Years of civic work, sense of duty spur local homebuilder's campaign: Q&A with Republican congressional candidate Scott Bland

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Scott Bland: “We’ve got some real bad actors coming across our border. We don’t know who they are, we don’t know where they are, we don’t know where they’re going, we don’t know what their intentions are.”

Scott Bland, 48, owner of Jim Bland Construction Company, seeks nomination as Republican candidate for the 17th Congressional District. A graduate of Midway High School and Baylor University (political science), Bland has been involved in his father’s homebuilding business since youth. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he joined the U.S. Secret Service, an experience that shaped his views on border security. He returned to Waco in 2006 to take over the family business and has been involved in numerous civic ventures including working with the Greater Waco Advanced Manufacturing Academy to create a Construction Sciences Academy to give local students an opportunity to snare high-paying jobs in the construction industry. Among the more eye-popping endorsements Bland has received is that of Waco-based rocker and Second Amendment activist Ted Nugent . We found the candidate thoughtful and measured in his responses, complete with useful insights gained through extensive (and uncompensated) civic leadership, one of the Trib editorial board’s top priorities for congressional candidates.

Q    Was there a defining moment for your run for Congress?

A    For me, it was [District 17 Republican Congressman] Bill Flores asking me to consider running. In a lot of ways since I’ve been back here since late 2006, I’ve sort of been on the sidelines, which has been great, raising my family. But [with] Bill asking me to run, it felt like I was being asked to step off the sidelines and get back into this thing. And I’d have a chance to protect my family.

Q    We spend a lot of time dealing with issues, policies, news. Why would you be better than us and a whole lot of other people, including some of your fellow primary election competitors, filling this post?

A    I’ve been up there [as a Secret Service agent], I’ve lived that life. The city of Washington, D.C., doesn’t hold any fascination for me. I’ve seen all the museums, been to all the sites, been to all the good restaurants. I want to go up there and do the job and get home. I’ll be the guy that is in my district as often as possible because I want to be here with my family. I want to be here with the people I’m representing. Part of what makes me the best candidate for this, it’s not only my experience from the national security standpoint, it’s not only the fact that as a Secret Service agent, I’ve been the ultimate fly on the wall, but I’ve seen the best in the world of politicians. One thing people don’t understand, because all they do is read what’s in the paper and [see] what’s on TV, is when the cameras are off and the doors are closed, those guys and gals actually do for the most part work together pretty well. They know how to talk to each other. I’ve seen that interaction. I know how that works, so I wouldn’t go up there with this idea that it is a constant knife-fight. It’s not. I know it’s not. One of the things about being a builder that’s a little bit unique is I have to be able to deal with multiple people from very diverse backgrounds in different situations and within the same very short period of time. Within the same hour I may deal with a mason on a job, a trim carpenter on a job and turn around and deal with the expectations of the owner of that job, and then reach out to the banker providing the financing for that job or for that development, all in the same hour, hour-and-a-half period of time.

Q    Research indicates lawmakers who have previously served on a city council, a school board, a philanthropic board of some kind, the planning commission generally function better [as legislators] than those who come from a background where they have not had to work with others, especially in a nonpartisan situation. Do you have any experience like this?

A    I have a tremendous amount of experience with that. I have spent over three years as a board member of the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce. I’ve spent two years now as a board member at NeighborWorks. I have been on the board of directors at the Heart of Texas Builders Association the last 10 years. I’ve served as president of that organization three times.

Q    President Trump and those who champion him suggest that a lot of our federal law enforcement agencies are tainted or tarnished [by political bias] and are determined to undermine him. I don’t think the Secret Service has been accused , but the FBI, the CIA and the State Department seem to fall under this notion they’re part of a deep state. Do you agree with this increasingly widespread assessment?

A    As an agent, I didn’t see signs of any kind of deep state or any working against our president or anyone else in government. It just wasn’t something that happened in my agency. I can’t really speak to the other agencies and, honestly, my takeaway of it is when I read those stories and I read those things, I wasn’t an FBI agent. I wasn’t a Bureau agent. I wasn’t a CIA agent. I don’t know how those guys operate internally, what their thought processes are. I really don’t have an opinion on it.

Q    Your experience as a homebuilder suggests you understand the reasons for growth in Waco as well as the growing pains. Is this all fueled by the Magnolia phenomenon or is it something else?

