Why you should care
The racial divisions in America remain deep. But Hurd’s election in South Texas shows they don’t always have to be definitional.
Even in the sea of people gathered for San Antonio’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day march, Will Hurd is hard to miss. At 6 feet 4 inches, he towers over the crowd. His suit and tie and newly bestowed 114th Congress pin contrast with the jeans and running shoes sported by most of his fellow marchers. For a rookie politician, he works the crowd well, shaking hands with a group of local bikers in full leather regalia, posing for pictures with babies — “I’m a politician; I have to kiss babies,” he tells one mother in his warm Texas drawl — and chatting up local officials. And the crowd, mostly African-American and Hispanic with a smattering of other races, greets him warmly.
“Hey, that’s the new congressman,” a middle-aged black woman murmurs to her companion, also African-American. “Yeah,” he replies, “first black Republican!” She bursts out laughing — in surprise? Dismay? It’s hard to tell.
Hurd isn’t really the first black Republican congressman. But as the son of an African-American father and a white mother, he’s rare enough — one of just seven African-Americans to represent the GOP in the House of Representatives since the 1930s. Two others are also currently in Congress, the most at one time since the 19th century. Fellow House freshman Mia Love, of Utah, has garnered more of the trailblazer hype, partly because the handicappers assumed Hurd, who’d failed to win his current seat in 2010, didn’t stand a chance: In 2014, he ran against a former congressman in the primary and the incumbent in the general election, both of them Mexican-Americans in a largely Hispanic South Texas district. Hurd squeaked by in the general election by 2,500 votes.
Nonetheless, his came-from-out-of-nowhere run to Congress suggests it’s time to re-examine old assumptions — not just about blacks in the Republican Party, but also about identity politics in America writ large. Even as events like Ferguson highlight enduring racial divisions, much else suggests that the dividing lines aren’t as rigid as they once were. Six years after a white-majority electorate voted the son of an African father and a white mother into the highest office in the land, the evolution continues.
The decor at El Chaparral Restaurant is ranch style, the crowd is boisterous, and the enchiladas are generously cheesy. I’m sitting at a corner table with Hurd, his parents and his campaign manager, Justin. We make a motley quintet, in age, skin color, background and gender — but even deep in the heart of Texas, the racial mix doesn’t raise eyebrows.
That wouldn’t have been the case when Hurd’s parents, Mary Alice and Robert, moved there in the 1970s. They’d met-cute, in L.A.: Robert was a traveling textiles salesman, and Mary Alice bought fabric for a department store. Before long, they’d run off to Reno and gotten married. After Robert’s company transferred him to Texas, it took a full year for the newlyweds to buy a home. Agents were encouraging when Mary Alice visited, she recalls. But on the weekends, when she returned with her black husband, the house had suddenly fallen off the market. “It wasn’t en vogue to be an interracial couple in the ’70s in South Texas,” Will Hurd says, wryly.
His years as a clandestine operative in Pakistan and Afghanistan have made him a valuable commodity on Capitol Hill.
That has changed over Hurd’s lifetime, thanks largely to changing demographics. An influx of Hispanic residents made San Antonio one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, and national rates of intermarriage more than doubled between 1980 and 2010. Mary Alice remembers their house being filled with kids of all colors running around. Bryan Win, one of Will’s basketball teammates, was one of them. Color lines weren’t part of the teenage consciousness, says Win, who is Mexican and Chinese. “We all hung around each other, so at the time we didn’t notice. It was just kind of who we were.” Hurd remains attached to that tight social network to this day: Most of his campaign team members are former high school or college classmates.
Hurd’s first big turning point came at Texas A&M. He was student body president there, but didn’t intend to pursue politics. As he tells it, it was almost a fluke. One day he attended a guest lecture by a former CIA clandestine officer. “The next day I went and knocked on his door and said, ‘Tell me more.’”
The longtime spy turned professor was James Olson, and he ended up recruiting Hurd to the agency. In Hurd, he says, “I could see the leadership, I could see the charisma, I could see the poise.” Olson could see something else, too — a chance to help the agency “aggressively” diversify its ranks. So he was pleased with Hurd’s decision. “Really, really well-qualified African-Americans are sought by a lot of organizations,” including the CIA, Olson says.
Hurd can’t say much about his CIA years, other than that they involved “recruiting spies and stealing secrets,” but without a doubt, his years as a clandestine operative in Pakistan and Afghanistan have made him a valuable commodity on Capitol Hill. After all, very few undercover agents go into politics (or if they were spies in a previous life, we don’t know about it). He stands out for other reasons, too: He is young, only 37, and not afraid of technology, unlike a lot of Luddite congressmen.
