The insider’s pick, Jose “Chito” Vela III, has more money, more endorsements, and far more experience in government
In an animated 85-minute telephone interview with the Bulldog, attorney Jose “Chito” Vela III proved to be lively and fully at ease. That was a marked departure from the somewhat hesitant, although thorough, way he answered a range of questions in the more formal January 6th District 4 televised candidates’ forum conducted by the League of Women Voters Austin Area.
The nickname “Chito” has a Spanish dictionary definition of “hush” or “be quiet,” which as a candidate Vela certainly will not do. For him, however, Chito “doesn’t really have any meaning. In Laredo (where he grew up) we joke that everyone has a nickname and nobody goes by their actual name. It’s was my grandfather’s nickname and father’s nickname and mine since I was a little boy.”
He’s the son of Jose “Chito” Vela Jr., also an attorney, who was elected Justice of the Peace in 1976 and County Commissioner in 1980, both in Webb County Texas, on the Mexican border. He stepped down from the latter post to run for district judge and lost, ending his career in public service. He continued to practice law and in 1999 suffered an aneurysm and died at his desk in Laredo at the age of 55. Chito III was 25 at the time.
“To a certain extent I’m my father’s son. I’m a different person than my father but I was raised with his political beliefs, his sense of obligation to the community, his desire to lift up Mexican-American families and fight against discrimination against Mexican Americans,” Vela said. “My dad was a Chicano activist. I was raised by these old-school Chicano activists and I’m a product of that.”
Vela also praised his mother, Patricia Vela, a retired public school librarian in Laredo. In fact, to honor her, he kicked off his campaign at the Windsor Park Branch of the Austin Public Library. “Her focus on education made me who I am today,” he told the Bulldog in a later communication.
First and foremost a lawyer
The candidate is an immigration and criminal defense attorney who, unlike his law partners in Walker Gates Vela, is not board certified. “I’m a generalist,” he said. “My dad was a also a general attorney. He would say, ‘I practice whatever kind of law the next person who walks into my office needs.’ ”
Vela said his clients are “mostly undocumented immigrants arrested for DWI. Then they get an ‘ICE hold’ (an immigration detainer issued by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement department). I try to prevent deportation.”
The Bulldog’s review of court records for more than 40 cases in Travis and Williamson County show that of the people he has defended, all but one had Latino surnames. They were charged with a wide range of misdemeanor and felony offenses. The charges include: assault with a deadly weapon, burglary, criminal mischief, driving while intoxicated, evading arrest, possession of drugs, and theft. Vela also sometimes represents clients in other counties far from Austin.
About a year and a half ago Vela stepped outside his usual local practice to work on a far different matter: trying to stop construction of a border wall in his old hometown. Attorney Carlos Flores of Laredo and Vela in July 2020 filed suit on behalf of Zapata County and landowners against President Donald Trump and the heads of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security. The Texas Tribune published an article about the case.
The lawsuit challenges Trump’s 2017 executive order that mandates construction of a physical barrier on the Mexican border. (Zapata County, Texas, et al v. Trump et all, Case No. 5:20-cv-00106, since updated to substitute Biden for Trump.) Vela said he has been working closely with Flores on the case and, “No wall has been built in Laredo or Zapata County so far!” A motion to dismiss the case filed by the defendants December 27, 2021, is still pending, according to the PACER Case Locator.
“We are filing a response and a motion for summary judgment very soon,” Vela said of the border wall case. “No one has ever beaten a motion to dismiss from the U.S. Government in a border wall case. We’re hoping to be the first!”
Although he’s campaigning to win this election Vela said he is still practicing law. “That’s how I pay my mortgage and bills.” But he said he’s not taking any new cases. If elected, Vela said he plans to continue with Walker Gates Vela. “I’m not going to be actively practicing law but do plan to stick with the law firm. One thing is, I’m not going to be handling any cases…involving the City of Austin. I will keep my outlying county cases to resolve those. I will absolutely not be involved in cases involving the city of Austin in any way, shape or form.
