In town halls, U.S. Rep. Will Hurd juggles district priorities in Trump era

U.S. Rep. Will Hurd logged hundreds of miles Sunday and Monday to hold town halls during Congress' summer recess, and his interactions with constituents illustrated the fine line he must walk in his massive swing district.

U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, holds a town hall on Aug. 7, 2017, at a Dairy Queen in Fort Stockton. Hurd was making a six-day, 20-stop swing through his 23rd District.

Patrick Svitek/The Texas Tribune

PRESIDIO — As Border Patrol agents shuffled in and out for late breakfast at The Bean Cafe here Monday morning — the Mexican town of Ojinaga just a short drive down the main drag — U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, took one last question from the audience. 

Mikal Crowder, a 48-year-old teacher at the local high school, said Hurd's border security ideas seemed more sensible than what's coming out of the White House nowadays, but he wanted to know why Hurd recently voted for a spending bill with money for President Donald Trump's proposed border wall.

Hurd, who's long voiced skepticism of such a wall, appeared to have an answer ready. He explained that he was actually one of five Republicans to vote against including the money in the legislation, but he voted for the overall legislation because it would fund a number of important, unrelated programs.

Afterward, Crowder said he was satisfied with Hurd's answer for the time being but added a caveat: "I'm going to be watching." 

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The exchange — and others throughout the first two days of Hurd's six-day, 20-stop town hall tour — illustrated the fine line he walks in this massive swing district, which sprawls from San Antonio to El Paso. It's a line made finer by Trump, whose priorities on health care, immigration and trade hold the potential to uniquely impact the 23rd Congressional District, with its pockets of poverty and hundreds of miles of border with Mexico.

Since his re-election to a second term last year, Hurd's profile has grown considerably in Texas and outside it. He's emerged as a go-to skeptic of some Trump policies — particularly on the president's wall proposal, which Hurd has long criticized as the "most expensive and least effective" way to do border security. Then there was his San Antonio-to-Washington road trip earlier this year with U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso, which brought both lawmakers more attention than they've ever received in Congress. 

More recently, Hurd has been focused on building support for his alternative to Trump's idea for a physical barrier between the United States and Mexico: a "smart" wall that would rely on technology, not concrete, to secure the border. He made it central to every stop on the town hall tour, pitching it as a far cheaper solution while lamenting the "one-size-fits-all" approach physical wall supporters have taken.

"A 'smart' wall is a fraction of the cost of taking people's lands and building a 30-foot-high concrete structure," Hurd said Monday in Fort Stockton, rattling off dollar figures that had become a staple of his stops. "A smart wall? A half a million dollars a mile. A concrete structure? $24.5 million a mile. That's a difference of $24 million. There's a whole lot of other things we can spending our money on."

In Socorro, Hurd received some pushback on it from George Brenzovich, a gun shop owner who said he sees nothing in the proposal that would keep "intruders" off his border property and asked Hurd how he would deal with the problem at the present time. Hurd responded that in the short term, he would like to see Border Patrol agents stationed closer to the border — and held firm on the need for a technology-centered approach to security.

Yet overall there were few such signs of outward resistance as Hurd logged hundreds of miles Sunday and Monday, carving a path through counties he both won and lost in 2016. The kick-off stop in El Paso appeared to be the only one that drew sign-waving protesters outside, and while Hurd faced his share of less-than-friendly questions over the two days, none led to the raucous spectacles that have highlighted other congressional town halls this year in Texas.

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Presidio Mayor John Ferguson, who said he considers himself a "liberal Democrat," sang Hurd's praises after the town hall Monday in his city, separating the congressmen from other Republican officeholders at the top of Texas politics.

"The first chance I have to get [Gov.] Greg Abbott out of office — and the rest of those guys — I'm going to do it and replace them," Ferguson told The Texas Tribune. "If I get Beto O'Rourke to replace [U.S. Sen.] Ted Cruz, that's what we're going to do. But you know what? Will Hurd is doing a hell of a job for us, and that's kind of what it boils down to."

It's testimonials like those that national Democrats are already looking to defuse as they gear up for 2018, arguing that Hurd's voting record runs contrary to his image as a party-bucking moderate. They point out that Hurd votes in line with Trump an overwhelming amount of the time — the theme of a fundraising email that went out Sunday from former U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, who represented the district from 2013-2015, unsuccessfully challenged Hurd last year and is now weighing another run for the seat. 

