Democrat Filemon Vela won a seat in the newly created 34th District on the strength of his membership in Brownsville’s most illustrious political family. The city’s federal courthouse bears the name of his late father, a U.S. district judge for more than two decades, and his mother was Brownsville’s first elected woman mayor.
Vela was born in Harlingen, at the southern tip of Texas, and raised in nearby Brownsville. In addition to his mother’s and father’s political connections, a cousin, Moe Vela, was a former director of administration for Vice President Joe Biden. After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University and a law degree from the University of Texas, he returned to Brownsville to practice law. As a civil attorney, Vela represented school districts seeking restitution for shoddy construction by independent contractors. In one case, he recovered money spent by the district on a poorly built facility; in another, he won recompense for a malfunctioning air-quality control system.
A civil attorney for the last 25 years, Vela told Georgetown’s Hoya newspaper in October that he considered running for Congress in the early 1980s, but “then I started practicing law, helping my clients and never thought about it again until one day at the end of last year, when a group of friends convinced me it was time to step out from behind the scenes and become a full-time public servant.”
When Vela launched his campaign, some political observers were surprised by the “D” next to his name. His wife is a Republican justice on the Texas Court of Appeals, and Vela acknowledged that he has at times backed GOP office-seekers. But he aligned himself with the Democratic agenda, calling for “a realistic and fair way” to deal with illegal immigration, protection of Medicare and Social Security benefits, and tax cuts for small businesses as an incentive to hire workers.
Vela’s main rival for the Democratic nomination, Cameron County District Attorney Armando Villalobos, led the field in fundraising until he was indicted on federal fraud charges two weeks before the May primary. Although Vela did not win an outright majority in the primary, he got 67 percent of the vote in a July 31 runoff. Denise Saenza Blanchard, the second-place finisher and a former chief of staff to then-Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas, 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.”
The 34th District, an archipelago of counties stretching 200 miles from Brownsville to Corpus Christi, is predominantly Latino. In 2008, 60 percent of the district’s residents voted for Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. In contrast, only 42 percent of the district voted to reelect Republican Gov. Rick Perry in 2010.
In the general election, Vela faced Republican Jessica Puente Bradshaw and Libertarian Steven (Ziggy) Shanklin. Buoyed by the imprimatur of Democratic heavyweights such as Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader who headlined a fundraiser for Vela in August, Vela outraised Puente Bradshaw by 8-to-1, and his election was never in doubt.
Christopher Snow Hopkins