State Politics

Roger Williams works hard to serve his far-flung Texas congressional district

Over a wintry four-day stretch in mid-December, Rep. Roger Williams was bounding across Central Texas in a holiday blitz that illustrated the length and diversity of his vast congressional district.

It took him from Austin to the southern suburbs of Fort Worth, with stops in between. He delivered turkeys and high praise to first responders, greeted troops at Fort Hood, dropped off toys for the Police Department’s Blue Santa drive in lakeside Marble Falls, presided over a ribbon-cutting in Cleburne, and introduced service academy appointees at two Austin high schools.

For the 67-year-old Weatherford auto dealer turned Austin-based congressman, the goodwill mission punctuated the end of one two-year term as the Republican representative of Texas’ 25th Congressional District and prefaced the start of another, beginning Jan. 3.

The outgoing 114th Congress brought Williams a pair of high-profile setbacks as he became entangled in an apparently still-continuing ethics review and lost his bid to lead House Republicans’ campaign arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Needless to say, I agree with President-elect Trump on so many things.

Republican congressman Roger Williams

But the former pro baseball player nevertheless has on his game face as he prepares for his third term in Congress and what he believes will be a productive working relationship with a fellow businessman — incoming President Donald Trump.

“Needless to say, I agree with President-elect Trump on so many things,” Williams said as an aide drove him through Fort Hood toward his appearance with the troops and a closed meeting with the base commander, three-star Gen. Sean MacFarland. “His financial results have been a little greater than mine, but the fact is we’re businesspeople. We employ people, we create jobs, we meet the payroll, and so we have a lot in common.”

The Texas congressman said Trump’s economic program offers strong similarities to Williams’ signature Jumpstart America tax reform package although he believes the incoming president could be “a bit more aggressive” on the degree of some of the proposed tax cuts. And they are flatly in disagreement on one point that hits close to Williams’ district — the F-35 fighter being produced by Lockheed Martin in west Fort Worth.

“I’m totally for the F-35. What it means is jobs,” Williams said. “We need it. It’s the next generation of fighters. Talk about giving our men and women the best equipment, that’s the F-35.”

Tied to Tarrant

Williams’ district, which covers all or part of 13 counties, includes only a sliver of southern Tarrant County, roughly about 7,000 people in northern Burleson, a town that straddles the Tarrant/Johnson county line. It’s the smallest bloc of constituents of any county in his district.

But despite the meager number of official constituents, Williams continues to cast a strong presence throughout Tarrant County and other parts of the Metroplex. He grew up in Fort Worth, played and coached baseball at TCU and became the second-generation boss of his father’s car dealership, a family-run business that has been in operation for 76 years.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find anybody that cares as much about Fort Worth as Roger does,” said Rep. Marc Veasey, a Fort Worth Democrat who knew Williams long before they became congressional colleagues in 2013. “We see him around from time to time at different Fort Worth venues and events, and of course everybody knew him before he was in Congress.”

Veasey said the North Texas businessman is considered at least “an honorary” member of the Tarrant County congressional delegation because of his long ties to the district. The Democratic lawmaker said he and Williams “get along great,” despite their partisan and philosophical differences.

Over the now-concluding 2015-16 election cycle, 246 donors from Fort Worth contributed to Williams’ campaign, compared with 144 in Austin, the district’s stronghold and most populous urban center, according to contribution reports filed with the Texas Election Commission.

Major Fort Worth donors included the billionaire Bass family, which collectively gave $18,900. Donations from the oil-rich Moncrief family totaled $4,200.

“Roger is one of those guys who represents everybody,” said Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, the county’s executive, who said he has worked with Williams on issues including health, taxes and transportation. “Roger has been a friend of mine forever, and I just feel like I can always call and ask his advice and he’s more than willing to help.”

Before entering Congress in January 2013, Williams was widely known in state and national GOP circles as a premier fundraiser for candidates such as George W. Bush, when he was both president and governor, and Sen. John Cornyn. From 2004 to 2007, he served as Texas secretary of state, the state’s chief election officer, under Gov. Rick Perry, Trump’s newly designated energy secretary,

Despite his long résumé in fundraising and appointive positions, Williams was a newbie at elective political races when he sailed to victory in 2012 in a district designed as a Republican stronghold. He won re-election to his third term in November, defeating Democrat Kathi Thomas of Dripping Springs by 58.35 percent to 37.74 percent. Libertarian Loren Marc Schneiderman polled 3.91 percent.

Although Williams was never in danger, he displayed his vaunted fundraising skills by amassing $1.7 million in contributions. Thomas, who espoused a message of “reasonable governance,” raised just over $68,521.

After two terms, Williams has established a reputation as one of Congress’ most conservative members, serving for the last two years on the Financial Services Committee, which helps shape economic policy by regulating the securities, insurance, banking and housing industries.

Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, a fellow Texan from Dallas, calls him an “impact player” who is “highly respected” for his leadership skills, preparation and business know-how. He also predicts that Williams could one day be in line to chair the committee. The “future is bright” for his Texas colleague, Hensarling said.

Democratic critics offer a far less flattering assessment. “His district is pretty much exhibit one in partisan gerrymandering,” said Matt Angle, director of the Lone Star Project, a Democratic-affiliated research organization. “I don’t think you can point to anything significant he’s done in this short time in Congress, other than get into some ethics problems.”

Ethics questions

Williams is apparently still shadowed by an ethics review of a complaint that he used his official position to privately benefit himself and the Rogers Williams Auto Mall in Weatherford.

