Sunday bottom cartoon

Congressman Bill Flores from Bryan announced at the end of Capitol Hill’s long August recess that he will not run for Texas Congressional District 17 in 2020. Flores was the first Republican to represent modern-day Waco and McLennan County communities in Congress. His run for the House of Representatives nine years ago was successful in part because our district was neatly gerrymandered to include suburbs of Austin and Fort Worth in an obvious partisan effort to oust Democratic Congressman Chet Edwards of Waco.

Flores ultimately won the seat during the tea-party tidal wave of 2010 and so Republicans gained more power. However, in the process, Waco’s representation and influence waned by electing someone from another town that was once in another congressional district.

Waco has changed significantly since 2011 when Flores assumed office. Our downtown revitalization includes new restaurants and hotels, art galleries, pubs, coffee shops, breweries, distilleries, theaters, museums, farmers’ markets, river walks, coworking spaces and residential facilities. All of this is breathtaking. We’re the talk of Texas.

Many Baylor University seniors today tell me that they want to start their careers here in Central Texas. Magnolia Market at the Silos recently topped the Alamo as the No. 1 tourist destination in the state (though Alamo defenders contest how the figures were figured). When I travel across America today and tell folks, “I’m from Waco,” I get excited nods, not questions about Branch Davidians. We can all thank Chip and Joanna for this publicity. The “Fixer Upper” TV series over five years and the pristine McLane Stadium on the riverfront, easily seen from Interstate 35, have catalyzed the dynamic revitalization of our city on both sides of the Brazos. Take a drive down Elm Street and see what’s happening in East Waco.

Consider also that Baylor University’s billion-dollar fund-raising campaign to become a Tier 1 and Research 1 university, if achieved, would give “Jerusalem on the Brazos” a unique place in American and, indeed, international higher education. Noted economist Ray Perryman of the Perryman Group predicts that Waco’s metropolitan area population will double in size by 2040. Consider also the dynamic leadership in our civic, social, educational, philanthropic and religious organizations. Waco has dozens of entrepreneurial, forward-leaning leaders in elected positions on the Waco City Council, school board and other governing entities.

With Flores retiring at the end of 2020, we now have an opportunity to elect a U.S. congressman from our city again and we have some talented leaders who should consider a run. As the Trib editorial board argued the day after the congressman announced his decision, “Our next lawmaker should come from Waco or McLennan County. We’re not competently represented in Washington or in Austin.” I agree that it will be vital that there are Wacoans competing in the Democratic and Republican primaries in March. The largest metropolitan area in District 17 needs someone who will put our issues and future front and center.

Whatever else, Bill Flores struck some of us as primarily beholden to the oil and gas industry, the NRA and the Koch brothers, which means he consequently did not often represent us or certainly our grandchildren. Not only do we deserve better, but our state and nation deserve better. Is the fact Flores is not running for reelection a clue that even he and a growing list of Texas Republican lawmakers recognize the need for a change in directions? Flores joins Congressmen Pete Olson of Sugar Land, Mike Conaway of Midland, Will Hurd of Helotes and Kenny Marchant of Coppel in departures that some call a “Texodus” of Republicans.

I’m sure there must be Republicans in Waco — individuals of integrity, creativity and stature — who will care enough about our community to run for this office. And Democrats from McLennan County will come forward to compete against them. Perhaps individuals in the Green Party or Libertarian Party will also run. That’s the way democracy is supposed to work. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to see three or four candidates from each party competing in the primary this spring? We will soon know who’s going to run. Perhaps we will see women and people of color putting their hats in the ring. I hope so. And if enough of our citizens vote, we may have the representation that we deserve, despite the way our district has been gerrymandered. Waco needs good candidates to run — that is, candidates not beholden to outside or special interests. And then we as citizens must vote and get out the vote.

Those considering a run will want to begin formulating answers to questions Wacoans care about:

Health care:

  • Do you support the current law that requires insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions for all of us? Do you have a plan that includes everyone, not just those who are employed or wealthy? How will you improve a system in which Americans pay more for health care than the British, the Swiss or the Canadians, yet get less in return? What is your position on our Texas governor and legislators rejecting expansion of Medicaid, the government health-coverage program for the poor, which prevents our state from receiving an estimated $100 billion in federal cash over the decade? Would you support some current legislative proposals that would reduce access to health care for women? Would you vote to make all abortions illegal in America?

Gun violence:

  • Will you support universal background checks? Would you propose legislation to buy back assault-styled weaponry? Are you going to take money from the NRA during your campaign?

The environment:

  • Do you agree with President’s Trump’s goal to roll back environmental protections of our air, water and protected lands? What steps will you support to curb carbon production that, according to 95% of climate scientists, is leading to catastrophic ends? What are your plans about the impending water crisis in America? What can you do to help Texas lead the way in renewable energy sources like the sun and the wind which we have in abundance?

Education:

  • How will you work to strengthen K-12 public education? What will you do about the rising cost of higher education? Do you have a plan to address the massive student debt for college that a generation of Americans has accumulated?

Immigration reform:

  • What ideas do you have that will not only secure our borders but will insure that our nation’s historic commitment to immigration remains a cornerstone of our democracy? Would laws that you support related to border security meet international legal and ethical standards? What do you hope to see happen to the thousands of undocumented immigrants and children of undocumented immigrants in Waco’s schools, neighborhoods and churches? What will you do to remedy the fact Texans have employed undocumented immigrants in our homes and businesses, yet our laws treat them as second-class citizens, condemning them to life in the shadows? Will you support a pathway to citizenship for the “Dreamers”?

Economy:

  • What legislation will you propose that makes our capitalistic system fairer? Would you, for example, propose raising the minimum wage? Would you offer a bill in which corporations pay more taxes so that we might, for example, rebuild our nation’s infrastructure? Or would you propose that corporations pay less taxes? What do you think we should do about those corporations that, because of tax loopholes, pay little or no taxes? Do you have opinions about the shrinking middle class and income disparity?

Integrity in our democratic process:

  • What will you do to ensure that our candidates not seek help from and connive with a foreign country to get elected? What will you do to ensure that our social media platforms are not used to spread disinformation to voters? What will you do to hold a president, a cabinet member or member of Congress in your own party accountable for documented illegal actions? Will you call out your own president when he lies to the American public? Will you support your party’s leaders when they refuse to operate under normal rules of order? What will you do about the influence of corporate money in our elections?

Racism:

  • Will you call out elected leaders in your party who demonize U.S. citizens because of their ethnicity or religion? Will you support executive action that prevents a Muslim from visiting or immigrating to America? What will you do about the rise of hate crimes in our country?

Democratic and Republican candidates for District 17 will soon file for this seat in Congress. As excitement builds for this great opportunity for the citizens of Waco and McLennan County, each of us should have a list of questions for our candidates. And we should expect candidates to provide answers that reflect knowledge of facts and the context in which they are pressed. What will your list look like?

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Blake Burleson is an ordained Baptist minister and a faculty member in the Department of Religion at Baylor University. The fifth-generation Texan enjoys carpentry, painting, backpacking and travel.

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