BROWNSVILLE, RGV – The dean of the Rio Grande Valley legislative delegation says he does not blame state Rep. Joe Straus for retiring because the House speaker received death threats and racial abuse such as being called a Jew Boy.
State Rep. René Oliveira, D-Brownsville, referenced the racial slur during a speech at the 85th Legislative Update & Leadership Luncheon hosted by the Brownsville Chamber of Commerce on Thursday. He referenced the death threats in an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian and Telemundo 40 KTLM immediately following the luncheon.
Oliveira said Tea Party-types were angered over Straus’ handling of the 85th Legislative Session, particularly on hot-button social issues such as the so-called bathroom bill.
“Unfortunately, as most of you may know, he (Straus) announced he was not going to return (to the Texas House),” said Oliveira, in his speech. “His family, the stress and strain, the hatred that he got, he was called Jew Boy. In this day and age, at this time, being called that and written that because he is of the Jewish faith, and because he was conservative and not nuts, he was often attacked.”
Straus, a Republican from San Antonio, shocked Texas politics by announcing in October that he would not stand for re-election.
“I don’t blame him for leaving. He has two beautiful daughters and a beautiful wife, and he has a life, a life he should enjoy,” Oliveira said, in his speech. “We’ve lost a major ally. Let it be known, we lost somebody that took care of the (Rio Grande) Valley and took care of South Texas and supported us in all of the initiatives that were mentioned earlier.”
Among those initiatives were the SpaceX project and the UT-Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine.
“Who knows who the next speaker is going to be. We will miss that speaker (Straus) 13 months from now, when we go back into session. We do not know who it is going to be. There are several wannabes out there. I hope we can find somebody who is conservative but realistic, who cares about Texas and not all of these nutty things,” Oliveira said.
Among the legislation that Oliveira said was nuts was a bill that would have restricted where transgender Texans relieve themselves or change clothes. It became known as the “bathroom bill.” Oliveira pointed out that the bill was opposed by chambers of commerce across Texas.
In an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian and Telemundo 40 KTLM after his speech, Oliveira said Straus was hammered by social conservatives and Tea Party types for being too moderate, opposing some social issue legislation, and giving Democratic House members leadership roles.
“He went through a lot. He had death threats and suffered so much. I was disappointed because he was one of the ones that talked me into running again. I was thinking of retiring but I have announced for re-election and I am going to return if the good people of Brownsville send me back. But, he (Straus) talked me into running and then chose not to run,” Oliveira told reporters.
“But I understand it. He took so much grief over and over and over and his family suffered, and he suffered, and he should be enjoying his life. And there is going to be something else for him out there.”
Asked who was calling Straus a “Jew Boy,” Oliveira said: “There were Tea Party people that said it publicly. There were Tea Party people who said, ‘we cannot support you as speaker of the House because you are not a Christian.’ We heard these things. We know these things to be true and he suffered. And, in this day and age, to have that kind of discussion, just like what happened in Charlottesville, the marches and the ugly, hateful racists, the horrible things people were saying, it is a new world out there and it is not good.”
Asked if South Texas could suffer due to Straus’ retirement, Oliveira said: “Yes. I am not going to sugar coat that. The speaker of the House was very much involved in SpaceX, very much involved in the medical school, we had his full support in many projects and he puts people like me and others in leadership positions. A different speaker may not allow that. So, we were all treated very well by Joe Straus and Texas and the Valley is going to miss him.”
Oliveira started his remarks at the Brownsville Chamber event by thanking Straus for setting up the Select Committee on Economic Competitiveness. Oliveira, who is one of seven House members on the panel, said successful entrepreneurs such as Mark Cuban have testified at its hearings.
“Too often we hear the good things about the Texas miracle and how we survived the Great Recession better than anyone else. The fact of the matter is we are in somewhat of a decline when looking at we are rank as a state,” Oliveira said.
“That is one of the reasons he (Straus) set up the committee. He recognizes that things are going to be quite different in the future and that we are not getting ready for it. Too often we react to the tyranny of the urgent. We deal with what is happening right now instead of planning and forecasting and thinking about the future. Some of the numbers I am going to share with you today are quite shocking. I hope they also shock you.”
Oliveira said one of the telling things Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, testified on was how today’s world is far different to the one older the generation was born into.
Oliveira said that by 2036, Texas’ population is projected to be 41 million. Today, the population is 28 million.
“This 46 percent population increase we are going to have, in less than 30 years from now, we are not ready. We are not going to have the roads we need, we are not going to have the bridges we need, we are not going to have the schools we need, we are not going to have any of that infrastructure that we so desperately need now.”
Oliveira said Texas has to “do something drastic” about graduation rates. He used the word “crisis” when discussing the issue.
“Today, only 20 percent of Texas students who enroll in a certificate program or an associate’s degree program or a four-year degree program graduate with the credential they sought. Only one out of five who are seeking a particular credential, whether it is an associate’s degree at a junior college, whether it is a bachelor’s degree, only one in five are getting them. What does that tell us about our workforce?”
Oliveira also voiced concern about the educational attainment level of Hispanic students.
“We have 5.2 million children in our public schools right now, with a significant majority being Hispanic. That is going to be like a tidal wave, if you will a brown tsunami. Visualize it. We have got to get these children educated. Not just a high school diploma. We have jobs that exist today where you have go to have at least 14 years of education, and it really should be sixteen or 18. We are not doing that. I do not have the answers, but I know we have got to do something about it. There are some innovative things going on, but we have got to do more.”
Oliveira said many of those who testify at Texas House Committee hearings talk about the need for new or better programs, but few say how they would pay for them., Oliveira said closing tax loopholes would help, claiming $35 billion is given away in tax exemptions. He said many of the exemptions are outdated.
“At some point, we are going to have to put our money where our mouth is. I chaired ways and means. I have a lot of ideas that I hope we implement in a report we do on this (economic competitiveness) committee. Because I think we have to make some drastic changes. Because the future of Texas is not bright. I like to always give positive speeches and make people feel good. But this isn’t a time to make you feel good. It is a time to make you aware. Many of you business leaders, much younger than I, are going to have to deal with this.”
Compounding the fact that Texas does not have a good enough workforce and is not educating its students well enough, Oliveira said, is the state’s dramatic growth.
“We are growing phenomenally. At one point it was 1,500 people a day moving into Texas. Add that up for 30 days and add that up for a year. That is how many people were moving into Texas during the great recession. Now it is still 1,000 a day. But think about how many more schools we need for those kids. How many more teachers we need. How much more we have to invest. It is the same thing with our colleges and universities and everything else. It is going to require massive, massive review and change.”
In his interview with the Rio Grande Guardian and Telemundo 40 KTLM, Oliveira said Texas is dropping down the education and economic rankings in issues it used to do well in.
“We used to be ranked first in almost every category. Now we have dropped to fourth and sixth in many categories. I think we have to start recognizing that that downturn is real and if we are going to get back up there we have got to do more with our universities, we have got to do more with our infrastructure, we have got do more with education, and we have to prepare for this growth,” Oliveira said.
“A thousand people a day (coming into Texas), do the math. At one point it was 1,500 a day. A lot of those are children so we need new classrooms. We need new teachers, now, not ten years from now.”
Oliveira concluded the interview by saying Texas is not ready for the 46 percent population “explosion” that will have occurred by 2036.
“It takes planning now to be ready then. We have to do things that don’t happen by accident. A lot of the Texas miracle was accidental, because of the oil and gas situation and how blessed we are with energy. The fact of the matter is that in the future that is not going to save us. It is going to take massive investment now and it is going to take some people who are visionary, and we don’t have that kind of leadership today.”