At Milam Park three weeks ago, a young man in crisp slacks and blazer stepped into a ring of roughly 200 DREAM Act supporters to praise their work advocating for a pathway to citizenship for thousands brought to the U.S. as children. The 39-year-old Democrat and 10-year statehouse veteran said he was inspired by the grassroots effort that has included extended hunger strikes, numerous marches and protests, and a sit-in at U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison’s San Antonio resulting in 16 arrests. “Your inspiration, your spirit, if I could bottle that and take it to Austin we will be just fine,” he told the group.
It wasn’t just rhetorical flourish. Following November’s election that put Republicans solidly in charge of the Texas Lege, the 10-year statehouse veteran started reworking his agenda to make community organizing and mobilization his first priority. But to do battle with the forces of extreme conservatism, he also needs cash. In a recent email solicitation, Villarreal wrote: “Because of the small number of Democrats, this will be a difficult session. … You can help our office be successful in this effort by making a donation that will go towards staffing my office. No amount is too small.”
The money, Villarreal tells the Current, will be used for organizing resistance to the anti-regulation, anti-tax, anti-immigrant majority now assembling in Austin, with the ultimate goal of flipping the legislature Democratic again in 2012.
Here are some highlights from that conversation.
How does a progressive proceed in these times?
Number one, you have to take the long-term view. I’m going to be pursuing not just a policy agenda but also an agenda for communicating and organizing the public around a shared sense of priorities, which include increasing our investment in education. If a budget is proposed that balances purely with cuts to services without taking a more comprehensive approach that includes tapping the Rainy Day Fund, cleaning our tax code, also cutting expenses, then we want to make sure we get our constituents out to the Capitol to bring statewide attention to the travesty of the cuts that truly will have long-term consequences to our economy and our kids’ future prosperity.
As the results of the November election unfolded, how did you retool your plans?
We expected the budget and redistricting to take up all the energy, but now that the House has become two-to-one Republicans to Democrats, I’m beefing up my communications plan. Because I know success is really going to be a long-term goal that’s beyond this legislative session and includes the next election cycle.
Is there a way to take what you witnessed around the DREAM Act and build upon that movement?
Absolutely. We’re gonna need the help of San Antonio DREAMers to wake people up who didn’t participate in the last election, who think government doesn’t matter, who think what happens in Austin doesn’t impact their lives. We need those students and activists to help us explain to our fellow neighbors that elections do have consequences and what they’re proposing is going to have real harm on our friends and neighbors. We can’t let them get away with it. If they succeed in passing their policies, we need to succeed in raising public awareness so we can have a different impact next election cycle.
Sit-ins at `state Representative` Debbie Riddle’s office?
`Laughter` I’ll let the students and activists decide what the whole game plan is. All I know is there is power in numbers, and we have way too many of our fellow neighbors who share our values and our priorities for educating our children who have not shown up to vote or to have their voices heard in the legislative process.
I heard people saying, “Well, Perry said he would veto `anti-immigrant legislation`.” Do you have any faith that would hold if we saw that legislation pass?
No. I’m not going to trust that one man, one politician, who has talked out of both sides of his mouth on this issue, can be the backstop on that kind of legislation. It’s going to be up to us. It’s going to take every average Joe who thought government doesn’t matter, elections don’t count, to wake up and realize their state government has just been taken over by far right extreme ideologues. They have no concern or regard for our community.
Do you see the speaker’s race in play?
I think Straus is going to be reelected. However, the fight he had to go through — and it’s still not over — is indicative of this new crop of far-right extremists who got elected and want to overturn the way this institution has traditionally done it’s work in a bipartisan way.
Where are you finding your key allies?