Vela a strong front runner
In the first 50 days of his campaign Vela raised $41,666—more than twice as much as the combined total for his six opponents ($16,777) for the January 25th special election—but he also garnered the lion’s share of key endorsements, including the Austin Firefighters and Austin EMS Associations (as of this morning the Austin Police Association PAC has not made an endorsement, PAC chair Donald Baker said in an email yesterday). He was endorsed by The Austin Chronicle too.
Vela’s campaign manager is Timothy Bray, who previously worked on city council campaigns for Greg Casar and Jimmy Flannigan. Bray is vice president of the urbanist group AURA.
The next campaign finance reports due today will indicate whether his opponents have narrowed the money gap.
Further showing Vela’s clout as an insider candidate, he is backed by Mayor Steve Adler and Council Members Natasha-Harper Madison, Vanessa Fuentes, and Greg Casar, the outgoing District 4 incumbent. State Representative Celia Israel—who just declared that she will run for mayor—also endorsed him. As did State Representative Sheryl Cole (herself a former council member) and who in 2020 edged out Vela for her House seat.
The Real Estate Council of Austin Inc.’s Advancing Democracy PAC spent $11,549 on advertising in support of Vela’s campaign, according to its report filed January 7, 2022.
Front runner or not, Vela faces six opponents. One of them, Monica Guzmán, also garnered an important endorsement from The Austin Chronicle.
Guzmán, Melinda Schiera and Jade Lovera were previously profiled by the Bulldog. Our coverage of the other candidates—Isa Boonto, Amanda Rios, and Ramesses II Setepenre—will be published in coming days.
Vela, age 47, is one of three in this race who is not a first-time candidate. Setepenre was on the District 4 ballot November 3, 2020. He did not actively campaign, raised no money, spent a grand total of $138, and got 1,466 votes for 8.42 percent. Guzmán was one of eight people on the District 4 ballot in 2014, the first election of council members from geographic districts. She raised $360, spent $2,139, and placed fifth with 556 votes for 6.56 percent.
Early voting by personal appearance began January 10th and ends January 21st. Election Day is January 25th.
Despite the large field of candidates and the importance of this election for the future of District 4 residents, turnout so far has been pathetic. Just 881 of the 34,655 (2.54 percent) of registered voters in the district had cast ballots through January 18th, according to the Travis County Clerk’s website.
How does Vela differ from Casar?
In running for this council seat, Vela has to distinguish himself from his opponents, but how would he differ from the incumbent he wants to succeed?
Someone who has known both Casar and Vela politically for years is civic activist Julio Gonzales , a software consultant who supports Vela.
“I think that both of them are productive progressives (on the left side of the Democratic spectrum), and I think both of them are policy entrepreneurs, Altamirano said. “They want to propose legislation, they want to lead initiatives. I think that they’re different in that, obviously, Chito is in a different point in his life cycle. He’s older, he’s a dad, he’s been a husband for a while; Greg just got engaged. And I think that just changes your perspective on issues, on how you negotiate, what are your priorities.”
“If I were to simplify it for a quick soundbite,” Altamirano added, “it would be like a shooting star versus a lighthouse. Greg has so much talent and because of where he is in his life story he can just be so expansive and there’s so much that he can reach for. And on the other hand I think Chito has been in the neighborhood for a bit, and he went to UT, and is settled and focused on different ways of solving different priorities.”
He said Vela will be very focused in terms of his time, his staff’s time, and how he nudges staff to address neighborhood issues that are important to District 4 neighborhoods
Vela expressed his view of differences with Casar this way:
“Greg has been more focused on social justice and mine would be more on infrastructure,” Vela said. “That’s the main distinction. I’ve been involved in government, both state and local, and like to get into the guts of g$41
overning, not so much the broader political shifts that he was very engaged in as the tip of the spear.”
“I was in the Rundberg area and saw a bunch of dumpsters in front of fourplexes” that “overflow with furniture and mattresses. They don’t have regular trash collection We need to get them trash cans.”
