After only three months in Congress, Tony Gonzales has become a familiar face to millions of Americans.
In February and March, as a surge of migrants overwhelmed federal facilities at the southern border, the freshman from Texas’ 23rd District emerged as one of the leading Republican voices on the crisis, making frequent appearances on Fox News and other networks to criticize the Biden administration’s response. He traveled to El Paso with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and other House Republicans to receive a briefing from the Border Patrol and tour a migrant facility.
“Look, I’ve lived on the border. My district is all about the border. I’m Hispanic,” he said in an interview. “The fact that I was able to bring McCarthy and a dozen members to Texas to see it firsthand says it all. It says that we have the ability to have these conversations – at least in my party.”
For the GOP, Gonzales’ victory last fall over Democratic candidate Gina Ortiz Jones in the immense and diverse district that includes northwest, west, and southwest parts of Bexar County was a bright spot in an election season that lost the party the presidency and control of the Senate. So perhaps it is not a surprise that the party leadership has elevated him to positions of power rarely held by a freshman, assigning him to a coveted spot on the Appropriations Committee and making him assistant whip under Steve Scalise (R-Louisiana).
Gonzales’ predecessor, Will Hurd, earned a reputation during his two terms in Congress for gestures of bipartisanship – most famously, a cross-country road trip with former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke – and a willingness, to an extent unusual among elected Republicans, to resist the influence of President Donald Trump over the party.
Gonzales says he wants to reach across party lines and temper the rhetoric in D.C. Upon taking his seat, he followed Hurd’s lead by joining the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. He touts his good relationships with Reps. Veronica Escobar (D-El Paso) and Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo).
Yet Gonzales faces different political winds from those Hurd grappled with. In the most recent election, Trump surprised many by winning the 23rd by 1.8 percentage points, after losing it to Hillary Clinton by 3.4 points in 2016.
On Twitter, Gonzales has shown a Trumpian side, referring to Washington, D.C., as the “swamp” and to Democratic leaders as “seasoned swindlers” and “political vultures.”
“He’s a simple guy, and I think that resonates with a lot of folks. He just seems like that guy that grew up down the street from you,” said Texas GOP strategist Thomas Marks. “He has some of the things Will Hurd had, he has some of the things Joe Straus had. He’s probably further to the right than both of them.”
In his leadership position within the GOP, representing a prominent swing district, Gonzales could act as a unifying force in a deeply divided Congress. But the Democrats plan to put the district back in play next year, and Gonzales could face a primary challenge from a more conservative candidate.
“He’s in the unenvious position of having to play defense from day one, having to look down the field and think about what happens next,” said Colin Strother, an Austin-based Democratic political strategist. “There will be no rest for the young congressman. He went from the frying pan into the fire.”
Gonzales said he has dreamed of running for office since childhood. His ambition for a career in Congress took shape while he served as a Department of Defense legislative fellow for Republican Sen. Marco Rubio near the end of his 20-year career in the U.S. Navy.
“I got to see the appropriations process,” Gonzales said. “I think it’s one of those committees that is impactful, powerful.”
The day after the Nov. 3 election, while other newly elected members were “trying to figure out what was the biggest office they could get,” Gonzales lobbied for a spot on Appropriations, arguing that it would help him defend his seat.
“’If I can’t get Appropriations, my second choice is Appropriations,’” he recalled himself saying. “When I pitched Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise, and our leadership, my insight was this: If you want to be the speaker, you need me to be successful. In order for me to be successful, I need to be on Appropriations.”
Growing up in the Five Points neighborhood in San Antonio, he recalls being surrounded by Democratic politics. His grandfather, who served as a role model for him after his father left the family when he was a toddler, was a staunch “blue-dog” Democrat who often talked about longtime San Antonio Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez at the dinner table, he said.
After his father left, his mother married an “angry man” whose abusive behavior drove Gonzales to live with his grandparents starting around third grade, Gonzales said. His grandfather, a World War II veteran and voracious reader, had a job at Kelly Air Force Base that “essentially bolted our family line into the middle class.”
At age 15, Gonzales sought to escape his chaotic family life by living on his own, earning his rent money by selling subscriptions to the San Antonio Express-News door-to-door, he said. The work eventually left him burned out, and he dropped out of high school.
He joined the Navy in large part because it had a program he could use to earn his high school diploma while in the service. He trained as a cryptologist and saw deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I didn’t even realize I could be a Republican until after I was in the service and looking at things differently,” he said.
Stretching across 800 miles of the southern border, from the suburbs of El Paso to those of San Antonio, the 23rd District is one of America’s largest and most unwieldy congressional districts. Heavily Hispanic and working-class, it is as diverse economically as it is geographically, encompassing the oil fields of the Permian Basin, military communities such as Laughlin Air Force Base, and rural areas in deep South Texas.
Politically, it is contrarian, having gone for Mitt Romney in 2012 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 before its surprise flip to Donald Trump in 2020.
On Nov. 3, Gonzales beat Jones, making her second run for the seat, by more than 11,000 votes, a much larger margin than Hurd’s 926-vote victory over her in 2018.
