A New American Operating System?
Part 6 of our Texas series with Former Congressman Will Hurd.
Purple Principle listeners know these not so United States need a new political operating system. But who’s going to code it?
Based on a great new book, American Reboot (just out from Simon & Schuster), and our TPP conversation, it’s clear former three-term, centrist Texas Congressman Will B. Hurd, now a Cybersecurity executive, should be a part of that “U.S. 2.0” development team.
As we discuss in the episode, Hurd was far from the most logical candidate to win not one but three terms representing the vast, 800-mile long 23rd district, covering southwest Texas. First off, Hurd had been in the CIA for a decade prior to his first attempt (and few CIA veterans had run for Congress at that time). Second, he was a moderate, Black Republican running in a largely Hispanic and Democratic district. Yet he had more than sufficient appeal with Democrats and independents to win that TX-23rd Congressional seat on a second attempt in 2014 and in two subsequent re-elections, before deciding not to run in 2020.
Of his arrival to the U.S. House of Representatives, Hurd recounts his formative experiences with artfully two-faced Congressional colleagues. First, he recalls being attacked in a committee hearing by a Texas Democrat who then chummily provides advice to Hurd immediately after the hearing. Second, he describes an appearance on a major television show where four Congress members (two Republicans, two Democrats) swap family niceties before the camera lights come on, then promptly descend into what Hurd calls “Wrestlemania.”
In this episode, our sixth in this Texas mini-series, we also discuss Hurd’s “brain gain” objectives on immigration reform more fully detailed in American Reboot. Hurd argues that expanding and refining the legal immigration process based on labor shortages would take pressure off illegal immigration. Likewise, drawing from his CIA experience, Hurd underscores the need for larger and smarter investments in key technology sectors to maintain pace with China and other tech superpowers.
Last but not least, Hurd also recounts his bipartisan, cross-country road trip with then-Congress member Beto O’Rourke (D). The 35-hour, live-streamed ride resulted in millions of social media views, lots of TV coverage, and some warm bipartisan glow—until the next election cycle.
“It was silly to me that we go from a moment where the entire country’s like, wow, this is really cool—civility in politics. And then…everybody went to their corners,” Hurd recalls with, on balance, more optimism than disappointment. “But I saw at that moment the American people want their elected officials to disagree without being disagreeable. And it was a reminder that way more unites us as a country than divides us.”
For more on Will Hurd’s ideas for “getting big things done,” tune into “A New American Operating System? These Not So United States.”
Original music created and composed by Ryan Adair Rooney.
My job in the CIA was to recruit spies and steal secrets. It was the best job on the planet. Two years in India, two years in Pakistan, and then a half in Afghanistan where I managed all of our undercover operations.
Robert Pease (host)
Will B. Hurd knows a thing or two about US foreign policy and the importance of good information. He spent a decade working for the CIA.
And, I also had to brief members of Congress, and I probably briefed over 200 members. And I was pretty shocked by the caliber of elected officials. And so I decided to run for Congress.
Robert Pease (host)
Will Hurd also knows how to win office in a swing district and get things done in Washington. He served three terms, representing a largely Democratic South Texas district, as a moderate Republican.
And one of the things I always tried to do when I was in Congress was talk about issues we should be talking about, not necessarily the issues, you know, where it was always on social media or on cable news. And so I came up ultimately with what I call five generational defining challenges.
Robert Pease (host)
Those challenges, along with Will’s experiences in the CIA, in Congress, and now as a tech strategist, are important elements of his just-released book, American Reboot: An Idealist’s Guide to Getting Big Things Done. I’m Robert Pease and this is The Purple Principle, a podcast about the perils of polarization. We’re going to talk with this idealist about some highly practical ideas he has for his party, his state, and country, including on tying legal immigration to US labor shortages, creating foreign policy that restrains enemies but holds allies close, and making smart technology investments. We’ll also hear how Will describes the magical transformation of Congressional colleagues from friendly chit chat to attack mode, once those TV lights come on.
But my first question for Will Hurd is about his own personal reboot: how he moved from the CIA to the U.S. Congress, though not on the first try.
