Tell Me More: Crossing the Political Divide
Tell Me More is a Tufts University podcast featuring brief conversations with the thinkers, artists, makers, and shapers of our world. Listen and learn something new every episode. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, Spotify, Stitcher, and SoundCloud.
HOST: Welcome to Tell Me More, a podcast series featuring distinguished visitors to Tufts University who share their ideas, discuss their work, and shed light on important topics of the day.
Elected to Congress in 2014, Will Hurd is the only African-American Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives. Before being elected to Congress, where he has served Texas’ 23rd District for three consecutive terms, Hurd served for nearly a decade as an undercover CIA officer in the Middle East and South Asia. In August, Congressman Hurd announced that he will not seek reelection in 2020.
In this episode of Tell Me More, in an event sponsored by the Tisch College of Civic Life, Tufts undergraduate George Behrakis interviews Hurd about his now-famous livestreamed road trip with fellow Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke, the lessons he learned from his experiences in the CIA, and his decision not to seek reelection in 2020. Let’s listen in.
GEORGE BEHRAKIS: Thank you, Congressman, for coming. We know you have a busy schedule. I want to start with why you got into politics. I think you’re a fascinating guy. You served in the CIA overseas, a tour of duty in Afghanistan, and as an undercover agent. So what made you move from that area of service into politics? Then the second part of that is what is making you leave politics now?
WILL HURD: Why did I run for Congress? Let me give you a quick background. I’m a computer science major at Texas A&M University. I had never really been outside of Texas at that point in my life. I see a sign that says, “Take two journalism classes in Mexico City for $425.” I had 450 bucks in my bank account, so I go to Mexico and fell in love being in another culture. I thought it was cool seeing things I only read about in books, and I had international studies as a minor.
The first class I took, I had this CIA badass, and that began my interest in the CIA. I thought it was a great way for me to be able to serve my country in exotic places. I was a case officer, so I was the dude in the back alleys at four o’clock in the morning collecting intelligence on threats to our homeland. My job was to recruit spies and steal secrets. My job was to stop terrorists from blowing up our homeland, to stop Russian spies from stealing our secrets, and to put nuclear weapons proliferators out of business—and best job on the planet, by the way. I did two years in DC, two years in India, two years in Pakistan, two years in New York City, and then a year and a half in Afghanistan where I managed all of our cover operations.
In addition to collecting intelligence, I had to brief members of Congress. I was pretty shocked by the caliber of our elected officials. The people I met were morons, to be honest. The story I’ve told—I’m in Afghanistan in Kabul, 2007, 2008—a bomb goes off in front of our embassy, takes out a section of our wall, kills some of our local guards. My unit was responsible for trying to figure out what happened. We conduct a couple dozen operations.
We had a HPSCI CODEL that night, a House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Congressional Delegation. I go into this briefing, and the senior person on this delegation had been on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence for five years, asks—again 2007—“Why was Iran supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan the way Iran was supporting other groups in Iraq?” Mediocre question at best, but at least they got all the right people, the players right.
I start explaining the Sunni/Shia divide, and this Congressman goes, “Will, what’s the difference between a Sunni and Shia?” I’m thinking he’s getting ready to make a really inappropriate joke, and who am I to deny him this opportunity? My response was, “I don’t know, Congressman. What’s the difference?” I’m getting ready to go, “Ba-dum-ch.” Didn’t know that difference in Islam. I always say, “It’s OK for my brother not to know that difference because he sells cable in San Antonio,” but for somebody who makes decisions on sending our boys and girls to places—men and women, excuse me—to places like Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen—unacceptable for someone who is making decisions about spending billions of our hard earned tax dollars.
What I did, I pushed—we were in a skiff—I pushed my chair out—makes a whole lot of noise—walked out, called these guys who had been talking to me about running for Congress, and I was, like, “I’m running for Congress,” and moved back to San Antonio and lost by 700 votes, but I’m glad I don’t have to tell that story anymore.
