FEATURED: Former State Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, Senior Vice President, Governmental and Community Relations, The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, on Wednesday, June 9, 2021, was recognized by the Rio Grande Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce as “2021 Woman of Distinction in Government”.
Former Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, recognized as “2021 Woman of Distinction in Government” by Rio Grande Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce
Former State Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, who serves as Senior Vice President, Governmental and Community Relations, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, has been recognized by the Rio Grande Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce as “2021 Woman of Distinction in Government”.
She said receiving this award from the Rio Grande Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is an honor.
“Government plays an important role in our everyday lives and has played a particularly special role in my life over the last 30 years, as an attorney, elected official, and in my current position at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley,” Gonzáles said. “In each position, I have held, I have strived to improve the quality of life for others and I can think of no better way to do so than to increase educational opportunities.”
She also shares credit for many of her successes with her immediate family: husband and business leader Rick Villarreal, a Farmers Insurance Agent for the past 34 years who is based in Edinburg, in her role as a stepmother to three adult children, step-grandmother to five children, “and a Mom to my two fur babies (pets)”.
Gonzáles was recognized at the 7th Annual Women of Distinction 2021 Awards, hosted by H-E-B and Rio Grande Regional Hospital on Wednesday, June 9, 2021, along with nine other women in the areas of education, arts and entertainment, military, and more.
As well as Gonzáles, those other nine women leaders publicly honored by the Rio Grande Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce are, in alphabetical order:
• Mayra García Adame, Founder, Mariposa All Female Mariachi, and Director, La Joya Mariachi (Arts and Entertainment);
• Laura Disque, Assistant Chief Nursing Officer, Rio Grande Regional Hospital (Health);
• Yvette García, Lieutenant, U.S. Navy, Health Care Administrator (Military);
• Eliza Garza, Owner, Ice Cubed Raspas (Rising Star);
• Dalinda Guillén, Executive Director, Rio Grande City Economic Development Corporation (Professional);
• Adelita Muñoz, Retired, Texas A&M Agrilife (Humanitarian);
• Dr. Carolina Pérez, Superintendent, Mission Consolidated School District (Education);
• Ronnie Ontiveros, President, MedCare, and President, Next Home RGV Realty (Entrepreneur);
• Karina Walker, Border Regional Director, Pharmacy, H-E-B (Essential Leader with H-E-B).
In addition to her current professional service with the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, Gonzáles is one of seven members of the Board of Directors, Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, which is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg Mayor and Edinburg City Council.
Her public service in Edinburg also features her role as President, Edinburg Chamber of Commerce, and member of the Advisory Board of Directors for Lone Star National Bank, which currently operates with more than 600 staff members in 33 locations in the Rio Grande Valley and San Antonio, including two financial branches in Edinburg.
Also, she is one of 27 members of the Board of Directors, Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council, which is a voluntary association of local governments formed under Texas Law in 1967 as one of Texas’ 24 regional Council of Governments (COG’s) serving Cameron, Hidalgo and Willacy County. The Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council promotes and encourages cooperation among local units of government in order to improve the region’s health, safety, and general welfare and to plan for future development.
Recently, Gonzáles was selected to the Board of Directors, Pharr Economic Development Corporation Foundation, whose mission is to foster educational, occupational, and career opportunities for Pharr residents to advance their socioeconomic status and enhance their quality of life.
The Pharr EDC Foundation, through the dedication and assistance of its Board of Directors, focuses its efforts on empowering students for their continued growth and success.
“Working in both government and community relations for the university, Gonzáles is a recognized leader in the public and private sectors, with more than 20 years of experience in negotiating and advocating to obtain results – as an attorney, mediator, legislator, and in her role heading up governmental relations for the university,” according to a news release issued by the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, dated Friday, July 16, 2021.
Contacted after the news of her selection as “2021 Woman of Distinction in Government”, Gonzáles offered advice and encouragement to people from all walks of life who want to participate in helping shape government laws and policies.
As a political candidate for the first time, you ran for the Texas Legislature and never lost an election before retiring. Why did you choose the Texas Legislature, rather than the local or countywide office?
I had never planned to run for public office before my law partners approached me suggesting that I run for state representative. As an attorney, I used state laws and state court precedent daily in my work, so it seemed the most appropriate to my work and experience.
As soon as I made the decision to run, I began diving into details about public school financing, healthcare, economic development programs, mental health, and much more. I was fortunate to learn from some of the best experts in those fields.
Whether a person chooses to run for office or not, I would encourage doing research into topics of interest. You’d be surprised what an incredible role the State of Texas plays in our everyday lives and that of our families.
Politics turn off so many people. What do you say to those many, many individuals who want to participate in politics and government, but who get discouraged that the power structures in local, county, and state governments in Texas will never listen to them?
There is a quote I love that says “People shouldn’t be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.” I could not agree more. We are a government of the people and it is the general public that elects its leaders, so if your leaders are not accessible if they are not willing to listen to your concerns, and if they consistently vote against your interest, then it’s time to elect new leaders.
