Civility award goes to Texas buddies Beto O'Rourke and Will Hurd, as each scraps for partisan win in the fall

July 17, 2018
In The News

It's a tale of two congressmen, mired in tough partisan brawls and yet rising above the divisiveness enough to be crowned Tuesday with an award for civility.

Democrat Beto O'Rourke is trying to topple Sen. Ted Cruz. Republican Will Hurd is battling for survival in the next district over -- political turf that has toggled between the parties almost every election for a decade.

Sixteen months ago, the rising stars of rival parties found themselves stranded in San Antonio by a blizzard back East. They decided not only to embark on a road trip, a couple of stranded travelers who needed to get to their posts in Washington, but to turn it into a teachable moment for the age of reality TV and Facebook Live.

They bantered. They talked about family and favorite snacks and tax policy and immigration and national security. They bonded not just with each other but with a growing audience of admirers from both parties who lined up to call in and join the rolling conversation.

On Tuesday morning, Allegheny College bestowed the 2018 Prize for Civility in Public Life to O'Rourke and Hurd, not only for their 1,600-mile road trip but for "for their ability to work collaboratively on important legislation since then."

Allegheny College President James H. Mullen Jr, presenting the honor at the National Press Club, called their trip an "inspiring journey" and a "town hall on wheels."

"As the nation watched they showed us that even the most contentious issues of the day can be debated with civility.... And they showed us that we don't need to demonize our political adversaries," he said. "A Democrat and a Republican, cramped together into a Chevy Impala for 1,600 miles. Just think about that."

For those 30 hours, said Hurd, "We actually weren't a Republican and a Democrat. We were just two dudes trying to get to work."

Their health care debate ran about 8 hours. He learned O'Rourke's taste in music and that he's addicted to donuts and more importantly, he said, that "way more unites us as a country than divides us. I learned from the outpouring of public support that Americans are tired of the bickering.... The road trip actually demonstrated the nation's desire for civility and bipartisanship."

O'Rourke spoke of the pressure "to put our party's prospects before our country's.... We want more of our own to be in office to see our agenda make progress." But, he said, "the moment that clouds the larger purpose... we have a problem in this country."

"Despite what you may read now or see on television, the bulk of the country actually wants to see us work together," Hurd said.

The prize has been awarded annually since 2012 to "honor two public figures, one liberal and one conservative, who argue passionately but with civility for their beliefs." The honored pairs include Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia, Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. John McCain, and Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Lindsay  Graham. 

In 2015, the prize went to the former police chief in Montgomery, Ala., who gave his badge to Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., as an act of contrition for his department's abuse of Lewis and other civil rights demonstrators in 1961.

O'Rourke, a three-term Democrat from El Paso, launched his Senate bid two weeks after the road trip. He has thrilled Texas Democrats, who haven't won a statewide election since 1994 and would dearly love to push Cruz out of office.

He's one of the strongest candidates the party has seen in those fallow years, regularly drawing large crowds and outraising Cruz for most of the last 15 months, finally pulling even with Cruz's 6-year fundraising tally in the most recent three-month reporting period.

Hurd, a former undercover CIA officer from suburban San Antonio, has held his seat for two terms in a district that spans 800 miles of West Texas, from the outskirts of El Paso to San Antonio. He faces a tough challenge from Democratic nominee Gina Ortiz Jones, an Iraq war veteran and herself a former intelligence officer.

In 2010, Republican Quico Canseco wrested the district from six-term Democrat Ciro Rodriguez. Two years later, Democrat Pete Gallego ousted Canseco. Two years after that, Hurd narrowly beat Gallego. But unlike his most recent predecessors, he managed to win reelection -- in part by displaying fierce and outspoken independence from party.

In the last 18 months -- and especially the 24 hours before collecting the civility award --Hurd has relentlessly distanced himself from key policies of President Donald Trump. He has derided Trump's demands for a border wall as an antiquated and easily defeated approach. 

On Monday, he invoking his CIA credentials to lacerate Trump for softness toward Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, at Monday's summit in Helsinki, even labeling their joint news conference a "disinformation campaign."

"If we ever need a time where we are going to put this country ahead of party, ahead of the next election ahead of our careers, it is now," O'Rourke said. "I am counting on the example that [Hurd] has set."

Tom Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor and homeland security secretary under George W. Bush, a fellow Republican, also lauded Hurd's courage in speaking out against Trump -- "in a very civil way" -- at Tuesday's award ceremony. 

Both Texans, he said, are "ambassadors of civility.... You run to win but then you win to govern," Ridge said, and "one of the least effective ways to achieve consensus is to demean and denigrate those who disagree with you."