LA JOYA, RGV – Former La Joya Mayor, Hidalgo County Clerk, La Joya ISD board trustee and small businessman Billy Leo, known as Mr. Democrat in South Texas, has died, the Texas Democratic Party has announced.
Leo, aged 70, suffered a stroke a few years ago which meant his public appearances were curtailed. It also meant he had to close his convenience stores.
Leo famously said a long time ago that Republicans would never win countywide office in Hidalgo County during his lifetime. He was correct.
Here is the official obituary:
William “Billy” Leo, a public servant, small business owner and proud resident of La Joya, TX, passed into eternal life on March 17, 2018 at the age of 70 in La Joya, TX.
Billy, known as Mr. Democrat, is survived by his wife, Dr. Filomena Leo; his daughter and son-in-law, Noralisa Leo and Eduardo Herranz of Arlington VA, his son Michael Leo of Palmview, TX, his daughter Lita Leo of La Joya, TX, his son and daughter-in-law Billy Leo Jr. & Anne Leo of Cedar Park, TX, and daughter Letty Leo of Cedar Park, TX; 5 grandchildren; He is also survived by brothers James Leo (Lydia); Henry Leo of La Joya, TX of Mission, TX; Leo J. Leo Jr. (Martha) of Mission, TX; sister Nellie Leo of La Joya, TX. He is predeceased by his parents: Leo James Leo & Feliz Bustamante-Leo, and nephew Kenneth James Leo.
Billy was born in Laredo, TX on May 24, 1947. He graduated from Texas A&I Kingsville in 1960 with a degree in Political Science and served as County Clerk for Hidalgo County, Mayor of La Joya, School Board Trustee for the La Joya ISD. He was the owner of Leo’s Food Mart Convenient store chains in the greater La Joya area. His father, Leo J Leo, was a prominent political leader having served as the first mayor of a re incorporated city of La Joya, and early pioneer of worker rights having marched with Cesar Chavez to fight for the Hispanic field workers of the Rio Grande Valley. With Leo’s passing in June of 1981, the torch passed to Billy Leo who continued the fight by galvanizing the people of Western Hidalgo County as a unified political voice and rose to prominence in the local Democratic party. He began in the La Joya ISD serving on the district’s school board from 1974-1981, and as President in 1975 and 1979. Following in his father’s footsteps he went on to serve as Mayor for the City of La Joya from 1981-1986 and expanded his service to the entire county serving as Hidalgo County Clerk from 1986 to 1994. His convenient store served as a political hub where he held local party meetings and became a must stop for political leaders from across the state looking to secure the bloc of people organized by Billy Leo having attracted notable leaders such as Robert Kennedy Jr, Bill Clinton and the location from where Ann Richards announced her candidacy for Governor. It was once dubbed by Hillary Clinton as Billy Leo country. He continued his message on the national platform having served as a delegate to the Democratic National Committee from 1988 to 1996.
His service to his city and the people will be missed. He once said, “I worked hard and cared for my city. That’s all I want to be remembered for. I was here and I think this is the best city there is.”
A viewing and rosary will be held at Mission Community Center on Monday March 19, 1420 E Kika De La Garza Loop, Mission. Funeral mass is scheduled for Tuesday, March 20 at Our Lady Queen of Angels church in La Joya. Interment will follow at 1PM at RGV Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Mission. All services are under the direction of Rick Brown Funeral Home.
Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilbert Hinojosa led the tributes.
“Today, Texas Democrats mourn the passing of former La Joya Mayor William “Billy” Leo. Words cannot adequately describe the impact Billy Leo in the Rio Grande Valley, he was a political icon,” Hinojosa said.
“Over 30 years in public service, Billy Leo served as Mayor of the City of La Joya, Hidalgo County Clerk, a La Joya ISD School Board Member, and in many other positions. Billy’s influence and dedication are seen in the amazing growth of the Rio Grande Valley over his tenure, the many obligatory political visits by candidates and dignitaries for his support, and, most importantly, in the lives of families all over the Valley and Texas whom he made better. Billy was a great Texas Democrat, public servant, and dear friend.”