He says the heavily wooded five-acre Georgian Acres Neighborhood Park that was recently opened sits next to apartment complexes that have no access to it. (See aerial photo of the site.) “We could spend $250,000 for gates and pathways so kids can access the park.”
That’s consistent with what Vela said in answering a question at the January 6th candidates’ forum, that if the city got a $1 million grant to create an anti-violence campaign, he would advocate to invest it in youth programs.
“I find that opportunities for recreation, for learning, basketball leagues, mentoring programs, educational programs, swimming, those kinds of activities, when you engage children in meaningful recreational opportunities, that often steers them into a more positive type of environment, as opposed to kids that don’t have those kinds of opportunities that were just, for example, in an apartment complex, without access to recreation, without access to enjoying opportunities…in building self-esteem and learning.”
What would Vela do for District 4 residents that Casar was not doing?
“I would say that housing is probably going to be a stronger emphasis and public transportation. Greg was more involved in criminal justice reform, mine would be adding housing. The Council has done well in adding low-income housing, but market-rate housing has been stuck in a pattern for 25 years.”
“A growing city has to build new housing or there won’t be enough homes, and only rich people will be able to buy homes. We have not done that. In my neighborhood there used to be $100,000 to $125,000 homes. Now homes cost $600,000 or $700,000. There are things we can do to take pressure off.”
“Land costs are a huge factor. We’ve got to allow smaller houses that use less land,” Vela said. “People will never able to afford a $500,000 house on 5,750-square-foot lot.”
He said he would like the Land Development Code to be revised to make it less complicated, instead of expanding it greatly, as CodeNEXT intended, “layering complexity on complexity rather than simplifying it. We’re a major American city. Our land code needs to reflect that and allow housing types that go in American cities and currently it does not.”
Conor Kenny, director of public affairs at Civilitude Engineers and Planners, and a former Planning Commission chairman, said of Vela’s housing position, “I think Chito’s approach to housing is that we’re in a housing shortage of all kinds—except for basically luxury housing. So I think he’s supporting a lot of affordable housing and really revising our code to build the income-restricted housing that you only qualify for if you’re lower income…And he is trying to make it so that all of the new housing capacity doesn’t get shoehorned into the east side, and in immigrant communities, but actually gets distributed around the city—which means supporting more housing on the west side.
Workers’ Defense Project alumni
Council Member Greg Casar and Vela both came out of the Workers’ Defense Project (WDP). The organization provided Casar, its former policy director, with an attention-getting public platform as he led worker protests for rest breaks, better pay and a lot more. He used that recognition to launch his initial council campaign in 2014, won in a runoff, then got reelected in 2016 and 2020. Whoever wins this special election will serve out the remainder of his term through 2024.
The New York Times published an article about the organization back in August 2013, stating, “The Workers Defense Project in Austin has racked up an unusual number of successes. It has won more than $1 million in back pay over the last decade on behalf of workers alleging violations of minimum wage and overtime laws. A report it wrote on safety problems spurred the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to investigate nearly 900 construction sites in Texas—leading to nearly $2 million in fines.”
That article also praised Casar for successfully persuading the Austin City Council to demand that Apple pay construction contractors at least $12 an hour, provide safety training and workers’ compensation, and allow WDP representatives to inspect working conditions on the site. This in return for city incentives the company got for building a $300 million operations center in Austin. Apple eventually agreed to almost all demands.
The goal of WDP, through its Workers’ Defense in Action PAC, is to elect candidates that support a progressive pro-worker, pro-immigrant agenda. That lines up perfectly with not only Vela’s service as WDP board chair 2013-2015 but also with the legal work he does as an immigration and criminal defense attorney.
The PAC backed the runaway winner of the November 2020 general election for Travis County District Attorney, José Garza, who when elected was serving as the WDP’s executive director. Vela was WDP board chair when Garza was hired after a national search. “I was very happy to bring him on board,” Vela said of Garza. “He did a wonderful job.”
