Will Hurd wants to improve the Republican brand

January 6, 2020
In The News

Representative Will Hurd of Texas occupies a unique position in Republican politics. He is a moderate in a political moment in which moderation is rare. He is also the only black Republican in the House and represents a district — Texas’ border-hugging 23rd — that is majority Latino and not Republican. These factors, along with his skill at retail politics and constituent services, have led some observers to point to Hurd as a politician who could help forge a more inclusive future for Republicans. (A few have even speculated about a presidential run in 2024.) Despite his rising-star status, Hurd, who is 42, has already announced that he won’t be running for re-election to Congress this fall, choosing instead to find other ways to serve his party. “If the Republican Party of America doesn’t start looking like America,” Hurd said, “there won’t be a Republican Party in America.”

You’re a moderate conservative, but your voting record in the House aligns with President Trump’s position about 80 percent of the time. No one would call him a moderate anything. So what does “moderate” mean to you? 

I believe that Americans agree on 80 percent of stuff. I try to focus on those things. That’s separate from my voting record. Here’s what I know: All the pieces of legislation that I’ve introduced under Barack Obama and Donald Trump, they’ve supported and ultimately signed. So trying to define a philosophy based on voting record alone is not accurate. Let me step back. What I’ve learned, from representing a 50-50 district is that people care about putting food on the table, having a roof over their head and making sure the people they love are healthy and happy. We focus on those things. If somebody wants to call that moderate, that’s up to them.

But how do you define moderate Republicanism? 

I’m a person who believes that the way you’ll solve problems in the future is the way you’ve solved them in the past: Empower people, not the government. The way you’re going to help people move up the economic ladder is through free markets, not socialism. When it comes to foreign policy, we should be nice with nice guys and tough with tough guys. We should also be making sure that we’re paying attention to the folks who may not have access to the opportunities that others may have. That’s my governing philosophy. People can use whatever adjective they want to describe that. And can I take a second to clarify your question about the Trump score?

Of course. It oversimplifies votes. The president doesn’t write laws; Congress does. Of all the bills I’ve put on the president’s desk, he has signed all of them. So the president agrees with me 100 percent of the time. The question also presupposed that all of the president’s positions are wrong. I voted to keep the government open, give disaster relief, for the First Step Act and criminal-justice reform.

When you say that your focus is on the 80 percent of things on which Americans agree, I wonder if that way of looking at things isn’t slightly — Pollyanna-ish? I was going to say distorting. Isn’t the 20 percent on which people disagree what constitutes the key differences between politicians and the crucial issues for voters? 

I’m not saying the 20 percent is unimportant. But you have a political system in which you win in November by creating contrast. So you’re always creating contrast. That is the structural system. The difference with a district like mine is that when you solve problems and work across the aisle, you’re rewarded because people on both sides, and independents, ultimately end up voting for someone like me. That’s the kind of system we should have. The only way big things have ever been done in this country is in a bipartisan way.

What have you learned about winning elections in a politically-split community that other Republicans can apply to their own campaigns? 

It’s simple: Don’t be a misogynist, don’t be a homophobe, don’t be a whatever-phobe and show up. You probably have seen the story I’ve told about being in Eagle Pass. That is, the one about his 2014 campaign visits to Eagle Pass, a heavily Latino, heavily Democratic border town. The first time, I showed up to a party of 700 people, and they were like, “Why are you here?” My response was, “Because I like to drink beer and eat barbecue, too.” The second time you show up, they’ll shake your hand. The third time you show up, they’ll tell you a problem. I’ve seen my voting numbers in my community increase, and that’s an overwhelmingly Latino, overwhelmingly Democratic district. So winning elections is not some complicated thing. Show up. Listen. Solve problems. Most people probably think, Doesn’t every politician do that? The answer is no.

Texas is an increasingly purple state, in part because of the state’s rising Hispanic population. Is there any concern on your part that your approach — the success you’ve had in connecting with that demographic — is undermined by broader divisive Republican rhetoric? 

Of course. Texas is indeed purple, and when you look at the three largest-growing groups of voters — communities of color, women with a college degree who live in the suburbs and people under the age of 35 — the Republican brand is not that great. So we have to be able to show those three communities that the Republican Party cares; then we talk about our policies. What often happens is that when one Republican says something crazy, it is taken to apply to all Republicans.

It matters when that one Republican is the president, right? 

I realize that my megaphone is not as big as others’. But the Republican Party is not a monolithic entity.

I’m not sure I fully understood the distinction you just made between showing people that the Republican Party cares and its policy. Isn’t it possible that Republican branding is not that great among the demographics you identified because the party pursues policies that alienate those voters? 

No. If people believe that you don’t care about them, then they’re not going to listen to your ideas. Even if those ideas are actually helpful. Let’s look at economic growth: Unemployment is low. Wages are increasing. I think October was the first time wages increased faster than interest on homes in decades, which is a key indicator. More workers have retirement accounts now than they did before. You could look at those positive actions. But if people believe you’re a racist or a misogynist, that is going to get in the way. Have people in my party said racist things? Yes. But that doesn’t define the broader party. If you do not think someone cares about your community, it’s hard for you to evaluate whether they’re doing something that’s actually helping you.

But what you’re fundamentally talking about is positioning or messaging. Don’t you think that, for example, the Republican Party’s being the party generally in favor of stricter voter-ID laws — laws that have a disproportionately negative effect on communities of color — is as much a hindrance to the party’s ability to attract voters from those same communities as messaging? 

I’m not agreeing or disagreeing with your premise. I’m of the opinion that more people should vote. This notion that we can’t be competitive if there are more voters is insane. The more voters, the better off we’re going to be. Let’s fight for every single vote. I was on a panel with a digital director and producer for Dwayne Johnson’s studio when “Moana” came out. She said: “If ‘Moana’ fails at the box office, what are you going to say? You’re going to say it was a crummy movie.” By the way, I think “Moana” was a good movie. A 96 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I’m not implying it was a crummy movie. Then she said, “But in politics, if only 30 percent of people come out to vote, we blame the voter.” So let’s give the voter a better product. Let’s make sure everybody has access to that product and can vote. That’s my philosophy.

Does that philosophy have wider traction in the Republican Party? 

I think it’s a growing belief. When you have more people voting, that’s more work. But there are a lot of politicians on both sides of the aisle who don’t want increased work. I’ll go anywhere. I’ll talk to anybody. I’ll defend my positions. I’ll communicate and listen to communities and say, “Hey, how can we be helpful?” So it’s hard for me to say if it’s a growing perspective or not a growing perspective. It’s somewhere between zero and 100 percent.

The other thing that comes up most often when people write about you, besides your being a moderate, is that you’re the one black Republican in the House of Representatives. I have two questions about that. The first is whether that fact makes you feel any particular responsibility. The second is how you understand your party’s being the same party that’s the political home to the Steve Kings and Stephen Millers of the world? 

It’s a statement of fact: I am the only black Republican in the House of Representatives. But I would also say that there have been a number of African-American voters who vote for conservative elected officials. I’m also proud that, when you look across the country, there are several dozen African-Americans running for Congress as Republicans. I’m pretty sure that number was only three in 2018. I’m sure we can sit here and come up with people who identify with the Democratic Party and make the rest of that party cringe when their names are mentioned. I don’t think you can define a whole set of people based on outliers.
It’s one thing to make somebody cringe. It’s another to be credibly accused of espousing white supremacy. 
This is not something that I monitor. Again, I can’t refute or agree with your premise, because I don’t track that. I don’t follow that.
A big chunk of your district is up against the Mexican border. What’s something happening there that more people should understand? 
It’s a humanitarian crisis. The reason we have this unbelievable pressure at our border is because of violence, lack of economic opportunity and extreme poverty in the Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. If we address their economies and political systems and lack of rule of law, that is going to take away the biggest push factor for what is happening. Also, the country does not treat human smugglers and drug-trafficking organizations the way we treat terrorist organizations. They’re not considered a national intelligence priority. Why are we not going after the infrastructure that is causing things to be moving illegally back and forth across our borders? I spent nine and a half years as an undercover officer in the C.I.A. I’m the guy who was in the back alleys at 4 o’clock in the morning. So I know this is something that we could be solving using more intelligence. And then a third piece is that the technology that we’re using along the border is super outdated. There’s a program called the innovative tower initiative that uses some of the latest sensor technology so somebody in border patrol can use a smartphone to look at what’s over a ridge. Some of that technology exists, but it’s not pervasive throughout Border Patrol.

Are there politically feasible solutions to those push factors you mentioned? 

Sure. Right now we shouldn’t be decreasing aid to those countries. We should be increasing it. USAID and the State Department support a number of initiatives, and one that I think is super effective is that in Honduras and Guatemala, they’ve basically purged the local police, then hired new people and taught them community policing. Guess what happened when they did that? You saw violence decrease, and you saw a decrease in the number of people who are leaving those countries to come to the United States illegally. We’ve got to be able to grow those kinds of programs. I also believe that we should have a Marshall Plan for that region to address some of these structural issues within its economy and political system. The International Development Bank needs to be involved. The Organization of American States needs to be involved.

Another area you’re involved with is cybersecurity and cyberwarfare. How worried are you about the degree of foreign interference in the 2020 elections? 

It’s happening! But what’s different about what the Russians and other countries are trying to do in our elections is that disinformation is not technically part of cybersecurity. As a former C.I.A. officer, I categorize disinformation as part of covert action, and counter-covert action is the responsibility of the C.I.A. But the National Security Act of 1947 says the C.I.A. cannot do counter-covert action here in the United States of America. So the entity that is best prepared to deal with countering covert action can’t do it. Whose responsibility is it, then? My frustration is that we haven’t been having enough conversations in Congress to talk about who is focused on this. Defending digital infrastructure is one thing. When it comes to protecting the vote-counting machines, the Department of Homeland Security has been focused on that. Defending against disinformation is very different. Someone says something crazy about somebody else — how do you take that idea out of their head? How do you inoculate a community from a message? It’s hard.

Given your intelligence and overseas background, what did you take away from the way impeachment witnesses like Marie Yovanovitch and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman had their integrity questioned by the president and Fox News? 

I was in the unit that ultimately prosecuted the war in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks. If you would have told me on Sept. 12 that there would not be another major attack on our homeland for 18 years, I would have said you’re crazy. The reason there hasn’t been is because of the men and women in our military, federal law enforcement, intelligence agencies and diplomatic corps. Having served alongside these amazing men and women, I know what they do for our country, and the American people got to see the quality of some of our diplomats.

But the question was more about the president’s response to the testimony of those diplomats. Did you think it was fair? 

There’s no need to criticize these people who are actually going out there and working hard. You don’t have to agree with them all the time, but to allow some of the discrediting that went on — no, that’s crazy. That shouldn’t have happened. But the men and women in the diplomatic corps and the intelligence services are doing their job regardless.

What goes through your head when you hear your colleagues refer to the “Russia hoax”? 

I’m not defending anybody, but I will say this: I do not know a Republican in Congress who does not believe the Russians tried to influence our elections. Everybody agrees with that. When people are saying the “Russia hoax,” it’s that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians. You know, the intelligence community refers to the Russian activity in our elections as Grizzly Step. That is going to go down in the history of Mother Russia as the greatest covert-action campaign ever. Why? Because we are still debating this issue, even though it is clear that Republicans and Democrats alike believe what was outlined in the first section of Robert Mueller’s report: that the Russians took extensive measures to try to influence our elections. Both sides need to use better language to articulate this, so that we’re not contributing to the Russian goals. The Russians want the press to criticize Congress for doing oversight. They want the Congress and the executive branch to be fighting. They want us all to be questioning the value of the news media. When we’re doing this, guess what we’re not doing? Talking about how to kick the Russians out of Ukraine because they invaded that country. Or how to prevent the Russians from buying the Venezuelan oil companies and continuing to prop up Nicolás Maduro. Or preventing the Russians from going farther into Syria and becoming a real dealmaker in the Middle East. When we’re fighting one another, we’re playing into the Russians’ hands.

Do you believe that bipartisan political consensus and civility is still a real possibility? It’s easy for people to be cynical about that.

Of course people are cynical. But why does a black Republican continue to get elected in a 71 percent Latino district? Because I reach across the aisle and try to solve problems. There are other examples of that. Has anyone ever clicked on a headline that said “Congress Worked”? No. Even though the last Congress, under Paul Ryan, signed 990 bills or so into law, and all but 13 were done in a bipartisan way. When I look at the relationships in Congress between members that cross the aisle trying to get things done — the people that do that, their voices need to be amplified. When that kind of behavior is rewarded, you’re going to see more of it.

You’ve been discussed as a possible presidential candidate in 2024. What will the nature of the Republican Party look like then? Or to put it another way, is President Trump a transient anomaly or a transformative figure for the G.O.P.? 

There was a Republican Party before him; there’s going to be a Republican Party after him. When you look at the largest-growing groups of voters, if we’re not resonating with those communities, it’s going to be hard for Republicans to be successful in the future. But I also believe that our principles and theories can resonate everywhere. I think we should be going to California. We should be going to New England. We should be engaged in a competition of ideas, and we have to focus on what unites us, not what divides us. When we do that, we’re going to make sure that our country’s best days are still ahead of us.

That didn’t quite answer my question. Surely we can say that there have been transformative figures in the Republican Party, people like Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan. Is President Trump one of those figures? 

He has obviously had an impact on the Republican Party. But I also believe that in this day and age, there are all kinds of folks who identify with the party. Is he the main person to define the party right now? Yes, he’s the titular head. But I think a better way of defining the party is based on the people who are voting on behalf of individual politicians. That is what drives the definition of the party: the people who actually vote for the politicians.