Some attribute Gonzales’ victory to his ground game. Out of precaution during the coronavirus pandemic, Jones conducted her campaign virtually. Gonzales, on the other hand, boasts that he put 70,000 miles on his pickup truck traveling to campaign events.
“That district is a high-information district, very much like Iowa or New Hampshire,” said Strother. “It’s been a competitive district for so long, they expect to see their candidates, they expect to talk to them, they expect to be able to go find them at the Dairy Queen or at the coffee shop or at the parade.
“Gonzales was the only one doing that, and I think the election results reflected that.”
It also seems likely that Gonzales, who received Trump’s endorsement, benefited from the surge of support for the former president in his district.
No one is quite sure what to make of Trump’s strong performance among Hispanics along the border. Gonzales thinks that many of his constituents were turned off by language from Democratic candidates about defunding the police and a perceived lack of support from Biden for the oil and gas industry.
“He was successful throughout the border for a couple reasons,” he said of Trump. “One is, while Hispanics are Democrats, they’re not socialists. Their faith is important to them. Family’s important to them. They don’t really want things from the government. And I think the Democratic Party has taken a hard left shift.”
An important question, one that has serious implications for Texas’ political future, is whether Trump’s performance indicates a permanent swing toward the GOP in border areas once seen as reliably Democratic.
Gonzales said he doesn’t see it as a lasting trend.
“I don’t view it so much as left or right. I think that in this district in particular, they hold you accountable,” he said. “If you don’t show up, if you don’t do these things, you don’t represent them. It’s not just how you vote, it’s beyond that. It’s like, do you have our back?”
Time in Congress
Gonzales, a father of six children ages 7 months to 20, lives in Shavano Park with his wife, Angel, an officer in the naval reserves. While in D.C., he sleeps in his office on a couch given to him by former Arizona Sen. Martha McSally, he said.
He had been in office only three days when a crowd of pro-Trump protesters stormed the U.S. Capitol. As members of Congress were evacuated from the House chamber, Gonzales was among a group of GOP freshmen who stood guard with Capitol Police at one of the doors. “It reminded me very much of my time in combat,” he later said.
A week and a half later, he voted against Trump’s second impeachment, tweeting that it was a “ridiculous effort by Nancy Pelosi to further divide our country.” In an opinion piece for the Big Bend Sentinel, he said it is “high time to set aside finger-pointing” and identified a need to “change the toxic rhetoric” in Washington. He attended Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20.
When some House Republicans tried to strip Rep. Liz Cheney of her leadership position for voting to impeach Trump, Gonzales tweeted that the effort was “puro pedo,” Spanish slang that means something like “nonsense.”
Though he represents a swing district, Gonzales has strong conservative credentials: Pro-life, anti-Obamacare, a supporter of charter schools and the Second Amendment. One of the bills he has introduced so far in his term would limit the Biden administration’s ability to reenter the Iran nuclear deal.
“That’s the thing about our contemporary politics, is that somebody like Tony Gonzales can be conservative, very conservative, and in a 50/50 district. You’re sort of at the mercy of the flattening of national politics,” said Carlos Algara, assistant professor of political science at the University of Texas at El Paso. “I think he’s in good shape for 2022, not because of anything he’s going to do in office, but just due to the fact that it’s the Democratic midterm. And if 2024 is a Democratic year, he’s going to be in a lot of trouble.”
Like Hurd, Gonzales sees the border situation with more nuance than Trump offered in his rhetoric. He has said that he wants to build more walls on the border and to bolster security with targeted use of technology, but he considers a wall across the entire border to be a waste of resources.
Also like Hurd, he hopes to make cybersecurity his area of expertise in Congress, building upon his experience as a cryptologist, or code-breaker, in the Navy.
“I think it’s an issue that one, isn’t a partisan area – we should all be able to get behind it,” Gonzales said. “The other thing is that it’s an area of need. Look, up here in D.C., you have got doctors and you have got professional politicians and you have got business owners, but you don’t have a cryptologist. So I’m a practitioner.”
Up to now, Gonzales has mainly been offering his expertise on the border. On a recent Saturday, he appeared on Fox News for at least the fifth time in the past month to discuss the migrant surge. After Cuellar released photos showing a crowded overflow facility, Gonzales took to Twitter to criticize the Biden administration for its “open border rhetoric.”
“He’s a voice that the party wants to promote,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston, of Gonzales. “He’s someone they need to have front and center, to demonstrate their diversity not only of color but of opinion.”
Leadership positions on Capitol Hill do not necessarily protect incumbents in elections. In less than a year, Gonzales could face a challenger from the right in a primary. His 2020 primary against Raul Reyes Jr. took a vicious turn, heading into a runoff that he won by only seven votes out of nearly 25,000 cast.
But Gonzales is getting an early start on 2022, raising roughly $600,000 in the first quarter of 2021, according to a spokesperson. In the 2020 election, Gonzales’ top donors were from the oil and gas industries, nearly 10% of his total haul of $2.8 million, according to OpenSecrets.org.
“To a certain degree, his future as a politician is going to be decided by macro partisan forces outside of his control,” Algara said. “But if he’s able to win competitive races, I think he’s going to have a very bright future.”