“I still wake up every day in awe that 20 years ago I was Merlin Davis’ nerdy little grandson reading chapter books and watching the horses out in the barn and now I help make law,” my cousin Matthew Davis Hall smiled quietly as we shared some of the new fried pickles at Miguel’s Little Mexico in Comanche while we waited on our lunch to arrive.
If I am totally honest, I have to admit that it was a bit amazing to me as well that the young man seated in front of me that day had seemingly overnight gone from reading Goosebumps on my beloved uncle’s hay bales to making laws that combat human trafficking. How does that happen anyway?
“In my heart of hearts, I’m still a shy nerdy guy, but my life has turned into an adventure that I never, never expected,” Matt broke into my reverie.
So who is he? Who is Matthew Davis Hall, my cousin, and how did he come to find himself in the Texas Legislature? To untangle it all, I decided to walk myself back to the beginning… Matthew Davis Hall is the grandson of the late Merlin C. Davis of Comanche, Texas. He is 28 years old, and he is the legislative director for a current state representative, but that isn’t where he began, of course.
Matt graduated from Polytechnic High School on the east side of Fort Worth, a very poor public school with a largely immigrant population. For his undergrad work, Matt chose Texas A&M International University in Laredo, and I feel sure that you can already see a correlation at work here.
“Then I decided I would actually go to a ‘big university’ for grad school.”
Of course, by his own admission 1/3 of the population at Texas State was Hispanic with a large percentage of African Americans as well. “It was the first time I had gone to school with a large Anglo population, he admitted.
“And everything combined, this had to have affected who you have become,” I asked.
“For me, my schools were comfortable places to be, but they also affected my thinking on subjects like prejudice and bigotry. I still remember feeling that I was treated better by institutions and authority figures in general. It showed me that there was, at least on the subconscious level within the authority structure, favorable treatment to Anglo students. At least it seemed that way in the case of this blonde, blue-eyed kid,” he explained.
“Today, I believe in leveling the playing field for everyone, down to taking care of rural communities as well as urban ones. From the time I was a child, I saw that there is a different lifestyle, etc. in the rural settings versus how we live in the cities. The little guys do get pushed around.
”Merlin had a huge influence on me as a kid. He busted his bottom to stay afloat as a dairy farmer. He ran cattle, ran a gas station, was a carpenter, and he did not want to be seen as disabled just because he had one arm. He believed that if you give people a fair shot, they just might surprise you. As a kid, I idolized him to the point that when I was a 3 and 4 year old, I believed the King Arthur stories were about him.”
So how does this translate into his politics? “I saw in my grandfather a sense of fairness and that if you treat people with dignity and give them a chance and don’t judge them by appearance, they might just surprise you, which is why I first became a school teacher. Who has more influence on you except your parents? In them, I saw that if you focus on education, there is no limit of where you can go in life. You can be the son of a plumber in east Fort Worth and end up working in the legislature.”
And yet, it can be a long way from east Fort Worth to Austin. What road did he take? Like most people, Matthew Davis Hall chose the road with the crook in it. The country was in recession in 2009 when Mathew graduated from college. The teachers who had jobs weren’t leaving them, and schools in Fort Worth ISD were not hiring.
“I started looking at exchange programs for teachers, and I came across the listing for a rural South Korean public school in the Demilitarized Zone. I thought we were a good fit…no one wanted me, and no one wanted that school.
“It was a wonderful experience, with all of the normal highs and lows of the first year of teaching. Plus, I had to learn the language. I made lots of friends there, but I really came close to defectors from North Korea as well as victims of sex trafficking. One of them, Leslie, was a young lady whom I met in church, and she was a factory worker at that time, but she had originally been a mail order bride from the Philippines, a mail order bride to South Korea.
“At that time, I had no real knowledge or interest in such things until it was rubbed in my face. Leslie did that; she had ran away from her abusive husband and worked illegally as a factory worker until she could get the money to buy a ticket and get back home. Today, she is in the Philippines so her younger siblings can go to college.”
Matthew only stayed in South Korea for a year before deciding that his life was supposed to go in another direction.
“I loved South Korea and my students, but I thought maybe teaching was not where I was supposed to be. I got a grad assistantship and decided to get my Masters in Political Science. I worked as a grad assistant in school and also got a grad fellowship to work for a state Senator under the Luna Scholars Program…”
Yep, I stopped him there, but he did say LUNA, and that is the first time that I even knew that a blonde haired kid could do that. “…because they knew I went to a Hispanic serving college. They don’t always choose a Hispanic student,” he explained.
And so what did Matt Hall do for this State Senator?
“He was a committee chair, so I worked as an aide to his committee. I built this really great skill set because of it, especially in finance, pensions, and the state budget, and I am so grateful for that opportunity. Today, I have this skill set in a very important area that few really understand very well.
“After grad school, I went back to teaching, this time in Louisiana, but it was not a good experience. I don’t regret going, and I had many wonderful experiences there, but the public education system has deeply eroded in that state.
One day I received a call from a good friend who told me that a field organizer was needed for a congressional campaign in Del Rio, Texas. She was already working on this campaign, and prodded me until I finally agreed to leave Louisiana, which I did the same way I came in…in my grandmother’s 1991 Grand Marquis!
“I drove to Del Rio with that teacher personality and probably cracked a few whips, and our candidate won. I stayed with that congressman for his entire first term, becoming part of his staff. He was in office for one term and lost the next election painfully by just a few hundred votes in a hard-fought race.
“That is when I received an offer to become a legislative director.”
And if you are like me, you want to know exactly what it is that a legislative director does, right?
“I draft legislation, negotiate with all types of stakeholders and other lawmakers’ offices from both parties. I also negotiate with the Governor’s office. For example on the bills that passed recently, I not only had to work with different lawmakers but also to check with the Governor’s staff to be sure that he was going to be okay with them.
“I have no idea what the future brings. I am blessed to do this work. I feel that I am in a position in the legislature where I can be effective and that is what is important to me. I want to be able to do work that is good public policy and helps people.
“Today, Texas leads the country with anti-trafficking regulations and anti-human trafficking, and I am very proud of that. One of my privileges this session was to work on a piece of legislation that will seize the finances of traffickers. This will be a game-changer. From the first moment I met Leslie until now six years later, I have had such a deep-seated revulsion for something that I always knew existed, and felt frustrated that I couldn’t do anything about it. Now I can. That matters so much to me. I think it’s the type of Christian work Merlin Davis would have done if he had been given the chance.”