It’s official: Brownsville Democrat Filemon Vela Jr. has stepped down from his Texas 34 congressional district seat after sending resignation letters today to Gov. Greg Abbott and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
“It has been a profound honor to represent the people of the Rio Grande Valley of Texas for the last nine years,” he wrote briefly. “Please let me know how I can be of assistance during this transition.”
Vela, who announced a year ago that he would not seek reelection to the seat he’s held since 2013, is leaving Congress before the end of his current term to take a job with the law and lobbying firm Akin Gump, headquartered in Washington D.C.
His early departure will prompt a special election, the exact timing of which isn’t set in stone and is Abbott’s call to some extent. Vela’s longtime friend Vicente Gonzalez, currently representing Texas District 15 in Congress, is the Democratic candidate running for TX-34 in the November election but will not take part in any special election and instead will serve out his current term.
“What I’ve heard is that Dan Sanchez, former county commissioner, is considering running for it,” Vela said.
Vela said the Republican party, which made gains in the Rio Grande Valley during the 2020 election, sees a TX-34 special election as a chance to take the seat away from Democrats, though he feels the seat is safe. While redistricting has made TX-15 more competitive for Republicans — he considers it a toss-up in the November election — that’s not necessarily the case for TX-34, he said.
“I think Vince is about 99.9 percent certain to be the member of Congress for TX-34 for the next two years,” Vela said.
If that happens, TX-34 constituents can expect a high level of continuity from Vela’s time in Congress, Vela said.
“No question. Vince and I have a personal relationship that probably goes back 20 years,” he said. “We’ve worked hand in hand pretty much on everything we’ve done. Back last year when I decided I wasn’t going to run again, we started to talk to him and his staff about all the things we had worked on, like Port of Brownsville issues, some of the (international) bridge issues, SpaceX issues. I think he’s fully up to speed and ready to roll on all of that stuff.”
Vela said he’s glad to be capping off his congressional career with two major wins: More than $100 million in federal funding for improvements to Cameron County’s Gateway International Bridge and — announced just this week — $68 million for the Port of Brownsville to help pay for deepening the Brownsville Ship Channel.
“Those have been priorities all along the way, so it feels good to have succeeded on that front,” he said.
Vela also worked with Elon Musk and SpaceX in 2014 to help bring the rocket company to Cameron County, and prioritized working with local universities and schools to maximize opportunities in cutting-edge science, technology, engineering and math fields.
Among the other highlights of his career, Vela said, were being able to secure $24 million in federal money for a new terminal building at Brownsville South Padre International Airport and $13 million for structural needs at the Valley International Airport in Harlingen; $4.3 million for an emergency operations center in Kleberg County; millions of dollars in coastal restoration money stemming from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill; and tens of millions of dollars for drainage and storm-water projects to help prevent catastrophic flooding.
That’s on top of the thousands of cases his “very efficient staff” has worked on over the years for individual constituents, involving such matters as navigating Veterans Affairs, the IRS and immigration agencies, Vela said.
“I would see 30 a day,” he said. “That’s not just me though. That’s pretty much every congressional office, the kinds of things people never see. I think that makes up about 50 to 60 percent of the work equity in a congressional office.
“Most recently what was very rewarding was to be able to help connect some local constituents that were in Ukraine at the time of the invasion with the State Department, so that they could get to safety,” Vela said. “Things like that along the way have made the job really rewarding.”
Congressional districts are redrawn every 10 years. And while uncertainty over what that would mean for TX-34 factored into his decision a year ago not to seek reelection, that wasn’t the primary reason, Vela said. (As it turned out, the redrawn TX-34 is “largely the same with a lot less travel,” he said.)
“There’s people here in Congress who’ve been here 20, 30 years,” Vela said. “They’ve made their life in Congress. I was pretty certain from the beginning unless I was going to be Speaker of the House or something, that that wasn’t going to be me. … I’ve kind of made a decision that getting out at the age of 60 and being able to do something else is the path I want to take. … I’m looking forward to a future in the practice of law and in government relations.”