Leo’s good friend, Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia said on Facebook:
“My memories of Billy begin more then 60 years ago when he was stocking food in the old Leo’s store in old downtown La Joya. He was a dear friend that I am truly going to miss but feel very fortunate to have known an individual like Billy Leo during our lifetime. Billy was recognized as a true leader within the Democratic Party. Good bye my friend I am truly and sincerely going to be missing your friendship and all of the political conversations we have shared through the years.”
Just a couple of weeks ago Leo attended Hidalgo County Democratic Party’s annual fundraising gala, Noche Azul at the Embassy Suites Hotel in McAllen. Leo was given a shout out by Judge Garcia, who was being honored with the party’s top award, the Ann Richards Award. The honor could just have easily gone to Leo because he was the late Texas Governor’s best friend in Hidalgo County.
In his remarks, Garcia noted the improvements that have come about for the community because of Democratic Party legislation that he, Leo and former Hidalgo County Democratic Party Chair Juan Maldonado fought for in their youth. Maldonado was also present at the gala. Garcia said:
“We have come a long way in the Democratic Party. I see Juan Maldonado and Billy Leo. We had a meeting in 1974 in Edinburg. It was a Democratic Party meeting and we were trying to figure out who we would get to run. And I remember we lucked out because we found some candidates that had high school diplomas. Whether you can appreciate it or not you are the product of Democratic Party legislation. The reason we can long around here this evening and see professionals at every table is because of the laws that were passed back in the 1960s and the 1970s. The war on poverty.
“Can you imagine getting out of high school and being told you could actually go to college and the government would make you a loan. Unheard of, up until the mid-sixties. And there were Supreme Court opinions pushing what was called affirmative action. Affirmative action was an incredible way of educating our community. It provided an opportunity that our parents, our grandparents did not have. All of a sudden, the doors were open to the professional schools. I am very glad to say our community took advantage of some of these laws.
“I am very proud to say that all this came about thanks to Democratic Party legislation. These laws took people like Juan Hinojosa out of the cotton of fields of Penitas, or Ric Rodriguez as a farm worker or myself. All of a sudden, we were becoming educated and getting involved in the community and getting involved in pushing for better legislation, pushing for candidates that supported the kind of legislation that Andrew White was talking about. Nobody did it better in Texas than Ann Richards. (applause). Billy, warm applause. Mr. Democrat in Hidalgo County. He was Ann Richards’ best friend here in this county.”
In September 2006, Gov. Ann Richards died. Leo was one of the honorary pallbearers at her funeral. The Rio Grande Guardian filed a story at the time which spoke of the friendship Richards and Leo had. Here is an excerpt:
La Joya Mayor Billy Leo was one of the honorary pallbearers and attended the funeral with his wife Filomena, the former superintendent of La Joya ISD.
Also attending the private burial was Melba Lozano, principal of Ann Richards Middle School in La Joya – the only school in the state to be named for Texas’s 45th governor. Also representing the school was assistant principal Clem Garza, English teacher Gloria Rodriguez, 7th grade student Jeremy Garza, and 8th grader Victor Rodriguez.
A story Richards often told about La Joya was included on the back of thousands of paper fans given out at the end of the memorial service, which was held at UT’s Frank Erwin Center. On the front of the fan was a photograph of a smiling Richards.
The story on the back of the fan referred to Richards’ race for state treasurer back in 1982. Setting the scene for one of her stories, the preamble explained that the only remaining campaign materials were masks of Richards’ face that had been made for her birthday party. She passed out the masks at the last of her campaign rallies.
“When we left La Joya’s Senior Center and pulled onto the dusty road, I looked out of the back window and saw a little tiny woman who couldn’t have been more than four and a half feet tall who was probably in her eighties,” Richards is quoted as saying, on the back of the fans. She was in a cotton print dress that hung straight to her ankles, standing there waiting for a ride… And she was wearing my face.”
