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The Texas Tribune
The Texas Tribune
Patrick Svitek

State Rep. Ryan Guillen finds himself in the middle of the action in his first term as a Republican

State Rep. Janie Lopez speaks with State Rep. Ryan Guillen, R-Rio Grande City, on the House floor during session at the state Capitol in Austin on May 22, 2023.
State Rep. Janie Lopez speaks with State Rep. Ryan Guillen, R-Rio Grande City, on the House floor during session at the state Capitol in Austin on May 22, 2023. (Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune)

FLORESVILLE — State Rep. Ryan Guillen was working the crowd at a Dairy Queen in the northern end of his district earlier this month, coincidentally the same city where he announced over a year ago he would change parties.

The Rio Grande City lawmaker fielded questions about the property-tax impasse that was gripping Austin at the time, predicting a deal was near. He high-fived a woman who was thankful for his resolution naming Floresville the official Peanut Capital of Texas. He gave out his cell phone number to the full audience, asking them to call him anytime.

Some were aware that — standing in a county where Donald Trump voters outnumbered Joe Biden voters 3-to-1 — they were talking to a former longtime Democrat.

“It does matter, and a lot of us were concerned about that at first, but he’s come through,” said Terry Rolland, a member of Floresville City Council who described herself as a “constitutional conservative.”

Guillen has spent less than two years as a Republican after almost two decades as a Democrat. But he has already found himself on the front lines of some of the GOP’s biggest debates — including over the border and guns — not to mention the persistent acrimony between the House and Senate. And he has weathered new pressures from the right and the left — and he was especially excoriated as he chaired a committee responsible for the top bill pushed by families of the 2022 Uvalde school shooting.

It was a new level of political drama for the low-key Capitol veteran — and he says he has no regrets.

“As far as Republicans, they’ve welcomed me with open arms, and I think it’s been a very, very good transition,” Guillen said during an interview outside the Floresville Dairy Queen, part of a nine-stop, daylong tour of his district in early July. “I can’t think of a better scenario than how it’s turned out.”

While Republicans see Guillen as an emblem of their growing influence in predominantly Hispanic South Texas, Democrats have accused him of making a more straightforward political calculation after redistricting turned his already Republican-leaning district even redder. And this session, they say, he danced with those who brought him.

“Like most Democrats-turned-Republicans,” Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in an interview, “he did what he had to do to stay in the good graces of his new friends.”

Switching parties

Guillen’s party switch came after a tenure in the House that already stretched nearly two decades. He was first elected in 2002 — at the age of 24, making him one of the youngest members to ever serve.

Representing a largely rural stretch of South Texas, he built a record as a legislative workhorse and conservative Democrat. He often voted with Republicans on issues like abortion and guns, earning multiple “A” and “A+” ratings from the National Rifle Association.

Despite his voting record, Hinojosa said Guillen was always helpful when Hinojosa reached out with requests to help the party politically, like endorsing a local candidate.

“100% reliable,” said Hinojosa, a fellow South Texan who still considers Guillen a friend.

In his own campaigns, Guillen defied his district’s growing Republican lean. He won reelection in 2020 by 17 percentage points, while Trump carried the district by 13 points.

Redistricting, however, turned his district into more of a GOP bastion than ever in 2021. The new district — combined with Guillen’s own ideology and the GOP’s newly aggressive foray into South Texas — instantly prompted speculation that he could change parties.

He confirmed suspicions in November 2021, when he appeared at a news conference inside a Floresville coffee shop and announced he was changing parties, flanked by House Speaker Dade Phelan and Gov. Greg Abbott. He was later endorsed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Trump.

That was only part of the battle. Guillen drew two primary challengers, each pitching themselves as more reliable Republicans.

Phelan’s campaign made the primary its No. 1 priority. They knew that if they wanted to attract more people like Guillen to the GOP, they would have to show that they would have their backs come election time.

Guillen’s campaign aired TV ads where a narrator sought to reassure skeptical Republicans, saying he was “already one of us” before switching parties.

Guillen won the primary outright with 57% of the vote. He then coasted to victory in the general election, winning Starr County — his home county — with the same kind of wide majority he regularly notched there as a Democrat.

Looking back, Guillen’s longtime deskmate, Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, said he did not read more into Guillen’s party switch than the obvious: an alignment between a “conservative legislator” and a “conservative district.”

“One and one equals two,” Raymond said, “and that’s kind of essentially what you had here.”

A rocky session

Phelan rewarded Guillen with two high-profile chairmanships as the 2023 legislative session got underway. Phelan first named Guillen as chair of the Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee, which oversees border security. Then Phelan tapped Guillen to lead the new Select Committee on Community Safety, which would be responsible for firearms regulation.