The opportunity came to run again, and I took it. I ran because I thought I was going to be able to help the intelligence community, help my country in a different way. After three tours in Congress, three terms in Congress—look, I’ve gotten fifteen pieces of legislation signed in law. That’s actually a lot. A lot of people go through multiple decades and get nothing. I’ve done it under a Democratic president, a Republican president, a Republican speaker, a Democratic speaker, because guess what? Way more unites us than divides us, and we work on those issues together.
I’m leaving because, just like I left the CIA in order to help the intelligence community in a different way, I think I could help my country in a different way. And I’m going to stay involved and help Republican candidates and Republican primaries. I’m going to stay involved in working on those issues of technology that intersects with national security, some of the things that I care a lot about. Look, everybody is saying I’m retiring. I turned forty-two last week. That may be old for you all—but thank you, but my name will probably be on the ballot again in the future, and you don’t have to leave Congress dead or defeated. You can leave on your own. I’ve always done things my way, and that’s one of the reasons I’m looking to serve in a different way.
BEHRAKIS: We had another Congressman from Texas here yesterday, Beto O’Rourke. I know that you two are good friends, and, famously, a couple years ago, your flight was canceled and you drove up to D.C. together in the same car—took social media by storm. I’m wondering if you could talk just a little bit about what has happened in the halls of Congress and the state of bipartisanship or lack thereof, I think, and give your thoughts on that.
HURD: Sure. I’ll talk about the road trip and tell some stories about Beto he doesn’t want me telling. Beto was the only Texan on the VA Committee, the Veterans Affairs Committee. And some veteran service organizations in my district wanted to meet with someone on the VA Committee. So I asked Beto to come down. He said, “Sure.” We had three meetings. First meeting, our flights get canceled, and I’m a Southwest Airlines guy. If you know anything about Southwest, Southwest flies in anything. So if Southwest is canceling, it’s serious. It was the Snowmageddon of 2016 or ’15, whenever it was— ’17. The second meeting, Beto’s like, “Let’s drive to D.C.” Third meeting, I said, “OK.” I find out after the fact that Beto never thought I was going to say, “Yes,” and so he’s stuck. So now I got to call him out if he backs out.
We rented a 1998 Ford Impala. Is it Ford? Yeah. Is Ford Impala? Chevy Impala, Chevy Impala. We drive the thirty-five-hour trip from San Antonio to Washington, D.C., thirty-one hours in the car, twenty-nine hours live-streamed, literally, literally twenty-nine hours live-streamed. We debated every single issue imaginable. We talked about health care. This was during the heat, the height of the repeal and replace debate. We literally probably talked about six hours of that twenty-nine hours on health care.
What I found in that experience, twenty-five million people watched us on social media in a little bit over a day. The Super Bowl gets, what, twenty-two million, I think? What was interesting is the first ninety minutes were terrible, by the way. Beto’s driving, we’re on Beto’s socials, so I’m having to read everything. Look, his social is a little more liberal leaning than mine, and they were saying some nasty stuff about me, and I was like, “Man.”
I was about to be, like, “Beto, just leave me on the side of the road, man. I’m hitchhiking home,” but then it broke, and people were like, “This is really cool.” When twenty-five million people watch something, at first, I was like, “We’re just two dudes in a car,” but it tells me—and it showed me that the country is actually clamoring for us to be able to disagree without being disagreeable.
It confirmed to me what I had seen in my district—and my district’s twenty-nine counties, two time zones, 820 miles of the border, the U.S. and Mexico, it’s 71 percent Latino, and it was one of the original swing districts in Texas. What I learned in my district is way more unites us than divides us, and that confirmed that with that road trip.
Unfortunately, though, the way you get clicks on social media, the way people... Look, nobody in this room has ever shared an article to their friends and be like, “Congress worked.” It’s some crazy thing like, “These guys on that side are terrible or those guys on that side are terrible.” We’re seeing that the edges continue to harden, but I will also add my first couple of months in Congress, I was shocked at how warm relations are between members of Congress, Republican and Democrat. The foundation is there for us to actually work together.
