Wearing jeans, cowboy boots and a white, short-sleeved, button-down shirt, U.S. Rep. Will Hurd walked into a Dairy Queen in El Paso and began shaking hands. Some of the diners were waiting for him, armed with printed talking points and cutting questions. Others were confused about the commotion.
Hurd on Sunday kicked off a six-day, 20-event blitz of town hall meetings at fast food restaurants, primarily DQs, in his massive West Texas district, the state’s only true swing seat. While it’s Hurd’s third “DC2DQ” tour, it’s his first since Donald Trump became president, and the crowd of several dozen in eastern El Paso quickly demonstrated why so many of his GOP colleagues have recently been evading spontaneous interactions with their constituents.
After Hurd thanked his hamburger-hustling hosts, plugged his social media accounts and talked up his work on behalf of his Latino constituents — a must for an African-American Republican in an overwhelmingly Hispanic district — he fielded a question from Alma Castillo, a 63-year-old American citizen who emigrated from Mexico when she was 2.
She shared an emotional story of being threatened with deportation because of an innocuous paperwork issue and said Trump is dividing the country along racial lines.
“The bills that they’re passing, it’s profiling,” Castillo said. “I want you to take this back to Mr. Trump to let him know what he is doing to our country.”
Hurd, who has criticized many of Trump’s immigration stances, is better equipped to win over voters like Castillo than most Republicans. He hugged Castillo, drawing applause, and said that immigrants make the country better.
“We have benefited from the brain drain of every other country the last couple of decades,” Hurd said. “I want to make sure that we continue to benefit our country because your story and what you have done has made our community safer. So I really appreciate you sharing your story, and these are the stories that guide me as I’m up in Washington, D.C.”
A biracial moderate with blue-collar roots and a distinguished career in the CIA, Hurd is either a harbinger of a more diverse Republican Party — as some in Washington have declared — or a symbol of the ethnic and ideological diversity that the party is struggling to hold on to in the Trump era. Hurd will be one of Democrats’ top targets in the 2018 midterm elections, and challengers are already emerging.
At his first stop Sunday, the second-term congressman was quizzed on environmental issues, net neutrality, medical marijuana for veterans, the repeal of Obamacare and the deportation of so-called Dreamers, unauthorized immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. Talking over blenders churning out Blizzards behind him, Hurd rattled off answers. He didn’t address every question directly, but he explained why he wanted to try.
“That’s why I’m doing 20 town halls in six days to hear these concerns. That’s why I’m out in a place that I didn’t win — because I represent everybody, not just the people that vote for me,” he said.
El Paso school district teacher Xavier Miranda, a local political activist who peppered Hurd on a number of issues, said he wasn’t satisfied with the congressman’s responses.
“He’s being politically expedient,” Miranda said of Hurd’s moderate stands, such as voting against the House Republican plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
The fast-food town halls, Miranda said, are also designed for Hurd’s political benefit because they allow him to get in and get out without having to face extended questioning from a large crowd.
But does he get credit for at least showing his face at a time when some Republicans are conducting town halls over the phone or not at all?
“I’m surprised he showed up. He’ll get credit for that,” Miranda said.
While Hurd probably didn’t win over those who showed up to protest him, he introduced himself to less politically engaged constituents who were just there for a burger.
Lydia Arias, 63, said she is a lifelong Democrat and opposes Trump. But she remembered seeing something about Hurd on the local news that made her think he genuinely cares about Hispanics and El Pasoans. She didn’t realize he was a Republican until meeting him Sunday.
“He’s a Republican?” Arias said after shaking Hurd’s hand. “Oh, well, I’ll change my mind because I want to vote for him.”
Meeting him in person, she said, helped seal the deal. “He’s handsome,” she said. Her husband laughed while chewing a burger.