half of the membership, we’re going to have opportunities to lead on important issues early.”

Well, two years and change later, Stickland is still stoking controversy, but it is Villalba who, of late, is truly the man in the arena.

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It is Villalba who has a Facebook group seeking his recall for a piece of legislation – the subject of a hearing today that (per the AP) would make it a Class B misdemeanor for anyone but news media to record police within 25 feet, or within 100 feet if the person carries a handgun. The proposal would exempt from the law members of the traditional news media — including newspapers, magazines and licensed radio and television stations — who could be as close as 10 feet away.

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And it is Villalba who, because of threats against him, says he now has a cop car parked outside his Dallas home much of  the time.

I talked to Villalba yesterday about how a man originally best known in the Capitol for his impeccable pocket squares has become a figure of such controversy.

He began as follows:

A lot of people question my methodology A lot of people will say, “why is Villalba so controversial? Why is he antagonizing those people who are his opponents?” And I say to that … I said to you before I even got here that I’m going to Austin to work to fight everyday for the people that I go to church with, for the people in the PTAs that I spend time with, for my neighbors and for people that are in my community.

If it makes me unpopular to do that and people want to send me home, then I’ll go home, but I’ll go home knowing that I fought every day valiantly, courageously , without concern for the political impact, and I did it for my neighbors and my community.

So what does that mean? That means I take on an issue like public safety. So when the police officers in my neighborhood, who are good people who I have tremendous respect for, come to me and say, “Jason, when we’re going out on some calls right now and there is this group of people, they’re called Cop Blockers, and they get in  our face with their cameras, and they’ve got AK-47s strapped to their backs, and they say `FU Nazi scum, this is my First Amendment right,’ and all we’re asking is for them to back up a few feet, and can you helps us Jason, so that we can hep your neighborhood stay safe,” to me that sounds perfectly reasonable

So what I do is I file a bill that says, “Can you step back a few feet if you’re filming.” We don’t want to take away your rights to film. We don’t want to limit your ability to keep our law enforcement accountable. We know there are some bad cops out there, but I am asking you to step back 15 feet. To me , that ‘s common sense and it’s something that makes sense for my neighborhood and my community.

This is not Villalba’s first brush with controversy this session. He explains:

The other example this year of how I’ve gotten into an opposition scenario relates to vaccinations.

So I filed a bill that said that … there was no exemption for  individuals to opt out of vaccinating their children  in public schools for conscientious reasons, which is basically, “Because I don’t want to.” My bill says you can opt out for medical reason or  religious reasons, but you can’t opt out just because you want to, because we’ve got a significant number of moms and dads opting out, which means we’re seeing a significant reemergence of diseases like measles and pertussis.

Now in my community, a bedroom community filled with soccer moms and families like myself, my wife and three children  that makes prefect sense. It’s good sense, but because I carried that bill, they say things about me like, “Villalba’s taking away our rights and he’s Orwellian,” and that sort of stuff.

Villalba says he gets hit on the issue at places like Breitbart and on civil liberties blog.

They get a lot of Twitter followers, so I start getting hammered on Twitter and then the major newspapers pick it up –  “Villalba’s getting hammered on Twitter so it must be worth a story,” and major papers start to say, “What’s going on?” and  that ends up creating this feeling that I’m somehow in the center of all this.

 He is not looking for trouble, said Villalba. But trouble does seems to be finding him.

I just happen to be filing bills that I think are good, common sense for my community. That’s all we do. We’re not trying to seek out the spotlight, were not trying to create divisive issues. We’re trying to do what’s good for our community.

Look, when vaccinating our children and asking people to step back 15 feet from a policeman who is doing his job is considered somehow bad policy in Texas, the world has turned upside down, right?

So what we’re trying to do is the right thing and for that we’ve ended up  in some of these scuffles.

And I’ll tell you two other people who had the same problem: Ronald Reagan, when he did what he thought was right in his presidency Same thing. He was attacked by certain groups for some of the things he did. And  Ted Cruz. Same way. Attacked for some of the things that he did.

I would never shy away from doing what was right for my community. I will fight for my community and for my  constituency and I will do what is right for families, for the people I spend time at church with, and at PTA and at Bible study and in dads’ groups, every day of the week.

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Villalba said the controversies have not hurt him in his district.

 Absolutely not.

In fact in the district I am getting more support than ever before.  I got a call this morning –  “I’m so honored  to be represented by the best and strongest state representative member in the United States,” and that’s the kind of support we get.

When my wife goes to the schools, she gets ovations when she walks into a room because they know how much grief she has to  take for some of the stuff we do. These attacks are coming from some of the furthest  fringes of Twitter  and from  groups on Facebook who have an agenda to take me out.

