Anthony Gonzalez didn’t want this.
He didn’t want knee injuries to end his pro football career prematurely. He didn’t want a swarm of Trump supporters to sack the Capitol on Jan. 6. He didn’t want to impeach a president, let alone one he campaigned for just a few months earlier. He didn’t want to be the first stop on that president’s revenge tour. He didn’t want the political spotlight, didn’t want one vote to define him, didn’t want to face the prospect of another career ending too soon.
But that’s what happened. And now Gonzalez says he’s doing what he’s done his entire life, on the field and in the halls of Congress: ignoring the jeering crowds, putting his head down and going to work.
“I’m quite comfortable with the pressure. … I don’t enjoy it, but it just doesn’t affect me,” the Ohio Republican said. “I try to make sure I’m best positioned to have success and to win.”
His strategy comes straight out of a high school civics textbook: Voters will reward the earnest, diligent lawmaker who scores legislative wins for his district while paying little heed to the latest outrages ginned up on social media and cable news. He’s lined up across from Trump, who threw out the dusty old political playbook when he first ran for president and is now aiming his high-powered offense right at Gonzalez.
Six months after Donald Trump left the White House unceremoniously, his hold on the Republican Party seems stronger than ever. By refusing to give credence to Trump’s lies about the election and attempting to hold him accountable for his role in inciting the Capitol riot, Gonzalez sinned in the eyes of the Ohio state GOP. He became so toxic among Ohio Republicans that a candidate in the Senate race there attacked another for not attacking Gonzalez fast enough.
Shortly after the impeachment vote, Trump announced one of his first endorsements in the 2022 election cycle: Max Miller, a former aide who had just launched his primary campaign against Gonzalez.
A scion of real estate fortune, Miller has reportedly spent much of his candidacy fundraising at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort and golf club in Bedminster, N.J., but Gonzalez still managed to outraise him in the last quarter, pulling in more than $600,000 compared to Miller’s $443,000, with $1.5 million cash on hand versus Miller’s $533,000.
Those totals, however, don’t include whatever bump Trump might have provided Miller by campaigning with him at a rally in early July. That event was held in Wellington, Ohio, just outside Gonzalez’s 16th District — for now. Ohio is set to lose a congressional seat in the upcoming redistricting, and no one knows what will happen in the predominantly white and working-class 16th District that runs from Cleveland’s western suburbs down to the mostly rural edges of Akron and Canton. Trump won the 16th handedly in 2020, but Gonzalez did even better, beating the president’s margin of victory by 11 points.
If the district grew to include more of the suburbs around Cleveland and Akron, it would help Gonzalez stave off Miller. But the mapmakers could just as easily go the other way and make the replacement district more rural, or chop up the 16th entirely and spread it across a handful of districts.
In addition to touting Trump’s endorsement, Miller’s campaign has so far focused on calling Gonzalez a RINO (Republican in Name Only) and pointing out his votes for impeachment and for a bipartisan Jan. 6 commission. Like Trump, Miller’s tried to personalize the attacks, calling Gonzalez “#TurnCoatTony” on Twitter, and appearing on friendly outlets like OAN to skewer his opponent.
For his part, Gonzalez says he’s not paying attention to any of it.
“The job is to be a lawmaker, and what I have found is the bomb throwers on television, while they have great Twitter followings, they tend to be ineffective as lawmakers,” Gonzalez said. “I’ve chosen a path that I believe is right for my district.“
“I’m focusing on what I can control: the quality of my team, how hard we work, how much money we raise,” Gonzalez added. “Everything else is just noise to me.”
Grinding it out
That stoic outlook has carried the philosophy major through the kind of life that leaves other people narcissistic, broken or both. Gonzalez was a star wideout at the Ohio State University — the man who made “The Catch” against that bitterest of rivals, the University of Michigan — and a first-round NFL draft pick. He went on to win election to the House of Representatives. By all rights, he should be cocky, outspoken, thirsty for the limelight. We expect a little vainglory from receivers who run 40 yards in 4.44 seconds and from elected officials who outrun the rest of their ticket.
But “Gonzo,” as his old teammates and coaches call him, has never been that guy. “He didn’t need a whole bunch of spotlights to work,” said Clyde Christensen, Gonzalez’s old receivers coach with the Indianapolis Colts. “He could work in the dark, in the quiet.”
“‘Gonzo’ is truly a TEAM player,” his college coach, Jim Tressel, wrote in an email.
Gonzalez is a poster child for conservative values: He got to the NFL through hard work while putting his team first. When he injured his right posterior cruciate ligament, he didn’t whine; he went to rehab. When he tore his left posterior cruciate ligament, he didn’t wallow; he went to business school. It’s the kind of personal story that had Gonzalez pegged as a rising Republican star before his Trump heresy.
As he was on the gridiron, so he’s been in the halls of Congress. First elected in 2018, Gonzalez developed a reputation as a grinder on committees, someone serious about shaping legislation — even bills he’d ultimately vote against. That’s what he did in February, when he introduced an amendment to the House Financial Services Committee’s portion of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package. Democrats balked at first, but Gonzalez, along with Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich., worked across the aisle with Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, to tweak the language of the amendment, which set aside a portion of a small business credit fund for companies with fewer than 10 employees. It became the only Republican amendment adopted to that portion of the bill, which ultimately passed without a single GOP vote.