A    We are in a sweet spot to live and what Magnolia [Market at the Silos] has done so wonderfully is they have gotten that word out and it’s on the TV. But I can tell you it’s not just Magnolia. We have a wonderful chamber of commerce. I don’t want to say that as a board member, but our chamber of commerce has done an excellent job of going out and going to businesses who are looking to relocate, looking to make a move, and they do an amazing job of pitching to those businesses to take a look at Waco. Right now with the economy the way it is, one of the most important things for businesses is employee retention. And if you can go to a business and, say, “Look, you can tell your top people if they relocate to Waco, they’re not going to waste two hours every day of their lives in traffic. They can get from Point A to Point B in 15 or 20 minutes tops. Everything they need is right there in town. And if it’s not right there in town, it’s an hour and a half away in either direction. It’s a perfect spot. Great schools, great place to raise your kids. Magnolia has gotten that word out, our chamber has gotten that word out, and that I think is what’s fueled this growth. It’s been wonderful to see. And by the way, let me just add this: We’re seeing the same thing in Bryan-College Station, it’s not just here. When I walk around downtown Bryan, I see the same thing there that I saw in downtown Waco five years ago. They’re a little bit behind us, but their downtown’s rejuvenating now as well. Some really neat little restaurants and places to eat down there. The resurgence we’re seeing here, they’re seeing in Bryan-College Station as well. Texas A&M has ballooned up to 68,000 kiddos now. It’s just unbelievable. So it’s not just Waco and that’s the other reason why it’s not just the Magnolia effect. This is a district-wide phenomenon we’re seeing here and I think it’s because people are just worn out in Austin and Dallas and San Antonio and Houston with the traffic and the daily grind.

Q    Let’s talk about Article I. James Madison described the legislative branch as first among equals. Yet we see considerable overreach by the executive branch, which presidents claim is not only necessary but constitutionally viable. Where do you stand on executive overreach? We saw it with President Obama, we see it a lot with President Trump.

A    It’s a product of the partisanship in Congress. Presidents feel like because Congress cannot work together to get things done, they’re having to get things done through executive action or executive orders. It’s bad on both sides. Congress has got to look in the mirror and realize if they would work together more effectively, then it would remove the incentive for a president to be able to do those things. I mean, DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] is a perfect example. Now that’s survived on executive order and everybody keeps fighting over it. If Congress would sit down and come up with a plan that both sides could agree on and pass it, it removes that from the equation. So yes, the idea of an imperial presidency is horrible to me. And somebody like me, as a strict constitutionalist, it’s awful. I don’t like executive orders period. It does reek of an imperial presidency to me. But because Congress has become so dysfunctional, you have presidents like “W” and Obama and Trump and presidents to come who are going to feel like it’s necessary in order to be able to move their agenda forward because Congress is not doing it for them.

Q    Speaking of immigration, this editorial board has proposed putting E-Verify in place everywhere as a way to force Congress to act on the issue more broadly.

A    I’m in favor of [E-Verify], but I’m also in favor of a guest worker program, a 10-month guest worker program . That would remain in perpetuity. First thing we do is we eliminate country quotas from our immigration system. That’s ridiculous. That’s a 20th century concept that no longer applies now. And the second thing we do is this guest worker program remains. Somebody wants to come to this country, they can prove they either have sponsorship in a training program or sponsorship for a job to come in this country and go to work. They can apply for that 10-month work visa, pass a background check. They can come in and go to work. They’re going to come in and contribute. Any program, training program, or any employment service that takes federal money has to prioritize an American citizen first. But if that American citizen’s not there to take the jobs they need, they can go into that guest worker program and it remains. So between that and E-Verify, yes, you shut down the incentive for somebody to come across the border unless they’re coming across to do us harm, in which case we need to get them out of here.

Q    The president is in trouble over his decision to freeze congressional funding — approved with Republicans, I might add — for military aid to an East European ally, Ukraine, under Russian attack. [Note: This involved $391 million in military assistance and weapons sales to Ukraine, supported by an overwhelming majority of Congress, Republicans and Democrats, to help fend off Russian inroads into its country.] Is this executive behavior acceptable for presidents going forward? Would this be proper for a President Biden to withhold congressional funding for some purpose?

A    Yes, it is to me. I believe we spend far too much money to far too many countries that do not anything for us. That aren’t allies of ours. That aren’t supporters of us.

Q    So if Congress approves this funding, it’s OK for the president—

A    It’s OK for the president to delay it, to ask for some—

Q    Without informing Congress?