I appreciate you being diplomatic in your question because most people thought I had no chance at all to win when I first ran in 2009, and it was for the 2010 election cycle. At that point, there had only been two CIA officers to have ever run for Congress. Also, nobody thought that a Black Republican was gonna be able to win in a 71% Latino district.
I won the first round. There were five people running in the Republican primary. I think I won by like 900 votes. And then I went on to lose the runoff election by 700 votes. And it was tough. I thought I was gonna win, the other side thought I was gonna win. All the newspapers went from saying I’m the next best thing to how’d this sucker lose, right? And so I thought I was done, because the guy who went on to win beat the incumbent, and I thought he was gonna be in office for a long time. But he lost. And when you come that close, 700 votes away, I called up my crew. I said, “y’all look, if you have one in you, one more left, then I got one more left.” And we decided to run again.
Robert Pease (host)
Which was obviously the right choice. We have had two other former Congress members on the show, Jason Altmire, centrist Democrat from Pennsylvania, and Carlos Curbelo, centrist Republican from Miami. They both said things are dysfunctional in Washington, but there’s some surprising pockets of cooperation.
I would agree with their observations. I think, post January 6th, things were a little bit different, but when I first came to Washington, I was kind of shocked at how warm relations were between members. At my first experience, I was at a committee hearing, I was on a Homeland Security Committee, and I’m introducing an amendment to a piece of legislation we were marking up. So this is a bill that’s gonna go out to committee before it goes to the floor for a vote. And I had never done this before. I wasn’t in Congress before, I wasn’t a staffer. So I didn’t know how any of this worked. And so I was told, all you’re gonna have to do is read this thing, right? And it’s gonna be fine, everything’s been worked out.
And then another member, a Democrat, another one from Texas, unleashes, and starts yelling and getting upset. And I’m sitting there looking around like, what the heck? And then when it was over, the amendment passes, we’re walking out, and that member came up to me and put his arm around me and he’s like, “hey, your office is right around the corner here?” I said, “yeah.” And he’s like, “let me see your office.” And then he walks me into the office, comes into the office, takes some of the candy that we had put out. And then he comes into my individual office and plops down. He’s like, how are you handling your mail? How are you handling your phones? Like, he was giving me all this guidance on how to be an effective member of Congress.
And the whole time I’m like, man, you were just yelling at me five minutes ago. It was such a surreal, strange experience. And then another time, the first time I went on a Sunday show, I forget which show it was. We were doing a round table. And it was four members of Congress, two Republicans, two Democrats. We’re in the green room, and everybody’s talking, they were like, how are your kids? And they had all been in Congress for more than probably 10 years. All of ’em. And they’re like, oh, would you like some, you know, some cantaloupe? You know, whatever kind of fruit was in the green room. And I’m like, wow, this is really nice. And I’m a couple months in.
Then we get out. Lights come on. And it was, it was like WrestleMania in there, all right? And, everybody started attacking. And, when you go back and look at this clip, I’m sitting there kind of wide-eyed and a little shell shocked, because it was so jarring for me. Right. And so, there was a level of interaction that actually happens, but it gets less and less. And partly because everybody’s gone, you’re only in D.C. three nights a week, you go back to your district. People don’t spend time together. Most of the time I spent with folks was on Congressional delegations. This is when you’re traveling somewhere together, and that’s probably where you spend the most time. And so it’s harder to yell at somebody when you know them. And it’s easier to work with people when they know kind of who they are as an individual.
Look, I was able to get 21 pieces of legislation signed into law when I was in Congress. And part of it was because I always started with a Democratic partner, and I always had a Republican and Democrat in the Senate to work on these things. And so, it can exist. It can exist again. But it’s gonna require elected officials to really focus on solving problems and not just bomb throwing.
Robert Pease (host)
Yeah. Well, speaking of bomb throwing, we are doing this series on Texas politics and identity at a time of national polarization. And several of our other guests, we call them ‘Texperts,’ really unsolicited, they said they were, they were personally disappointed that you decided not to run. So could you tell us about who you talked to and how you made that decision?
Well, who I talked to was me and my team, right? This was a personal decision. And, when I ran the first time in 2009, I said multiple times in public that I thought that there should be a shelf life for these positions of six, seven, or eight years. And when I evaluated, after I won the last election, some of the opportunities that I had, looking at the ability to get things done, and was there other ways that I can be making an impact, in our country, all of those things led to doing something else. And look, I appreciated the signs of support, the people that were disappointed, the folks that wanted me to stay in office. Because that was a sign that I was doing something right.
