Republican Congressman Bill Flores’ decision to swear in Erica Bruce as the newest member of a sharply divided, scandal-plagued Hewitt City Council last week might have been an innocuous gesture in any other political era, but it perfectly reflected the tenor of our mean-spirited times. Flores became acquainted with Bruce, a toxicologist and Baylor University medical researcher, through his interest in her research and their joint support of the Advocacy Center for Crime Victims and Children. And, he said, he really wasn’t familiar with the rift in the town council and community.
“When someone calls and asks us for assistance, whether it’s a VA check or a passport or the swearing in of new citizens, we try to help,” Flores told me at City Hall. “We don’t care what the ideology is. When I’m running for office I care, but as a public servant, my job is as a representative. That doesn’t say representative for Democrats or representative for Republicans. I’m not going to name names, but someone caught up in all this mess [in Hewitt] tried to get the Republican Party involved. If you go to my Facebook page, there’s something about how I should stay in Washington instead of staying down here swearing in somebody.”
Well spoken. Yet this flap underlines the political and societal chasm across America where no national leader is willing or able to rally Americans to consensus and shared values. Too many of us act on rigid party ideology rather than prioritizing country and bowing to our “better angels.” We’re blinded by a prism through which “truth isn’t truth” and, as our president said last week, “the buck stops with everybody,” not leadership. And last week Flores — who arguably has contributed to at least some of this societal disintegration through everything from divisive tweets to press statements faithfully hewing party lines — witnessed the consequences up close.
At one point, when I tried to speak with the congressman in the foyer after the ceremony, an individual interrupted (I stepped aside) to inform Flores that he had recently moved to Waco from Abilene and had voted for him. He also said that, because he suffers from diabetes and values all his limbs, digits and eyesight, he hoped Flores would salvage the partially dismantled Affordable Care Act so it not only protected Americans with preexisting conditions but didn’t leave them prey to costly premiums and devastating health-care expenses.
Another appreciated the congressman’s online town-hall meetings but wanted notification of the next in-person town-hall meeting. The congressman explained his office no longer conducts these because online town halls reach greater numbers. Flores didn’t mention what he has told me — that the toxicity in society renders in-person town-hall meetings not only problematic but even dangerous.
A graying couple proved more strident. She insisted that she didn’t want her tax money funding President Trump’s border wall (over which Trump has angrily shut down part of our federal government); her husband sparred with Flores over asylum law, a question that now divides even the U.S. Supreme Court. From what I could tell as lawmaker and constituent talked over each other, Flores held a more rigid view of asylum law than the constituent, who angrily quit the conversation after applying an epithet upon the congressman. The wife apologized as her husband stormed off into the night — and then returned to her own point.
Meanwhile, outraged Hewitt residents nearby demanded all details from a law firm investigation funded with taxpayer money regarding employee complaints against council members — notably Mayor Ed Passalugo — rather than a summary by the new city attorney, already under suspicion and hired after the mayor and his allies fired the previous city attorney over the course of two meetings. (They botched the job first time around because they didn’t know what they were doing.)
With the mayor pro tem accusing the mayor and other council members of conducting city business beyond public purview in violation of state law and the scandal under investigation by Texas Rangers, Mayor Passalugo has sought to arouse sympathy in this mostly Republican suburb by identifying with his idea of a political martyr: “I tell everybody just think what Trump’s going through.”
Good deed done, the congressman slipped away, to rest and then board an early flight back to Washington, D.C., there to possibly set a better example for us all. Possibly, but in the current toxic environment of eternal blame games and forever scoring cheap political points, not very likely.