‘Sometimes you gotta live it’: Tony Gonzales on why Capitol Hill needs more veterans

Texas Republican was a military fellow before he was a congressman

“When you’re making policy, you can’t always read it in a book,” says Rep. Tony Gonzales, who got his start on Capitol Hill as a military fellow in Sen. Marco Rubio’s office.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
“When you’re making policy, you can’t always read it in a book,” says Rep. Tony Gonzales, who got his start on Capitol Hill as a military fellow in Sen. Marco Rubio’s office. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 29, 2021 at 6:00am

Freshman Rep. Tony Gonzales was having a pretty exciting week. “There’s a lot going on in my district, we launched humans into space,” the Texas Republican said in a video interview.

He was watching closely this month as Blue Origin co-founder Jeff Bezos shot himself and three others to the edge of the atmosphere from a spaceport in the West Texas desert.

Gonzales is new to Congress, but not entirely. While serving in the Navy, he came to Capitol Hill in 2016 as a fellow, placed through the Defense Department and assigned to the office of Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio. He remembers it as a legislative trial by fire, complete with Red Bull and Cuban coffee.

Gonzales spoke with CQ Roll Call about his memories from those days (like playing football with Rubio in the halls) and why the Hill needs more staffers with military experience.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: Tell me about the Defense fellows program.  

A: My year was the first time the Navy had opened up the legislative fellowship to enlisted sailors. Because I wasn’t going to be an admiral some day, I thought they were going to stick me in one of these nonvoting offices or something like that. But I was excited to land in Marco’s office. I was stationed in Pensacola at the time, and I really believe in him and his message. I had helped out on his campaign a little bit, but it was by fate that I got that office.

Q: How did your routine change from one day being a Navy cryptologist to the next walking the halls on Capitol Hill?

A: A lot of people don’t realize I was a master chief, so the highest enlisted rank. In the Navy world, nobody messes with the master chief. I mean, you run the show. And then here I go to being a staffer on the Hill, where nobody even cares you exist. So it was an adjustment period. But honestly, I was so excited. I had wanted to be part of the legislative process ever since I was a kid.

Q: Was there ever a time you used your cryptology skills as a fellow?

A: Yeah, 100 percent. Marco is on the Intel Committee, so I was able to staff him at several different things there. And we got an amendment in the NDAA that focused on cybertraining. It was one of those things where I felt if I wasn’t part of the team, we just would never have had Marco’s ear. Pensacola, in particular, is where cryptology training happens for all of the Navy. I look back and geek out on the NDAA and go, “I know where that amendment came from.” 

Q: Did you and Rubio disagree on any issues?

A: We pretty much align. Now that I’m in this role, my job is much different from his. He’s representing Florida, an entire state, and I’m representing District 23 in Texas. Border issues are at the forefront of everything I do, and that’s a little bit more removed in Florida.

One thing that was good for me — it was the first time I was really around Cuban Americans. There were a lot of Cuban Americans in Marco’s office, and I remember in the afternoon we would have Cuban coffee to get the afternoon push. I’d never had Cuban coffee before, and now I do. He converted me, man. That and Red Bull get me through the day.

Q: What were some other memorable moments?

A: I got to meet Henry Bonilla, who previously served in this district for seven terms. Honestly, he was the first guy I remember as a kid growing up, going, “Wait a second, we can be Republicans?” He was a Hispanic Republican. And Henry and I are great friends now. 

[With the other Defense fellows], it was very much like you’re in the trenches together. Every office is different, and some people had good bosses, and some people had bad bosses. Some fellows were glorified tour guides, and others were writing legislation. It was all across the spectrum. 

I was thankful that in Marco’s office, from Day One, I was embraced. I remember the Rex Tillerson confirmation hearing [for secretary of State]. It had to have been my first week. They were like, all right, we need you to write the questions for the boss. I’m like, “I’m going to write the questions? OK!”

They gave me the keys to the car, so I try to do the same as a member now. I treat my staff as if they’re real people.

Q: Did you ever feel like people around you on the Hill didn’t understand military issues?

A: There’s a big deficiency in veterans serving up here — and by serving, I mean in staff positions. There’s just not a lot of them. When you’re making policy, you can’t always read it in a book. Sometimes you gotta live it. 

I don’t have a military fellow [in my D.C. office right now] because COVID messed things up. But I have a great relationship with the fellowship program, so I’ve already told them we’re on the hook for that. 

Back in the district, I have a Wounded Warrior fellow, Amanda, who is great.

Gonzales gives his boss a football signed by the Naval Academy football team in 2018, during his last week on the job. (Courtesy Office of Rep. Tony Gonzales)

Q: You have a photo of you and Rubio holding a football in 2018. What’s going on there?

A: So a Navy tradition is, when you leave a command, the command gives you a departing gift. But this time was different — I wanted to give him a gift. As a member of Congress, as a senator, you get all kinds of crap. You’re like, “Oh, great. Another fill-in-the-blank. Throw it with the rest of the corny souvenirs.” 

But Marco is a huge football fan. I knew that. And I actually called in a couple favors and got that football signed by the Naval Academy football team. I think it was my last day on the Hill, and he lit up. “A football? This is a keeper. This one’s not going in the closet.” Right after that photo, we were throwing the football around in the Senate halls.

If you see in the background, the only thing I asked in return was for him to sign a couple of his books. One of the things I collect is signed books. 

We’ve stayed in touch. I had my first debate during the campaign, and I was pretty nervous. I remember reaching out to him, and we went back and forth a little bit. And he’s like, “Just don’t take a sip of water. That’s all I got for you.” He’s like, “You’ll do great man.” Little things like that just make you feel as if you’re not alone in the fight.