Shortly after former oil and gas executive Bill Flores’ Sept. 4 announcement joining the “Texodus” of Texas Republican congressmen opting to leave an imploding Capitol Hill at the end of their terms in 2020, speculation began in and around Waco: Who among our civic leaders might throw his or her hat in the ring, the better to press on the national stage those challenges faced by an increasingly diverse community at the societal, cultural and developmental crossroads of American life?
In between producing a Sept. 5 editorial about qualifications we’d like to see in the next federal lawmaker to represent our congressional district, the Trib editorial board played this guessing game in its inner sanctum, if only to better envision what the ideal lawmaker should bring in experience and perspective. Among other things, we agreed that “whoever presents himself or herself for public service better have demonstrated such service in the past by serving (and without financial compensation) on a city council, school board, planning commission or the board of one of our philanthropic foundations.” Then we privately acknowledged that anybody who ran would have to be crazy.
Today finds democracy in America succumbing to a toxic tribalism so intense, so brimming with hatred and delusion, that many are concerned only about their partisan “team” winning — not the nation, not the public good, not democracy as disheartened voters in Texas and beyond lose interest amidst vicious lies peddled via social media and radioactive rants by political hacks, talk-radio cretins and more and more often politicians themselves.
One need look no further for proof than the parallel universes spinning madly in Waco Thursday afternoon when former Republican Congressman Pete Sessions, booted from his own Dallas district by voters in 2018 (after 22 years on Capitol Hill), announced to a couple dozen local Republican Party faithful that he would move to Waco, town of his birth, and run for a congressional seat rendered safe for Republicans through gerrymandering. Sessions made his announcement at a stage-crafted event suggesting GOP hierarchy were wild for Sessions, though McLennan County Republican Party Chairman Jon Ker made clear other Republicans are also welcome to run.
Meanwhile, Congressman Flores, having sounded out community and grassroots leaders about who might best succeed him when he retires (after 10 years in Congress), found most leaders across the district nonplussed about Sessions’ moving from a big-city district to run for Congress from Waco. Example: A business leader from McLennan County told Flores that Sessions’ plan was a “terrible idea,” adding: “Sessions needs to win his seat back [in Dallas] if he wants to continue serving. He will hang his hat on being from Waco, but few would claim him and those who would would likely change their position after they got to know him. Pete’s time is past, he needs to move on.”
In announcing his run, Sessions more or less echoed the talking points of many Republican lawmakers: All on Capitol Hill should be working to pass a trade bill, overhaul health care and tackle transportation priorities instead of trying to impeach President Trump for merely seeking to stamp out foreign election interference and rampant corruption in Ukraine. Ironically, some legislative priorities cited by the GOP involve issues Republicans failed to comprehensively address during the first two dysfunctional years of the Trump administration when Republicans such as Sessions ran Capitol Hill.
“There’s a period of time that our country is going through right now, that we’re all a part of, and it has tended to shy many people who should be proud of what we stand for away from telling the story to support not only our president but the way of life that we want and that we need,” Sessions said in a tongue-tied bit of rhetoric Thursday, standing near a life-size cardboard cut-out of President Trump. “I will tell you that Congress today finds itself where we have a majority that’s based upon the Democrats and Nancy Pelosi whereby they are, instead of leading and instead of doing the things which they criticized us most about, they are failing to do.”
Sessions put it more succinctly in a press statement earlier in the day: “My goal is to work together to restore the Republican majority in the House and maintain our control of the Senate and White House. My support for President Trump is unwavering and I will dedicate my time in office to help enact his conservative agenda.”
The afternoon this unfolded at McLennan County Republican Party headquarters, the technical committee of the Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization met downtown, gauging 98 road and highway projects in our fast-growing metropolitan area. If you haven’t attended an MPO meeting, prepare for long faces as city and county leaders consider such dilemmas as, in recent years, whether to leverage their allotment in state highway money to entice yet other state funds to overhaul U.S. Interstate Highway 35 through Waco, even as population growth, multiplying housing developments and new commerce present other highway needs that could use state money. Only one in four of these is likely to be funded — and badly outdated, restrictive federal funding formulas don’t help when federal roads and bridges await attention. Local leaders marvel federal authorities won’t overhaul federal funding formulas.
