Jose ‘chito’ vela brings bold approach to legislative race

Vela, 43, graduated from UT in 1995 and later earned degrees from the LBJ School of Public Affairs and UT’s Law School. He’s worked as city manager of El Cenizo, a colonia near Laredo; in the Texas attorney general’s office; and as general counsel for a Democratic legislator from Corpus Christi. Now he hopes to return to the Legislature as the next state representative for a diverse district that stretches from East Austin to Pflugerville.

Vela will face former Austin City Council Member Sheryl Cole in a May runoff for the Democratic nomination. Vela won 39.6 percent of the vote in the March primary to Cole’s 38.2 percent. Both outpolled state Rep.

Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, who earned 10.2 percent.

Cole enjoys support from big names in Democratic politics in Austin and across the state, including Ron Kirk, a former U.S. trade representative and Dallas mayor; U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin; and state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin. Cole also has support from major liberal organizations, including Annie’s List, Planned Parenthood Texas Votes and the Texas AFL-CIO.

Vela claims grass-roots support in the district from working-class voters and like-minded organizations, including Liberal Austin Democrats, Austin Young Democrats, Northeast Travis County Democrats and Tejano Democrats. Vela supports raising the minimum wage, expanding Medicaid, legalizing and taxing marijuana use to help fund public education, and creating housing for state employees and retirees living in Austin as one way to address affordability concerns in the city.

“We’ve staked out this political ground that no one actually supports,” he said. “We have to shed our old, very timid attitudes as Texas Democrats and be more bold and adopt a bolder, progressive agenda. I want to change the conversation. I want to get Democrats away from this ‘Republican lite’ philosophy to a more bolder, left-wing agenda, focused on bread-and-butter, working-class issues.”

“I remember one of the first conversations I had was with a junior or senior African-American student who was like, ‘This building is named for a racist; this building is named’ — I had no idea of any of that, and those conversations weren’t really part of a broader discourse at the time,” Vela said, recalling learning about campus history. “In the ’90s, that was not polite conversation.”

Then he returned to UT, and he graduated with a law degree in 2004. He accepted a job in the open records division of the Texas attorney general’s office. In that role, he issued rulings on questions about public access to government information. He remained in the job for just over a year and a half.

“Good job, good people there. I enjoyed it, but a little too boring for me,” he said. “You’re in a cubicle or an office, and you’re just reviewing documents all day and issuing the same kind of letter of open records rulings again and again and again. And after 18 months or so, you’ve pretty much done every type of ruling there is.”

Ortiz said Vela was animated and inquisitive and worked late hours, occasionally with his children in the office. And their working relationship turned into a friendship. Ortiz was Vela’s best man at his 2016 marriage to his second wife, Fabiola Flores.

His policy was to take just about any case that came his way, but as deportations were on the rise at the time, with a wave of immigrants entering the country from Central America, more and more people approached him with immigration-related cases. He and former law school classmate Jennifer Walker Gates later joined forces, and now they lead the Walker Gates Vela firm.

“No one wants to take those cases, because they’re heartbreakers, they’re difficult, they put folks in these immigration detention centers in the middle of nowhere … and make you drive two, three hours to go and visit your client, and it’s such a headache, but we took them. So people kept calling us,” Vela said.

Austin City Council Member Greg Casar nominated Vela to serve on the Austin Planning Commission in 2015. Casar said Austin’s planning historically had lacked the voice of working-class people. On the commission, Vela led efforts to protect the historic Montopolis Negro School from redevelopment and fought for affordable housing in Austin, Casar said.

“It was always about the person, the walker, the runner, the cyclists, and, ultimately, connecting those pieces were the highest priority, and that was, in a way, in his mind … one way to try to make our communities more affordable over time by reducing car dependency,” Oliver said. “And if you could design a community where someone didn’t have to have a car, he saw it as a win for Austin.”

“I would start with something like minimum wage,” he said. “Is the Texas Legislature going to pass a minimum-wage increase (next session)? Probably not. But we as Democrats need to talk about it. If we don’t talk about it, if we don’t promote it, it’s not going to happen.”

The same can be said about Medicaid expansion, an issue that affects districts represented by rural Republicans and urban Democrats, he said. The two groups could form an alliance, Vela said. Democrats have to start a conversation first and “be bold,” he said.

“You don’t go in there asking for crumbs,” he said. “You go in there with a bold proposal that animates your supporters and move the bar in a certain direction,” he said. “I’m not underestimating how it’s going to be to get things passed, but if we don’t have a bold and ambitious and progressive agenda, then I don’t know how we campaign.”