By Rudy Arispe ’97 BA
They are two rising stars in a state-wide political arena; one Democrat, the other Republican. Yet, each shares the same vision of greater good for their respective constituents.
Texas House of Representatives Justin Rodriguez ’97 BBA (D-San Antonio) and Jose M. Lozano ’05 MAA (R-Kingsville) are University of the Incarnate Word (UIW) alumni. They have taken to heart the Mission of service to others that they have carried with them since leaving the university, and which they exemplify in their roles as trusted leaders.
As a “voice” for all Texans, the state representatives have a duty to share, discuss and debate citizens’ concerns over taxes, transportation, affordable housing and the environment among their bi-partisan colleagues in the Texas Legislature, in order to help and improve the lives of the more than 26 million residents of the Lone Star State.
Both credit UIW for preparing them for their chosen career paths. Their time at the university instilled in them the knowledge, thought and confidence they have come to rely on in their respective roles as Texas legislators.
State Rep. Justin Rodriguez (D-San Antonio) remembers riding his bike as a kid with his two brothers to a local university a half-mile or so from his West Side neighborhood, and treading their tires on the campus’ sidewalks and curved walkways that made perfect biking trails.
“We would see these young adults going to college, so it became an expectation to do the same, or the type of goals we should have,” Rodriguez said.
As he grew older, Rodriguez came to realize that education was his ticket to bigger and brighter things outside of his West Side bubble, especially since his mother, a single parent, wished for her three sons prosperous and promising futures.
“She worked nights and weekends for a janitorial service,” he said, “and worked to put us through Catholic school.”
After graduation from high school, Rodriguez enrolled at UIW, where he earned his BBA. Since then, his education has carried the 39-year-old Alamo City native from his humble West Side roots – an area considered one of the poorest school districts in Texas – all the way to Austin, where as a state representative he oversees District 125, and, in fact, has made education for Texas and his constituents a priority.
“Texas has tremendous challenges regarding education,” he said. “We have a problem with equity and funding. We need to make sure a kid from the poorest school district has the same opportunities as a kid in the wealthier districts.”
Indeed, education has been a driving force for Rodriguez. While still an undergrad, he always knew he wanted to go to graduate school, but wasn’t certain about what major to pursue. It was through a professor’s nudging that he chose law.
“I was never drawn to the legal field, but I enjoyed writing,” he said. “I remember we had a writing assignment in a business law class. I came back and professor (Dr. Bob) Lamb, (UIW associate professor of business law), passed out what a model answer was. It was my answer. He told me I should look into law school. He said I had a good writing style, and a lawyer not only has to be vocal and assertive, but also has to have good writing skills.”
Not long after, Rodriguez earned an academic fellowship to the University of Wisconsin Law School. Although he was ecstatic, he wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of moving so far away to a place he imagined so vastly different from the warmth and familiarity of South Texas.
And as for law school?
“It was rigorous,” he said. “What made it even more challenging was after going to a small, Catholic university with 20 students in class, I was at a bigger university with 250 students in my classes from all over the country: NYU, Columbia, University of Michigan and UC Berkeley.”
After graduating in 2000 with his JD in law, he returned home and was hired by the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office as a juvenile prosecutor. The experience proved to be “eye-opening and emotionally draining,” he said, from dealing with offenders as young as 12.
Still, Rodriguez enjoyed his work and focused on helping juveniles, who found themselves in the court system, understand that they still had an opportunity to turn their life around.
His time in the DA’s office encouraged Rodriguez to do more for others, especially at-risk, underprivileged youth, which is why he ran and was elected to the San Antonio Independent School District Board of Education. But it was through his election in May 2007 to the San Antonio City Council that Rodriguez found that he could have a greater impact on the community.
Dr. Timothy Henrich, UIW professor of human performance, said it has been wonderful to see his former student excel in both his personal and political life.
“I have been so excited to watch Justin’s success, earn his law degree, become a City Council advocate for parks and now a state representative,” Henrich said. “Justin was quiet and thoughtful in class, and he is a lesson to us all that you will never know how successful your students are going to be once they graduate.”
Rodriguez experienced a banner year in 2012. He had recently come off his second and final term at City Hall. Voters catapulted him to an even bigger stage by placing him in the House of Representatives. His decision to run for state office required a lot of soul searching, he said, because he and his wife, Victoria, were raising their three young children. He also was coming off four years with City Council. He questioned whether or not he wanted to continue as an elected official.
He’s glad he did.
“The legislative work we do is wonderful, but it’s very different working on statewide issues, and it can be challenging to build a consensus,” said Rodriguez.
Democratic colleague and fellow State Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer of San Antonio said he has been impressed with Rodriguez’s ability to present himself in a strong and confident manner as he did when he first began working in the House chamber.
