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Hurricane recovery dominates battle in this congressional district

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 5/18/2018 By Jeremy Wallace

Nine months after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, the storm is playing an outsized role in determining who will represent one of the hardest-hit sections of Houston and Harris County in Congress.

While every one of the nine members of Congress that represent pieces of Harris County will be working on Harvey recovery for years, the winner of Tuesday’s GOP primary battle for the open 2nd Congressional District between Kevin Roberts and Dan Crenshaw could well be facing an almost three front war in protecting the region.

“The recovery is this biggest issue moving forward,” said U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, the Republican from Atascocita who is retiring from Congress, which led to Tuesday’s battle between Roberts and Crenshaw.

On the western side, the oddly shaped district reaches the shadows of the Addicks and Barker reservoirs that inundated neighborhoods. On the eastern side it takes in Lake Houston and the San Jacinto River, which floods even in moderate rains. And on the northern side, the district faces discharges from Lake Conroe in Montgomery County that can flood downstream homes like in Kingwood and Humble.

“There’s no doubt it’s the most important issue,” Crenshaw, a 33-year-old retired Navy SEAL, said of the recovery efforts and how to prevent future flooding.

Crenshaw has used his military experience as a key selling point. The U.S. Navy taught him how to research complex — and often classified — issues and seek solutions, he said.

But Roberts, 52, said he’s a proven legislator, having served two years in the Texas Legislature working on the flooding issues. And he stresses that for the last 17 years he’s been part of the community learning the flooding issue firsthand.

“I was talking about these issues long before Harvey hit,” Roberts said.

Both candidates share many of the same conservative views on key issues including gun rights, abortion and border security. The bigger difference is in the leadership styles they brought to the table in ads, candidate forums and media interviews since the campaign started in December.

SEAL turns to politics

Growing up near Katy, Crenshaw said he knew at an early age what he wanted to do after reading a book on the Navy SEALs that had a huge impact on him.

“That was it for me,” said Crenshaw, who lives in the Heights with his wife, Tara. “Everything I did centered on that goal.”

After graduating from Tufts University, Crenshaw spent 10 years in the SEALs that included tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He nearly lost his vision when an IED blast in Afghanistan nearly cost him his life and put him into a coma for five days. He survived, but lost his right eye and now wears an eye patch.

Despite his injuries, Crenshaw remained in the Navy and deployed again, including in South Korea.

“I kept my faith and I persevered,” said Crenshaw, who has been endorsed in the race by iconic astronaut Buzz Aldrin and former Texas Governor and current U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry.

When he left the military, Crenshaw earned a master's degree in public policy from Harvard University in 2016. He then spent part of 2017 working for U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, as a legislative aid focused on military and veterans issues.

When Poe announced he would not seek re-election, Crenshaw said he passed on an opportunity to work in the private sector and decided to run for Congress. He said he saw it as a continuation of his public service.

In campaign mailers and on his website, Crenshaw said he’s tried to give voters a deep dive into his policy ideas on how to tackle the flooding problems.

“Flooding is the most urgent issue that Houstonians are facing,” Crenshaw says in mailers.

Leaning on experience

Roberts grew up in Amarillo and was raised mostly by his grandparents.

Roberts and his wife Holly have two children. He has a bachelors degree from Texas Tech University and works as the executive director of the Lanier Law Firm. The founder of the firm, Mark Lanier, is Roberts’s brother-in-law. Roberts runs the business side of the firm and is not a lawyer.

Roberts said his grandparents were able to provide for him, but they didn’t have a lot of extra money while he was growing up. He started working at an early age to save up money to put him through college and became the first person in his family to earn a degree.

Roberts has often stressed his 30 years in business as a selling point to voters. He said it gives him real-world experience.

“My family and I have spent 17 years in the community,” said Roberts, who touts local endorsements from Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and Harris County Commissioner Jack Cagle. “We are part of the community. We have businesses in the community.”

Roberts ran for the Texas House in 2016 after previous state Rep. Patricia Harless did not seek re-election. He said his time in the Legislature gives him experience in not only passing legislation and voting on tough issues, but also in battling bureaucracies and working with the different levels of government that members of Congress must deal with.

