OPINION: Guillen change of parties could test many loyalties

Yet another change faces some Rio Grande voters next year. Unlike the new faces that await constituents in two congressional districts and a state House and Senate seat at the eastern end of the Valley, however, voters in House District 31, at the western end, can still select incumbent Ryan Guillen, who has held the seat since 2004. As of Monday, however, Guillen will represent the Republican Party.

That change is sure to test many loyalties — not just among voters but among the parties and Guillen himself, in an area where voting patterns traditionally have been so consistent that they are, well, traditional. Will voters who have long supported Democratic Party candidates stick with their incumbent and break that party’s hold on the Valley? Donald Trump won the Starr County district in 2020, although his coat strings didn’t extend further down the ballot.

In his announcement Monday in Floresville, Guillen suggested not that he had left the Democratic Party, but rather that the party had left him with its steady lurches to the left. He said that “many of us are waking up to the fact that the values of those in Washington, D.C., are not … the values of South Texas.”

He cited his former party’s “ideology of defunding the police, of destroying the oil and gas industry and the chaos in our border (that) has disastrous consequences for those who live here in South Texas.”

To be sure, the new delineation Guillen’s district, truncating much of the eastern part of his former constituency. Not surprisingly, some of his former party colleagues suggested he was little more than a political mercenary, switching only because it considers it politically expedient. Over the years he has shown an independent streak, crossing party lines on key issues.

Guillen has consistently supported gun rights. He voted for legislation that allowed people to carry handguns on college campuses and he was the House sponsor for the open-carry bill in 2015. Invoking his Roman Catholic beliefs, he also has supported anti-abortion measures and the mandate that all student athletes use the gender listed on their birth certificates when participating in sports and other UIL activities.

However, Guillen also has sided with the Democrats on key civil rights issues. He opposed several voting restrictions and sponsored a bill to allow the creation of mobile or temporary polling places when deemed necessary. He also voted for school breakfast programs and against a ban on “sanctuary cities,” and he co-sponsored a bill to decriminalize of marijuana use and possession.

Will Guillen show the same willingness to cross party lines, especially on civil rights issues? Also, will the Republican Party respect his independence? The party is notorious for punishing those who don’t toe their line, pulling support for their own bills or stripping them of committee seats.

Most importantly, will District 31 voters base their decisions on his past performance or on party membership, and could they reward or punish him for turning his coat from blue to red?

Those questions make this House race more interesting.