Now I’m talking about technology in a policy setting; now I’m talking about policy in a technology setting. When I look at some of the major issues the country has to deal with, not just in politics, but what we as a nation have to deal with, technology is a big one. And so to be on the cutting edge and helping some great companies that are gonna be the future of our society, that are gonna help us win what I consider to be a new cold war with the Chinese government, that’s exciting. And so there’s more than one way to serve, and I’m enjoying that opportunity.
Robert Pease (host)
Well, great. So you’ve mentioned, a new cold war coming up with China. We may have a new hot war coming up with Russia, on NATO’s border. So we did wanna quickly talk about foreign policy. It’s on a lot of people’s minds. We are wondering if in your estimation, perhaps the bipartisan foreign policy consensus that was in place for many decades unraveled post Iraq, post Afghanistan recently under the Trump administration. Do you see them coming back together in a significant way because of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine?
I think it is, and I think it already has. And I would say, look I was in Congress, I won in the 2014 election, and started in 2015. So I came into Congress after Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine for the first time. So you had a Republican House and a Democratic President. But we passed support to Ukraine back in 2015 with a majority of Democrats, to try to encourage the Obama Administration to do more in Ukraine. In 2018, there was a Democratic House with a majority of Republicans, showing support to Ukraine. Then, when a Republican was president, Donald Trump tried to urge the Trump administration to make sure that they were supporting Ukraine as much as possible. You’re seeing a similar kinda level of support for Ukraine in Congress right now.
And look, so the book came out before this current war, but one of the sections is on foreign policy. And, one of the conclusions I came to during my time in the CIA and being connected to national security for the last 20 years, is that our friends should love us and our enemies should fear us. And that is something that we have gotten away from, over a number of administrations. And we gotta get back to it. Because when America is leading the international coalition, when America is leading this international order that we helped establish, then things are better for America, but it’s also good for the rest of the world.
Robert Pease (host)
Well, let’s talk about technology applied to another big problem that certainly affects your former district 23, and that’s immigration border security. In the book you mentioned that building a wall is a third century solution, and there are much better solutions. So, tell us about how technology could help in the immigration gridlock.
Immigration’s an important issue. This is something I spent a lot of time on when I was in Congress. I think I was the only member of Congress that stamped visas, you know, that was my day job in some of my positions. And then I would go do my real job at night. And that’s why it’s one of the longest chapters in the book. Like, look at the place we are right now. We have a real crisis on our Southern border. The, the amount of illegal immigration, the amount of drugs that are coming into our country is the highest it’s ever been. And so streamlining legal immigration would help reduce some of the pressures that we’re seeing on the border. When you look at every industry that needs workers, every industry is looking to hire. Guess what? Streamlining legal immigration would help with that problem.
If Florida needs agriculture workers and Texas needs hospitality workers, that should be based on a need, the technology exists to do this. And then we can increase the number of those kinds of working visas, you know, based on that need in that particular location, that particular state. It’s that simple. But the other option is also, if a kid from China comes to University of Texas at Austin, or Texas A&M University in College Station, or Princeton, or Stanford, or wherever, and is a quantum computing engineer or getting a PhD in artificial intelligence, let’s keep them here. If the Chinese are gonna steal our technology, let’s steal their engineers, and this is gonna help us.
And so we have a real opportunity to benefit from what I call the brain gain from all these other countries and get them here. It makes sense. It’s good for our country. And this is one of the things that has made America so great and made us a place that so many people want to come to.
Robert Pease (host)
We have the honor and privilege this episode to be speaking with former CIA officer and three-term Congressman Will B. Hurd about his new book, American Reboot, published by Simon & Schuster. Hurd was a moderate Black Republican representing a largely Democratic and Hispanic swing district. As he recounts in the book, Hurd came to Washington to legislate, not throw rhetorical bombs across the aisle. With the 2022 primaries upon us, I asked Will Hurd, well what would it take to send fewer bomb throwers and more problem solvers to the US Congress?