A    ... to ask for a delay, to ask for some type of indication from where we’re sending that money, what we’re getting, what our country is seeing in exchange for that. If the Trump administration believed that Ukraine was involved in issues with the election, if they believe that, if they believe that the corruption in Ukraine contributed to issues in our election and he wanted to see proof of that and he wanted ask them what they were doing to investigate that, I’m fine with it. Yes.

Q    But that’s an imperial presidency!

A    Well, but the problem is, what everybody seems to forget is, it was a short delay [55 days] and the money they ended up sending over there was far more than any assistance that’s been given to the Ukraine by any president in history. Far more than—

Q    That’s why Congress approved it, because an ally was under attack.

A    Well, but OK, I don’t see it that way. Russia was not making any further moves in Crimea at that point.

Q    Let’s put it this way. Republican Senator Ron Johnson [chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs as well as the Senate Subcommittee on European and Regional Security Cooperation] went through the roof when he discovered, late in the game, that the president was holding up congressionally approved funding.

A    Right.

Q    You don’t see anything wrong with that?

A    I support the president in what he did.

Q    Getting back to immigration: Congressman Flores has told us that representatives of the hospitality, construction and high-tech industries in our congressional district suggest that illegal immigrants constitute a sizable number of the workforce. Economists such as Waco-based Ray Perryman and even local roofer Bill Johnson will tell you that we need these people for jobs that, as one Trump supporter in Hewitt told me, white boys in Hewitt simply won’t take. They just won’t do it. The congressman says he sees this need in Bryan, he sees it in Austin, he sees it Waco’s hospitality industry, in the construction industry. These involve people leading these industries coming to him, saying, “Bill, you need to solve this problem because we do need them in the workforce.” You’re in the home-building industry. I’m not going to ask you whether you’ve got illegal immigrants working for you or not, but is the congressman correct in that assessment?

A    Well, we’re one of the ones that have gone to Bill and talked to him about this. What I’ve done the last five years in our district is I have worked with the Greater

Waco Advanced Manufacturing Academy — by the way, you guys [at the Trib] should be running stories on them every week. That is a jewel of our district if you’re not aware of it — GWAMA for short.

A    Yeah, I’ve been out there.

Q GWAMA is a private-public partnership started back in 2012. It was the welders and precision metal and couple of other guys that started that [with the Waco Independent School District]. And in 2016, when I was president of the builders association, they came to us and said, “We’ve got a wing [in the building] that GWAMA says we’re not using. Would you guys be interested in doing construction science in that wing?” So we created the Construction Science Academy with the goal of getting young kids into our industry. We have $40,000-, $50,000-, $60,000-a-year jobs we cannot give away in my industry because they don’t have the skilled workforce to take them. One of the concerns that I’ve got right now is that, as amazing as this economy is, as wonderful a job as Trump has done with our economy, if we don’t do something about our workforce, we’re not going to able to keep up. We can’t do half the work now that we have. If something doesn’t change on the workforce side, this is going to grind to a halt. We’re just physically not going to be able to do it. So creating the Construction Science Academy at GWAMA — our first group of seniors are going to graduate this year and I could not be more proud. In 2015, I worked with Haigler Enterprises International out of North Carolina.

Q    What’s that again?

A    Haigler Enterprises [which provides workforce solutions to private, public and non-profit organizations], run by a guy named Karl Haigler. He worked with Barbara Bush back in the early ’90s when she was first lady on her literacy program. We worked with Texas Workforce Commission on training unemployed and underemployed adults on how to get them into our industry, how to get them to learn how to interview properly, how to dress properly, why it’s important to have a clean background, things like that, to try to get them in there. We’re seeing a lot of good things from that, so that’s helping. We’ve got a long way to go. This dovetails into my national security argument. I’m not talking about just day laborer-type issues. In my industry, the days of going to Home Depot and loading up four or five guys, going out and building house, those are long over. Can’t do that anymore. It’s too complicated. The work’s too complicated. Things that we have to do are far too involved and the pay for those jobs now is commensurate to that. So just going out and rounding up illegal aliens, throwing them onto a job site, building a house — that’s not possible or practical anymore. I need skilled workforce. So if we have skilled laborers out there who are illegal, we do need to figure out some way to get them secured in their status here. What I want to do — and this is a national security issue for me — I want to have a period of time, a six-month period, where if someone is here in this country illegally, they can present themselves to state, local or federal law enforcement for background checks. If they pass a background check, they’re issued a 10-month work visa. It’s not citizenship. It’s not a pathway to citizenship. It’s not amnesty. And they’re going to pay taxes. They’re going to be able to go to work without looking over their shoulder. Somebody in my industry can hire them without being a criminal. They have to renew that every 10 months. They have to go to a background check. They have to prove they’re working or they’re in a training program to work. If they are and the background check is clear, they can stay. Six-month period ends, anyone who has not presented themselves for a background check is considered a bad actor and subject to deportation. That takes care of my national security issue because now I know who’s here and I know the ones who did not present themselves for a background check don’t need to be here and they need to go away. That addresses my national security issue and it addresses my workforce issue.

