On Wednesday night millions of Texans had been without power—and heat—for days, shivering through the below-freezing temperatures that had persisted for the better part of a week. Many filled warming shelters as they sought to survive yet another night after the state’s infrastructure had failed and leadership had proven ineffectual. Meanwhile, cities including Amarillo, Austin, Corpus Christi, Houston, and San Antonio had warned those fortunate enough to have taps that they needed to boil water to safely drink it—which many couldn’t do because they didn’t have power for their electric stoves. Among the leaders who urged caution in these unusual conditions was Senator Ted Cruz, who recommended that Texans stay off the roads and not risk driving on the ice.
It was advice he didn’t follow. In fact, on Wednesday evening, Cruz seemed to be having a pretty nice time! At around 4:45 p.m., the senator was setting off for Cancun, Mexico, where it’s been sunny with temperatures in the 80s, for a family vacation.
The junior senator’s trip would come to a quick end. Late Wednesday night, photos of Cruz strolling through the airport circulated on social media. He began facing intense blowback—not just from the usual cast of political opponents but also from those who might normally be inclined to support him. A story on Fox News about Cruz’s south-of-the-border excursion attracted more than 10,000 comments. A representative one reads, “I’m a Conservative and I see the problem here… A good politician stands with and for their constituents though. Cruz bailed, for his own family’s benefit, while his constituents were left in the cold. Literally.” By Thursday morning, Cruz had booked himself a return trip to Texas, claiming it was always his plan to turn right back around after escorting his family to Mexico (despite packing an enormous suitcase and reportedly booking his initial return ticket for Saturday). The senator also issued a statement that, while short of an apology, at least seemed to acknowledge that he’d like his constituents to believe he feels their pain. (He didn’t indicate whether he’d be following Centers for Disease Control guidelines to self-quarantine after international travel.)
While the senator’s defenders have argued he was not in a position to be of much help from Houston, Cruz is perhaps the highest-profile politician in the state and could have leaned on his army of well-resourced donors and contacts to help his constituents during the weather emergency. Democratic and Republican representatives alike have traveled to visit weather-devastated constituents for years as a way to, at the very least, express the sense that we’re all in this together, and demonstrate that they recognize the responsibility that comes with their roles. Cruz’s 2018 electoral rival, Beto O’Rourke, took the opportunity to highlight that he’d been playing Gallant to Cruz’s Goofus and used his Powered by People organization to call more than 150,000 seniors and connect them with local resources amid the storm.
Cruz isn’t the first Texas politician to make headlines for taking an ill-timed vacation. In fact, he’s not even the first to take a trip to a Mexican beach during a crisis in the past six months. That distinction falls to Austin mayor Steve Adler, who released a video urging his constituents to avoid inessential travel during the November COVID-19 wave while he was relaxing in a luxurious timeshare in Cabo. Even Cruz called out Adler’s hypocrisy at the time.
You don’t have to reach far back into the annals of Texas political history to find other elected officials who’ve taken ill-advised vacations. Bob Bullock—the famously hedonistic Texas Democrat who served in the Texas House in the late fifties, and as comptroller, Secretary of State, and lieutenant governor from the seventies through the nineties—was well-known (and almost indicted) for his use of state planes for debauched party trips. (On one famous voyage to New Orleans, he even invited a cocktail waitress he met while traveling to join him.) Had Bullock served during the age of Twitter—or even the 24-hour news cycle—one can only imagine the social media outrage his antics would have generated.
More recently, Texas agricultural commissioner Sid Miller took a jaunt on the taxpayer’s dime to Mississippi in 2015 and competed in a rodeo there. In his accounting the travel was for meetings with agricultural officials that happened to fall through, but none ever appeared on his schedule. (He eventually reimbursed the state for the travel expenses.) A year later he billed the state for a 2016 trip to Oklahoma during which he received a fabled “Jesus shot,” with mythical properties said to make the recipient immune to all illness. The Texas Rangers investigated allegations of misused funds but didn’t issue charges.
No one needs to investigate whether Adler or Cruz misused their office by taking these trips. It’s not illegal to act like a callous jerk, even if you’re a mayor or a senator—but it does create the perception that the elected officials would prefer to live more comfortably in times of crisis than the citizens they campaigned to serve. It’s been a rough year, and Steve and Ted aren’t special: a sunny Mexico resort vacation sounds pretty great to everybody who’s sick of staying at home during the pandemic or of freezing in the dark waiting for the lights to come on. But if you want to get out of town when things get rough, public service might not be the job for you. Officers, as the saying goes, eat last.