So look, I’m gonna give you my magic wand answer, and then I’m gonna give you the realistic answer of what can be done tomorrow. The magic wand answer is make a district no more than plus six in either direction. Meaning, don’t make a district more than a 56% Republican or 56% Democrat. That’s in essence a jump ball. And so in November, anybody could potentially win. And so I was rewarded in my district. Look, my district flipped back and forth between Republican and Democrat for 10 years before I came into office and was the first one to hold it for three terms in a row in a long time. And if every Republican voted for me, I would still lose. I had to get independents, I had to get Democrats to ultimately vote for me. So when I solved problems, I was rewarded in November in the election.
So if we can create districts to do that, but that’s gonna require 50 states to agree and to pass some of these things.
So, what can we do now? We gotta vote in primaries. In 2018, the average number of people that voted in a contested primary R or D was 54,000 people. That’s not a lot of people. In that same year, I think the average number of voters in a general election was about 267,000.
So more people voting in a general election is not the pinnacle of civic activity, it’s the floor. We need more people voting. And if you had 1000, 1500, 2000 more people voting in primaries, that’s a tectonic shift in the kinds of people that could potentially get elected.
Robert Pease (host)
That is a huge point, and we hope some folks are hearing that and making sure to mark their primary voting day. But we also want to talk a bit about identity, as in the Texas identity, traditionally so strong. We’d like to play a clip from our first episode in the Texas miniseries – this is Jason Whitely from WFAA Dallas, the ABC affiliate. He’s the co-host of Y’all-itics. He feels Texas identity may be weakening under all this red vs blue -ness.
[Archival Audio – Jason Whitely]
I remember covering the 2000 election for George W. Bush, then governor of the state of Texas. And there was still a firm… this was just what, four, six years after the last Democratic governor of Ann Richards at the time. There was still a Texas identity then. This sense of, you know, independence. This is how we do it in Texas. This is the model that works here, we can take it to Washington. But then you ramp up 9/11 on top of that, and then the war in Iraq, and Afghanistan after 9/11. And that has really just sent Texans into one side or the other.
Robert Pease (host)
Yeah. So, we’re wondering your thoughts on that. Looking at these recent primaries ,where some candidates are Republican primary candidates are looking for the endorsement of Donald Trump in Florida. Some others are looking for AOC’s endorsement. That doesn’t seem like a traditionally Texas thing to do…
No, no, it is not. It’s not a Texas thing to do. As Jason said, we’re used to being independent, and doing our thing, right? Do it our way. And so look, if I were to try to dissect this, I would say a lot of elected officials are lazy, and they want to talk to or get the support of the person that has the biggest kind of partisans in their party. Okay? And so, Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez has a very vocal, big following. And Donald Trump does as well. So people appeal to that. But what I have found, and this is how a Black Republican can win in the 71% Latino district, is that people wanna be inspired by something bigger than themselves.
And we forget that. It’s hard to inspire. It’s easy to fearmonger. And this is where the opportunity and the upside is for me. And, despite what you’re seeing on social media and cable news, when I talk to people and I criss-cross this country and I see a broad swath of it, folks want something different. And, there was a poll out earlier this year, 72% of Americans think this country’s on the wrong track. But if we get back to the basics, we get back to our values of freedom leads to opportunity, opportunity leads to growth, growth leads to progress, right? Like, we’re gonna be successful. And to me, that’s why I titled the book American Reboot.
And, it’s not about starting over. It’s about refreshing our operating system. And when we get back to that. And I do believe Texas has an opportunity to lead the way.
Robert Pease (host)
Well, you do have a great example in your book of bipartisanship among Texans, so could you tell us about your bipartisan road trip with the Democratic congressman at that time, Beto O’Rourke, and also the aftermath of that trip?
Sure. I talked earlier about how I’ve gotten 21 pieces of legislation signed in the law. The only way you do that is if they are done in a bipartisan way. My last bill was a national strategy and artificial intelligence. and most people say, oh, that should be easy. Well, there were seven committees that were responsible for some piece of that. So that means seven committee chairs, seven ranking members. There’s seven staffs that have opinions on this. And you had to navigate a lot of tricky waters. But the road trip you’re talking about, I’m gonna say was 2018, 2017, 2018, Beto O’Rourke was a colleague of mine.