Q    This newspaper has expressed criticism of Obamacare, but we’ve also criticized Republicans for not having a viable plan to replace it. What are your thoughts on health-care access?

A    I believe in repeal and replace, but I don’t believe in throwing out the baby with the bathwater. There are parts of Obamacare that are good. There are parts of Obamacare that are Republican proposals that should stay. We need to maintain coverage up to age 26 [in households] and we need to take care of people with preexisting conditions. The mandate to me was unconstitutional. I think we give a more open marketplace for our insurance carriers. I don’t like the idea we cannot policy-shop across state lines. It’s ridiculous. But about the Affordable Care Act, you don’t just toss it because you don’t like it. There are things in there that will work, but we’ve got to get together. We sat down with [Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest Medical Center President] Glenn Robinson for an hour and went over these issues and talked about how we got here. What are the ways forward? One thing Glenn said that makes so much sense is that health care is not going to be fixed with a magic bullet. First thing Congress needs to do is in bipartisan fashion take the things that they all agree on, set them aside, then say, “This is what we’re going to do and then build around it.” Because Glenn made the good point that a lot of what was passed in Obamacare was [originally] Republican stuff.

Q    We’re not bringing in the federal revenue predicted of the 2017 Tax Cut & Jobs Act. We have increased spending and have only a few areas in which we can make meaningful cuts — military, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid. What does Scott Bland think we should do?

A    I listened to [House Ways and Means Committee ranking member] Kevin Brady talk about three years ago [when Brady chaired the committee]. He talked to us when we of the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce were in D.C. And he brought in the tax code, which was this big [thing]. And he had a postcard. And he said, “We’re going to get this to this.” I raised my hand. I said, “Congressman, with all due respect, this is what upsets us about Congress. You show us this and this, but when you get in back rooms with the special interests, we go back to this [massive, loophole-filled tax code] and this [the postcard] goes away. What are you going to do to make sure this doesn’t go away?” We had a lively debate. It was a good discussion. I made a point that if you get to this [doing your taxes on a postcard], you’re going to have a line of H&R Block guys around the block of the Capitol because you put them all out of business, but that’s the least of your worries. I want to do what Kevin Brady wanted to do. I want to get from this to this. And the way you do it, it’s either a flat tax or a fair tax, and you’ve got to go through and eliminate every deduction in the tax code with the exception of charitable giving. You have got to eliminate all the rest of them because if you leave one—

Q    Like mortgage?

A    I know. Yeah.

Q    That’s going to hurt. Your dad is going to disown you!

A    I said to Brady, “I know eliminating the mortgage tax credit would hurt my industry, but I also know if you leave that one in the code, then all the other special interests are going to say, ‘Well, what about his? Why does he get his?’” If you’re going to make effective tax change, you’ve got to eliminate all of them to get to that. If we could do that, then I think you’ll see the revenue produced from that [tax-cut bill] jump tremendously. How we get there, I don’t know. I’ve got to go to Congress to figure that out, but that’s where we need to go. That’s what’s got to be fixed. Our tax system is beyond broken.

Q    Do you want to offer any thoughts or observations we haven’t asked about today?

Well, we’ve touched on it, but I’m going to bring it up again because I can’t stress enough how much of a national security issue the border is, and it’s not being treated that way by the media. Not a knock on you guys, because it’s a better story to talk about the humanitarian issues, but the reality is it’s not just our sovereignty at stake. The terrorists know where our back door is and they’re using that back door. I hate that this becomes such a partisan issue because this is truly a national security issue. I do not want to see under 3,000 dead Americans before we treat the border for what it is.

Interview conducted by Trib editor Steve Boggs and opinion editor Bill Whitaker. It has been condensed for space and edited for clarity.

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