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As its U.S. House members of color depart, Texas GOP grapples with its lack of diversity



By Alex Samuels, The Texas Tribune

Come next fall, there might not be a single person of color among Texas Republicans in the U.S. House. But that’s not top of mind for Gerard Garcia.

“Diversity is welcome, but when I vote I’m more focused on the politician’s positions,” he said.

Garcia, a Hispanic Republican from San Antonio, said he was disappointed that his congressman, U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, is retiring at the end of his term. Hurd is the lone black Republican in the U.S. House, and one of only two Republicans of color in the Texas House delegation. The other is U.S. Rep. Bill Flores of Bryan, who is also retiring in 2020. (Flores, who has Hispanic roots, has previously called himself “an American first.”)

But Garcia, a software engineer, said his most important consideration is that Hurd’s successor is someone who “continues supporting the president’s agenda,” supports small businesses and takes action to curb illegal immigration.

Then there’s Tom Ayers, a fellow San Antonio Republican, who thinks — especially following Hurd’s retirement announcement — “there should be more black representation,” in Texas’ 23-member U.S. House GOP delegation.

“That voice does need to be there,” said Ayers, who is white.

For some party leaders, working to fill that void makes sense for reasons moral and political: Recruiting more candidates of color could help the party make inroads with voters of color and harness the political power they’ve amassed.

But they’re up against members of their own party who don’t see the lack of representation in their ranks as a problem. And while some Texas Republicans take pains to avoid explicit discussions of race, the Texas GOP faces a diversity crisis that’s hard, if not impossible, to ignore.

In the conservative state with the largest share of people of color, Texas’ GOP delegation in the U.S. House could be all white after the 2020 election. And the party is unlikely to make many gains back in the state Legislature, where the GOP’s members were 96% white in January.

Gerard Garcia listens to Tony Gonzales announce his candidacy for the Texas Congressional District 23 seat.
Gerard Garcia listens to Tony Gonzales announce his candidacy for the Texas Congressional District 23 seat.
Robin Jerstad for The Texas Tribune

As of last year, just 41% of Texans were white.

Those numbers have led many GOP politicians and operatives to warn that if Republicans want to have a future in Texas, they must do more than just pay lip service to the need to be more representative of their constituents.

“If you believe in good government, that needs to be good government for all and everybody needs to have access to it,” said Steve Munisteri, the former chairman of the Texas GOP and a senior advisor to U.S. Sen. John Cornyn.

Not everyone agrees. Other Republicans say the party shouldn’t consider the color of a candidate’s skin and should instead focus on his or her merits.

“Green, yellow, gray, orange or purple, it doesn’t matter,” said Quico Canseco, a Hispanic Republican who represented the 23rd Congressional District from 2011 to 2013. “Do they reflect the values of the area and of the district so they can carry the Republican flag forward or not? That’s really all it is.”

“We’re not doing it effectively”

Hurd, in his retirement announcement, said he wants to “see a Republican Party that has more folks that look and sound and operate like I do.” Including Flores and Hurd, there are less than 10 House GOP legislators of color in the current 116th Congress.

Calls for more racial representation in the House GOP delegation and the Texas Legislature have spurred outside groups into action. The state party cannot pick and choose who to help in primary races, but groups like the Hispanic Republicans of Texas point to six Hispanic Republican members it has running for the Texas House in 2020. Executive Director Trey Newton said the group works to address both cosmetic and structural issues — from helping its endorsed candidates build a logo and website to trying to increase the number of Hispanic people running on the GOP ticket.

“From our perspective, the best outreach into the Hispanic community is another Hispanic,” Newton said. “It takes a Latino to go to a Latino and talk about their shared values.”

Another group, the Associated Republicans of Texas, founded in the 1970s to help keep the Legislature red, is revving up legislative candidate recruitment with a specific eye on women and candidates of color.

At the national level, the National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Emmer “has given the NRCC a mandate to ensure our new Republican majority in 2020 reflects the diverse makeup of our country,” a spokesman for the group said. The House GOP campaign arm has recruited 23 people of color in Texas, though not all of them have filed yet, said the spokesman, Chris Pack.

And Empower America, whose honorary chairman is Tim Scott, a black Republican senator from South Carolina, is working to “identify, train and invest in diverse leaders who believe in freedom for all.”

“It’s a problem for there to not be diversity in the conservative delegations in any level of government, and specifically in Texas,” said Executive Director Jimmy Kemp. “We think there are candidates who are really attractive and understand the American dream and the American idea, and we’re hoping to be helpful.”