We both represented parts of El Paso. I invited him to San Antonio. He was the only Texan on the VA committee, the veterans affairs committee. And I had a number of veterans groups in the district that wanted to talk to someone on the committee. So I asked Beto to come and he said, sure. And this was during the “snowpocalypse” of Washington, D.C. And, his flight got canceled, and then mine got canceled.
And we had votes in about 48 hours. And so Beto said, let’s drive, and we can live stream the whole thing. And then I said, sure. I found out later that he never thought I was gonna say yes.
So the next day we drive a 35 hour trip, 31 hours in the car, 29 hours live streaming. In that day and a half, we had 26 million viewers on our socials, I believe? And then we were on every news program. Like, literally every news program.
[Archival Audio – News collage of Beto O’Rourke and Will Hurd’s road trip]
We won an award for civility. And then we, at the end, we had signed some legislation that we were both working on, that we talked about when we were in the car. And then he had an election, and I had an election. People criticized him for not endorsing my opponent and people criticized me for not criticizing Beto against his opponent. And, it was all pretty wild. It was silly to me that we go from a moment where the entire country’s like, wow, this is really cool, civility in politics. And then when it came to the election, everybody went to their corners. But what I saw in that moment, right, the millions of people that were watching us, the American people want their elected officials to disagree without being disagreeable. And it was a reminder that way more unites us as a country then divides us. And if we talk and focus on solving problems around those issues, that unite us, then the better off we’re gonna be able to be.
Robert Pease (host)
That’s former Congressman Will B. Hurd just out with a great new book, American Reboot: An Idealist’s Guide to Getting Things Done. Such as breaking through the political gridlock on immigration and police reform. This is not just another “my time in Congress” memoir. Hurd’s own personality resonates throughout, as do his experiences in the CIA before running for Congress, and in the tech sector since leaving Congress. American Reboot is highly recommended; more in our show notes and on our website.
And more from Will B. Hurd *will be heard*–Sorry Will, I had to do that once– in our next episode, along with each of our Texas mini-series guests in the Purple Principle finale on Lone Star State Identity amidst zero sum national politics.
[Archival Audio – Look ahead to next episode with Will Hurd]
What frustrates me with an issue like policing reform or even immigration, right? Like immigration, when you look at primary voters that are Democrat and primary voters that are Republican, this is what’s called a 70% issue, where 70% of that group is supportive of it, but things don’t get done because both sides would rather use some of these issues as a political bludgeon against each other, rather than ultimately solve the problem.
Robert Pease (host)
Please join us then, tell a friend or colleague about our podcast, and please support us on Patreon or Apple Subscriptions as we strive to cover more state level political challenges this 2022 primary season. Special shoutout this episode to our Senior Producer for Engagement, Alison Byrne. She very likely helped you find us among the sea of podcasts out there today. In fact, how did you hear about The Purple Principle? That’d be great for us to know, so there’s a link in our show notes to provide that info. Special thanks, as always, to our Texas-tinged composer Ryan Adair Rooney. The Purple Principle is a Fluent Knowledge production.
Will Hurd Cashes in on CIA Skills (Roll Call)
For Years TX-23 Was the State’s Only True Congressional Swing District. Can Democrats Win It Back? (Texas Monthly)
Will B. Hurd – House of Representatives
Will Hurd Joins OpenAI’s Board of Directors
Dead Center by Jason Altmire (Goodreads)
Representative Will Hurd – Legislation Sponsored – Congress.gov
Congressman Hurd On Why He Decided To Leave Congress (NPR)
Why has Russia invaded Ukraine and what does Putin want? (BBC)
Trump administration stalled on whether to arm Ukraine (WaPo Opinion, 2017)
Congressional District 23, TX – Census Reporter
Texas’ 23rd Congressional District Elections – Ballotpedia
‘Downhill,’ ‘divisive’: Americans sour on nation’s direction in new NBC News poll (NBC News)
20 best moments from O’Rourke & Hurd’s road trip (El Paso Times)
El Paso lawmakers Beto O’Rourke and Will Hurd win award for bipartisan road trip (El Paso Times)
Texas Rep. Will Hurd, House’s Only Black Republican, Won’t Seek Reelection In 2020 (NPR)
Americans’ immigration policy priorities: Divisions between – and within – the two parties (Pew)