Tony Gonzales was not supposed to win in 2020 — or, at least, not win so big. The Republican’s strong performance in a district that’s 70 percent Hispanic helped kill the demographics-are-destiny theory that’s had some Democrats dreaming of a blue Texas for over a decade now.
Gonzales’ road to Congress was both winding (there aren’t many high school dropouts on the Hill) and long (he put 70,000 miles on his pickup truck campaigning). In October, Gonzales talked about goats, why he’d never trade in his F-150 for a Prius, and how a devout Catholic could support immigration policies like “Remain in Mexico.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: How often do you get confused for Anthony Gonzalez, the Republican from Ohio?
A: A lot. I just had a birthday, and I got a stack of birthday cards. Half of them say Anthony Gonzalez with a “z.” You get no points from me if you send me a card and you spell my name wrong.
Q: You’re one of the rare high school dropouts to come to Congress. When did you first start dreaming about running for office, and when did that start feeling like something you could actually pursue?
A: 10 years old. I turned on C-SPAN and was immediately dazzled by what was happening. It was just this sense of, this is where the nation’s business happens. When did it become real? When I got selected as a Defense fellow. I was the first enlisted Defense fellow [on Capitol Hill], and I was working for Marco Rubio, working on the NDAA, doing all this stuff.
Q: The GOP surprised some political observers this past election by doing really well with Hispanics in Texas, especially along the border. Why?
A: My district in particular, District 23, has always been a toss-up. Will Hurd won by 900 votes [in 2018], and everyone thought this seat was gone. But I won by 12,000 votes, more than all of Will’s election [margins] put together.
Now, why? One, the district is over 70 percent Hispanic. I’m Mexican American. I have six kids. Being Catholic, being a combat veteran — all those things, I show up to a community, and I’m on the 50-yard line. The other thing is my style is a very personal kind of retail politics. I put 70,000 miles on my pickup truck; I literally went everywhere. I’d have coffee with you in your house. I think that ultimately made people who maybe didn’t vote for Trump, vote for us.
The secret sauce is to show up early, show up often, be genuine and don’t try to say what you think they want to hear. The conservative message is a winning message, but we need to show up.
And the messenger matters. There are 23 Republican members of Congress from Texas — 22 of them are Caucasian, and then there’s Tony Gonzales. If we’re going to win these seats, we need a messenger who can relate.
Q: That’s a lot to put on your truck, 70,000 miles. Did you ever think of getting a hybrid just to save money on the gas?
A: If you show up with a hybrid vehicle in West Texas, a Tesla or a Prius, that’s going to be a pretty tough start for you. It’s going to be evident that you’re disconnected. I have a lot of oil and gas in my area. And I like to drive a pickup truck; that’s what I drive. Just be who you are, man.
Q: You’re a prominent voice for the GOP on immigration issues. You’re also a devout Catholic. How do you reconcile the Republican positions on things like “Remain in Mexico” and Title 42 with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ official position that “migrants have a right to claim refugee status without incarceration” and the pope reminding people that Jesus himself was a refugee?
A: The compassion message is absolutely critical, and we absolutely need to be compassionate toward others. But because of policy decisions, that compassion has turned deadly. I’ll give an example. [In October] you had a family coming to make this trek [to the United States]. They get on a train that goes through Eagle Pass into San Antonio and onward, and the husband loses his arm, the wife loses her leg and their 1-year-old daughter loses parts of her hand. When you try to welcome everybody without a lane, it creates chaos. I mean, the stories go on and on.
Bottom line is, our immigration system right now, it’s not broken — it doesn’t exist. There is no lane for somebody who wants, like the Catholic Church is talking about, to come over and live a better life. There is no legal way to do that, so their only option is to go down this illegal route and be exploited by cartels and others.
I think you can have both — you can be firm on border security, and you can be compassionate and move toward legal immigration reform. The problem is, nobody up here wants to have that conversation.
Last book you read? “Be a Better Dad Today!” by Gregory Slayton, former ambassador to Bermuda. It’s a good reminder.
In politics, can the ends justify the means? No.
Least popular opinion? I’m very frustrated being a Dallas Cowboys fan. I live in San Antonio, why am I rooting for a team 4 1/2 hours away from me?
If you could do anything else for a job, what would it be? I would raise Spanish goats. They’ve got beautiful colors and a lot of personality.
Closest friend across the aisle? Easy, Henry Cuellar, my friend, my neighbor. Little known fact: Henry and I grew up in the same little town, Camp Wood. Five hundred people in this town.