Many Republicans have pinned hopes on Wesley Hunt, a black Army veteran competing on the Republican ticket in Texas’ 7th Congressional District, which is currently held by U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, D-Houston. Hunt was recruited as a candidate by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and has easily led the primary field in fundraising. Another black candidate, Brandon Batch, announced last week for the congressional seat to be vacated by U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Midland. And Allen West, a black Republican, recently launched a bid for Texas GOP chair, challenging current party leader James Dickey.

“We have to engage and we have to talk about policy inclusiveness,” West said. “I have never liked the word ‘outreach’ and for some reason the Republican Party lost that connection with the black community in America. I think they just kind of gave up. They threw in the towel.”

“A tricky problem”

But their efforts, in part, run contrary to members of their own party who don’t believe race should be an important factor — or one at all — when judging potential GOP candidates.

And the party’s own messaging downplays the role of racial identity in American life, making it hard to explicitly recruit people of color.

The GOP has dominated Texas politics for two decades. President Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, when he received the support of roughly 11% of black Texans who voted and 34% of Hispanics who voted, showed that Republicans could win nationally by winning a majority white vote, which Trump won in Texas 69% to 26%, according to CNN’s exit polling data.

Those numbers have split Texas Republicans into two camps: those who believe the party has a diversity problem and those who are fine with the status quo.

“I think Texans’ attitudes generally is, ‘If you can do the job, we don’t care about your ethnicity,’” said former U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla, who held Hurd’s seat from 1993 to 2007.

But the GOP’s grip on the state appears to have loosened. In 2018, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz — the most prominent Hispanic Republican in the state — won reelection over former Democratic U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of El Paso by a margin of less than 3 percentage points. In 2020, Democrats are hoping to flip control of the Texas House. Many say the state’s changing demographics have made Texas more competitive.

“The reason why Texas is the biggest battleground state is because the Democratic Party has built a winning coalition that actually represents the state of Texas,” said Manny Garcia, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party. “What we’ve seen for the impending doom of the Republican Party is that it has refused to expand its electorate and expand its base over the past several cycles.”

Munisteri, the former state GOP chair, said he understands why some Republicans prefer to group everyone under one label: American. “In one sense you can argue people who have those views are the most inclusive,” Munisteri said.

But, he said, the problem with painting with such a broad brush is that America’s fraught racial history has created difficulties for people who aren’t white.

“We’re not trying to play racial or ethnic politics, we’re just trying to recognize the reality that there have been some ethnic groups in our country that haven’t always been treated well and some that are still struggling to make sure they have equal rights,” Munisteri said.

Finding new candidates hasn’t proven easy. People of color face distinct challenges when they enter the political arena: difficulty in raising money, getting party support and a need to combat racial stereotypes. Some candidates believe having a Hispanic surname can be a setback in a Republican primary, especially in low-information races.

Tony Gonzales announces in San Antonio's Orsinger Park that he is running for the Texas Congressional district 23 seat that is being vacated by Will Hurd.
Tony Gonzales announces in San Antonio’s Orsinger Park that he is running for the Texas Congressional district 23 seat that is being vacated by Will Hurd.
Robin Jerstad

And Republican candidates of color are sometimes reluctant to discuss issues of diversity and their own racial identity, lest they turn off primary voters who might not like them bringing race into the discussion.

“The Republican Party in Texas and other places is becoming a lot more homogenous with respect to race,” said Carlos Algara, a political scientist at the University of California, Davis.

Because of that, “there’s not a strong bed of minority candidates for Texas Republicans to choose from,” Algara said.

An additional hurdle for Republicans of color running at the congressional level in 2020 is choosing whether to publicly align with Trump, who has been denounced as racist for a number of recent comments, including encouraging a chant of “send her back” about a Somali-American congresswoman.

“Race is a very tricky problem for Republicans, particularly in the age of Trump,” Algara said. “It doesn’t surprise me that Texas Republicans … don’t want to talk about race because inevitably you can’t escape a conversation on race without talking about Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric.”

Still, a number of candidates of color are hoping to make gains. In the race to replace Hurd, Tony Gonzales is one of several Republicans running in one of the nation’s biggest swing districts.

“As Texas and America’s demographics begins to change, it’s important for the Republican party to match that,” Gonzales, a San Antonio native of Hispanic descent, said.

“I think a lot of people are surprised to see a young, Hispanic Republican. There’s definitely something new there, and to me it’s exciting,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at


Texas Tribune mission statement

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.