“People say he has big shoes to fill since he replaced (U.S. Rep.) Joaquin Castro, but his skill set in political making and political maturity sets him apart. He’s not afraid to push back and go out on a limb if it means fighting for his constituents. He can walk into a situation and assess it, and know when to keep quiet and just listen. He understands what role to play and when, and that’s hard to do.”
Today, Rodriguez makes the frequent trips down the I-35 corridor to Austin and back home to the West Side of San Antonio to a home right next door to the one he grew up in.
“I always knew I wanted to move back to my neighborhood,” he said. “Now my three kids are growing up here. Inner-city neighborhoods are the heart of a city.”
Fellow alumnus State Rep. Jose M. Lozano (R-Kingsville) is also committed to serving Texas as a state legislator.
Lozano was 12 years old, when he accompanied his father, Dr. Jose Lozano, Sr., on a hunting trip with 10 other individuals. One of those guests was a state senator with whom the young boy was intrigued and engaged in conversation.
“I listened to them speak about policy and how to better the community by providing medical care for the indigent,” Lozano recalled. “That’s when I knew I wanted to be a legislator. I remember my dad telling me if you’re a good public servant, you can help just as many people as a doctor.”
Fast forward to 2009, when Lozano launched his first political campaign and was elected to state office in March 2010. Now in his second term, he oversees Texas House District 43, which encompasses Bee, Jim Wells, Kleberg and San Patricio counties, and includes some 165,000 residents.
“My first campaign involved a lot of door-to-door,” he said. “I used to go on house calls with my dad, so decades later I was going door-to-door to a lot of the same homes. I also did events for those who didn’t know me. I had to combat a lot of voter apathy because they think every politician is the same.”
Just as he watched his father treat the sick and elderly in Premont, Texas, Lozano now gives back on a local and state level as a public servant committed to creating jobs, ending lawsuit abuse, and protecting the South Texas oil and gas industry, among other issues.
For instance, he is a staunch advocate of small business and quite familiar with the challenges that small business owners can encounter, considering he is one too. In 2005, while Lozano was finishing up graduate school at UIW, he acquired franchise rights to a trio of Wingstop Restaurants in Kingsville, Corpus Christi and Alice.
“I’ve seen lives changed with a stable job,” the restaurateur-turned-representative said. “I’ve helped employees put down a deposit on apartments because they didn’t have a good credit score. UIW helped me help society. It was instilled in me all the time (while I was there).”
Being a small business owner has also helped him to be fiscally responsible with taxpayer dollars.
“When you’re a legislator, you’re dealing with people’s taxes,” Lozano said. “It’s not your money. We can’t spend more money than (what the state) brings in. It takes a lot of fiscal discipline, and you learn that from owning a business.”
His commitment to the conservation of energy resources is evident with his re-appointment to the Energy Resources Committee, which oversees the natural resources of Texas. He was also appointed vice chair of the International Trade Committee and serves on the House Republican Caucus Policy Committee and as vice chair of the House Energy Caucus.
Patty Johnson, Republican county chair for Bee County, said Lozano is passionate about his constituents and his district’s needs.
“He’s very approachable and makes sure he understands their problems,” she said. “Otherwise, he or his staff will go above and beyond to make sure someone can help them. As an up-and-coming Hispanic Republican, he has a strong future with the party and the state.”
Lozano has also never forgotten his graduate years at UIW, which, he said, helped shape him to become the man, business owner and politician that he is today.
“When I got to UIW and learned about service to others, I started to understand what service meant,” he said, “so I want to give back as much as I can, especially with kids because that’s when you can affect someone’s life. UIW allowed me to focus on who I was as a person and my faith.”
Dr. Gary Keith, associate professor and pre-law advisor of the Department of Government and International Affairs, said Lozano is always happy to promote the university whenever he can.
“When UIW students traveled to the state Capitol to talk with legislators about financial aid, Rep. Lozano went out of his way to praise UIW and affirm his willingness to help UIW on any matter that we need him to,” Keith said. “He is an enthusiastic alum.”
Operating three busy restaurants while fulfilling his full-time duties as state representative combined with keeping abreast of the latest in Texas politics and never-ending issues of the day require Lozano to multi-task, at which he has become quite adept.
“When I’m not in a meeting or on the phone, I’m listening to the news or reading,” he said. “I also have a good team in place. They help keep me in touch with my districts.”
And then there’s family time, which is just as important for Lozano, 33, his wife, Abby, and their three children. That sense of family was most likely nurtured from the close-knit relationship he had with his parents and five sisters, and friendly familiarity with the humble people in the rural community where he grew up.
“One time my father treated a patient, and the next day that patient came to our house with a goat. He couldn’t afford to pay,” Lozano said. “I remember the genuine gratitude that man had, and that’s one of the things that put me on the pathway of wanting to help people. That’s what I love the most about being a legislator.”
Both Rodriguez and Lozano embody the very Mission instilled by the university’s founding congregation the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word and continue living this Mission through service to Texas as proud alumni of UIW.