I think one of the ways we do that is there’s a structural problem. More districts need to look like mine, where the debate and the competition is in November, not during the primary. About 85 percent of the congressional districts are decided in a primary. In essence, two percent of the population in that district decide who the elected official is going to be. We have some generational-defining challenges that we have to meet. The only way to meet that is through a true competition of ideas, which means you’ve got to have two strong parties that are willing to engage in that debate and then making sure your elected officials get rewarded for solving problems and focusing on what unites us. We agree on 80 percent.
Unfortunately, the way our system is designed, we focus on that 20 percent where we’re never going to agree because you win elections by creating contrast. If you win elections by creating contrast, what do you always do? Create contrast. If you had more 50/50 districts, you would have people focusing on solutions.
BEHRAKIS: I think the point about the two strong parties is important. I think that that competition of ideas is really what we need to solve those challenges. On one of those parties, though, I think that the Republican party of which I’m a member, and some of my friends from the Tufts Republicans are here, but—
HURD: All three of y’all?
HURD: Did I say that out loud? I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that out loud. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
ALAN SOLOMONT: We have a very strong chapter here.
BEHRAKIS: We do. We do. We do have. We do. We exist, but—
BEHRAKIS: We thrive. We do, with your help. I think that for a lot of young Republicans, the future for the party looks grim. I mean, you’re the only African American Republican in the House, and it’s possible that after the next election, there will not be one. This past election, we lost Hispanic members. We lost Mia Love, who was another African American Republican serving in the House. We lost a lot of women Republicans, and when you see the freshman class Democrat versus Republican, it’s really a stark difference where one party seems to represent the demographics of this country better than the other, and it’s a long-term problem with the Republican Party. I’m curious what you see as the future of the party post-Trump. I think that’s really when we’re going to have the hard conversation, whether that be in next year, in 2020, or in 2024.
HURD: I’ve read something recently that I thought was wrong. This book I was reading said that Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, in 1980, 1984, and 1988, won the youth vote, under twenty-nine—by more than 30 points, won by 30 points. I said, “They got that wrong.” They probably meant to say they got 30 percent of the vote. They won it by 30 percentage points. That’s crazy. That is not going to happen in 2020. It didn’t happen in 2018. The two largest-growing groups of voters in the United States of America are minorities and young people. If you’re not appealing to people in those two groups, you are going to die. Guess what? The best way to do that, and this is a quote, I’m quoting myself, “Don’t be an asshole, don’t be a misogynist, don’t be racist, don’t be a homophobe, don’t be Islamophobe, don’t be somebody like that.” Start with that. It’s real simple.
Then, two, show up to communities that you’ve never been. My dad’s black, my mom’s white. I said earlier, I represent a 71 percent Latino district. There’s a town called Eagle Pass. Eagle Pass is 85 percent Democrat, about 90 percent Latino. The first time I showed up when I was running, there was a tardeada; it’s an afternoon party. Seven hundred people there, and when I walked in, three of the band members were elected officials, and they literally stopped playing because they’re, like, “Uh, why is Hurd here?” and 212 people came up to me and asked me a version of this question. The person with me, I told him to count, and they asked me, “Why are you here?” Now, the professional political class would be like, “You’re with a bunch of Latinos, they’re conservative. You should talk about family values, this, that and the other, macroeconomic theory.” My response to that question, all 212 times was, “I’m here because I like to drink beer and eat barbecue, too.”
Showing up, engaging, I don’t care what community you come from, you want the people that you love to be healthy and happy. That’s universal. Talk about those issues. That’s what I’ve tried to do, and that’s what I’m going to try to make sure you have others.