Now the district attorney has returned the favor by endorsing Vela for city council.
Vela got started in government service soon after graduating from the University of Texas in May 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in history. In 1998 he started as city manager of Rio Bravo, Texas, a city that wasn’t incorporated until 1989. He said it was a “classic colonia” when he was there. “I signed with the county to collect property taxes as source of revenue for the city to implement basic services. There was no trash collection, no police department,” Vela said. “It was part of a democracy building project.”
The city manager’s job was for Vela part of an internship between his first and second year as a graduate student in the LBJ School of Public Affairs, where he earned his master’s degree in 1999. Fresh out of grad school, he said he spent a year as director of Laredo’s Nonprofit Management and Volunteer Center 1999-2000, managing grant funds and coordinating volunteer activities.
“If I learned anything (as city manager) it’s the importance of having basic procedures. You have to have them, as annoying and slow as bureaucracy may be. It’s there for a reason. You post an agenda and hold public meetings. I was trying to impress on the city the importance of doing things by the book.” Vela said.
At one point he realized, “Our elections were on the wrong cycle, not a sanctioned date, We moved them to the legal dates and then had to file for preclearance (under the Civil Rights Act) because we moved the date.” The preclearance requirement has since been overturned in case law.
He went on to earn his law degree from UT Austin in 2004. Vela’s personnel files obtained through public information requests show that in April 2005 Vela went to work as an assistant attorney general in the Open Records Division. Less than two years later he transferred to work for the next four years as general counsel for State Representative Solomon Ortiz Jr. That job ended in January 2011, after Ortiz was defeated for reelection in 2010.
“The Legislature was a great education for me,” Vela said. “I’m a policy wonk, I like to dig into numbers. I love the political process…It was an education that went from the theoretical world to the real world of democratic politics. I’m a pragmatist, not an idealist. I want to get things done.”
Vela’s next stint in government came as Casar’s appointee to the Austin Planning Commission, where he served 2015-2017. He gained experience that gives him a head start should he be elected to the council. He quit that volunteer job in 2018 and took a crack at being a lawmaker himself.
He was one of five candidates who took on the scandal-tinged incumbent Dawnna Dukes who was running for reelection in District 46. He led the pack in the Democratic Primary with 6,227 votes. That wasn’t enough to avoid a runoff with former Austin Council Member Sheryl Cole. He had 202 more votes than she did in the primary but in the runoff she edged him by 183 votes, then went on to a landslide victory in the general election in the heavily Democratic district.
“We sparred a little here and there but it was a respectful and above the belt campaign. I have no ill will,” Vela said of that campaign… It was a great race. I learned about campaigning. I was outspent three-to-one or four-to-one. I was happy with everything but the results.”
The campaign finance reports filed by the District 4 candidates show that Cole did not contribute to anyone’s election war chest, but she did endorse Vela.
“It was a hard-fought campaign,” Cole says of the Democratic Primary, “but we put it behind us. I think he’ll serve the city well.”
If running for office didn’t prove his party bona fides, his financial contributions do so. He donated to Democrats seeking federal office, including Congressional candidate Julie Oliver. He gave her $300 in 2018 and another $150 in 2020. He gave $250 to Mike Siegel for Congress in 2019, $50 to presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in 2019, and $75 in 2019 to Julian Castro’s presidential campaign. He donated $254 to Workers’ Defense Project Founder Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez’s campaign for U.S. Senate in 2019.
His voting history in Travis County shows that he has voted in Democratic Primary elections since 2008—with one exception. He voted in the Republican Primary election in 2010. Quizzed on that oddity, he said he voted for Kay Bailey Hutchison for governor that time. “I crossed over hoping to help her knock Rick Perry out. I was working at the Legislature as a Democratic staffer and Perry (running for his third full term as governor) was horrible.”
