December 13, 2023 546 PM
DISTRICT 23 — The filing deadline for congressional candidates closed on Monday evening, setting an official slate of three challengers in the Republican primary race against incumbent Tony Gonzales. Former ICE Special Agent Victor Avila, popular gun influencer Brandon Herrera and Medina County Republican County Chair Julie Clark will face off against Gonzales over the next few months for a shot at a seat in the House.
Gonzales has been the subject of controversy within his own party throughout his two-year term. Back in March, an overwhelming majority of the State Republican Executive Committee voted to censure the representative, citing his votes in favor of gun control and gay marriage.
The congressman also drew ire from his own party by opposing HR 29, an immigration bill brought by 21st District Representative Chip Roy that would have essentially suspended the asylum-seeking process at the border. In a tweet posted in March, Gonzales referred to the bill as “anti-immigrant” and “unchristian.”
On Tuesday afternoon, a report from the Texas Tribune described this year’s Republican race in District 23 as “the closest thing to a competitive primary involving a congressional incumbent.” Two of the three candidates sat down with The Big Bend Sentinel to talk policy and why they’d like to represent District 23, which includes the majority of the Trans-Pecos region from San Antonio to El Paso. (Candidate Julie Clark did not respond to a request for an interview.)
Born and raised in El Paso, Avila has lived most of his life in District 23 and has extensive experience along the border. Before retirement, he served various roles within the Department of Homeland Security dealing with immigration issues and cartel violence.
In 2011, Avila was on special assignment in Mexico en route from Laredo to Mexico City when he and another agent were nosed off the road by members of the Zeta cartel. Fellow Agent Jaime Zapata was killed in the ensuing altercation; Avila sustained three gunshot wounds but survived.
Avila said that the life-or-death experience has informed the bullish way he approaches negotiations — and the way he promises to advocate for his district, if elected. “I lost my fear that day,” he said.
He felt he was in lock-step with many other Texas Republicans in his disappointment that Gonzales vehemently opposed HR 29. “I reviewed HR 29, and I thought it was incredible,” he said. “With his own votes, [Gonzales] has proven that he’s not a Republican — that’s for sure.”
In June of 2022 — just weeks after the Uvalde shooting — Gonzales voted for a gun control bill called the “Safer Communities Act” that would have expanded the “boyfriend loophole,” restricting those charged with domestic violence from purchasing firearms.
The bill also incentivized “red flag” laws that restrict people more generally deemed “dangerous” from purchasing guns and implemented a waiting period for background checks for first-time buyers under the age of 21. (Notably, John Cornyn, a Republican representing Texas in the Senate, sponsored the bill in his own chamber.)
Avila is a lifelong member of the NRA and felt that Gonzales’ stance on firearms was weak. “I’m a defender, protector and user of firearms, being in law enforcement all my life,” he said. “Having a gun on my hip to me is second nature.”
Addressing issues specific to the Big Bend, Avila said he was familiar with the area — especially Presidio and Alpine — through his work with the Department of Homeland Security. He recently visited Terlingua as a part of his 2024 campaign, and asked the crowd what kind of change they’d like to see beyond the border discourse tri-county residents are often looped into.
Healthcare was a big issue for many, and Avila said that he would like to have a doctor on his staff to advise specifically on improving access to care for constituents. He would also like to see programs that incentivize medical students and doctors early in their careers to serve remote communities. “I will try to bring as much funding for that as I can from the federal side,” he said.
Herrera is an outspoken Second Amendment influencer who also owns The AK Guy, Inc., a company that manufactures Kalashnikov rifles. The company was made famous in part by Hererra’s invention of the “AK-50,” which shoots 50 caliber (half-inch in diameter) machine gun rounds. The gun is not available for sale — and is revered as a kind of mythical creature in trigger-happy online circles — but was once listed for $7,000 and is “pretty damn big,” per the company’s website.
Herrera has a wide reach among young conservatives, with over 3 million followers on YouTube and 300,000 on Twitter. He identifies as “VERY politically incorrect” and his campaign slogan is “Let’s Go Brandon” — a reference to a right-wing meme with its origins in a reporter mishearing a crowd chanting the phrase “F––k Joe Biden.”
On Tuesday, the candidate visited Fort Davis on a tour of the district including Eagle Pass, El Paso and Fort Stockton. He acknowledged that San Antonio is where he stands to win or lose the most votes — but hoped that he could get the rest of the vast District 23 on board. “I think it’s important to talk to the other communities, especially the border communities who haven’t felt heard and feel like they’re being forgotten about on a national scale,” he said.
Herrera came away from his visit to Eagle Pass on Monday with a sense that the federal government was getting in the way of enforcing its own immigration policies. “The thing that I hear most often from [immigration authorities] is, ‘Look, man, we’re all here. We have the equipment, we have the resources. We’re just not allowed to do the job that we’re hired to do.’”
When pressed about some of the obstacles that Herrera feels federal law enforcement faces, he said that he had heard horror stories about policies that essentially required officials to send migrants back without prosecution. “There’s instances I’ve heard of where you’ll have migrants come up to razor wire trying to get through, and then Border Patrol is ordered to then go and cut the razor wire so they can get through,” he recounted. “That’s very intentional.”
Both Gonzales’ votes on gun control and immigration spurred Herrera — who had never considered going into public service and considers the word “politician” a slur — to use his brand for much more than cracking jokes and showing off his marksmanship. “Life has been very good to me; my business has done very well, and I’ve got a huge platform to be able to launch this off of,” he said. “I’m in a position where I think I can do this, and if I didn’t do it, I think that would bother me.”
The office of Tony Gonzales did not respond to a request for comment for this story.