I always hate labels. My birth certificate says black. The word biracial didn’t exist when I was growing up. People always try to pigeonhole you. The question I hate, people are like, “Well, when did you become a Republican?” I’m like, “I don’t know what day it was.” There are some people that are like, “Since the fourth grade, I’ve been doing X, Y, and Z.” It’s like, “OK.” What it was for me was I got to meet George W. Bush when he was governor. We became friends. I knew Rick Perry at the time. We became friends.
A mentor of mine was Bob Gates, former secretary of defense, former CIA officer. My dad grew up in the city—and his grandfather—city called Marshall, Texas, the first Jim Crow law in Texas was in Marshall, Texas where my dad was born. You had a lot of Republicans that came to Marshall after the Civil War to help with Reconstruction. That’s what influenced my forebearers that live there. For me, part of it is the people that I’ve met, that have inspired me—we’re conservative-leaning.
Unfortunately, right now, if you’re under the age of forty, you got a whisper, “I’m a Republican,” because none of us remember Ronald Reagan. Maybe y’all remember George W. at the site of the towers that the Al-Qaeda hit on the bullhorn saying, “We hear you.” Having some of those folks that are talking about the future and the future Republican Party is a lot like the one that I joined. You solve problems by empowering people, not the government. The way you help people move up the economic ladder is through free markets, not socialism, and the way you achieve and maintain peace is by being nice with nice guys and tough with tough guys. That’s the future part.
Now, I would say foreign policy right now is be nice with tough guys and tough with nice guys, which is the exact opposite of where it should be, and there’s a lot of people, Elise Stefanik, Charlie Baker, there is John Katko in New York, a guy running in Houston called Wesley Hunt, Nicole Malliotakis in New York City, there are some other people that are like that.
BEHRAKIS: You represent a district on the border. I think it’s fair to say that the immigration issue, as a whole, has become poisoned in the past few years in a way that it has not been before. It’s obviously a crisis of many—there are many facets of the crisis. People are dying, and Congress can’t seem to do anything substantive on it. So how are we going to break out of that and start saving lives at the border?
HURD: First, let me start with building a thirty-foot high concrete structure from sea to shining sea is the most expensive and least effective way to do border security. There is a crisis that we’re dealing with. There’s a lot of illegal drugs coming into our country, about $35 billion, and put that into context: Starbucks made last year, I think, 28 billion, McDonald’s did 31 billion. There’s more illegal drugs than lattes and Big Macs. Then 1.2 million people probably have come into our country illegally this year. We need to streamline legal immigration. The U.S. has benefited from the brain drain of every other country for the last couple of decades. Let’s continue that, and let’s benefit from the hardworking drain as well, too. If you’re going to be a productive member of our society, let’s get you here as quickly as possible.
I don’t know if there’s any foreign students that are here, but a foreign student that goes to a U.S. university, when you have your diploma, I want to stick a visa in there, in that tube, when you walk across, because I want you to work at a U.S. company. I want you to start a company here in the United States. Let’s streamline that.
Ultimately, when you have a policy—let’s talk about family separations. If a policy is to snatch a child out of their mother’s arms, you need to go back to the drawing board. That is not who we are as a people. That is not a deterrent. That is not something that we should be doing, but we need to be addressing root causes in Central America. That’s violence, extreme poverty, and lack of economic opportunity, specifically in the Northern Triangle: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. I think we should have a special representative to that region, a senior diplomat who can coordinate all of our activity with those three countries.
Oh, and by the way, where is the Organization of American States in this? Where is the International Development Bank on this? This is not just a U.S. and Mexico problem. This is a Western Hemisphere problem, and we need all the Western Hemisphere involved. That’s why we should be strengthening alliances as well.
We should treat drug-trafficking organizations and human smugglers and human traffickers—we should increase amount of intelligence that we’re collecting on them to stop them before they actually get to our shores. You do those things and streamline legal immigration.
