Statehouse Skirmish Elevates and Imperils Irving's Rinaldi on Eve of Race

State Rep. Matt Rinaldi told Democratic colleagues that he'd "called ICE" on demonstrators in the House gallery.
State Rep. Matt Rinaldi told Democratic colleagues that he'd "called ICE" on demonstrators in the House gallery. Matt Rinaldi via Facebook
Irving state Rep. Matt Rinaldi picked either the worst time or the best time to put himself in the center of the Texas political universe.

On Memorial Day, the last day of the 2017 Texas Legislature's regular session, Rinaldi, a Republican, picked a fight with some of his Democratic colleagues, informing them that he'd "called ICE" on demonstrators in the House gallery who were there to oppose Senate Bill 4, Texas' so-called "sanctuary cities" bill. Rinaldi said the demonstrators had signs reading, “I am illegal and here to stay.”

A skirmish then ensued on the House floor, one that ended with Rinaldi threatening to shoot Democratic Rep. Poncho Nevarez. Rinaldi admits making the phone call and saying the threat, but he says Nevarez provoked him by threatening him first.

In the ensuing days, members of the anti-immigration right celebrated Rinaldi as a symbol of steadfast opposition to the liberal agenda, and Democrats targeted Rinaldi for fundraising purposes.

The whole thing seems a lot like a perfect storm for all parties involved, says Dallas-based Republican political strategist Vinny Minchillo.

"The whole [protest] was designed to create some sort of outcome like this. That's the only reason you would do it, so I guess from the organizers' perspective, they'd say it's a success," he says. "They got a lot of great coverage, and they've got a target they can use to make money on."

Rinaldi has picked up prominence that he never would've otherwise, Minchillo says.

"I think maybe he wishes he hadn't used some of the language that he used, but ultimately, it's made him a star," he says. "I think what it's really done is raised him from being one of the crowd to stepping him up."

On Monday, the Workers Defense Action Fund and the Texas Organizing Project, two activist organizations that oppose SB 4, released the first of what are sure to be many ads featuring Rinaldi telling Nevarez and other House Democrats, "Fuck them. I called ICE." (Video is below.)

"They got a lot of great coverage, and they've got a target they can use to make money on." — Political strategist Vinny Minchillo.

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“When Rinaldi called immigration agents a week ago in response to people fighting for their right to live free of harassment and racial profiling, he thought he was picking on people without a way to fight back. He was wrong,” says Michelle Tremillo, executive director of the Texas Organizing Project. “He's about to learn that being brown and speaking Spanish doesn't mean undocumented, doesn't mean voiceless or powerless. We look forward to ushering him out of our state legislature.”

In a statement to The Dallas Morning News, Rinaldi said Democrats were misrepresenting the law and his call to ICE in order to stir up minority resentment.

"They know that SB 4 specifically prohibits any profiling and does not allow any law enforcement officer to stop someone simply to ask about their immigration status," Rinaldi said. "Furthermore my call to ICE was directed at people holding signs saying they were illegally in this country. But those facts don't make for a good video."

The dust-up's timing at the end of the session, Minchillo says, will bring extra money and extra attention to the race in Rinaldi's House District 115 over the next year-and-a-half.

"No one will want to lose this seat," Minchillo says.

While Democrats may be able to raise money against Rinaldi, their failure to topple him in 2016, when they ran against Donald Trump, means they'll face an uphill battle in 2018.

"These are always really interesting races because most people couldn't pick their state rep out of a lineup. So you've got a got a lot of people out there who are potentially in the electorate who don't even know who their state rep is," Minchillo says.

To overcome that ignorance and oust an incumbent, Minchillo says, you have to do three things: "You've gotta educate voters on who your state rep is. You've gotta educate voters on what terrible thing he's done and then convince them that that's enough to fire them. If you're an opposition candidate, that's a lot of lifting to do."

Still, the most important things Democrats need to do to knock Rinaldi are simple, according to Minchillo.

"You have to raise money, and you have to find a good candidate, and then it will all happen pretty quickly," he says.
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young