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After raising $4.5 million in third quarter, O’Rourke says he needs to “break through” now more than ever



Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke raised $4.5 million in the third quarter, his campaign announced Friday as he acknowledged it was more urgent than ever to “break through” in the still-crowded primary.

The third-quarter total is an improvement over the $3.6 million that the former El Paso congressman took in during the previous quarter, and it came despite a halt to fundraising for roughly two weeks in August after the deadly El Paso shooting. Still, the total puts him behind a majority of primary rivals who have released their third-quarter figures so far, including two leading candidates who each raised around $25 million.

After announcing his third-quarter figures, O’Rourke gathered his staff in El Paso for a livestreamed meeting Thursday evening where he discussed the state of his campaign, which has been mired in the low single digits in polls for months.

“We have a path to the nomination — and through that, a path to the presidency — but at this moment we’ve got to break through,” O’Rourke said. “So I need everyone’s help, doing everything that they can … to make sure that you make this commitment now. There is no later moment to do it. It must happen now if we’re going to make the most of this moment, of the momentum that we have, of this wonderful trajectory that we’re on.”

O’Rourke’s latest haul covered July, August and September, which his campaign said was its best fundraising month yet. It also said its average donation in the third quarter was $26, and 99% of contributions were under $200.

O’Rourke did not immediately share how much cash on hand he had. That figure was $5.2 million at the end of the second quarter.

At the staff meeting, O’Rourke campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon presented a host of metrics that suggested the candidate was gaining traction, especially last month, but acknowledged a frustrating disconnect between those measures and where he is at in the polls. She blamed a “media trap” that is portraying the primary as a two-person race — presumably between the two highest-polling candidates, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden.

“That’s a real impediment — it’s total bullshit — but it’s something that we gotta take seriously and figure out what to do about,” O’Malley Dillon said, going on to cite polls that show how few primary voters have settled on a candidate yet.

To overcome the “media trap,” she said, the campaign will focus on advertising and organizing — and it will need to raise $2 million over the next six weeks. She said the goal is “not a stunt, it’s not a make-believe deal, it’s like an actual built-out budget for line items.”

Throughout the meeting, O’Malley Dillon sought to give supporters ample reason to be optimistic, touting O’Rourke’s leadership on issues like gun control in the primary field, his travels to places that do not usually see presidential hopefuls and his connection with underrepresented voters who are not always reflected in surveys. She also insisted he was “playing to win” in the early voting states, emphasizing the delegate-rich opportunity awaiting him in Texas on Super Tuesday, or March 3.

Despite the bright spots identified by his campaign, O’Rourke has struggled for much of the race to climb out of the lower tier in polls, and his latest fundraising placed him in the lower third of candidates who have volunteered their third-quarter numbers ahead of the Tuesday deadline to report them to the Federal Election Commission. The totals have ranged from a little over $2 million to $25.3 million and $24.6 million for Sanders and Warren, respectively.

Still, O’Rourke can take a measure of solace in beating his second-quarter tally, which marked a sharp slowdown in fundraising after he pulled in $9.4 million in his campaign’s first 18 days. Moreover, the third quarter saw him suspend campaign fundraising for 12 days in early August as he responded to the El Paso shooting, instead using his platform to raise over $1 million for groups fighting gun violence and other causes.

The other Texan running for president, Julián Castro, has not released his latest fundraising numbers yet. He raised $1.1 million in the first quarter and $2.8 in the second quarter. Without releasing specific figures, his campaign has said the third quarter was his best one yet.

Both Texans are set to participate in the fourth primary debate Tuesday in Ohio, but they have their work cut out for them to qualify for the fifth debate, which is Nov. 20 in Georgia. Both have accrued the 165,000 donors required for the event, according to their campaigns. However, they also need to hit 3% in four qualifying polls, something Castro has not done yet and O’Rourke has achieved just once. The deadline for the polling requirement is Nov. 13.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at


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Beto O’Rourke says religious institutions should lose tax-exempt status if they oppose gay marriage



Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune


Beto O’Rourke says religious institutions should lose tax-exempt status if they oppose gay marriage

Beto O’Rourke says religious institutions should lose tax-exempt status if they oppose gay marriage” 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.

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke said religious institutions should be stripped of their tax-exempt status if they oppose same-sex marriage, a position that sparked swift and fierce criticism from social conservatives.