It is a two-way street though. You can’t expect your leaders to know where you stand on something if you don’t tell them, so you must get engaged, learn the issues and then voice your opinions and concerns.
Communication is key to almost everything in life and government is no different. And, while you may not get a sit-down meeting with every elected official, you’d be surprised how accessible and knowledgeable their staff is. The point is to engage, to participate.
What tips do you have for individuals (constituents) – besides encouraging them to vote during elections – for learning about local and state government elected bodies, and how to get those constituent’s messages heard and acted upon by elected and appointed officials?
The Internet can be such a valuable source of information. I’m talking about getting your information from reputable mainstream and social media news outlets that report on issues of the day.
I start each day reading my local newspapers, then throughout the day and evening, listen or view local radio and television news broadcasts. I also read the Texas Tribune http://www.texastribune.org and subscribe to the Quorum Report http://www.quorumreport.com, which contains great news clips and stories on current events and issues in the news.
There is also https://everytexan.org, which was previously the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which has information on all sorts of public policy issues – everything from food security to equity and inequality.
If you have children in school, get involved in the PTA so you can stay abreast of what is happening in your child’s education.
There are so many sources for learning about what is happening, and because cities, economic development organizations, and even the Texas Legislature require public hearings to be accessible via the Internet, you can watch live and recorded meetings of local governmental and legislative session hearings from the comfort of your own home, at your convenience.
As I previously noted, there are many ways to get your message across to your elected leader. If your schedule allows, volunteer on a campaign. It’s a great way to really learn about a candidate and the issues of the day. And finally, voting is critical. It truly is the way to register your approval or disapproval for a candidate and for the policies that he/she supports.
There’s another quote I like by the late journalist, Edward Murrow, who said: “A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.” By staying aware and engaged, God help us, we never become sheep.
During your career in the Texas Legislature from 2005 through 2012, you served for two terms as Chair, House Committee on Border & Intergovernmental Affairs. What did you learn from that statewide leadership experience that helps you today on behalf of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and its School of Medicine?
I was very fortunate to have been appointed a Chairwoman of a committee after having served only two terms and to have held leadership positions within the Mexican American Legislative Caucus and State Democratic Caucus.
I also learned a tremendous amount from being selected to serve as a fellow in the Public Leadership Program of the Aspen-Rodel Institute, an organization that selects 12 Democrats and 12 Republicans yearly from across the country and serving as a director in the Texas Lyceum Association, a statewide leadership organization.
While each organization taught me different things, one constant learned from all of them is that relationships are key. So much of what happens in government is based on relationships and trust and those relationships do not necessarily end when you leave the Texas Legislature. Members of the Legislature truly become like your family, especially when you are in session together for 140 days straight.
I am grateful that many of the people I worked with as a legislative member are still there and some have moved on to Congress, to agencies, to lobby firms, etc. Being able to keep an open line of communication with legislative members and their staff is key in my role for the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and the School of Medicine.
I also know from having been a Texas legislator the type of information that state lawmakers and their staff need to receive in order to help on an issue or with funding. And, I learned the importance of the lobby and that when you can establish strong alliances with organizations and get their support, your chances of receiving support from the Legislature increases.
The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley has grown tremendously in such a short period of time and the medical school has been transformational to our area. Communicating the importance of our university and the medical school to our elected leaders is a big job but I’m fortunate to have great staff, an amazing leader in Dr. (Guy) Bailey (President, The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley), and most of all, we have tremendous students who are an asset to the Rio Grande Valley and the State of Texas. Our job is to tap into each of our relationships and tell our story.
Please provide a summary of a dayas Senior Vice President, Governmental and Community Relations, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Perhaps include a schedule of one day so people can get a better idea of the extent of your assignments.
No day is the same in my job – that’s what keeps it interesting.
I oversee governmental relations, community engagement (which runs a non-profit resource center and a student volunteer online platform), five economic development offices, including the Small Business Development Center and a business incubator in Brownsville, and an Office of Public Art.
The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley stretches across the entire Rio Grande Valley so I have projects I’m working on with various cities, economic development corporations, counties, and of course, the Texas Legislature and U.S. Congress. There are some days when I have meetings in Brownsville, Edinburg, and Harlingen all in one day. During legislative years, I’m up in Austin almost every week, with this year having been an exception due to COVID-19.
In non-legislative years, we are preparing for the next state legislative session. What many don’t realize is that there are interim hearings in the year leading up to the next legislative session and reports due to the state legislature, state leadership, and agencies.
I am also the principal investigator on the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security), CRRSAA (Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act), and ARP (American Rescue Plan) federal grants so I’m responsible for reporting expenditures of those grant funds. The great thing about my job is that we learn about various facets of the university; we interact with administrators, faculty, staff, and students, and of course, with the external community.
President Guy Bailey several years ago launched a legislative internship program at the Texas Capitol. Has he discussed with you his hopes for the university to lease or build a facility in Austin so dozens of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley students can work one semester at the Texas Capitol? And, why would such an internship prove valuable to those students?
