Beth Van Duyne could be the GOP’s antidote to high-profile progressives when she joins Congress

Ben Wear, transportation reporter for the Austin American-Statesman, moderated the “Tyranny of the Commute” panel featuring John-Michael V. Cortez, Beth Van Duyne, Celia Israel and Philip Kingston at The Texas Tribune Festival on Sept. 23, 2017.

Beth Van Duyne at the 2017 Texas Tribune Festival. The former Irving mayor won a North Texas congressional seat in November.

Credit: Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

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Early in her bid for a North Texas congressional seat, Beth Van Duyne went on “Fox & Friends” with three other Republican women to take aim at the brand of liberalism they planned to fight in Washington, D.C.

Informally named a “conservative squad” — the GOP’s antidote to a quartet of progressive women in the U.S. House known as “the squad” — Van Duyne said that, if elected, the GOP group’s goal was to influence a Congress “run by extremists.”

“We’ve seen nothing that is solving the problems at the border, where you’ve got loopholes that enable human traffickers and drug cartels to come in,” Van Duyne said in the December 2019 interview.

The future of that “squad” may be uncertain — the organizer lost her primary this year, and the initial website promoted by the group is no longer active. But Van Duyne easily sailed through a five-way primary to win the Republican nomination to replace U.S. Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell. And last month, she defeated Democrat Candace Valenzuela for control of the suburban U.S. House district.

Her general election victory mirrored those seen in other conservative-leaning suburbs across the country, where, despite indications that President Donald Trump alienated voters, down-ballot Republican candidates held their own.

Now, the former Irving mayor’s supporters expect she’ll bring her well-established brand of conservative fire to Washington, D.C. Van Duyne will be part of the record number of House Republican women ever elected to Congress, shattering a previous record broken in 2004.

She also could become the right’s answer to U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who became a political celebrity — and lightning rod — in the 2018 Democratic freshman class.

“She is a very strong-willed, strategic, no-nonsense executive,” said Dallas County GOP Chair Rodney Anderson. “She’s well educated, highly experienced and whether she chooses to brand herself in that manner, it will be done in a way that represents her district in the best manner possible.”

But Van Duyne remains controversial in North Texas years after she was harshly criticized for espousing baseless beliefs about Shariah law in the region while she was mayor.

“We know that she has a long history of utilizing Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry for her own short-term political benefit, and we hope now that she’s in Congress that she will actually serve as a representative for all of her constituents and not just some of her constituents,” said Faizan Syed, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Texas DFW, a chapter of the largest civil liberties and advocacy organization for Muslims in America.

Van Duyne, who did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story, is a single, working mother in a delegation of Texas Republicans who are overwhelmingly older and male. And she’s an ardent supporter of Trump, under whom she worked as a Department of Housing and Urban Development administrator.

Van Duyne’s ascension to Congress was key for the party, as she fended off Democrats’ last hope of picking up a congressional seat during what was forecast to be a grim year for the GOP. That’s particularly true in her district that straddles parts of Dallas, Denton and Tarrant counties. Its changing demographics made it one of the most racially diverse battlegrounds in the state and appear more competitive.

What makes Van Duyne so formidable and such a potential threat to Democrats in the future is that she has managed to win the admiration of the Trump base while bolstering the GOP’s appeal to the constituency that he repelled: suburban women.

To be sure, Van Duyne will be a freshman member of the chamber’s minority party when she is sworn in next month. But she’ll arrive in the Capitol no stranger to using a single seat of political power to staunchly push her principles, toppling established opponents or garnering national attention.

“I am honored the people of North Texas have placed their faith and trust in me,” Van Duyne said in a statement after her opponent conceded. “My pledge to the people of the 24th District is that no matter whom you supported in this election, I will work tirelessly for you and your family.”

Political roots

Born in Albany, New York, the magna cum laude graduate of Cornell University eventually relocated to Las Colinas, an affluent enclave in Irving, just outside Dallas.