The former El Paso congressman made the comment Thursday night during a CNN town hall on LGBTQ rights. Anchor Don Lemon asked O’Rourke, “Do you think religious institutions — like colleges, churches, charities — should lose their tax-exempt status if they oppose same-sex marriage?”

“Yes,” O’Rourke replied without hesitating, drawing a round of applause. “There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break, for anyone or any institution, any organization in America, that denies the full human rights and the full civil rights of every single one of us, and so as president, we are going to make that a priority and we are going to stop those who are infringing upon the human rights of our fellow Americans.”

In taking the stance, O’Rourke again staked out politically explosive territory with few allies in the primary field, much like his crusade for a mandatory buyback program for assault weapons following the deadly El Paso shooting in August. He did not immediately back down from the position on tax-exempt status, tweeting his quote on the topic minutes after he was done at the town hall.

By Friday, GOP reaction had intensified, with U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, issuing a statement denouncing O’Rourke for “extreme intolerance” and “bigoted nonsense.”

“O’Rourke and some Democrats have declared war on churches,” Texas Values president Jonathan Saenz said in a statement. “We say come and take it. This unconstitutional threat of using the government to punish churches for their Biblical beliefs on marriage must end and will be vigorously opposed. This is just another example of leftists that want to effectively ban the Bible and destroy our US Constitution.”

Calling O’Rourke’s position a “direct affront to the constitutional guarantee of religious liberty,” the Plano-based First Liberty Institute said it was prepared to take legal action if O’Rourke or any future president sought to carry out the idea.

Earlier in the town hall, which was in Los Angeles, one of O’Rourke’s primary rivals, Cory Booker, did not go nearly as far in response to a similar question. Booker, a U.S. senator from New Jersey, emphasized that there needs to be “consequences for discrimination” but repeatedly declined to say if he believed religious institutions should lose their tax-exempt status over opposition to gay marriage.

O’Rourke released a plan for LGBTQ equality in June. Lemon cited it as he asked O’Rourke the question Thursday night, noting it said, “Freedom of religion is a fundamental right, but it should not be used to discriminate.”

O’Rourke has previously targeted tax-exempt status for the National Rifle Association, calling for its revocation in response to a report by U.S. Senate Democrats that it served as a “foreign asset” for Russia ahead of the 2016 election.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at


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Troopers have sued the Texas Department of Public Safety over a waist size policy. Commissioners say the policy is needed.



Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

By Jolie McCullough, The Texas Tribune

The state has put another stamp of approval on the Texas Department of Public Safety’s controversial new policy to measure state troopers’ physical fitness by their waistlines.

After a lengthy Thursday morning meeting with agency officials rattling off studies and standards used to come up with their often-changing physical fitness tests and measurements, the three-member Public Safety Commission unanimously adopted DPS’s fitness program, certifying it is in line with scientific standards and federal law.

“To not have a program is tantamount to looking the other way,” commission chair Steven Mach said Thursday after the agency listed health concerns for obese officers. “It’s our obligation to the people of the department to have such a program and to assist people to live the healthiest life possible.”

The policy, which could ultimately remove from duty officers who have a waist circumference larger than 35 inches for women and 40 inches for men, spurred the DPS officers’ association to file a lawsuit in Travis County last week. The association argued in the filing that the physical fitness tests, not waist size, determine if officers can perform their job. It asked for the judge to rule that the policy violates state law that requires physical standards “must directly relate to the officer’s job duties.”

The waistline policy stems from a “holistic look” at officer health, DPS Deputy Director Skylor Hearn said after the hearing. He and other agency officials have cited high rates of heart attacks and obesity among law enforcement officers in general. A doctor testified Thursday that waist size is a definite indicator for risk of heart disease.

“We’re not saying we shouldn’t take better care of ourselves,” DPSOA President Richard Jankovsky said outside the DPS building Thursday, expressing his support for a heart health program without consequences based on size. “But I don’t think you heard one word in there of a direct correlation of not being able to be a state trooper if you’re over that certain [size].”

Another doctor who testified acknowledged some measures of obesity, like body mass index calculations comparing only weight and height, are faulty for different body types, but said waist measurements are consistent with scientific standards relating to an officer having a commanding presence. DPS calls the waist measurement policy its “command presence” policy, claiming officers are more intimidating to potential criminals when they appear fit. An association has called it a “vanity” policy.

Though the agency is using waistline and body fat standards similarly in place in U.S. military services, Hearn said he was unaware if any other state or local law enforcement agency uses waist measurements as an indicator of job readiness.

According to one association representative, that’s because such a measurement is “idiotic.”