United States Congressional District 2 candidates Dan Crenshaw, left, Justin Lurie, center, and Kevin Roberts, right, speak after the Houston Congressional Candidate Forum at Houston's First Baptist Church Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018 in Houston. ( Michael Ciaglo / Houston Chronicle) © Michael Ciaglo, Houston Chronicle / Houston Chronicle United States Congressional District 2 candidates Dan Crenshaw, left, Justin Lurie, center, and Kevin Roberts, right, speak after the Houston Congressional Candidate Forum at Houston's First Baptist Church Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018 in Houston. ( Michael Ciaglo / Houston Chronicle)

In television ads, Roberts points to being part of the response to Harvey on the state level since it happened. And in another video after a moderate rain in April, Roberts stood on the banks of the San Jacinto River and talked about his knowledge of the issues facing the community. Like Crenshaw, Roberts devotes a section of his website talking about support of another reservoir and the need to put more pressure on the bureaucracies to work faster.

Bad blood

The battle over experience and credentials has also become the biggest source of friction in the race, stirring negative attacks in mailers and television ads. It really took off during a forum hosted by the Associated Builders and Contractors of Greater Houston when Roberts bristled at Crenshaw touting his public policy training at Harvard as an asset.

Kevin Roberts, a Republican running for the 2nd Congressional District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, talks to voters outside the polling place at Resurrection Lutheran Church on Tuesday, March 6, 2018, in Houston. ( Brett Coomer / Houston Chronicle ) © Brett Coomer, Staff / Houston Chronicle Kevin Roberts, a Republican running for the 2nd Congressional District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, talks to voters outside the polling place at Resurrection Lutheran Church on Tuesday, March 6, 2018, in Houston. ( Brett Coomer / Houston Chronicle ) Dan Crenshaw, former NAVY SEAL running for the 2nd Congressional District speaks at a meet-and-greet in the Lazybrook/Timbnergrove neighborhood Saturday May 12 ,2018.(Dave Rossman Photo) © Dave Rossman Dan Crenshaw, former NAVY SEAL running for the 2nd Congressional District speaks at a meet-and-greet in the Lazybrook/Timbnergrove neighborhood Saturday May 12 ,2018.(Dave Rossman Photo)

“You want to get bad policy?” Roberts asks the crowd of business leaders. “Send a bunch of people who have never worked in the real world. For you to be able to pass good policy you need real-world experience.”

Roberts added that it doesn’t matter “what you read at Harvard — it’s different from the real world.”

That brought a sharp response from Crenshaw who said Roberts questioning his “real world” experience after serving in combat zones and having to bury his fellow soldiers showed a lack of respect for veterans.

“This latest attack by Kevin Roberts deserves a response,” Crenshaw says in an intro to the YouTube clip. In his video, Crenshaw talks about confronting danger in the dead of night and attending funerals of men and women who fought by his side. All the while, the video flashes images of Crenshaw in uniform in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as pictures of a veterans’ cemetery.

Roberts called the response a “low blow.” He said he was clearly talking only about Harvard and was not referencing Crenshaw’s military service. He said he respects Crenshaw’s service and, given his father is a veteran, would never diminish the service of anyone who wore the uniform.

Roberts and Crenshaw finished first and second, respectively, in the March 6 GOP primary that originally had nine candidates in the race. Since neither earned more than 50 percent, a runoff was required.

Crenshaw had to stage a furious comeback to make it this far. After absentee ballots and early voting were counted in the first round, Crenshaw was in a distant third place behind Roberts and Republican Kathaleen Wall who spent more than $6 million of her own money in a bid to win the seat. Crenshaw out performed both those candidates on Election Day and slipped into second place by just 145 votes.

The winner of Tuesday’s race will advance to November where Democrat Todd Litton and Libertarian Patrick Gunnels are already guaranteed to be on the ballot. The winner of the November election will get a 2-year term that pays $174,000 a year.

jeremy.wallace@chron.com

Twitter.com/JeremySWallace

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