The Select House Committee on Emerging Issues In Texas Law Enforcementt is holding a hearing  at adjournment today on HB 2918, the bill on taping police. Said Villalba:

2918 is the  biggest,  most controversial bill I’ve ever been part of. It’s surprising. In my opinion, it’s not controversial asking people to step back a few feet. I’m going to give an impassioned argument why I think this is a good law for Texas.

He said he hopes law enforcement will turn out in force for the hearing.

Will we win? That’s up to the committee. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to let the fringes of the Internet dictate whether I go forward with a piece of legislation that I think is good policy for my community.

 I was talking to Villalba as the House debated and voted 102-40 to give initial approval to a statewide ban on texting and emailing while driving. Villalba backs the bill, which he said draws the same opposition from the “far right and the far left” who oppose 2918.

That’s the new world we’re living in. The Republican Party in certain segments has gone so far to the right  in pursuit of libertarians, the Ron Paul types, that now they’re joining our friends on the other side of the aisle on civil liberties issues like texting while driving and security for our law enforcement officers. It’s something that’s arisen as a new phenomenon in the last two sessions of the Legislature.

The irony of all this is that I’m as conservative as 85 percent of the Republicans on this floor, but I have become enemy number one for the constituency that just doesn’t subscribe to what I call common sense conservatism.

Villalba says he bears some responsibility for having become the target that he has become.

I think it’s caused by my own unforced errors of fighting back. I’ve never been afraid to get out in front of an issue even though I take arrows. Maybe that’s not smart. But in the end, I’ve got to fight for my constituents and I’m going to do that until they send me home.

Villalba has most especially become a favorite target of Empower Texans’ Michael Quinn Sullivan.

On last Sunday’s weekly ET conference call, Sullivan, joined by Jim Graham of Texas Right to Life , teased the listeners at the beginning of the show with a quote that he said was emblematic of what’s wrong with the Texas House, but said he wouldn’t identify who said it until the end of the call. MQS:

I am going to give yoa quote. This is the sentiment being expressed by several people who are very powerful. Here it is verbatim:

 “We have to deal with the issues that truly impact everybody.”

So far so good.

“If we get bogged down with issues that are divisive or controversial, we spend cycles, days, going through issues that only affect a tiny sliver of the population. So, while I’m strongly pro-life, if we can focus on issues like transportation and water and public education, I think that’s better for the state than focusing on issues that will be deemed by some to be more controversial.”

That’s what we’re up against. I won’t tell you (who said it), but we will tell later in the call who that individual is.

Well, a few minutes later, Graham spoiled the suspense by referring to the “Villalba quote.”

Said Villalba of Sullivan, with whom he has sparred on social media, “It’s not my job to fight him directly in the arena and to get baited into that.”

Villalba said it was probably also mistake to debate incoming Rep. Matt Rinaldi on the Straus-Turner Speaker’s race at SMU in January.

Instead of having a comfortable dialogue that was constructive and useful, we ended up having a jeer fest where  the people  in that room were only interested in belittling the speaker and myself and attempting to make a charade and mockery of even the concept of a speaker’s race as you saw two weeks later when the fabulous 19 couldn’t rally 20 votes. I said that night that they would get 17 to 19 votes and I was right.

It was also at that debate the Villalba beseeched the crowd to, “bring me an opponent.”

 

Villalba also courted controversy this session by becoming the House sponsor of a proposed constitutional amendment to replace the state’s existing Religious Freedom Restoration Act, an amendment being sponsored in the Senate by Donna Campbell of New Braunfels.

Villalba said that while Campbell’s version was clearly intended to undermine local ordinances protecting LGBT rights, his version “was much narrower in focus and spoke only to clear infringements of freedom of exercise of religion,” like trying to keep crèches off a courthouse lawn.

Critics didn’t buy that, and when the Texas Association of Business came to see Villalba and told him it was bad for business, “I said, that’s enough, I’m going to pull it and we did pull it.”

Said Villalba:

 In the end I’m about common sense, I’m about old-school Reagan conservatism  and that’s why I was elected. On some of the issues I’m trying to find a middle ground, what I think is common sense and it rubs certain fringe elements the  wrong direction. Hence the conflict.

And what’s the bigger lesson?

Well, there’s this.

If Jonathan Stickland wants to remain the most provocative member of the Texas House, he’s going to have to step up his game. Sure he recently stirred things up when, on a day Planned Parenthood was going to be visiting legislators’ offices, he posted a sign on his door identifying himself as a “former fetus,” a sign that was taken down as a breach of House rules.

But less well known is that Villalba put up a matching sign, identifying himself as a “former fetus,”  on his office door, and it too came down.

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And there’s still that impeccable pocket square.

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