Border Democrat Nevárez to lead homeland security committee in Texas House
AUSTIN — Democratic state Rep. Poncho Nevárez, who shoved a Republican lawmaker during a heated exchange over immigration protests in the House gallery two years ago, was appointed this week as one of the most powerful voices in state government on the Texas-Mexico border and public safety.
Nevárez’ appointment to lead the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee comes as the border remains at the center of national political debate. He may be outnumbered by the Republicans in the Texas House, but he sees his post as an opportunity to gather data that will be a counterpoint to President Donald Trump’s rhetoric about a border wall.
“What I did was wrong, but I’d do it again,” Nevárez said of the 2017 melee between himself and a North Texas Republican who threatened to call immigration authorities on people protesting the state’s so-called sanctuary cities law. The confrontation between the two lawmakers ended with threats and cursing. “It was about those people up there. You can’t let anybody get away with that.”
House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, a Republican from Angleton, has promised bipartisanship this year and delivered by appointing Democrats including Nevárez to lead several influential House committees, although Republicans continue to hold a 83 to 67 majority in the chamber.
Republicans lead 22 committees, including public education and the House Committee on Ways and Means, both of which will play a major role in the Legislature’s goal of providing more money for public schools and placing limits on future property tax increases. Bonnen named Democrats to 12 committee chairmanships, including criminal jurisprudence, higher education and public health.
Nevárez lives on the border in Eagle Pass, a town with two international bridges to Mexico. His district hugs about 800 miles of the border, stretching to just outside El Paso. It’s the largest state legislative district on the border and Texas spends big money there. Lawmakers are poised to spend $800 million over the next two years toward border security and Nevárez said his goal is to get a grasp of what Texas has been able to accomplish and what’s left to do.
An outspoken critic of the wall, Nevárez said he wants the committee to use metrics to judge what’s happening on the border to address the president’s inaccurate statements.
“I’m tired of listening to a president just spout off what are just flat out lies and inconsistencies about how we live. I don’t know any other way to combat this (than) with facts,” said Nevárez. “Normally I wouldn’t care, but it’s personal to me because of where I live.”
His committee has 5 Republicans and 4 Democrats, and will also handle bills regarding Texas gun laws that have been filed since the mass shootings at a church in Sutherland Springs and a high school in Santa Fe.
“Ultimately what I think we have to do is we have to take guns away from the people who shouldn’t have guns,” he said, adding “it’s not a real solution” to arm teachers in schools and voters are demanding change. “If my colleagues have not heard that based on the last election, then I think they have to listen a little better.”
Bonnen promised bipartisanship in the House this year after a bruising 2017 legislative session when Democrats were ostracized and divisions grew within the Republican Party.
That animosity was best on display on the last day of the 2017 legislative session when Nevárez charged at Rep. Matt Rinaldi after the Dallas-area Republican said he called immigration authorities to arrest protesters carrying signs saying “I am illegal and here to stay.” The sanctuary cities law requires local law enforcement officials in Texas to cooperate fully with federal immigration authorities, and includes a provision allowing police to inquire about the immigration status of anyone they detain.
Rinaldi lost his bid for reelection in November. Democrats picked up 12 seats that election.
Democrats are pleased with the tone of bipartisanship this year as evidenced by the committee assignments, said Rep. Chris Turner, chairman of the Texas House Democratic Caucus. He will also chair the higher education committee. Democrats will also chair other important committees, including those dealing with insurance, transportation and licensing.
“It signals that the House will be working on a bipartisan basis to tackle big issues. That’s essentially what I think most members want to see happen here,” he said. “I think Democrats are well-positioned. When Democrats have the opportunity to serve on or lead key committees, that certainly increases our voice in the process. That could be felt in passing legislation or in some cases, putting the breaks on other legislation.”