Endangered Texas Rep. Will Hurd charts an independent course

July 5, 2017
In The News

After taking a Snapchat video with a group of high school girls who want to become politicians, Rep. Will Hurd gave the teens a tip: You're never going to please everyone, so do what you think is right and "don't listen to the haters."

The 39-year-old Texas Republican, who represents one of the most politically divided congressional districts in the nation and is the only African-American Republican man in the House, has learned to take his own advice to survive in Congress. He remains one of the most vulnerable Republicans heading into the 2018 congressional elections after narrowly winning a second term last fall.

"Regardless of what I do, I have half the district upset with me," Hurd told members of Running Start, a non-profit group that provides leadership training to young women interested in running for office. "It's kind of freeing. I just try to be honest and tell people what I'm doing and why I'm doing it."

Hurd has proved to be a reliable Republican vote more than 90% of the time, but he has also defied party leaders on some high-profile issues, blasting President Trump's proposed border wall as a waste of taxpayer money and voting against the Republican health care plan because he feared it would hurt people with pre-existing medical conditions.

"It's easy to follow the party line," said Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat who often works with Hurd on border and trade issues. "But, on health care and the border, Will has put his district ahead of his party. I respect that."

Hurd, a tech savvy ex-CIA agent who used to be "the guy in the back alleys at 4 o'clock in the morning" in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and New York City, also has taken on his former intelligence community bosses, opposing their efforts to mandate weaker encryption on smartphones and other devices to make it easier for federal agents to unlock them. Strong encryption helps thwart hackers and protects national security, Hurd says.

"He's got quite an independent streak," said Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, which includes Hurd.

Democratic Party officials say Hurd is not independent enough. The congressman has voted with GOP leaders about 98% of the time so far this year, according to party unity scores compiled by the non-partisan news outlet CQ Roll Call.

"Although he uses different rhetoric than most of the Republicans, his voting pattern is pretty much aligned with Donald Trump," said Manny Garcia, deputy executive director of the Texas Democratic Party.

Garcia also criticized Hurd for refusing to reveal how he would vote on the Republican health care bill until the last minute instead of coming out against it early and trying to persuade other Republicans to oppose it. Hurd also should introduce legislation to block federal funds from being used to build the border wall if he truly opposes it, Garcia said.

"He doesn't have a track record for leadership," Garcia said. "Yeah, he voted the right way on health care but he could have done more to stop the bill and protect people from the damage it would do."

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has targeted Hurd's seat in the sprawling 23rd Congressional District of southwest Texas, announcing in February that it would begin investing money in the race early to hire campaign staff. Organizers are already on the ground, Garcia said.

Hurd has proved to be a formidable candidate, twice defeating former Democratic congressman Pete Gallego in a district that is 70% Hispanic and voted for Hillary Clinton for president last year. Democrats believe that could change after a trial beginning July 10 in which a panel of three federal judges will decide whether the district's boundaries should be redrawn. The court already ruled that the state's congressional boundaries, drawn up by Texas lawmakers in 2011, were aimed at diluting the strength of minority voters.

Whatever happens in that trial, Hurd has already succeeded in boosting his bipartisan image with his now-famous road trip from San Antonio, Texas, to Washington, D.C., with Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke, a fellow Texan. When March snowstorms canceled their flights, the two congressmen drove to the nation's capital together so they wouldn't miss votes. Along the way, they live-streamed their often humorous conversations about politics, music and food, attracting national attention for their ability to get along in an age of bitter partisanship.

"If you've got to spend 31 hours in a car with somebody, I can't think of anyone better," O'Rourke said of Hurd. "He's just a super easygoing guy. He's never met a stranger. We stopped at a Best Buy, and he was talking to every single person in the store, even though they weren't in his district. You can tell he genuinely loves being around people and is just naturally curious about what people think. I never saw a flash of anger or frustration, which would be totally natural on a long trip like that. ... I found I genuinely liked the guy." O'Rourke has announced that he is running to unseat Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018.

Hurd is hoping his constituents will see the 2018 election as a referendum on him rather than on Trump, who lost the district despite winning Texas overwhelmingly. During the August recess, Hurd plans to meet constituents by traveling to as many Dairy Queens as possible throughout his huge district, which takes more than 10 hours to traverse at 80 mph and spans two time zones and more than 800 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border.

"I think always being in competitive races changes your perspective," Hurd said. "I'm used to making tough decisions. I'm used to being criticized. That's our natural environment ... It forces you to be focused on getting results."

During his first term, Hurd ranked third among freshman House members who had the most bills passed, just behind fellow moderates John Katko, R-N.Y., and Martha McSally, R-Ariz.

Much of Hurd's work focuses on bipartisan cybersecurity and technology bills that are largely non-controversial and reflect his assignments as a member of the Homeland Security Committee and Intelligence Committee and as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Information Technology.

One of his bills, the Managing Government Technology Act, passed the House by voice vote in May and would establish a fund to help federal agencies retire their aging information technology systems and transition to modern cloud computing. He also is working with tech companies and Texas educators to launch a program this fall that would begin teaching about 5,000 middle school students how to code. There are more than 40,000 unfilled computing jobs in Texas, and they pay an average of about $90,000 a year, Hurd said.

"Will is not one of those members who thinks his job is to give fiery political speeches and vote no on everything," said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate. "Back home, people tell me all the time 'just get something done.' Will gets things done, and I think folks appreciate that."