Texas Ties Help Lone Star Lawmakers Transcend Politics -- Sometimes

Loving the state you represent is not a unique phenomenon in Congress. But, as Texas Republicans will tell you, everything is bigger in the Lone Star State. This is Part IV of a series on the Texas GOP. Part I examined the growing clout of the House delegation, Parts II and III delved into the GOP’s weekly lunch and the members who miss those gatherings.

Whether it’s immigration, taxes or health care, Texas is roiled by the same thorny political issues that divide the rest of the country. But members of the state’s sizable congressional delegation — both Republicans and Democrats — insist policy disagreements don’t change this one basic Lone Star fact: Texans like other Texans.

“Texas has a very unique personality as a state, and I think most of our elected officials, actually Republican and Democrat alike, kinda share that Texas attitude,” said Rep. Blake Farenthold, a Republican based in Corpus Christi. “We’re proud to be Texans, and we’re not afraid to let the world know that we’re together.”

Farenthold, like many of the delegation’s 23 other Republicans — and several of the 12 Democrats, for that matter — isn’t interested in cultivating a moderate persona.

“Moderate” generally doesn’t work in a state where most of the districts were drawn to reward one party or the other; the average Cook Partisan Voting Index for a Republican district, after all, is R+16.5, and is D+9.67 for Democratic ones.

But even if they often find themselves on opposing sides on issues, Texas Republicans and Democrats — even the most hard-line conservatives and the most passionate liberals — insist there’s something special about home that always brings them back together.

Houston-area Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee, who has never been shy about letting Republicans know how she feels, has a soft spot for her fellow Texans — even if they are often on opposite sides of a debate.

“I think there’s still a great deal of pride,” Jackson Lee said. “I think we enjoy the bigness of Texas, and we recognize fellow Texans.”

Asked about the partisan divide in the state delegation, Jackson Lee insisted that she “wouldn’t cede that point that there is a divide.”

On the other end of the political spectrum, currently leading an effort to impeach Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., is Republican Pete Olson. No matter his politics, the Sugar Land resident is a Texan, and he said Lone Star members “come together as a doggone delegation to support our state. Party doesn’t matter.”

Olson ticked down the names of half the state delegation, noting that if something important happens in a certain part of the state — El Paso, for instance — he can count on the member from that region to help the delegation solve the issue. (“Beto [O’Rourke], you’re my guy.”)

Olson’s hypothetical collaboration aside, O’Rourke was one of the few Texas lawmakers to question the idea that the state’s delegation is one big happy family.

The freshman Democrat told CQ Roll Call he didn’t have a “tremendous” amount of interaction with his Texas counterparts from either party. But he said he wasn’t opposed to working more closely with the delegation (and that seems to be happening: CQ Roll Call recently spotted Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, consulting with O’Rourke in the Speaker’s Lobby over an El Paso issue).

O’Rourke may be open to working with Republicans, but he isn’t interested in adopting the Texas GOP’s obsession with home-state fashions.

From Sen. John Cornyn’s Lone Star belt buckle to Sen. Ted Cruz’s ostrich-skin boots, Texas Republicans wear their state pride on their sleeves. Or, more often, their ties.

“I’m not someone who is going to wear a Texas flag tie, but, yeah, I appreciate that,” said O’Rourke, who was donning a Vineyard Vines tie at the time.

Like O’Rourke, fellow Democrat Henry Cuellar prefers a more subtle declaration of his Texas-ness: While speaking to CQ Roll Call recently, he peeled back the left side of his suit coat to reveal a small Texas flag patch sewn onto his shirt pocket.

Working with Texans on both sides of aisle is important for the 58-year-old congressman in his fifth term. He said he has a rule to not donate to anyone challenging a Texas politician, Republican or Democrat, and he noted that his best friend on Capitol Hill is McCaul. (Texas Republican John Culberson, for the record, said his congressional bestie was “probably” Cuellar — awkward.)

Even Texas members with diametrically opposed beliefs seem to find common ground.

Jackson Lee said it only “looks as if I’m against my fellow Texans” when “outside groups named the tea party” who want to condemn President Barack Obama “every single day.”

And Rules Chairman Pete Sessions said it’s difficult for Texans to appear united when “our Democrat friends are completely for Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.”

Those disagreements disappear, though, when it comes to home-state issues.

The day after the April shooting at Fort Hood, which left four dead, the Texas members stood before the entire House for a moment of silence — the politics of gun violence put aside, the contentious issue of whether the earlier, 2009 shooting was an act of terror put on hold.

“On Texas-centric issues,” explained Republican K. Michael Conaway, “we’re rock-solid together.”

Indeed, Democrat Pete Gallego has recently started getting the whole delegation, Republican and Democrat, together every couple months for meetings over breakfast tacos.

“The downside is everybody expects me to pay, so I have to buy breakfast every time, but I don’t mind,” Gallego told CQ Roll Call, noting that breakfast tacos are tough to find in Washington, D.C.

With a big, rural district that has more Republican voters than any other Democratic district, Gallego said he has to work with both parties. “And frankly, that’s a great model. I think [Washington] would work a lot better if everybody had to work with everybody and everybody had to talk with everybody,” he said.

Like many of his colleagues in the Texas delegation, Gallego was once a member of the Texas Legislature. And for those who first served in Austin together, Gallego said, “There’s a camaraderie there.

“In the Legislature, we were all friends and we all hung out, and there wasn’t that huge divide. And so here, we tend to get along. We tend to be helpful for each other where we can,” Gallego said. “Our voting records are not necessarily the same, but, you know, we’re all Texans, and at the end of the day, we try to help each other out.”

It was while they were both in the state Legislature that Culberson developed such a close relationship with Cuellar and Republican Kenny Marchant of Coppell. Culberson said what so few in Washington seem to understand is the significance of personal bonds.

“The camaraderie and the friendships are far more extensive and important than I think the press really acknowledges, because it’s more fun to talk about the fights and the disagreements,” Culberson said. “But what really makes the Congress work is the trust and the friendships.”

Read the full series at rollcall.com.

Part IV of a continuing series on the Texas Republican delegation.