"Actions matter more than words," Gallego's campaign wrote in the email, which hit inboxes as Hurd kicked off his town hall tour in El Paso. "And Will Hurd’s actions show where his priorities lie."

In an interview Monday, Hurd dismissed the line of attack as tired and disproven — "I hope they continue with it," he said, because it's not working. He also insisted he's kept his promise to voters last year to stand up to the president, whoever it may be. 

"I don't think there's anybody bigger against building a wall than I am," Hurd said. "I don't think there's been anybody more vocal about the importance of improving NAFTA, not ripping it up. I think there's no one that's been bigger in talking about how the Russians influenced — or tried to influence — our election and that we need to develop a counter-covert influence campaign."

Among Democrats' emerging exhibits against Hurd: He may have voted against the House bill earlier this year to repeal Obamacare — it narrowly passed — but he repeatedly voted for similar efforts under the last president. Hurd acknowledged as much in response to an audience question in El Paso but insisted the most recent House legislation, the American Health Care Act, was a different and inadequate proposal. 

"Yes, last Congress, some of the bills that came through, I did vote to repeal Obamacare," Hurd said. "This time — new bill, new thing — I voted against it. I was the only Republican in Texas that voted against it. I've always said when it comes to health care, you gotta do a couple things: You gotta increase access and decrease cost of health care. And that bill didn't do it, and that's why I voted against it."

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The man who asked the question, local community activist Xavier Miranda, later told reporters he was not impressed with Hurd's answer — or his vote against the AHCA. Hurd announced his opposition to the bill just minutes before the vote. 

"You saw the circumstances behind it — he's being politically expedient," said Miranda, a 52-year-old teacher for El Paso ISD. "It's political survival."

While Hurd's opening remarks at each stop made no reference to Trump, the president ultimately emerged as a topic of discussion in almost every setting, often as Dairy Queen Blizzard blenders whirred in the background and unsuspecting customers came and went. 

At some stops, there was palpable anxiety about the opening months of Trump's presidency. In El Paso on Sunday, Alma Castillo, 63, broke into tears as she shared a story involving the threat of deportation, saying Trump was divvying up the country by race with his hard-line immigration push. 

"I want you to take this back to Mr. Trump to let him know what he is doing to our country," Castillo, an American citizen, told Hurd, who responded that he sees the value of immigrants to America and called her story one of those that "guides me as I'm up in Washington, D.C." 

In Alpine on Monday, Randy Jackson, 71, said he never believed the GOP talk that former President Barack Obama wanted to take away people's guns but sees a more credible constitutional threat under Trump. "What scares me now is my First Amendment rights," said Jackson, a local concert promoter, expressing concern about Trump's attacks on the press and other institutions.

Among some more Republican-leaning attendees, there was clear frustration with Congress' plodding pace under Trump, which is unfolding despite the GOP having majorities in both chambers. When it was Randy Engh's turn to ask his question at Hurd's town hall Monday in Alpine, the 58-year-old kept it brief: "Tax reform. When?" 

"The short answer is late fall," Hurd responded.

Engh, who works for Sul Ross State University, later described himself to a reporter as an "independent conservative" who's equally upset with both parties. "Why can't we all just get along?" he asked, adding that the division in Washington is the worst he's ever seen it. 

At every stop, Hurd labeled Washington a "circus" and ticked off the thorny issues that await lawmakers when they return after recess: health care, the debt ceiling and Russian interference in the 2016 election. He regularly prescribed bipartisanship for the outstanding policy debates, pointing to his road trip with O'Rourke as an example of what Congress needs more of.

It's a bridge-building posture likely to factor prominently into his re-election bid, which has already drawn a prominent Democratic challenger — Gina Ortiz Jones, a former Air Force intelligence officer. In addition to Gallego, at least two other Democrats are seriously considering a run: Judy Canales, a former Obama appointee from Eagle Pass, and Jay Hulings, a federal prosecutor from San Antonio. 

In the interview, Hurd was defiant about 2018.

"If somebody thinks they can outwork me, good luck," Hurd said, speaking during a brief break at coffee shop before his Fort Stockton town hall. "You're more than welcome to come at me, but you're going to face the same fate that Mr. Gallego faced a couple of months ago."