BELLAIRE — For several hours Sunday, an auditorium at Bellaire High School played host to an uncommon sight in Texas politics: an organized attempt at unity.
Hosted in part by Texas High School Democrats and Republicans, the Day of Unity that was held here drew two of the state’s most well-known partisans: GOP U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Democratic U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio. And it brought together the Democratic and Republican state party chairmen — Gilberto Hinojosa and James Dickey — for what was billed as their first joint appearance ever.
In describing the need for the event, one of the organizers, Adam Hoffman, a student at Robert M. Beren Academy and chairman of the Texas High School Republicans, said the country's "being ripped apart from within. Our social fabric is tearing."
Perhaps most notable was the involvement of Cruz, no stranger to partisan combat himself and one of the less likely participants in any sort of political kumbaya. But organizers said he had insisted on being there and shuffled his schedule to make it happen.
In a 45-minute speech, the Texas senator extolled the importance of unity in today’s polarized times and offered five suggestions for overcoming polarization: laugh, love, understand, tolerate and reason. He repeatedly invoked his days on the college debating circuit as he implored the crowd — a couple of hundred mostly high-school age teens — to engage in good faith with those with whom they disagree.
"On any issue — take the issue you care the most passionately about, the issue that wakes you up in the morning — and try to understand how someone of good intelligence, of good morals, someone you love, could reach an outcome exactly the opposite — 180-degrees on the opposite," Cruz said. "Try to think about how your mother could come to the exact opposite conclusion. Because if you ever want to persuade anyone, in life, in business, in politics, in any context, if you’re gonna persuade them, saying, 'Dude, you’re an idiot,’ doesn’t work."
Cruz still touched on a couple of less conciliatory causes, warning the high school students about colleges that are “getting more and more into the business of censorship, more and more into the business of saying we’re going to silence speech we disagree with.” The event fell a day after the March for Our Lives rallies against gun violence across the country, and Cruz wrapped up his comments by promoting legislation he’s introduced as an alternative to Democratic calls for gun control in response to mass shootings.
When it was his turn, Castro touted various reforms — like ending gerrymandering and instituting automatic voter registration — that he said could lead to a less polarized country. Castro also spoke of the need for lawmakers to hold themselves accountable in districts like his own, a safely Democratic area where he was unopposed in the primary earlier this month and only faces a Libertarian in November.
"There is a temptation when you’re in that situation to basically start to cast aside people that you know can’t beat you in an election. ... I basically challenge myself not to think that way," Castro said, noting he is holding a town hall on April 3 to which he has specifically invited those who disagree with him.
The Day of Unity also featured appearances by U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, and the city’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, who provided a proclamation recognizing the day. On the panel featuring Dickey and Hinojosa, the state's party chairs, things got chippy on the topic of gerrymandering, though the two reached something of a consensus on polarization being less of a problem when elected officials are closest to their constituents.
"I do think just naturally polarization happens less the closer you get to home," Dickey said. "The more you interact with the people that you are trying to work on solutions with, the more you know, the more we share homes and schools and neighborhoods and our friends on a social level, the less easy it is to be polarized."