Both committees quickly became battlegrounds for some of the most contentious issues. The select committee became the subject of a weekslong lobbying effort by the Uvalde families to pass a bill to raise the age to buy certain semiautomatic rifles from 18 to 21. The bill was carried by Uvalde Rep. Tracy King — a neighboring colleague in South Texas and a fellow conservative Democrat before Guillen switched parties.

As the deadline neared for the committee to advance the bill in early May, victims’ families intensified their lobbying — and they did not spare Guillen, who as chair had the sole power to call for a vote to advance it.

“We already know that Dade Phelan has told you not to, so it’s time for you to grow some balls and do your fucking job,” one victim’s father, Brett Cross, said at a May 2 news conference.

On the morning of the last day for the committee to advance the bill, Guillen told reporters he would not call for a vote on it because the “support is not there in the Legislature.” But hours later, the committee shocked even its critics when it hastily convened and advanced the bill. Two Republicans on the panel — Reps. Sam Harless of Spring and Justin Holland of Rockwall — voted for it; Guillen voted against it.

It was only days later that his border security work came to a similarly crucial juncture in the House. Democrats successfully used a procedural maneuver to block a controversial bill by Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, to create a state-run Border Protection Unit. So Republicans, scrambling against a bill-killing deadline, decided to tack a watered-down version of Schaefer’s bill onto Guillen’s more comprehensive border legislation. The House approved the legislation, House Bill 7, but conservative groups instantly pounced, calling it inadequate. It made it through the Senate but died in conference committee, leaving lawmakers with little to show for a top 2023 priority.

The episode saw Guillen — and his newly overhauled bill — taking fire from both sides. In addition to the conservative blowback, progressive activists from back home in the Rio Grande Valley felt burned after spending weeks trying to get his ear on the issue, especially the Border Protection Unit.

“It felt like a slap in the face” to see Guillen suddenly carrying Schaefer’s controversial idea, said Dani Marrero Hi with La Union del Pueblo Entero. Ahead of the vote, members of the group hosted a sit-in at Guillen’s office for nearly three hours, she added, “and they weren’t even ever given the time of day.”

The border security debate — and Guillen’s leading role in it — was not over. Hours after the regular session ended, Abbott ordered lawmakers back to Austin to strike a deal on property tax relief and to increase penalties for human smuggling, a proposal that Guillen had authored. The House quickly obliged Abbott on both fronts, but the Senate made changes to Guillen’s bill, arguing it was not tough enough. And the impasse over property taxes led to a second special session where Abbott jettisoned the agenda item on human smuggling penalties, leaving the fate of Guillen’s proposal up in the air.

Guillen said during a district-tour stop in Karnes City he was “very confident” Abbott would revive the bill in a later special session. “We’ll get it done,” he added.

In the interview, Guillen said there is “no question” the issues he took on this year were not easy and that there is still more progress to make on them. When a woman asked him in Karnes City about school shootings, noting a local school had just had an active-shooter drill, he said lawmakers did not allocate “nearly enough” money for school safety.

After he switched parties, he said, he was surprised to find broader respect in the House as a Republican, compared to being an outlier in the Democratic Party. Phelan, in a statement for this story, expressed full confidence in Guillen, calling him an “impact player behind the priorities and direction of the Texas House.”

Claudia Alcazar, the chair of the Starr County GOP, said she has known Guillen personally since his first run for the House in 2002. His dad was her teacher for Future Farmers of America. She said he lacked the “polish” of a traditional politician when he started, but he “grew into it” — and she is happy to see him more visible than ever.

“Does he have to play the political games?” she said, reflecting on the legislative battles he’s gone through this year so far. “Don’t we all, at work and everywhere else? … Sometimes you’ve got to follow your party line. You don’t agree 100%. But then nothing will get done if you just fight.”

Another reelection campaign

It remains to be seen how border and gun issues will impact Guillen’s pursuit of a 12th term next year.

Guillen officially announced his reelection campaign Monday. He said in the interview he is “not taking anything for granted and … hitting the ground running.”

There are signs Guillen may face a smoother path to reelection this time. One of his 2022 primary challengers, Alena Berlanga, said she is not planning to run again. The other one, Mike Monreal, did not respond to requests for comment.

But one of Monreal’s bigger supporters in the 2022 primary, Karnes County Commissioner Sean O’Brien, was among those who turned out for Guillen’s stop in Karnes City. O’Brien skeptically questioned Guillen over Texas’ latest tactic to secure the border — buoys in the Rio Grande — but otherwise offered praise for the representative.

“You’re one of the few” who makes an effort to meet with constituents, O’Brien said. “Everyone else just kind of sits up there in their golden palace.”

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