Surrounded by patriotic displays in a sprawling atrium at Gallery Furniture south of Houston, six of the fifteen Republicans vying to replace retiring Congressman Pete Olson (R-TX-22) sought to stand out from the pack at a candidate forum Thursday evening.
Hosted by the Greater Katy Area Republicans and moderated by KPRC anchor Keith Garvin, the forum featured the following candidates (in stage order): Big Brothers Big Sisters Lone Star CEO Pierce Bush, Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls, businessman Bangar Reddy, Army veteran and businessman Joe Walz, businesswoman and SREC Committeewoman Kathaleen Wall, and former judge and Pearland City Councilman Greg Hill.
In the course of the forum, candidates responded to questions on a range of topics including immigration and border security, human trafficking, and regional flooding issues.
The first question of the evening centered on border security, to which Joe Walz answered that the U.S. needed to continue building the wall, provide additional border technology, and hire more border patrol agents. He also called for an end to chain migration, maternity tourism, and birthright citizenship.
Kathaleen Wall, who has been flooding the airwaves with television and radio spots promising to work closely with President Trump to “build the wall,” said securing the border would also help address problems in education, healthcare, and fighting terrorism.
Greg Hill, who served as a border patrol agent, cautioned that a wall could only be a part of a solution.
“We actually already have a wall, but as the Bible says in Proverbs, ‘he who builds a wall just invites destruction.’ The wall is not the end-all, be-all, it’s part of a comprehensive approach.”
Like Walz, Hill also called for more agents and technology, but added there is a need for a streamlined immigration process and more immigration judges handling deportation and asylum cases.
Bush intoned that efforts also needed to include local law enforcement agencies in identifying criminals who were in the country illegally.
Nehls said that as a sheriff, he was the only one on the stage who had to cope with the law enforcement challenges resulting from a porous border, but he blamed both Democrats and Republicans for contributing to the problem.
“For forty years, we have not addressed these issues, and it’s about time that we do.”
Reddy, who immigrated from India 22 years ago, also pledged to protect borders and noted that as an immigrant himself, no-one would be able to accuse him of being “anti-immigration.”
On a question regarding building alliances with other members of congress, Hill emphasized his experience and the relationships he had forged as a city council member who worked with state and federal government officials on multiple issues.
Nehls again challenged the status quo by calling out “conservatives” who promised to balance the budget and reduce spending but have allowed the deficit to grow by another trillion dollars in the past two years.
“I have no problem working with colleagues and Republicans in Congress, but where I’m going to pump the brakes is where we start breaking our promises to you.”
While largely agreeing on most issues, the candidates did differentiate on the causes and solutions to the problem of human trafficking.
Echoing a proposal introduced by Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX-21) last year, Bush said at the federal level human traffickers and drug cartels should be designated as terrorist organizations, which would give local law enforcement more strategic tools to combat the problem.
Noting that Houston is “the capital of human trafficking,” Nehls not only blamed the problem on a porous border, but called out Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner for continuing to permit adult entertainment venues that contribute to trafficking for sexual exploitation.
Reddy and Wall also mentioned the porous border as part of the problem.
But Walz and Hill rejected the border as the main cause.
Walz said that human trafficking operated in Fort Bend County as well as Houston and that “instead of attacking Mayor Turner,” he would work to fund the Department of Justice and allow the FBI to collaborate with local officials.
“It’s not a border issue; most of it has nothing to do with illegal immigration.”
Hill agreed. “Joe’s correct, it’s not a border issue.”
While Hill said that as a border patrol agent, he had stopped traffickers, he claimed the issue was really a local problem. He advocated stiffer penalties for traffickers and emphasized the need for local acknowledgment of the problem and local action.
All of the candidates voiced support for President Trump’s orders resulting in the death of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.
Hill specifically objected to the War Powers resolution passed in the House earlier this month.
“We should shoot down this resolution that Nancy Pelosi is putting forward to limit President Trump’s ability to act militarily.”
Walz, who served in the Middle East during his Army career, said he was proud to be a supporter of Trump and hoped that in regard to Iran, the president would work to “never have American soldier’s boots in that country…ever.”
Addressing an issue crucial for residents of the Greater Houston area, each also called for action on flood control.
Nehls said FEMA was a broken administration and said a top issue for him would be making sure Congress addressed flood insurance problems. Reddy, who holds a double degree in engineering said he could understand the specifics of infrastructure needs.
Walz objected to the Corps of Engineers expending federal flood mitigation funds to conduct new research instead of utilizing existing research and moving forward on projects.
Wall said she and her husband had personally funded a third-party study to develop an adequate flood plan.
When on the Pearland City Council, Hill noted that he had secured votes to fund appropriate planning for a new development that subsequently did not flood during Hurricane Harvey. He said Congress needed to pass a new infrastructure bill that would empower local governments to implement similar strategies.
Referring to his work through Big Brothers and Big Sisters to help deliver relief to flood victims, Bush said he understood the seriousness of the issues and emphasized the need to have someone in Congress who understood how the appropriations process works and how to get “our oversized tax dollars” back into the district and control costs for those in the National Flood Insurance Program.
In one question, moderator Keith Garvin noted that CD-22 has been described as the most diverse congressional district in the country and asked how candidates would appeal to such a diverse community.
Walz, Reddy, Hill, and Nehls all emphasized their long years residing in the district and familiarity with the local community.
Hill and Nehls both pointed to their previous electoral successes as proof that they could win in diverse districts.
Wall, who ran for Congress in the 2nd Congressional District in 2018 and recently moved into the 22nd Congressional District, said that as a grandmother she had broad appeal, especially to women who were more comfortable talking to her about healthcare issues.
Bush, grandson of President George H. W. Bush also recently moved into the district. He said that he loved the diversity of the area and emphasized the need for outreach into all communities.
While there were no questions asked about the right to life or Second Amendment issues, Hill did make sure to mention that he is both pro-life and pro-Second Amendment.
Candidates were also asked to identify what they thought the greatest existential threat to America right now.
Bush warned against letting a rogue nation get a nuclear weapon and countering the rise of Socialism in the country.
Hill pointed to the National Debt of more than $23 trillion and the need to balance the budget and cut spending.
Nehls drew laughter and applause by responding “Nancy Pelosi and several of the Democrats.” He also mentioned border security, debt, and Second Amendment rights, but said the biggest problem is dealing with mental illness.
Wall and Reddy both identified socialism as the biggest threat, and although he didn’t dispute the previous answers, Walz said: “it’s us.”
“Because all this debt, and the threat of socialism, and Nancy Pelosi, and AOC, and all these people are elected by Americans. Half of the country sits out these elections, none of us get out there and go block walk, and none of us picks up a phone and encourages our neighbors to vote – that’s the problem.”
Walz encouraged all not only to vote, but to work to bring others to vote, “no matter who the nominee is.”
Republican candidates not included in Thursday’s forum are Jonathan Camarillo, Douglas Haggard, Aaron Hermes, Matt Hinton, Dan Matthews, Diana Miller, Brandon Penko, Shandon Phan, and Howard Lynn Steele Jr.
The winner of the Republican Primary will face one of four Democrats running, including Sri Preston Kulkarni who lost to retiring Rep. Pete Olson by less than 5 percentage points in 2018.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.