I will say this—Pete Aguilar, a Democrat from California, and I always feel like that’s a joke, like a Republican from Texas and a Democrat from California walk into a bar, and we had a bill called the USA Act, border security, streamline legal immigration, address root causes in Central America, and deal with some of the judicial problems that we have, the immigration laws. We whipped it. A whip is counting the number of votes you have for a bill. 245 people. Now, Paul Ryan, at the time, was Speaker of the House, prevented it from coming to the floor, even though we had the votes. Now, Nancy Pelosi is preventing it from coming from the floor, even though we have the votes. Why? A lot of both sides think that this issue is going to play well for them politically in campaigns, which—that’s one of the more frustrating parts, because I can tell you ultimately what would pass Congress.
Do I have time to tell a final story before we depart?
HURD: Actually, I’m the one that’s got to leave. So yes, you do, Will. When you’re in the CIA and you’re going to meet someone that’s giving you secrets, you’ve got to do an SDR—Surveillance Detection Route. I’m in a Toyota Tercel. It’s a little small car, in a city I had never been in before, about to turn down an alley, which I thought was completely abandoned. I turned down this alley. It was like a parade, a couple thousand people. I’m going four miles an hour. People are all over my car, pack animals, you name it.
A woman walks in front of my car, I mash on my break, I roll over her flip flop, and I drag her foot across the concrete, bust her toe wide open. It’s bleeding, meat’s hanging out, super nasty, and she looks in the car and realizes I’m not from around there and starts screaming bloody murder. I have what felt like hundreds of people banging on my car, shaking my car, and the standard operating procedure in this situation is get off the X. The X is a location where something’s going down, and the last place you want to be where something’s going down is where it’s going down, but my little Tercel wouldn’t be able to get me far. I had a weapon, but not enough ammunition for this situation.
So I did what they least expected. I unfold my six-foot-four frame out of this little tiny car, and everybody was shocked, and I knew some of the local language, but not enough for this situation. So I said, “Does anybody speak English?” This kid, part of the crowd, raised a finger and said, “I speak the English.” I said, “Sir, where’s the closest hospital?” He asked the crowd, “About four blocks away.” I said, “Fetch me a rickshaw.” A rickshaw is like a scooter with a carriage. Rickshaw pulls up. I make a big display of giving the woman some money. She gets in the rickshaw, my translator gets in the rickshaw, and I said, “Take her to the hospital immediately,” and they drive away, and the crowd starts clapping. Some dude literally opens my car door for me to get back in. I get in. The sea of people part, I’m driving away and I’m looking in the rearview mirror, and everybody’s waving at me, and my heart is beating because I thought my mother was going to get a phone call that no mother ever wants to get.
It’s a fun story to tell today because I’m on my third vanilla latte, I’m getting ready to go have a nice dinner with some friends later tonight, but I tell that story because there are thousands of men and women every single day and every single night putting themselves in harm’s way in order for us to enjoy the rights and privileges that we have. And these are men and women that had previously sat in your chairs, because we need more people like that, and I hope—this is a college that talks about civic engagement.
There is no higher honor that I’ve had in my life than to serve my country in some of those crazy places. I just hope that as many of y’all think about what you’re going to do in the future, that you think about an opportunity to join the diplomatic corps, or intelligence services, because it really is a noble profession and something that allows all of us to engage in that competition of ideas.
Thanks for letting me come by. God bless you all, and may God continue to bless these United States of America.
HOST: Thanks for listening to this episode of Tell Me More. Please subscribe and rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts—and to be the first to hear about new episodes, please follow Tufts University on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. We’d also welcome your thoughts on the series. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s T-U-F-T-S dot E-D-U. Tell Me More is produced by Katie McLeod Strollo, Dave Nuscher, and Anna Miller. This episode was edited by 5 to 9 Media and Anna Miller. Web production and editing support provided by Taylor McNeil. Special thanks to the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. Our theme music is sourced from De Wolfe Music, and my name is Patrick Collins. Until next time—be well.