Republican candidates face off at Exchange Club debate

Mike Mahurin, Lisa Luby Ryan, Jason Villalba and Patrick Brown

Lisa Luby Ryan and Jason Villalba may be running to represent the same political party, but they found plenty to disagree about Friday morning speaking to the Exchange Club of Lake Highlands. Luby Ryan, a newcomer to elected office, is challenging incumbent Jason Villalba in the Republican primary to represent Lake Highlands and the rest of District 114 in the Texas House of Representatives.

Luby Ryan introduced herself as a business owner and parent, qualified because she wants to serve. Her interior design firm recently moved from Snider Plaza to Dallas’ Design Center, and she’s “worked on everybody else’s campaign but my own” during 25 years active in politics at the grassroots level.

“I’m not interested in being a politician,” she told Exchange Club members. “We all know what politicians are like.”

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Villalba shared his background as a lawyer and financial planner, but focused on successes during his first 6 years in Austin. He was named Legislator of the Year by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Dallas Police Association and earned similar awards from the Texas Association of Business, Texas Conservative Roundtable and the ASPCA.

“The proof is in the pudding,” he said.

It didn’t take long for the candidates to take the gloves off.

Luby Ryan noted that Villalba has served on plenty of committees but hasn’t been chosen to chair a single one.

“I’m going to go down and chair committees,” she said. “I’m going to be effective.”

“That’s a little naïve,” responded Villalba. “Not a single member from my class holds a gavel yet. I think that will change in the next session.”

Sparks flew again in a discussion about immigration reform.

Luby Ryan indicated Villalba wasn’t tough enough on illegal immigrants, saying he voted both for and against a bill to ban sanctuary cities.

“I don’t know where he stands,” she said.

Villalba explained he voted for the ban, opposing an amendment by Matt Schaefer (R-Tyler), “an insignificant member who does nothing but throw rocks,” which would have killed the bill. Both candidates said they oppose sanctuary cities.

Luby Ryan admitted optional express lanes on the LBJ East improvement project are “a hot topic” but said she is “against toll roads and against express lanes.”

“There is no controversy,” said Villalba, who backs the “shovel-ready” solution endorsed by the transportation committee but stopped by “obstructionists” opposed even to optional tolls. One such group, Texans Uniting for Reform & Freedom (TURF), backs Luby Ryan.

Using vouchers to fund schools was another point of disagreement, with supporter Luby Ryan likening vouchers to choice-of-school, and Villalba warning that vouchers pull funds away from public education.

Luby Ryan got club members involved on the “bathroom bill” question, asking, “Would you want a man in the locker room showering with your daughter?” No hands went up, but there were a few catcalls about the question.

“This is a locker room bill. It’s a privacy act,” she said, to protect businesses from being sued if they don’t provide gender-neutral bathrooms.

“All day long I will protect the women and children of Texas,” she added.

“This so-called bathroom bill was an unserious attempt to galvanize the Republican base. It had nothing to do with transgender students,” replied Villalba. “There has never been a single instance in Texas history where a transgender man dressed as a woman to go into a bathroom to assault a child.”

Businesses opposed it, said Villalba, including Texas Instruments and Southwest Airlines. The Cowboys said it would have kept Dallas from getting the Super Bowl, and Amazon said they won’t move to a state that implements it.

Things got especially heated during a question about abortion.

“To suggest for a nanosecond that I am not 100% committed to the unborn is offensive and disingenuous,” said Villalba. “To suggest that I don’t protect life, that I’m not 100% in favor of making sure our babies are protected, is a lie from the pit of hell.”

Villalba was reacting to Luby Ryan’s previous criticism of his vote against an amendment (again by Matt Schaefer) to prohibit abortions when the unborn child has a severe fetal abnormality.

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“When you’re pro-life, you’re 100% pro-life,” responded Luby Ryan. “You either are or you aren’t, Jason. You cannot vote ever against life.”

The candidates also differed on whether Texas parents should be required to vaccinate schoolchildren. Luby Ryan, mom of an autistic son, endorsed parental choice, while Villalba said vaccines are needed to keep kids, parents and seniors safe.

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Early voting in the March 6 primary begins Tuesday, Feb. 20. The winner in the Republican primary will face Democrat John Turner in November.

Lisa Luby Ryan speaks to Exchange Club members
Jason Villalba speaks to the Exchange Club Friday
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