Former Dallas lawmaker launches think tank dedicated to studying Texas Latinos

March 17, 2020

The Dallas Morning News

By James Barragán

AUSTIN — As a politician, Jason Villalba always struggled to find data on how Latinos felt about many of the issues he faced in the Texas House.

Where were Latinos on private school vouchers? Fixing homelessness? The controversial bathroom bill that captured the Legislature’s attention in 2017?

Now, the former Republican state representative is launching a foundation to help answer those questions.

“There is a need for robust data that speaks to neither Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or progressives,” he said. “People [have] a real desire to learn about these issues untainted by the political visions that we all wear.”

Last year he announced the “soft launch” of the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit aimed at studying the political patterns of Latino voters in Texas. The group, which has partnered with the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, aims to poll Latino voters in the state on a variety of political issues and weigh in with election analysis, previews of the state’s legislative session and census reviews.

“Our mission is to understand the complex Hispanic community in Texas in a way that’s never been undertaken before,” Villalba said.

But the project has its challenges. Currently its board is solely made up of Republicans, which complicates its desire to be viewed as a nonpartisan entity. And it only has funding to “begin turning the lights on,” Villalba said. Without an influx of cash and a diversity of board members, the project will have a tough road ahead.

“Everyone recognizes the need for this but the concern that has developed is ‘Is this something that they can sink real resources into?’ ” he said. “Without significant dollars in the door, it will be difficult for us to do this right and do it thoroughly.”

Almost everyone who follows Latino politics in the state agrees that more work needs to be done on the issue. But, they say, the devil is in the details.

Jason Casellas, a political scientist at the University of Houston, said there is a growing need to study the Latino vote because of the increasing population of young Latinos, whose political patterns don’t follow those of previous generations.

“It’s important to look at differences in public opinion and how things are changing. We shouldn’t take research done 20 or 30 years ago and copy and paste that. The younger generation is not as socially conservative,” he said. “There’s a growing need to understand this.”

To be taken seriously, he said, the group would need to diversify its board.

“The more nonpartisan the effort, the better,” Casellas said. “Anything that organization does, if they’re perceived as partisan, half the state will write off what they say.”

Jacob Monty, an immigration lawyer and Republican donor, said the idea was a “worthwhile endeavor.” Getting objective data on Latino political thought could help convince Texas Republicans that President Donald Trump’s policies are driving Latinos away from the party.

A consistent look at data-based Latino political thought could also help inform lawmakers on what Latinos really think instead of relying on left-of-center groups who often are the only ones representing their voices in policymaking, he said.

“They’re not necessarily honest brokers. They have an agenda to pitch,” he said. “It’s a good idea if it’s going to be objective information. Probably, Villalba is the one person who has the credibility there because he’s a conservative but has been open to calling out the president and others, and that’s ultimately why he lost.”

Villalba lost his reelection bid in the 2018 primaries to far-right Republican Lisa Luby Ryan, who painted him as a centrist who wasn’t conservative enough. She then lost to Democrat John Turner in the general election.

While his centrist views got him voted out, Villalba said they are precisely why he’s the best person to launch this foundation. He said he’s already spoken to some high-profile Latino Democrats about joining his board, but did not want to name them. For now, he’s trying to quell concerns about objectivity by touting the group’s affiliation with Rice University.

“Certainly there will be those who question what we’re trying to focus on, but once they see we’re aligned with the university … we will begin to get a mindshare of people who are formerly Democrats,” he said. “That will be telling. Once the board is more balanced that will help convince people.”

Antonio Arellano, executive director of Jolt Texas, which works to engage young Latinos in politics, still has doubts. He agrees there’s a need for more research on Texas Latinos, but said organizations like his are already doing that work and showing that younger Latinos are leaning more progressive.

“We need more polling, more stats, but don’t negate that people have already been doing this,” he said. “Don’t turn a blind eye to the work that has already been conducted.”

Ed Espinoza, executive director of the liberal group Progress Texas, said he’s wary that the group’s board only has Republicans but sees the need Villalba is trying to fill.

“Maybe this is his new pathway for him to do something truly independent and meaningful for our community and if that’s the case that’s great,” he said. “But if that’s the case, I’d also like to see him validate that.”

Villalba said his goal is to solve the problem he had as a legislator by using data to show how Latinos really feel about political issues. That is complicated by the diversity within Latinos, whether that be in age, immigration status, country of origin, education level or regionalisms in the state.

“There’s an adage among Republicans issued by Reagan, ‘Latinos are Republicans, they just don’t know it yet,’” he said. “I think there’s truth to that, but it’s a little bit simplistic.”

Through his new foundation, Villalba hopes, he’ll be able to prove just how much.