I think our key allies include non-profit organizations who serve children and serve the needy, who know firsthand the human consequences of cutting child abuse prevention by 85 percent or cutting our vaccination program in half so that half of all the poor kids who receive a vaccination won’t receive one in the coming years. And so we’re going to be turning to these folks, religious leaders as well, to help us get the word out, to talk to their constituents, board members, people in their church halls on the need to get involved in their state government. Because I believe average Texans, and there are many of us, make up this state; we make it run. We’re mostly occupied with raising our families and leaving politics up to our elected officials. Now is the time to get involved and know that elected officials do our best when we’re being watched. And that means keeping up with current events. That means when you learn of something that sits with you wrong you pick up the phone and you call your representative or your senator or you send a letter or you sign a petition or you even haul yourself up to Austin to have your voice heard at a committee hearing. This process is meant for the public to be involved in, and if the average Texan fails to show up it’s going to mean other people are going to have their voices heard — and it’s not going to be the average Texan. It’s going to be the secretly funded far right wing advocacy groups like the Texas Public Policy Foundation, who we believe is backed by far right conservative corporate interests and a few multi-millionaires like James Leininger. They refuse to disclose where they get their funding, but the fact of the matter is they’re up in Austin every day keeping common-sense solutions to improve our schools and increase our investment in our children’s education or access to good healthcare from happening.
What do you see the most damaging as far as the short-term ramifications of this upcoming session? What would be the most difficult to undo?
Any constitutional amendment that further handicaps our revenue system. It’s important to note that our state tax revenue system is not keeping pace with the growth of our population. Over the last 10 years, state tax revenue has grown by approximately 5.6 percent, while the state population has grown by 18.8 percent. So that’s an imbalance of three-and-a-half to one. Poor children or senior citizens or college students, their growth has been even more dramatic. The senior citizens have grown by 22 percent. Children living in poverty have grown by 34 percent. College students have grown by a whopping 42 percent. I break these groups out to you because they represent unique cost drivers: the kids represent our education bill; the seniors represent a significant part of our health care expenses. They’re growing much, much faster than the meager 6 percent over the past 10 years. We already have a very fragile tax system. The worst thing that can happen this session is passage of a constitutional amendment that handicaps our ability to make smart, strategic, needed investments in education, in higher ed, in keeping our children healthy. That would be ruinous for the long-term prospects for our children and our state.
Tuition at state institutions has grown by over 50 percent since 2003. The idea of making higher ed out of the reach for your average Texan is just unacceptable. It’s not only unjust to reserve higher education to the wealthy, but it’s also bad economics. We don’t want to be in a contest with India and China to provide cheap labor; we want to be in a contest with these foreign countries for who can produce the scientists and entrepreneurs who are going to be inventing solutions for the future and creating quality jobs. That’s the game we need to be in.
The no-tax, slash-and-burn social services, no Rainy Day Fund: what’s the end product of this?
The end product is we put our state in peril of becoming a Third World, cheap labor economy. Ultimately, we need ask ourselves, what kind of state do we want to grow to be? I want Texas to grow healthy, educated, prepared for whatever the future throws at us.
Where do you place the credit or the blame for the results of the last election?
We’re living through some very uncertain times and I think voters have a lot of fear about their current state and their future. And certainly the economy is one aspect of that. Having an unemployment rate around 9 percent contributes. But in other areas — our changing climate, the rapid pace of technology, certainly our shifting demographics — all lend themselves to a very volatile environment, and voters want stability. Whoever they feel is in charge and not helping them get off the roller coaster, they’re going to fire them. Rick Perry succeeded in making voters think the Democrats were in charge of state government and they voted a lot of Democrats out. In fact, Republicans have been in charge for over the last decade. But regardless, if I give anybody credit for shaping public opinion and framing the issues it was Perry in how he localized the negativity toward our federal government down to local races. I remember hearing somebody say, “We need to take back state government.” And the guy was a Republican running against a Democrat, and I was like, “Wait a minute. You guys are already in charge. You had control over both chambers and every state-level official for the last decade.” But … as quickly as Republicans were swept into office, they can be swept out.
Do you feel like progressives, if we haven’t lost the war of ideas, we’ve lost the political discourse?
I think `we’ve lost` if we do not find our voices and be more effective in telling our side of the story and explaining to voters how, in fact, we all care about the same things. By and large, the vast majority of Texans care about the same things: we want to get our kids good educations; we want to make sure they have access to health care. If we pull together we can make that happen. We have it in us. The only thing that is holding us back is an elite group of far-right extreme ideologues who want to divide us. We need to be much more effective and active in telling that story. It is not a six-month project, but a six-year project. It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon. It takes time. It takes diligence. But ultimately we can prevail.•