The Office of Congressional Ethics investigated the allegation that Williams acted improperly by introducing an amendment that exempted car dealers from a law prohibiting the rental of vehicles facing a safety recall. The office referred the case to the House Ethics Committee, which said in August that it was extending the review.

The amendment was added last year to the Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Safe Rental Car Act, named after two California sisters killed in a rental car under recall. Williams told House members the act unfairly “sweeps up” dealers who offer rentals or loaners as a convenience and said his amendment did not affect the broader regulations on rental car companies, which he said represent 99 percent of the market.

But consumer advocates and the act’s sponsor, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., called it a “harmful” amendment that would endanger lives.

Tom Rust, the committee’s chief counsel and staff director, declined to comment on the review, reflecting the committee’s policy of keeping its work under wraps.

Ethics inquiries are typically — but not always — extended from one Congress to another, and it’s not clear whether a committee leadership change will have any bearing on the panel’s inquiries.

During his recent trip through the district, Williams said the review has no impact on his congressional activities and expressed confidence “it’s going to show that we didn’t do anything wrong.” He again maintained that an organization that received funds from liberal billionaire activist George Soros — the Center for Public Integrity — helped instigate the case because of his conservative positions.

“I’m one of the most conservative members in Congress, and when you’re really conservative you get attacked from the left pretty hard,” he declared, predicting that the review will “be over with pretty quick.” And, he added, “if it was wrong, I wouldn’t have done it.”

Williams dismissed speculation that publicity from the ethics review may have contributed to his defeat for chairmanship of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Williams is eager to put the negatives behind him as he sets his sights on returning to Washington, first to engage in the inauguration hoopla surrounding an unpredictable billionaire president and then to plunge into the heavy lifting of installing a new set of Republican priorities after eight years of Democrat Barack Obama.

As president of the 113-year-old Texas State Society, Williams is chairing the upcoming Black Tie and Boots gala, which, at least for Texans, is one of the hottest inaugural festivities in the capital. The inauguration-eve party draws hordes of prominent Texas dignitaries and entertainers, and the Jan. 19 event at The Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center will continue the tradition.

Beyond that, Williams is preparing to take advantage of Republican power in the White House and Congress to advance his seven-bill Jumpstart America package and to join his colleagues in trying to unravel much of the Obama legacy. He said Trump appeared receptive to his initiatives when he had some private face time with the New York billionaire during a Republican gathering this year.

High on his to-do list is a full repeal of Obamacare — not just “repeal and replace” as Trump has suggested.

He is also authoring legislation to ask the president to posthumously award the Medal of Honor to Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL killed in 2013 at a gun range in Williams’ district. Kyle’s life was chronicled in the movie American Sniper.

Meeting his customers

As he greets constituents across the district — Williams considers them customers — several themes seem to repeat themselves at each stop. One is his unwavering assertion that more savvy “business guys” like himself and Trump are needed to save Washington from itself. Another is his lifelong devotion to baseball.

Williams was on TCU’s all-decade baseball team in the 1960s and was drafted by the Atlanta Braves, where he played in the farm system before an injury ended his sports career. He then went on to become TCU’s baseball coach before joining his father in the auto dealership founded in 1939.

In November, Williams was honored at the Bobby Bragan Youth Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award gala, named after one of Fort Worth’s most illustrious practitioners of the game. Williams also chairs a congressional baseball caucus and coaches a congressional baseball team.

At seemingly every stop during his recent travels, Williams seemed to find a way to circle back to baseball, either by asking a soldier from Chicago whether he supported the Cubs or White Sox or by recycling an anecdote from his playing days. Asked if he still misses playing, he responded unequivocally, “I do.”

Williams said he believes he is making a difference in Washington but does not plan to make Congress a lifetime calling, saying he’s “a believer in term limits.”

Williams’ personal life stretches toward both ends of the district, where he maintains an apartment in Austin and returns to his family’s ranch in Weatherford on weekends. He is owner and chairman of Weatherford’s Roger Williams Auto Mall but his wife, Patty, and daughters J.J. and Sabrina Williams oversee day-to-day operations as general managing partners.

On his 2014 financial disclosure report, Williams listed the dealership as an asset worth $25 to and $50 million, according to the ethics referral. The business is a Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep-and-Ram dealership.

Williams is unfailingly identified as R-Austin since the state capital city and part of surrounding Travis County constitute his political base. The fast-growing district’s most populous urban centers are at opposite poles. More than 241,400 constituents lived in Travis County, according to state data based on the 2010 Census, and 150,000 were in Johnson County in the Fort Worth suburbs.

Other counties include Bell, Bosque, Burnet, Coryell, Erath, Hamilton, Hays, Hill, Johnson, Lampasas and Somervell.

Fort Hood sits in the heart of the district, stretching across 214,000 acres in Bell and Coryell counties. Williams has been a relentless steward for the installation, fighting against “brutalizing” military budgets and helping secure badly needed infrastructure upgrades, including $61.5 million for barracks renovations.

“Nothing matches Fort Hood,” Williams said as he entered the base on a day when as many as 10,000 troops were deployed overseas. “We can do so much more improving for these kids.”

He repeated the sentiments as he appeared before about 150 soldiers, some of whom appeared to be in their late teens or early 20s, in advance of an orientation by the general. “We’re fighting for you guys, Williams declared. “Because of you America is the greatest country in the world.”

Soon, he will make another trip — this one, by plane back to Washington to usher in the Trump years and the next phase of his congressional career. “The American people are going to expect us to get things done,” he said.