And then, of course, there is his race. What made Robert and Mary Alice Hurd personae non gratae in some San Antonio neighborhoods so long ago has become, for their son, an asset. It definitely matters to the GOP. Along with Rep. Love, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and a handful of Latinos, Hurd brings a smidgen of diversity to a party caucus that is made up almost entirely of old white guys. To Scott, the first black Republican senator from the South in more than a century, the “oxymoron of being a black Republican is not as pronounced as it was 20 years ago,” when he first ran for office. He is only half-joking.
In a country whose population becomes browner by the decade, the GOP’s lack of diversity has become a serious political liability, and party leaders know it. After the 2012 election, when Barack Obama won some 93 percent of black voters and more than 70 percent of Hispanics and Asians, the Republican National Committee issued a kind of stock-taking report that warned the GOP that its base was shrinking — and would continue to shrink unless it engaged more with minorities, opened its ideology and reconsidered its stance on immigration. Some say the Republicans haven’t built minority relationships. “Republicans are so out of step with African-American culture that they don’t get it,” says J.C. Watts, a black Republican and former congressman from Oklahoma.
The Democrats didn’t always have the “minority” vote, though that can be hard to remember. Hurd’s father, who grew up in the segregated South, says his loyalty to the Republican Party goes back to Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation: Republicans were “the ones that freed us,” he says. Though blacks’ party allegiances began to shift under Depression-era social policies, they wholly flipped a few decades later, during the civil rights era of the 1960s. By championing civil rights, the Democrats famously lost the South — and gained the loyalty of many black voters.
That’s why Republicans tout the heck out of their minority members, Hurd included. House Republicans have already given him a plum subcommittee chairmanship, a rare get for a freshman. And he’ll get a lot of support in his 2016 re-election race.
Having black voices in the GOP may make it more attuned to black interests, says Watts, because someone at the table “can say, ‘Mmm, I know what you’re trying to do, but I wouldn’t do it like that.’” But it’s not quite clear how much Hurd, Love and others help with minority outreach. When Hurd says his “skin color” didn’t matter to voters, he’s right: Black voters couldn’t have won Hurd the election, because they make up less than 4 percent of residents in the district and even less of the registered voters. In fact, none of the African-American Republicans elected to Congress in the modern era represents a majority black district. Instead, says Christina Greer, a political scientist at Fordham University, they’ve been elected in “very, very white enclaves” — or, in Hurd’s case, white and Hispanic — “where they see this particular person as the exception to their race.”
He and other black Republicans face a balancing act when they embrace race and party, identities that can seem directly at odds.
Hurd’s challenge, then, will be to walk the thin tightrope between his right-of-center campaign promises (secure the border, chop federal spending) while also appealing to low- and middle-income Latinos in his district. He and other black Republicans face a similar balancing act when they try to embrace both race and party, identities that can seem directly at odds. While shrinking the federal government doesn’t sound racially charged in the abstract, it can feel that way to voters, says Temple University professor Niambi Carter, who studies race and ethnic politics. “Let’s face it: Black people haven’t done well when the government hasn’t been involved” in enforcing things like civil rights and federal housing policy, she says.
“I completely disagree with that logic,” Hurd says. While he acknowledges that government has helped the black community, he says now it must empower African-Americans to do things for themselves. “PMA,” or “Positive Mental Attitude,” was his campaign’s up-by-your-bootstraps mantra; he borrowed it from his salesman father, who used it to motivate himself on the road. “The idea of moving up the economic ladder” is a timeless Republican tradition, Hurd says, and one that could appeal to African-Americans if the party articulates it in the right way.
The implicit tensions between race and GOP politics are on full display here on Martin Luther King Drive in East San Antonio, where thousands have gathered on a sunny, unseasonably warm Monday in January for what the city brags is the biggest MLK march in the country. Amid the families and union groups are signs of unrest. Young black men wear “I Can’t Breathe” shirts to protest police violence, and Hispanic marchers hoist signs that read “Human Beings Are Not Illegal.”
Hurd says he doesn’t oppose a new immigration law, though he prefers to focus on the border first. As for police violence, “It’s an issue,” though not in San Antonio, he maintains: Law enforcement and communities cooperate here. When a former Democratic congressman, Ciro Rodriguez, comes and gives Hurd a congratulatory pat on the back, he immediately follows it with, “So, are you the only African-American in the Republican Party?” Hurd smiles, before politely correcting him. “I always say we need people on both sides,” he adds. You get the sense he explains this a lot.
Should he have to? To Hurd, being a Republican is about “helping people move up,” about “freedom of opportunity.” Race is an important part of his identity, in other words, but it’s not his only priority. National security is another priority, and so is bootstrapping. And maybe that’s enough for now. Forty years after his parents were repeatedly redlined, their son represents the same district — which is mostly Hispanic — in Congress. When Hurd runs for re-election in 2016, as many expect, he may well lose. But what if he wins, and proves that first election was no fluke? We could have a real instance of post-racial politics in our midst.