Van Duyne’s first run at politics came in 2004, when she successfully ousted incumbent Irving City Council member Herbert Gears. According to The Dallas Morning News, she was dissatisfied with how he handled a zoning case in her neighborhood — and how he treated her and another constituent who tried to talk to him about it.

“He said, ‘You rich white people behind your pearly gates, you don’t care, you don’t get involved, so why should I care?’” Van Duyne told The Morning News.

Shortly after, Gears successfully ran for mayor, allowing him to preside over the governing body Van Duyne had just joined. The two then spent years publicly clashing at council meetings on everything from illegal immigration to the definition of apartments. Van Duyne was frequently on the losing end of council votes, but her conservative stances, steadfast convictions and watchdog mentality won her fervent supporters.

Van Duyne served for two terms before stepping down in 2010. She then launched a campaign against Gears for the mayoral post. On the campaign trail, Van Duyne harshly criticized Gears for his oversight of a publicly funded development project on which millions in taxpayer dollars were questionably spent.

One of the key players in the development project gave Gears hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations in his bid to keep his seat. But Van Duyne ousted him again and became the first woman mayor of the suburban city.

“The people spoke loud and clear that they’re ready for a change,” Van Duyne said after her first mayoral victory. “They were sick of all talk and no action.”

While in office, Van Duyne dubbed herself a limited government conservative and received praise from supporters for passing the city’s first ethics policy and for bringing new businesses to Irving. She also became a vocal opponent of sanctuary policies that shield unauthorized immigrants from federal immigration enforcement. Also during her tenure, Irving was named one of the best cities for job growth, as well as the fifth safest city in the U.S.

“I think one of her biggest strengths as mayor was that she had a backbone — which is very rare to see in a city official,” said former state Rep. Matt Rinaldi of Irving, a longtime friend of Van Duyne’s.

But her time in Irving politics brought her both fame and infamy — depending on the political leanings of the observer. As mayor, Van Duyne infamously sought an investigation of a group of Muslim imams in North Texas after she latched on to internet rumors falsely accusing them of bypassing American courts when settling disputes among members of their community.

“She has really built her political career on demonizing and spreading fear of American Muslims,” said Syed, the CAIR-Texas DFW executive director.

In 2015, Van Duyne received national attention after the City Council, at her behest, narrowly passed a resolution supporting an anti-Sharia bill then making its way through the Texas Legislature. A similar state law eventually passed in 2017.

“People talk about, ‘Oh you’re so brave,’” Van Duyne said during a 2015 speaking engagement, according to The Morning News. “There is nothing I did that was heroic.”

That same year, Van Duyne defended the arrest of teenager Ahmed Mohamed who was detained after bringing a homemade clock to his Irving high school that was mistaken for a bomb. She was accused of fear mongering after referring to Mohamed’s clock as a “hoax bomb,” which contradicted the conclusions of Irving police. Van Duyne was among officials sued for defamation by Mohamed’s family, though the suit was later dismissed.

In announcing her plans to not seek a third term as mayor, Van Duyne credited herself with pushing through a half-penny tax cut and bringing new businesses to Irving, including the headquarters of 7-Eleven, according to media reports.

“My role working for the community will change, but I’m not saying goodbye at all,” she told The Morning News when she announced she wasn’t seeking a third term. “If you look at what we’ve accomplished, it’s pretty awesome.”

A federal appointment

During the 2016 presidential campaign — and Van Duyne’s final year as Irving mayor — retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn spoke at a Dallas event hosted by ACT for America. According to The Morning News, he met with Van Duyne before the event.

“Beth is incredibly brave,” Flynn said. “Vote for her for anything.”

Shortly after Donald Trump won the election, Van Duyne and Flynn were spotted together at Trump Tower in New York City. Flynn was later named Trump’s national security adviser, though his tenure lasted about a month and he eventually pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador. (Trump pardoned Flynn late last month.)