The image of that woman was like a beacon in a storm, Richards said, because “that small woman is what the business of public service is all about.”
Richards said she could imagine what the woman saw. “She probably doesn’t see much connection between the government and what goes on in her life, but you and I do,” Richards said. “There are real people with real lives who are counting on us. And we will not – we cannot – disappoint them.”
Leo said he knew the story to be true because he was there.
“That incident happened right in front of my store,” Leo told the Guardian.
“Ann was running for state treasurer and we had a senior citizens center right next to the store. The senior citizens were getting on a bus to go back to Mission and Ann was pulling out. As she was pulling out she saw the lady waiting for the bus. She screamed, ‘Look, that lady has my face.’ She was thrilled.”
Leo said the whole weekend, including attending the visitation at the Capitol Rotunda on Sunday had been a moving experience for the La Joya delegation.
“By sheer coincidence, Cecile, Ann’s daughter, was there and she met the principal and the students,” Leo said. “She got real emotional. She asked us not to forget about the new generation coming through. I said of course not. The legend lives on.”
Leo said he was there also when Richards delivered her famous “Poor George” remark at the 1988 Democratic Convention in Atlanta.
“The entire delegation went crazy when Ann mentioned George W.H. Bush being born with a silver foot in his mouth,” Leo recalled.
“I was privileged to have danced with Ann Richards at her inauguration and I am just as privileged to have seen her at her final resting place,” he added.
A video interview with Leo and his wife Filemona was undertaken in July 2015 as part of a collection titled: Civil Rights in Black and Brown. It was provided by TCU Mary Couts Burnett Library to The Portal to Texas History, a digital repository hosted by the UNT Libraries. Click here to view the interview.
In March 2012, Hidalgo County Commissioners’ Court honored Leo with a resolution. The county newsletter reported:
Commissioners’ Court honored longtime Hidalgo County political staple and leader, former Mayor of La Joya William “Billy” Leo, for his lifetime of service and contributions to Hidalgo County. Leo was recognized with a resolution that touted his many accomplishments and achievements spanning over 30 years in public service in Hidalgo County, including having served as Mayor of the City of La Joya, Hidalgo County Clerk, and on the La Joya ISD School Board, among other notable positions held. After several standing ovations, Leo humbly accepted the resolution, acknowledged his long tenure in the political arena, and stated to the Court that due to medical reasons he has had to “slow down” and looks forward to retiring and traveling in the future. Leo’s wife, Dr. Filomena Leo, Leo’s wife, spoke on behalf of the Leo family, thanking the Court for its recognition. Dr. Leo also recognized the Leo family in attendance, including their son, Michael, and daughter, Lita, as well as Billy’s brothers, Jimmy and Leo J. Leo, Jr., and their families. The Court’s honoring of former Mayor William “Billy” Leo was attended by dozens of present and former local officials, including district and county court judges, the Hidalgo County Clerk, County Constables and Justices of the Peace, South Texas College trustees, local city officials and school board members, and other elected officials who came to show their support of Leo and echo the Commissioners’ Court members’ sentiment.
Former La Joya ISD communications director Eden Ramirez, posted his tribute to Leo on Facebook. He wrote:
Today our community lost a little piece of itself with the passing of Mr. Billy Leo, a staple of local politics with far reaching effects into the Texas Governor’s mansion, and the national stage in the Democratic Party. I, along with many others, owe him our start in local politics. He encouraged those who wanted to serve their communities to run for office – even if they were a scrappy 18-year-old kid seeking the school board. No matter where you stood or stand today in the spectrum of our community politics, he was a friend to all and his passing is a true loss. He was my friend and my mentor. and I extend my sincerest condolences to his family. I would like to share the following words he once shared with me:
“Even if you’re the youngest, or think you’re not the most experienced, if you have your heart in the right place for this community then RUN. Run for office, because if you don’t do it, someone else will, and nothing will ever change.”
Thank you for a lifetime of service and encouraging myself and others to run, our community has a generation of community leaders because of you.