Chair of GOP Hispanic Group Explains Change of Heart on Mayoral Candidate Edward Okpa

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In case you haven't seen the updates to Friday's item about tomorrow's mayoral debate at Thomas Jefferson High School, Dallas Chapter of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly chair Jason Villalba late Friday sent out an apology for excluding Edward Okpa from the forum and said Okpa had been extended an invitation. Reached yesterday, Villalba tells Unfair Park he's "surprised by the outcry" expressed in several phone calls and "unfriendly" emails to him from RNHA members and others advocating for the inclusion of Okpa, the minority candidate.

As we reported Friday, one of those calls came from mayoral candidate David Kunkle, who told us Villalba would contact the other two candidates -- Ron Natinsky and Mike Rawlings -- before making a decision. Villalba says he wanted to ensure that the other candidates were comfortable with losing some of their time to speak. He failed to reach Rawlings through his campaign but reached Natinsky.

"He said, 'Absolutely. We want to be inclusive of everyone,'" Villalba says.

Villalba, who's a securities and corporate lawyer and partner at the Richardson office of Haynes and Boone, says he didn't wait to hear back from Rawlings to ask Opka to attend because it quickly became "a no-brainer" to do so.

"Did I make the right call to exclude Mr. Okpa when he's a filed candidate? No," he says. "Obviously, that was a mistake, and I apologize for that. But the Observer had wrote a couple years back about his viability to be a candidate and that he just hasn't fared so well."

Okpa received just 1,999 votes in 2003 and 429 votes four years later in his first two attempts to become mayor.

Villalba also notes Okpa hasn't appeared in The Dallas Morning News "until recently" and claims his initial decision was based on "time constraints," reiterating what he had told us Friday. In his letter Friday night, Villalba took issue with our report that the event was scheduled for three hours (from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.), but he acknowledges the press release he sent included those times. He claims that was an error, telling us the event is from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. with a potential meet-and-greet with the candidates afterward.

Villalba says he didn't intend for the issue to become controversial and stresses his group is a private, partisan political organization comprised of Republican Hispanics and Republicans who believe outreach to Hispanics is important.

"Mr. Okpa is a Republican, so by excluding him, we weren't meaning to be offensive or slight anyone," he says.

The mayor's race is nonpartisan.

Villalba elaborated on the inclusion of Republican U.S. Senate candidate Tom Leppert and DISD Trustee Dr. Edwin Flores as speakers prior to the debate. He says Flores, who graduated from TJ, assisted in securing the space at the school for the RNHA, so he felt it was appropriate for Flores to introduce the mayoral candidates. And it was important to have Leppert there based on his three-and-a-half-year tenure as Dallas mayor.

"He served what most people would say in a fashion that showed leadership, and he's done some great things for the city of Dallas," he says. "I'm a big supporter of Tom Leppert the mayor."

Although Villabla doesn't expect Leppert to discuss his Senate candidacy, he says it shouldn't be a surprise if he does.

"We're a Republican organization," he says. "We're going to have a forum for any candidate for Senate that's a Republican."

Villalba wrote an open letter last year to Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, which was published as an op-ed in The News, chastising Reid for saying he didn't know "how anyone of Hispanic heritage could be a Republican." So don't be surprised to hear a question Monday night aimed at Rawlings, who donated to Reid's campaign.

Okpa, who Villalba says has RSVP'ed to the forum on Facebook, responded to a phone call from Unfair Park by text message, saying he was in an airplane headed to Dallas and would call back after he lands.

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