Consider another major issue weighing heavily on local leaders: health care. A recent University of Michigan study found that Medicaid expansion as allowed by the Affordable Care Act substantially reduced mortality rates from 2014 to 2017 — and that some 15,600 people nationwide died partially because their states refused to expand Medicaid, decisions made primarily out of crassly partisan, anti-Obama politics rather than concern for the public good. Researchers estimate the annual death rate in Texas that could be avoided by expanding Medicaid is 730. Imagine a Republican congressman using his influence to lobby Republican state legislators to expand Medicaid in Texas, if only on pro-life grounds, and the impact this might have on a community such as McLennan County where, according to a 2019 study by United Ways of Texas, 44 percent of households in 2016 were in poverty or one emergency away from it. A 2019 Community Health Needs Assessment found that local residents face hurdles in three key areas: access to health care, lifestyle and health behaviors and women’s health.
Lost in the chaos
Or consider other issues begging for federal insight beyond talk-radio hyperbole and bumper-sticker solutions, ranging from widening income inequality, to insufficient water supplies in rural stretches, to growing immigration workforce needs in construction and hospitality industries for which a much-ballyhooed border wall solves nothing. Granted, such challenges characterizing our community and others across America aren’t entirely forgotten by lawmakers but they do seem increasingly lost in the din as too many Republicans and Democrats instead sign up to play hardball politics, dancing to strings pulled by a president content to aggravate political tensions, vilify those who cross him and run Washington like the reality-TV show in which he once starred.
One could argue Republicans have given their undisciplined president so much latitude in executive overreach and constitutional transgression he’s finally drawn a completely avoidable impeachment inquiry from a Democratic House speaker who, whatever else, balked at pressing it for many months (and to the irritation of extremists in her own party). Which raises questions about Rep. Flores’ stated mission of successfully restoring “fiscal soundness to the federal budget,” removing “uncertainty related to the ‘Dreamers’ in our country” and rebuilding critical infrastructure in the little time he has left.
Some of the problems of our political times — the abundance of money necessary in politics, the inclination of decent folks to step wide of politics as it sinks further into a swamp of corruption and lies — surfaced in my conversation Thursday with Lance Phillips, the Limestone County GOP chairman who pressed Sessions to run for Congress from Central Texas. One could deduce from his frank remarks that the scramble to enlist Sessions was driven by jitters that Republican officials experienced statewide after significant inroads by Democrats in 2018 elections. Flores’ decision to retire to spend “more time with my family and our grandchildren” and “resume business activities in the private sector” didn’t help matters.
“Given what’s going on, I think [Flores] would have liked to have been able to stay, I really do,” Phillips told me. “But for the impeachment thing, I think he would have stayed to try to win back the majority [in the Democratic-flipped House of Representatives] with President Trump, but he’s got family health issues he feels will require him being here full-time. But I was concerned about the seat. I mean, we dropped 10 points in the last election from where we were. And Pete was [National Republican Congressional Committee] chairman when we won this seat [in 2010]. He was very instrumental in bringing funds and focusing on getting this seat won.”
Phillips grew anxious with filing for the seat beginning Nov. 9: “I was talking to other county chairs and there were some interviews [with possible candidates] going on, but the other county chairs who sat in on the interviews weren’t hearing anybody who was a viable, strong candidate. They didn’t have experience or were fresh out of school or didn’t show any ability to raise funds or know how to go about it. [Party chairs] just didn’t feel like any of them were strong candidates. I waited till the end of, well, till we were in October and nobody had really stepped forward. And I called some of the county chairs and they said, ‘We just finished another round of interviews and those who are probably qualified are reluctant to run.’ And I can see that. It’s very toxic up there right now. And, quite frankly, a lot of them don’t want to take the pay cut. Making $170,000 and living in Washington, D.C., means you’re living in your office, you’re living in your closet.”
Hours later Sessions was reported at least peripherally embroiled in the scandal involving Trump’s holding up congressionally approved military funding for Ukraine and pressing its president to investigate Trump political rival Joe Biden and his son’s link to a Ukrainian energy company. As reported in The Wall Street Journal , Sessions pressed the White House to fire Marie Yovanovitch as ambassador to Ukraine because she wasn’t sufficiently loyal to Trump. Yovanovitch was an appointee of President George W. Bush.
Intrigue, subterfuge and grandstanding make it harder and harder to address complicated issues, whether of the kitchen table or industry and commerce, in congressional campaigns or Washington corridors of power. The nuances of solution and the potential for consensus critical in successful legislation falter when a president emboldened by reality-TV success and the roar of the mob peddles civil war, presses foreign leaders to undermine political rivals and attacks members of his own party not deemed sufficiently loyal. Given Sessions’ reputation as a culture warrior and Trump ally arguably itching to get back into the fray, one must wonder if serious policy stands a chance in this era. What happens in Congressional District 17 in coming weeks and months may reflect more than just whether all politics is still local. It may well prove a colossal purity test involving a president who knows better than most how to pull strings, provoke sentiments and get a rise out of folks, for good or ill.