The amendment was selfless work — he won’t be able to campaign on it, and even if he tried, $500 million set aside in the State Small Business Credit Initiative isn’t exactly the top issue for most primary voters.
Quietest guy in the room
It’s that kind of legislative hustle that’s led Gonzalez to outpace his peers in passing laws: As a freshman in the minority party, he managed to co-sponsor 21 bills that became law (including seven commemorative bills) in the 116th Congress. It’s also what’s earned him the respect of colleagues from both sides of the aisle, even as he voted with Trump 91 percent of the time, according to CQ Vote Watch.
“He is a very thoughtful guy — and obviously conservative — but he is sort of what you wish the Republican Party would be,” said Bill Foster, an Illinois Democrat. Foster knows Gonzalez about as well as anyone in Congress — they sit on two committees together and Foster chairs a subcommittee where Gonzalez is the ranking member.
Gonzalez spoke to me in the Capitol’s hallways after a vote. His office declined an interview request; after defending his impeachment vote in a few interviews, he’s mostly avoided national press. When I managed to corner him outside an elevator bank, he looked at me warily. When he wasn’t crossing his arms across his chest, he was shoving his hands in his pockets. As we spoke, he leaned past me to hit the elevator call button.
Even during the height of the pandemic, members of Congress are a chatty, social bunch who frequently travel to and from votes in close-talking clutches. But Gonzalez usually walks alone, and on more than one occasion I’ve watched him attempt to get around a hallway bottleneck of talkative colleagues by shrinking his body, attempting to silently squeeze around them, rather than simply say, “Excuse me.”
Gonzalez is a college football star, NFL wide receiver, a twice-elected congressman and pretty darn shy.
“He’s more an introvert than quiet,” said Joyce Beatty, an Ohio Democrat who’s co-sponsored legislation with Gonzalez and sits with him on the Financial Services panel.
“He won’t speak about things until he has something to say,” said Foster.
“He’s very comfortable just listening, taking it all in, figuring it out. That’s how he was as a football player,” said Christensen. “At the end of the day, he’s not passive — he’s a doer, a go-getter — but he doesn’t have to be the loudest guy in the room. He can do it in silence. He thinks through situations and figures out his path.”
When I cornered Gonazlez near the elevators to ask him about how he’s handled becoming persona non grata among the MAGA set, another Republican interjected to offer his own thoughts, unprompted.
“I can tell you how conservative Republicans feel,” he said. “We believe that the young congressman is doing a hell of a job, and there will be conservatives that come into this district to help him out.”
I didn’t recognize the representative, and neither did Gonzalez at first — he took out his phone and used a website to confirm his supporter’s identity: Texas Rep. Pete Sessions. After 10 terms in Congress, the rock-ribbed conservative Sessions lost reelection in his increasingly moderate, suburban district in 2018 to Democrat Colin Allred, another former NFLer and a friend of Gonzalez’s. But he ran again for a different seat in 2020 and won. Gonzalez said the two had only just met.
Going old school
Other Republicans were more reticent to praise one of the 10 Trump impeachment apostates. Some declined to comment, while others chose their words carefully. When I asked Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas (who also sits on the Financial Services and Science, Space and Technology committees) for his thoughts about Gonzalez, he hesitated for a second as another Republican waiting for the elevator shot him a bemused grimace, as if to say, “Good luck with that one, buddy.”
“What I can say is, I simply like him,” said Lucas, who objected to certain Electoral College results on Jan. 6. “[He has] the makings of an old-school lawmaker — can you remember back when we used to care about legislation, amendments, process, debate and all that?”
Some Republicans have been less diplomatic, none more so than the former president.
“He’s a grandstanding RINO, not respected in D.C., who voted for the unhinged, unconstitutional, illegal impeachment witch hunt,” Trump said in Wellington.
A lot of Republicans in northeast Ohio will decide who to back based on one factor: Trump. “He said to vote for Miller and that’s exactly what I’m going to do. I follow my president,” a woman named Susan Waters told the Washington Post a day after the rally.
A poll by the conservative interest group Club for Growth, which endorsed Miller, showed Gonzalez trailing him among primary voters, 39 percent to 30 percent, with 31 percent undecided. But when the pollsters reminded them that Gonzalez voted to impeach Trump, Miller’s support jumped to 69 percent, Gonzalez’s fell to 17 percent, and just 14 percent remained undecided.
Despite, or perhaps because of, all the intense media attention around his reelection campaign, Gonzalez managed to fly down to Georgia a few weeks ago for a few rounds of golf with Christensen, his old coach.
“We had 36 holes of catching up, rekindling a great friendship and hearing what he’s doing,” Christensen said.
They talked about Gonzalez’s life in Congress, the slow slog through committees legislation has to make to become law, and the wear of constant travel to and from Washington. Eventually, Christensen asked about Jan. 6. And so, amid the rolling, manicured hills of Augusta National Golf Club, Gonzalez retold the story about that cold, gray day full of blood and broken glass, about locking himself in his office, about wondering if he might die. And how, throughout it all, Trump did nothing to stop it, did nothing to defend the Capitol from enemies domestic. So that’s why he had to vote to impeach.
“He went with his heart and what he felt was the right thing, no matter what the ramifications were. I greatly respect that — knowing full well it might not be the most popular decision, he will do what he feels deeply is the best thing for the people and the country,” Christensen said. “It certainly wasn’t easy, but I think he certainly was true to his conscience and to the facts.”