“Waistlines are rarely ever used for any kind of measure for physical fitness because it isn’t the 1950s anymore,” Joe Gamaldi, vice president of the national Fraternal Order of Police, said Wednesday. Gamaldi is also the president of the Houston police association.

DPS has been publicly discussing the policy since last year. In a commission hearing last October, Hearn outlined the proposed plan, which was then adopted by commissioners in February. Thursday, the commissioners again adopted the full fitness program, including the waist measurements, under a new state law to require DPS fitness programs to be scientifically sound and in line with federal employment and labor laws.

State Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, added the language to an agency bill earlier this year after hearing concerns over the policy that was to begin in September, he said Wednesday. He argued the new policy goes against both the intent and plain writing of his statute, arguing waistline size is arbitrary and subjective.

“I totally support DPS for the troopers to be physically fit,” he said. “But the waistline, the size of the waistline really stands out.”

Since 2007, state law has required DPS officers to undergo and pass regular fitness tests to stay in uniformed positions. Officers are tested at least once a year. The agency implemented standards and tests of fitness, like a timed 1.5 mile run, and an alternative test of specific job-related tasks, like jumping fences, with the help of a fitness training consultant group that same year.

But in the years since, DPS has put the tests and the standards through a continuous “evolution,” Hearn said in the hearing last year. At first, the test included various runs, bench presses, push-ups, sit-ups and a vertical jump. By 2017, the original test was cut to just the 1.5 mile run, push-ups and sit-ups. New types of fitness tests, like rowing, were added for officers to choose from and performance standards were raised.

The association said these changes were made without any consultant, as is required by law, and it was unknown how the decisions were made to keep tweaking the way they determine an officer’s physical readiness for the job. Now, the agency has added the waist size policy to its physical readiness measurements as well — again without a consultant, the association claimed in the filing last week.

“I have to be really clear: DPSOA is 100% supportive of a physical fitness program and a physical fitness standard, we’re just asking the agency to follow the statute,” Jankovsky told The Texas Tribune before the hearing Wednesday.

On Thursday, the department laid out its work, presenting sources (doctors’ research and testimony, federal law enforcement training groups) used to come up with both the changes to its physical fitness tests and how it decided to measure waist circumference for physical readiness. Leaders of the agency’s Fitness Wellness Unit presented an exhausting list of facts and reports and had multiple doctors speak in support of the program during the hours-long meeting in front of the commissioners.

When first presenting the controversial policy last year, Hearn mentioned officer health and safety was key. He said law enforcement officers have a much shorter life span than most people and are much more likely to have heart attacks. Protective services, he said, is the third most obese profession behind truck driving and material moving.

“A physical program that is effective is not just an exercise program,” he told commissioners Thursday. “A physical fitness program looks at all the factors that affect job duties, and that’s where the command presence piece comes into this.”

The agency has cited a 2007 FBI study that interviewed inmates who had assaulted officers and said they were more likely to attack an officer if they felt they could overpower them. Hearn said last year that having a “command presence” is the best de-escalation method, because an officer’s fit appearance can prevent escalation in the first place.

The policy also has some fallback measures in place to not unjustly affect some officers based on body type, Hearn said. If an officer’s waist measurement is beyond the 35 or 40 inches, a second test is performed to measure height against weight, using a military chart. If the officer still isn’t in compliance under that test, the agency will measure the officer’s body fat by measuring different parts of the body, again using a military method.

The agency said Thursday noncompliance with all of the new measurements will not lead to any consequences for officers in the first year. The agency’s Fitness and Wellness Unit will come up with personalized wellness plans to help officers get into compliance. Starting late next year, however, those out of compliance may become ineligible for promotions, overtime or off-duty employment. Officers may also be moved to non-uniformed positions until they meet the waistline standard, Hearn said in previous hearings.

“We are always needing help in our driver’s license offices,” Hearn said at the hearing last year.

There will be waivers and exceptions for those with certain medical conditions, like effects of cancer treatment, and officers who are pregnant or new mothers, Hearn said. He said the policy is not to run officers off, but to keep them healthy. Jankovsky said he was encouraged by those additions to the policy, which would exempt women for 12 months after they gave birth.

But overall, the association president still believes the policy goes against state and federal statute, and the association will move forward with the lawsuit.

“When you implement a standard to where it mandates you look a certain way, well then we’ve got some questions,” he said. “Is that compliant with state law, federal law, employment law?… Ultimately a judge is going to be a decider.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at


Texas Tribune mission statement

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.



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