Months later, as Van Duyne’s term as mayor was ending, her next move was announced: The Trump administration tapped her to be a regional U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development regional administrator.

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington, D.C.

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington, D.C.

Credit: Douliery Olivier/ABACA via REUTERS

She told The Texas Tribune at the time that the job overlapped a lot with what mayors do.

“I strongly believe that government should be limited and that it should be focused on helping those that need it the most,” she said.

On the same day in 2019 that Marchant, the outgoing U.S. House member who Van Duyne replaced, announced he wouldn’t seek another term in Congress, Van Duyne said she planned to run for the seat. She was recruited by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, to run for the slot and quickly amassed significant financial support in the crowded GOP primary.

Throughout her campaign, Van Duyne emphasized relatability, highlighting that she’s a single mother. She recounted in a campaign ad how she battled with her health insurance company after it denied coverage for surgery for her newborn daughter. But she has also kept some of her signature confrontational style, often blasting national “socialist” Democrats on social media.

After the “conservative squad” appeared on “Fox & Friends” last year, Democratic U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar said in a tweet that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

Van Duyne responded: “Socialism is the severest form of treachery.”

And Van Duyne — along with Texas GOP congressional candidates Wesley Hunt, August Pfluger, Tony Gonzales and Genevieve Collins — banded with U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw for an “Avengers”-style ad with a mission to “save Texas.”

In the runup to Election Day, she took up the president’s defense with a gusto, advocating for reopening schools and against further pandemic-related shutdowns. She also espoused pro-police policies, stoking fear about “violent criminals” and the decline of Texas cities in the face of protests over racial injustice.

“Make no mistake: There are gangs. We’ve got drug cartels that are doing business in our street. We’ve got sex trafficking,” she told The Morning News. “Those aren’t things we’re just making up. This is real city crime.”

Ahead of the crowded March primary, Trump endorsed her congressional bid.

Van Duyne “did Great things as Mayor of Irving, Texas, with my Administration. She is a Strong Conservative who supports Border Security, Loves our Military, Vets, and supports your #2A. Beth has my Full Endorsement for Congress!” Trump tweeted.

“She never gave in”

Even with a presidential endorsement up her sleeve, all signs pointed to Van Duyne’s race being one of the most competitive in Texas. Democrats long argued Texas’ status as a swing state. In the lead-up to Nov. 3, the elections handicapper Sabato’s Crystal Ball argued the district leaned Democratic.

Van Duyne still won.

“She never gave in,” Rinaldi said of Van Duyne’s tenure as mayor. “She always stood her ground and had principles, and that will be her biggest asset in Congress.”

Late last month, when Trump pardoned Flynn for lying to the FBI, Van Duyne thanked the outgoing president.

Whether Van Duyne will benefit in the next few years from her vigorous defense of Trump isn’t immediately clear. Supporters are hopeful she’ll bring her firebrand conservatism to the halls of Congress. Even her detractors are cautiously optimistic about her political future. Syed said he hopes Van Duyne will focus on her constituents’ needs instead of ostracizing Muslim Americans.

“I personally believe she will — not because she has had a change of heart, but simply because she only won the election by less than 4,000 votes, and in such tight margins you really can’t be openly demonizing another community if you hope to stay in Congress for the long term,” Syed said.

If Twitter is any indication, Van Duyne may still position herself to become her party’s antidote to the progressive Ocasio-Cortez, though she’s remained mum on formal plans for a dueling squad.

In early December, Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter, “Republicans like to make fun of the fact that I used to be a waitress, but we all know if they ever had to do a double they’d be the ones found crying in the walk-in fridge halfway through their first shift bc someone yelled at them for bringing seltzer when they wanted sparkling.”

Van Duyne, also a former server, had a response.

“I used to work a double as a waitress then wake up at dawn to answer phones at a car dealership so you can bet I won’t be the one crying in the fridge this session,” Van Duyne wrote.

“And by the way, I prefer sparkling water — you can bring it to 1337 LHOB in January.”

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