State Rep. Aaron Pena, R-Edinburg, has made his thoughts public in the Valley following his much publicized split from the Democratic Party earlier this month.

Pena held his first speech as a Republican in the Valley at a welcoming reception by the Hidalgo County Republican Party on Dec. 23. More than 100 GOP members and supporters attended the reception, which was held at La Mexicana Restaurant in north McAllen.

Pena was welcomed with loud and enthusiastic applause by GOP supporters, and spent at least 45 minutes introducing himself to attendees. Pena was introduced by Hidalgo County Republican Party Chair Javier Villalobos, who would later tell the Edinburg Review that the lawmaker would be like “magic for our party.”

Pena started his speech by explaining why he switched from the Democrats, and then segued into his thoughts on his chances for reelection. He also spoke about his approach to the Tea Party, and the future of the GOP in Cameron and Hidalgo Counties.

“Through the years, I worked my way up the Democratic Party and got in as a freshman (and) you follow your leadership because you want to stay in office so you can do something for the community,” Pena told attendees at the reception.

“After I got a little seniority I started thinking, and started watching the way I voted, and I realized that the way I was raised here in the Valley was not being reflected in many of the votes we were taking,” Pena said, citing votes on gun rights, abortion, and business issues.

“I was raised a Catholic, I was taught by nuns, and I remember when that vote came around that the majority of my party wasn’t voting the way I was raised. I wish I had the courage early enough, but I’m glad I finally came around to it.”

Pena first made his announcement at a news conference with Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus at the Republican Party of Texas headquarters in Austin on Dec. 14. Pena’s announcement coincided with a similar decision by state Rep. Allan Ritter, a Democrat from Nederland, who confirmed he was also joining the GOP.

Pena represents House District 40, which includes the heavily Democratic areas of Edinburg, Edcouch, Elsa and La Villa, as well as the western part of Hidalgo County, including Sullivan City, Peñitas and La Joya.

“The next question people ask me is ‘are you crazy, how are you going to get reelected.’ That’s what many of the other newspapers from around the state are asking me.” Pena said. “They say ‘you live and run for an election in an area that votes 49.1 percent palanca’, or single ballot cast.

“Well what that means is, I have a chance,” Pena said to boisterous applause by attendees. “I said we can go on this way for generation after generation, following traditions where we are respecting our elders, but we respect our elders by thinking for ourselves. So, I’m taking this leap of faith hoping that I can show the people of my community that it is okay to have a choice. There’s nothing greater that this country stands for than the freedom of choice.”

Pena chided what he called the “corrupt system” of party bosses, which involved employers directing the vote of employees. In some of our communities today, there are still bosses who tell people how to vote, Peña said.

“People started getting mad that I even thought about leaving the system that we have been stuck in for years and years. For many of us who were Democrats, it was a system where we had no choice,” Pena said in his speech. “Simply thinking about leaving was a crime, was an offense to their (Democrats) sensibilities. After I saw the way I was treated, and after I thought about the issues we talked about a moment ago, I realized that the place for me, for the rest of my life is in the Republican Party.”

In his speech Peña said he agrees with the frustrations of the Tea Party.

“People have a right to be upset with their politicians, because their politicians for too long have forgotten the voices of the citizens. The one thing I hear loud and clear, that I agree with is your anger towards your federal government and wasting money, printing money like it doesn’t belong to anybody,” Pena said. That’s my understanding what the Tea Party is about. It’s your frustration with Washington, and their lack of respect for the taxpayers. What I tell them is, people back home whether they are poor or rich do not want to be taxed. I understand, when you have a federal government that is just printing dollars, you have a right to get angry.”

Near the end of his speech, Peña spoke about the future of the Republican Party in the Rio Grande Valley.

“I say get ready, because in 10 years Cameron County is going to go Republican,” Pena said. “With time, and with the help of the people in this room, Hidalgo County will go Republican.”

Republican county Chairman Villalobos said Peña “will do fine, and will be with us for a long time.”

“This push by Mr. Pena, I think is going to be magic for our party,” Villalobos said. “With him comes a lot of those who support him regardless of party. I think it’s a magical move.

“What he (Pena) is saying is that everybody fights change, but sometimes change is the best thing. It was a wonderful move,” Villalobos said. “A lot of individuals here didn’t know him before, but they know about the courage, and how much it takes for one person down here in the Valley to say ‘I’m going to vote my conscience instead of a party thing’. The people accept him, like him, and will support him.”