GOP field for District 17 faces off

Former College Station City Councilwoman Elianor Vessali, left, speaks at Smitty K’s Sports Bar & Grill in College Station Tuesday night at the U.S. House District 17 Republican primary forum sponsored by Grassroots 2020​.

More than 120 people gathered at Smitty K’s Sports Bar & Grill in College Station on Tuesday night to hear from nine of the 12 Republican candidates for the U.S. House District 17 seat currently held by U.S. Rep. Bill Flores. 

The candidates spoke for more than two hours on issues ranging from border security to health care to the role of the federal government.

Former Texas A&M professor Todd Kent said voters should look not just to elect a conservative, but also to elect a representative who will be a leader in the 435-member U.S. House. Kent said that he believed a desire to assimilate into the U.S. ought to be foremost in looking at immigration, as opposed to putting merit-based criterion first.

“We need to reform our legal immigration system,” Kent said. “The number one criteria ought to be that somebody coming in wants to be an American. Assimilation should be the number one criteria.” 

College Station City Councilwoman Elianor Vessali spoke about the need to rein in government spending, said she supported term limits for congressional representatives, seeks market-based health care solutions and said she would join the conservative Freedom Caucus if elected.

“I will be a conservative champion for you in Washington,” Vessali said. “I am committed to this community.” 

Like every candidate present, Vessali described herself as “pro-life” when asked if abortion was something that should be legal in any circumstances. Vessali expanded on her stance.

“I think the right to life is an important issue — not just from conception, but all the way through death. I think that’s what is key,” Vessali. “As I think about my pro-life stance, it’s about valuing life, valuing you in every way. We have people who may have a physical handicap. We value you. We have people who may have a mental handicap. We value you. That is the important message that we need to give.” 

Former U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, retired Army Col. Jeff Oppenheim and Austin-based financial adviser Ahmad Adnan did not attend the forum. 

Former U.S. Secret Service agent Scott Bland focused many of his comments on security at home and abroad, noting he worked early in his Secret Service career “working cleanup at Ground Zero” following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.. Born and raised in Waco, he described himself as a child of District 17. 

“We’ve got to take our national security seriously — it’s got to be the number one discussion that we have,” Bland said. “And we’ve got to live in a country where God comes first and the rights of the unborn are protected — and where we stand with our president.” 

College Station-based Marine Corps veteran Trent Sutton began by speaking of his military service. He made five deployments to combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

“I’m running for Congress because I believe we need to send more conservative veterans to Congress standing up for our shared values,” Sutton said. 

Sutton was unequivocal in his opposition to amnesty for undocumented immigrants and said he would not join the Freedom Caucus. “It belongs to the district,” he said of his voting card. Sutton also said he wants to work to address the national debt.

In the discussion about college campuses and free speech, Brazos Eye Surgery of Texas co-owner Renee Swann said she hopes people can learn to discuss politics and religion with civility, a comment that garnered sustained applause.

“We need to set the example. As Republicans, we need to set the example of what it is to have civic and civil discourse over tough issues — and I plan to go to Washington and be that example,” Swann said. Swann also said she wants to see government “get out of” health care. 

Business owner Laurie Godfrey McReynolds said in her closing remarks that the country, like individuals, should “live by a budget.” She wants government entities to rein in spending. 

“I am a businessperson, and I decided to run because I like our president — he is a businessman and is running our country like a business, and he needs help. I want to go up there and help him,” she said. 

George Hindman of Pflugerville, an engineer who is president of Keystone Aerospace, said he wants to see government spending controlled, noted the endorsement he received from the group Texas Right to Life, and said he would join the Freedom Caucus if elected. 

“I want to solve things like illegal immigration and the out-of-control budget deficit,” Hindman said. “In the maximum of 12 years that I would serve this district, I would defend President Trump against partisan attacks, I would defend freedom of speech, and freedom of religion … and the right for states to set their own priorities.” 

Waco-based real estate broker Kristen Alamo Rowin said she wants to end corruption in its various forms, said illegal immigration has had numerous negative impacts, and expressed gratitude for students at Baylor and A&M who have shown their support for her campaign. 

“I am proud to be part of the next generation of leaders that is coming up,” Rowin said. 

Waco-based David M. Saucedo presented a “constituent first” approach, saying he doesn’t think he has all the answers but desires to follow the will and wisdom of those in his district, if elected. 

“I believe in investing in the district — in developing working relationships with constituents in District 17,” he said.

In a discussion about college campuses and free speech, Saucedo said he wants to invest in a variety of post-high school options for young people. 

“We need to stop pushing every child that comes through the education system into debt-based education — we need to promote trades and get young people in our communities into trades and show them how much money is in … so many other avenues,” Saucedo said.

Grassroots 2020 sponsored the event.

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