Alum Seeks Bipartisanship on Hill
Published: Thursday, November 15, 2012
Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 23:11
Nearly 27 years after graduating from Georgetown, Representative-elect Filemon Vela (COL ’85) will return to Washington this January to represent Texas’ newly created 34th Congressional District.
Vela (D-Texas) is one of 14 Georgetown alumni to be elected to the House in the Nov. 6 election — nine are returning incumbents, while Vela and four others are new to Congress.
Vela has spent the two decades since his graduation as an attorney. He has represented many individuals in civil cases against large corporations, including Robert Trevino v. Walmart, in which Hispanic farm workers brought suit against Walmart after they were banned from a Mississippi store because other Hispanics had previously stolen from it.
“As a litigator, each case is a new story and also allows you to connect to your individual client. And many times, my clients are people who have suffered devastating injury,” he said. “Each experience has been a building block.”
For Vela, getting to Washington was not easy. He faced seven other candidates in the primary election, where he received 40 percent of the vote. In Texas, Democratic candidates need a majority of the vote to receive the nomination, so a run-off primary was held in July. Vela defeated his challenger in the run-off and then in the general election, winning his district with 62 percent of the vote. Now, after a year on the campaign trail, Vela is ready to take office.
“The prospect of serving in Congress is very engaging. I take it very seriously. It’s going to be a lot of work, but I am hoping it’s going to be a lot of fun, too,” he said.
While Vela has never previously held political office, public service is a tradition in his family. His father, Filemon Vela Sr., was a U.S. District Court judge for the Southern District of Texas. Vela’s mother, Blanca Vela, was the mayor of Brownsville, Texas, the city where Vela grew up.
Reflecting on the lessons he learned at Georgetown, Vela said that the late professor of government Walter Giles (SFS ’43, GRD ’45), who was assigned as Vela’s faculty mentor, was a significant influence.
“He taught me a lot about how government works. He trained those of us who wanted to go into the field of law very well,” he said.
Outside of class, Vela and Giles bonded over basketball games, where Giles often took his mentees.
“It was an exciting time to be here,” Vela said, referring to the Hoyas’ victory in the 1984 NCAA tournament.
Vela has also remained close with his former housemates and said they were among the first to call and congratulate him on Election Night.
“I learned the lasting value of friendship with the friends that I made here,” Vela said.
When Vela officially begins to serve on Capitol Hill this January, he is confident that can work across the partisan aisle. Although Vela ran for office as a Democrat, his wife Rose, who serves as a judge on Texas’ 13th Court of Appeals, is a Republican.
“We’ve told people during the last nine months [that] if I can live and be married with one for 22 years, I can work with them in Washington,” he said. “I don’t view party labels as restricting me from developing friendships and engaging in dialogue.”
According to Vela, bipartisan cooperation is necessary if Congress is to address the nation’s looming fiscal cliff.
”The one thing everybody can agree on is that if Congress doesn’t begin to work together to fix the consequences of the fiscal cliff, we may be set right back into recession,” he said. “The inability of Congress to work together in the past, ironically, has put us in a situation where we have no choice but to work together to avoid a recessionary crisis.”
In addition to working to solve the nation’s fiscal woes, Vela plans to advocate for issues that are of direct concern to his constituents back home — namely immigration reform and border security.
Vela’s congressional district stretches along Texas’ Gulf Coast and runs from Corpus Christi to Brownsville, which is located just north of the U.S.-Mexico border. According to Vela, Mexican drug cartels have a significant presence across the border and the area is prone to conflict. He hopes to establish border security that protects the people of Brownsville from the violence while maintaining a strong relationship with Mexico.
“It’s important to address immigration and border security, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that Mexico is one of our largest trading partners, and, in the long run, improving the economy of both of our countries helps [them] become economically viable,” Vela said.
Vela also hopes to address the issue of immigration during his term.
“We need to take the president’s directive in the DREAM Act and turn it into law and come up with some sort of comprehensive immigration reform,” he said. “I would hope that most Texas Republicans would agree that we need … turn it into law and come up with some sort of comprehensive immigration reform to the likes of what ... former President Bush set forth when he was president.”
This is the first of a three-part feature series on Georgetown alumni newly elected to Congress. The next installment will be published Friday, Nov. 30.