Vela gave Casar $150 for his 2020 reelection campaign, $400 to Vanessa Fuentes for her winning underdog campaign for the District 2 seat in 2020, and a total of $250 to Jose Garza for District Attorney in 2019 and another $200 in 2020. He gave $50 to Delia Garza in 2020 for her county attorney campaign.
Vela married Fabiola Flores July 2, 2016 and they have three children (two of which are by his first wife). She has been a staff attorney at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid since August 2014, according to her LinkedIn page. Like Vela, she is a former Laredo resident and also studied at the University of Texas at Austin.
Vela in July 2002 married Elizabeth Mills Clarke, with whom he had two children, Perla Cruz Vela and Josue Diego Vela. Divorce records indicate that in September 2010 the marriage was “dissolved on the grounds of insupportability.” The court appointed the couple joint managing conservators of the children and he got possession of the home they bought together in 2005. Property records indicate that Vela is a long-time resident of District 4, both under the previous map and the new map adopted by the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission in November.
Vela also owns a 1290-square-foot structure in Laredo, Texas, at 2016 Santa Ursula that’s worth $185,000, according to Webb County Appraisal District. Records indicate it is being used as a law office.
The Bulldog’s research located an Austin speeding ticket that Vela got in July 2017 for which he received deferred disposition. He had no violations during the deferral period and the case was dismissed in November of that year.
More seriously, Vela was arrested in October 1992 for drunk driving. He was 18 years old and in his second semester of college at UT Austin.
Asked about that incident, Vela readily fessed up. “Yep that was me,” he said. “I think I did take some classes.” The case was ultimately dismissed after conviction of a Class C misdemeanor, he said, which was a “pretty typical outcome especially back in the nineties.”
Vela has no other criminal record in Texas, according to a Department of Public Safety database.
We also found that Vela had no outstanding tax delinquencies in Travis County, had never filed for bankruptcy, had never registered as a lobbyist in the city, and wasn’t a party in any pending litigation in Travis County.
Bulldog reporter Daniel Van Oudenaren contributed heavily to this article with event coverage, interviews, and research
Trust indicators: Ken Martin has been covering local government and politics in the Austin area since 1981. See more on Ken on the About page. Email [email protected]
Who funds this work? This report was made possible by contributions to The Austin Bulldog, which operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit for investigative reporting in the public interest. You can help support this independent coverage by making a tax-deductible contribution.
Links to related information:
Jose “Chito” Vela III’s campaign website is at chitovela.com.
Jose Vela III’s Case Detail for speeding on a state highway, filed July 12, 2017
Jose Vela’s Case Summary for driving while intoxicated, filed October 23, 1992
Jose Vela’s Case File for his divorce from Elizabeth Clarke Mills Vela, filed February 23, 2010 (55 pages)
Jose Vela III’s degrees and dates of attendance at the University of Texas 1992-2004 (1 page)
Jose Vela III’s wedding certificate reflecting his marriage to Fabiola Flores in Webb County Texas, July 2, 2016. (1 page)
Jose Vela III’s payroll file when working as an assistant attorney general (1 page)
Jose Vela III’s personnel file when working for State Representative Solomon Ortiz Jr. (27 pages)
Jose “Chito” Vela III’s State Bar of Texas record (2 pages)
Jose Vela III’s Travis Central Appraisal District record for his homestead in District 4 (2 pages)
Jose Vela III’s Webb County Appraisal District record for his property in Laredo, Texas (2 pages)
New York Times article, “The Workers Defense Project, a Union in Spirit,” August 10, 2013 (6 pages)
Zapata County, Texas et al v. Joseph R. Biden Jr., et al, Case No. 5:20-cv-000106, filed July 6, 2020 (7 pages)
Related Bulldog coverage:
District 4 candidate is ‘green’ in more ways than one, January 18, 2022
Moderate campaigns for D4 council seat, January 10, 2022
Anti-displacement campaigner runs for Casar’s council seat, January 6, 2022
Vela takes big lead in fundraising for D4 special election, December 30, 2021