The Valley Legislative Internship Program has hosted four classes (44 students) during a regular session which takes place every 18 months at the Texas Capitol and has been a great success. The idea of starting the Valley Legislative Internship Program at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley was actually Rep. Terry Canales’ (D-Edinburg) idea.
I am so grateful to President Bailey and the entire administration for supporting the idea and of course, to our Valley legislators who each welcome an intern in their offices, and mentor them throughout the 140-day regular session.
President Bailey believes in the internship program so much that he has provided the funding for the program.
Our Government Relations office oversees the internship with Dr. Ruth Ann Ragland overseeing it from the academic side.
Each session, we choose 11 students to intern at the Texas Capitol from the beginning of the regular legislative session in January until it ends in May.
Students live in Austin, work at the Texas Capitol, and become immersed in government.
As with anything else, this program takes a village to make it a success and we have faculty, counselors, staff in the financial aid office and from legislative offices, and a former intern who sit on a committee and help us plan the program for the session.
Students continue to take one, maybe two courses, but because of the rigorous schedule of the Texas Legislature, we do not recommend or permit a full load. Each legislative regular session, we tweak the program based on needs or issues that we have discovered over the years of running the program.
While we are not looking to lease or build a facility in Austin, we are considering leasing housing in one location for the students during the time they serve in the program. Up to now, interns have leased their own space and some, who have relatives or friends living in the Austin area, stay with them.
Some of the comments we have received back from students in the Valley Legislative Internship Program include:
• “The joy, connections, and overall experience serves as a dream come true for any young student hoping to make a change in their world”;
• “Without a doubt, I want to work with government in any sense of the word due to that being the best way to invoke change”; and
• This program has really opened students’ eyes to the impact government has in their lives, with one student saying “I have learned that if no one takes action against unjust legislation, no change will ever come.”
Another benefit of the program is that the interns network and establish relationships with legislators, staff, lobbyists, and agency employees and we have had numerous students go on to law school and others have acquired jobs in state agencies or state or federal legislative offices after graduation.
One thing is for sure – the program changes how they view the role of government in their lives.
What issues and subject matters are you following or influencing with the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council that impacts UTRGV, its School of Medicine or any other important projects affiliated with the university?
One of the benefits of representing the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley within the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council is that there are so many areas the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council deals with across the Rio Grande Valley that the university has subject matter experts in, or that are ripe for partnering.
For instance, we partner with the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council’s Valley Metro on transportation. In fact, university students and faculty make up the large majority of ridership on Valley Metro. We also partner with the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council on water, drainage, healthcare issues, such as COVID-19, economic development grants, and much more.
Another benefit of serving on this board is that I get to see and develop relationships with the other board members on a monthly basis and hear what they are doing on important issues across the Rio Grande Valley. Board members represent cities and higher education institutions from throughout the Rio Grande Valley so it is a wonderful opportunity to visit with others and discuss partnering on projects. While this past year-and-a-half meetings have had to be held virtually due to COVID-19, I remain hopeful that we can all participate in in-person meetings soon enough.
Is there any other point or points you wish to share with readers which were not asked in the previous questions?
to learn more about our team and the work we do in Governmental Relations, Community Engagement, Economic Development, and Public Art.
Other information about Gonzáles which was featured in the university’s news release follows:
She joined the legacy institution of the University of Texas-Pan American in 2012 when she was tapped as the Vice President of University Advancement.
In 2014, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley announced her role as Vice President, Governmental and Community Relations. At the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, UTRGV, she oversees local, state, and federal governmental relations, community engagement, and economic development programs.
The Division of Governmental and Community Relations monitors legislation and public policy issues and advises administrators of their potential impact on the university. It also creates internship opportunities for students at the local, state, and federal levels, and oversees several university programs designed to engage the Rio Grande Valley communities.
Prior to joining higher education, Gonzáles spent 20 years practicing law, and in 2004 was elected the first and only female to represent any Valley district in the Texas House of Representatives.
She served in office for four terms, two of which, she was the Chairwoman of the Border and Intergovernmental Affairs.
She has been honored with numerous awards including the “Legislative Champion Award” from Texas Association of Community Health Centers, the “Patient Advocacy Award” from the Texas Academy of Family Physicians, the “Voice of People Award” from the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network and was named one of eight “Ultimate Latinas” in the nation by the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
As an attorney, she was recognized four times as a Super Lawyer by the Texas Super Lawyers and was named as one of “30 Extraordinary Women in Law” by the Texas Lawyer.
About the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley
The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 as the first major public university of the 21st century in Texas. This transformative initiative provided the opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, including a new School of Medicine, and made it possible for residents of the region to benefit from the Permanent University Fund – a public endowment contributing support to the University of Texas System and other institutions.
The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley has campuses and off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley including in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville (formerly The University of Texas at Brownsville campus), Edinburg (formerly The University of Texas-Pan American campus), Harlingen, McAllen, Port Isabel, Rio Grande City, and South Padre Island.
The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, a comprehensive academic institution, enrolled its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine welcomed its first class in the summer of 2016.
For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories that affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (TitansoftheTexasLegislature.com).