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For a Texan who wants to build bridges in Congress, U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales has burned quite a few

By Matthew Choi, The Texas Tribune

For a Texan who wants to build bridges in Congress, U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales has burned quite a few” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales wants to be a pragmatic bridge builder. That hasn’t stopped him from burning some along the way.

The second-term Republican is irritating members of his own party with an ongoing feud with Rep. Chip Roy on border policy. He’s annoyed Republican campaign arms eager to expand the party’s presence in South Texas by chumming it up with one of their targeted Democrats. He peeved El Paso residents by lobbying hard to include more of the city in his sprawling district.

His own party censured him this year, opening the door to a primary challenge from his right.

Through it all, Gonzales insists he doesn’t care about the haters and that what’s important is the work he’s getting done. He says he acts out of pragmatism, not antagonism, and distances himself from House members who vote “no” just to burn things down or gain attention.

His approach has yielded results. He’s made material contributions to some of his party’s key border initiatives that are slated to hit the House floor this month, hoping the effort will increase the legislation’s prospects in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

“I’m a retired Navy master chief. That’s the highest enlisted rank. What does that mean? That means I don’t take any shit from anybody,” Gonzales said during a recent interview in his spartan Washington office. In the background, a television played “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” on an endless loop to give him, as he put it, “the energy to raise hell in this place.”

Raising hell, however, has had consequences. Gonzales admits that the censure motion will mean diverting resources and attention toward a reelection campaign, even though his new district was drawn in 2021 to be more favorable to him.

He’s also shown a willingness to bite back at those who have crossed him — and isn’t shy about saying so.

“I think it’s very clear for anybody, I’m not the one to mess with,” he said, his voice rising occasionally to hammer the point. “I’m a better ally than I am an enemy. And I think, more and more, people are starting to realize that for sure.”

A “workhorse,” not a show horse

Gonzales was never going to be a Republican yes man. His district, which stretches from San Antonio to El Paso and takes eight hours to drive across, was a competitive battleground when he was first elected in 2020. He’s been pragmatic in his relationships and aggressive in his fundraising, collecting $1.3 million in this year’s first quarter despite the censure and four announced primary challengers from the right.

Gonzales is famously close to U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, the longtime Democratic centrist from a neighboring district. The two often appear side by side in television interviews and have been close partners on border issues, with their districts comprising the overwhelming majority of the Texas-Mexico border.

Cuellar, who serves with Gonzales on the House Appropriations Committee, said Gonzales has a measured approach to legislative work and has emerged as his closest Republican ally on border issues.

“His thought is — ‘How do we make things work?’ — instead of just talking about how to blow things up. That’s a big difference,” Cuellar said of Gonzales.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, at a Get Out the Vote rally in San Antonio on May 4, 2022.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, shown at a Get Out the Vote rally in San Antonio on May 4, 2022, has worked closely with U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales on border issues. Credit: Chris Stokes for The Texas Tribune

Gonzales has also built bridges into the upper chamber, communicating weekly with fellow iconoclast Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, the Arizona independent who defected from the Democratic Party late last year.

Sinema and Gonzales, who initially bonded over border legislation they co-authored in 2021, have become key partners in trying to make progress on some of Congress’ thorniest issues.

Sinema considered Gonzales an essential partner as she worked with a bipartisan group of senators, including Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, to get gun safety legislation passed last year. The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which passed in the aftermath of the Robb Elementary School shooting in Gonzales’ district, has brought hundreds of thousands of federal dollars to Uvalde in the past year. It was the first federal gun safety bill to be signed into law in nearly 30 years.

“In D.C., there’s a whole lot of show horses, and there aren’t very many workhorses,” Sinema said. “And gosh, Tony is a great workhorse. He really is just focused on getting the work done. And he doesn’t get distracted by, you know, people who might be poking at him or attacking him.”

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., and Rep. Juan Ciscomani, R-Ariz., meet with Cochise County officials in Bisbee during a roundtable discussion on Wednesday, April 5, 2023. Reps. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, David Valadeo, R-Calif., and Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., also joined the discussion.Img 1120
U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Arizona, and U.S. Rep. Juan Ciscomani, R-Arizona, meet with Cochise County officials in Bisbee, Arizona, during a roundtable discussion on April 5, 2023. GOP Reps. Tony Gonzales of Texas and David Valadeo of California, and GOP Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, also joined the discussion. Credit: José Ignacio Castañeda Perez/The Arizona Republic via REUTERS

Gonzales was the only Texas Republican in the U.S. House to vote for the gun bill — a move that played a major role in his censure by the state Republican Party in March.

Gonzales was the first House member Sinema contacted as she worked with a similar bipartisan group of senators to create a border and immigration reform package late last year — another issue that has proven elusive to Congress for decades. Sinema and Gonzales said they are focused on legislation that can pass both a Democratic-controlled Senate and a Republican-controlled House, and both have been trying to manage priorities to ensure the final text retains bipartisan backing.

“For many, it’s mission accomplished when you get to 218 [votes] in the House. For me, it’s only a start when you get to 218,” Gonzales said.

Gonzales sits on the House Homeland Security Committee, which advanced the Border Reinforcement Act last month. The bill would resume construction of a border wall launched under President Donald Trump, create new transparency standards for the Department of Homeland Security and increase funding for the Border Patrol and technology infrastructure.

The legislation includes Gonzales’ Security First Act, which would increase federal grants to law enforcement along the border. Gonzales also added language to increase Border Patrol pay by 14% as well as label drug cartels as terrorist organizations, an effort that several other Republicans, including Rep. Dan Crenshaw and Roy from Texas, have also floated.

“He has been the go-to guy for all of us,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican who has worked on immigration reform several times during his 20 years in Congress. “All of us that are involved in this issue rely on Tony because we trust Tony to make sure that it’s a bill that secures the border, protects children and protects the communities around the border.”

Not in Washington to make friends

For all the partners Gonzales has cultivated in tackling border issues, he has also burned some of his would-be partners.

Gonzales has for months exchanged bitter barbs with Roy over how to address the border, and it’s gotten on fellow Republicans’ nerves.

Gonzales blasted a bill Roy introduced in January, the Border Safety and Security Act, that was among the first border proposals floated this year. The bill aimed to clamp down on asylum fraud by detaining migrants while their cases wound through the legal system, and it gave the secretary of Homeland Security the power to reject and deport migrants who entered the U.S. illegally if detention space filled up.

Gonzales said he opposed the bill because it would essentially close the country to asylum-seekers — a characterization Roy fiercely rejected.

But Gonzales took the policy disagreement to another level when he publicly said a bill like Roy’s would be “not Christian” and “anti-American.” Roy, a Southern Baptist, took strong exception to the comments, but Gonzales didn’t back down, at one point threatening to vote against raising the debt ceiling and risk economic ruin if an “un-Christian, anti-immigrant” bill was sent to the House floor.

Rep. Tony Gonzales, middle, Congressman and GOP Leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, second from left,  and Rep. Dan Crenshaw, far left, and other members of the GOP give a press conferences outside the CBP station after touring the facility and the border earlier in the day, Tuesday, November 22, 2022, in El Paso, Texas. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune
U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales and other members of the GOP speak to reporters after touring the southern border on Nov. 22, 2022, in El Paso. Credit: Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

Roy’s bill also was widely condemned by immigrant rights activists. Several moderate Republicans also expressed concerns, telling party leaders that it was too extreme. The bill was eventually reworked in committee and partially incorporated into another border package that advanced out of the House Judiciary Committee last month.

But Roy, no stranger to tough policy disagreements, was particularly irritated by Gonzales calling his efforts un-Christian, and Roy’s allies were similarly incensed. Meanwhile, numerous House Republicans expressed impatience at the two for not working harder to reconcile their differences and help one of their party’s top policy goals.

Several weeks ago, Mark Green, R-Tennessee, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, approached Gonzales on the House floor to ask about the specific parts of Roy’s bill that were problematic in hopes of finding a compromise. “And Tony would not give him specifics. He just kept saying, ‘I have issues with it, I have issues with it,’” according to one member of the House who witnessed the interaction but spoke on background to maintain relations with other representatives.

Green did not respond to a request for comment.

Kelly Perry, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee who voted to censure Gonzales, said she believed he was holding up border legislation out of personal spite.

“Personally, I think he didn’t do it because he didn’t want Chip Roy to do it,” Perry said. “He was like, he’s not going to out-border me.”

Cornyn, who has worked closely with Sinema and senators in both parties on border and immigration issues, urged Gonzales and Roy to work something out so the Senate could pick up the border bill and create a proposal able to attract some Democratic support.

“My message to Congressman Roy and Congressman Gonzales has been please pass a bill and get it off to the Senate,” Cornyn said last month. “I wish them well, and I hope they’ll get it over here soon.”

After hours of negotiations, both behind the scenes and in public, Republican leaders made a breakthrough in late April, marrying the Judiciary and Homeland Security bills into one border package. The package could get a House vote as soon as this week but still faces significant headwinds in the Senate, where Democrats largely reject border solutions that focus on increasing funding or building walls as opposed to addressing asylum laws and visa policy.

State Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, addresses the crowd at a rally calling for border security at the state Capitol in Austin on April 29, 2023.
State Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, addresses the crowd at a rally calling for border security at the state Capitol in Austin on April 29, 2023. Roy and U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-San Antonio, have clashed over border security proposals. Credit: Jack Myer for The Texas Tribune

Gonzales denied there was personal beef, saying he and Roy were “cordial” and that he resisted initial House Republican proposals so their final legislation would have legs in the Democratic Senate.

Roy said, “I try to keep it at the policy level and let that stuff sort itself out and not get into the personality.”

When asked if he thought any of his congressional peers pushed for his censure by the state party, Gonzales laughed and said, “Nothing happens by accident.”

“You better have thick skin. It’s a blood sport,” Gonzales said. “You’re surrounded by all these tough actors, and those are your friends.”

Gonzales declined to name anyone in particular but joked, “You already know the names. You just won’t get them from me.”

Some speculation has focused on Roy, but a conservative activist close to the Austin Republican said Roy urged some members of the SREC to oppose the censure, arguing that it would hamper negotiations over the border bill.

The censure motion cited Gonzales’ votes for the gun safety bill and for legislation repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriages. It also cited his opposition to Roy’s border bill and his vote against the Republican rules package that was brokered between Republican leadership and far-right members partially led by Roy at the start of this year’s congressional session.

Gonzales doesn’t regret his votes, saying they reflect his district’s needs, particularly on gun safety after the Robb Elementary shooting. Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin said he appreciates Gonzales for ignoring critics and fighting for the city to receive federal gun safety and school safety funds in the gun bill.

Perry said the censure gained support based on ideological opposition to his policies, particularly after Democrats, including House Judiciary Committee ranking member Jerry Nadler, quoted Gonzales in hearings to express their opposition to Republican border legislation.

“When a far-leftist agrees with my congressman, there’s something wrong with that,” Perry said.

“I’m going to push back”

Gonzales said he isn’t afraid to punch back, and that pugnacious attitude was on display during an acrimonious fight over the boundaries of his district.

Gonzales lobbied aggressively in 2021 to represent El Paso International Airport and Fort Bliss in his new congressional district. Both would be gems for any member of Congress, offering strong opportunities for fundraising and as prime recipients for federal funding. Gonzales also prioritizes the military as a veteran and a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee for veterans affairs.

But the El Paso business community was opposed, asserting that the sites were better represented by U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat whose district is located solely within El Paso County. Escobar was seen as better able to focus on the airport and Fort Bliss than a representative who had several other metropolitan areas in his district.

Two U.S. soldiers walk through the historic area on Ft. Bliss Army installation on April 23, 2012. The Army contracted energy efficiency consulting company Johnson Controls for the installation of a $16 million solar energy system. With the improvements Ft. Bliss, which has about 30,000 soldiers and 1.1 million acres, is expected to save $39 million in energy costs over the next 24 years.
Two U.S. soldiers walk through the historic area on Fort Bliss Army installation on April 23, 2012. U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales lobbied aggressively to have Fort Bliss included in his redrawn district in 2021, clashing with some El Paso leaders. Credit: Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

Woody Hunt, a prominent business leader who has donated handsomely to candidates in both parties, pushed for the airport and Fort Bliss to remain in Escobar’s district.

Shortly afterward, Gonzales returned $5,800 in campaign donations from Hunt and took to Twitter to urge Congress to investigate “corrupt organizations like Hunt Companies who prey on American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines. Stay tuned!” Gonzales linked to a report from a month prior about Hunt’s business settling a housing fraud claim at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

The timing of the attack smelled like vengeance to many in El Paso.

“I don’t think there’s a question,” said Art Fierro, an El Paso City Council member who served in the Texas House during the redistricting fight. “If it wasn’t, it was some really unique timing.”

When asked about the incident, Gonzales said, “I don’t care who you are. If I feel I’ve been wronged … I’m going to push back. I’ve done that over and over again. And guess what, I’m not going to stop.”

Gonzales added that as a former resident of military housing and a member of the Appropriations subcommittee charged with military construction, he was passionate about accusations of housing fraud on bases.

Hunt declined requests for an interview through a representative. Escobar also did not comment on redistricting for this story. State Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, ended up making sure the lines were drawn so Escobar kept the airport and Fort Bliss was split between the two districts. Moody also did not respond to a request for comment.

Party asks Gonzales to be a team player

Gonzales’ friendship with Cuellar also frustrated Republicans who saw an opportunity last year to win more districts in South Texas.

National and state Republican campaign arms identified Cuellar’s district as an uphill but still winnable race, investing heavily in Cassy Garcia — a former staffer for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz who was endorsed by the National Border Patrol Council.

But Gonzales’ several Fox News appearances chumming up with Cuellar so close to the election irked GOP leaders, and Republican strategists familiar with the race said party leaders asked Gonzales to show more support for their candidate.

During an interview with The Texas Tribune, Gonzales defended himself by pointing out that the Hispanic Leadership Trust, a political action committee he was heavily involved in organizing, endorsed Garcia and gave her campaign $5,000. “That wouldn’t have happened if I had problems with Cassy Garcia,” Gonzales said.

“I’m a member of Congress. I’ve worked with a lot of different folks up here. Henry Cuellar is my neighbor,” Gonzales said. “We worked very closely together on a lot of things.”

Garcia declined to comment for this story.

U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, a Republican representing the Texas’ 23rd district, talks during an interview in his office at Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C. on April 28, 2023. Gonzales is a member of the House Appropriations Committees. (Eric Lee for The Texas Tribune)
U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, a Republican representing the Texas’ 23rd Congressional District, speaks in his office at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C. on April 28, 2023. Credit: Eric Lee for The Texas Tribune

Gonzales said electing other Hispanic Republicans to Congress is a high priority for him. He block walked in South Texas to help former Rep. Mayra Flores flip a longtime Democratic district last summer and campaigned in Arizona for freshman Rep. Juan Ciscomani. He has also brought in some of the state party’s biggest donors.

But that wasn’t enough to prevent the Republican Party’s censure, which nullifies the state party’s neutrality in Gonzales’ primary. Gonzales called the move “unfortunate” but refused to recant his past votes.

Julie Clark, chair of the county party where the censure motion was introduced, followed by announcing that she will oppose Gonzales in the GOP primary.

Clark did not respond to requests for comment but in a campaign ad released last month called Gonzales a Republican in name only and a “liberal” politician.

Three other potential candidates also are eyeing primary runs against Gonzales.

“I’m going to kick their ass no doubt, but it’s going to cost me time, money, energy, effort,” Gonzales said. “Instead of fending off against the Democrats here, I have to go drown crazy Republicans.”

Asked if he considered himself a moderate, Gonzales flatly said no.

“I would call myself a conservative Hispanic,” Gonzales said. “But many people call me many different things. And they’re not all good.”

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