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Retiring Congressman Mike Conaway talks about what will save America in farewell interview

John Tufts
San Angelo Standard-Times
Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Mildand, Congressional District 11, Texas

SAN ANGELO — Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway thinks nothing less than divine intervention will bring Americans back together after the recent election of President-elect Joe Biden. 

Whether that's true or not, Conaway won't see it from the same Washington DC office he's occupied over the past 16 years. In January 2021, Conaway will retire having served Texas' 11th congressional district since 2005.

District 11 spans 29 counties in West Texas, including Lamesa, Odessa, Midland, San Angelo, Brady, Brownwood, Llano and Junction.

Conaway recently gave a farewell interview to the San Angelo Standard-Times, part of the USA TODAY NETWORK in Texas, and reflected on his signature piece of legislation, the one vote he deeply regrets, what a Biden presidency could mean for West Texas, and what he believes — besides an intervention from the Lord — it will take to get more Americans to trust the political process again.

U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Midland, in his Rayburn office in Washington, D.C. on November 20, 2014.

More:Mike Conaway will not seek reelection in 2020: I'm (leaving) on my terms

What started your career in politics? Is there anyone who inspired you?

"George W. Bush and I were business partners in the mid-1980s, and his dad was Vice President at the time, so George was a big influence. In '95, when he became governor, he appointed me to the State Board of Accountancy, which is a volunteer job and a regulatory agency that oversees the practice of accountancy in Texas, and that got me in front of the Texas Legislature through three sessions. That's what got me started. I was on the other side of the table from those guys but I thought 'that's a job that I could do'."

U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Midland, (center) speaks with U.S. Reps. David Rouzer and Roger Marshall and farmers at a cotton farm outside San Angelo on July 31, 2017.

When you look back on your time as a congressman, what do you think you’ll remember the most?

"The people that I've been able to work with: my congressional colleagues and staff that I've had — I've spent more time with them than I've spent with my family over these 16 years. They're dear friends. Legislatively, of course, I'll remember the 2018 Farm Bill. The Russia investigation will highlight my work in DC. And then the work that's been done on my behalf here in the district. Every day, somebody's life in District-11 is a little less difficult, a little less complex, because of the good work done by the team here in Texas. Those are gonna' be my fondest memories."

What piece of legislation were you proudest to stand by or sponsor?

"The 2018 Farm Bill is the signature piece of my legislative career. It affects the most people because of the breadth of that deal — obviously production, agriculture, rural America, SNAP. There are very few folks in America that aren't touched by that legislation for the better. And so that's what I'm the proudest of."

From the Archive:President expected to sign $867 billion Farm Bill

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, flanked by Vice Chairman Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., left, and Rep. John Faso, R-N.Y., announces the new farm bill, officially known as the 2018 Agriculture and Nutrition Act, at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, April 12, 2018. The bulk of the bill's spending goes toward funding SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

What’s something you wish the American people knew more about Congress?

"Given the total scrutiny that Congress gets every single day on every media platform known to man, I kinda' think congress is overexposed. I think the bad side of the partisan issue is that most of the folks think that the people on the other side of the conversation are 'bad, mean, evil people', and that's not really the case. There are a few bad folks in the mix — there are 435 of us and we represent America, and America has bad folks in it. But my colleagues on the other side of the aisle are sincerely trying to do what's best for America ...they just have misguided ideas about what that is."

On that note, the United States is deeply divided, especially after the election. What do you think it will take to bring Americans together?

"I think divine intervention. Second chronicles (chapter 7 verse 14) says that 'if a people who are called by my name and humble themselves, turn from their wicked ways and seek My face and pray, I'll hear them from heaven. I'll forgive their sins and I will heal their land.' That's a promise that God made us and that's the solution. I do think it's going to take divine intervention because we are so polarized. The tools we have will continue that polarization. We don't use good discipline in how we use those tools. And so consequently, I don't think, left to our own devices, we'll get it done."

Texas Congressman Mike Conaway (TX-11) issued a press release condemning the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and said that reform is needed within law enforcement. Conaway also spoke in support of law enforcement, "The egregious actions of the officers responsible for the death of Mr. Floyd do not represent all police, as the vast majority of law enforcement officers are upstanding heroes who put their own lives on the line every day to keep us, our families, and our communities safe."

What do you think a Biden presidency means for residents of Texas’ 11th district?

"I think it means our taxes will go up. There's a good chance there will be restrictions on gun ownership. There's a real good chance, assuming we don't hold the Senate, that health insurance will be dramatically changed for the worst. And I think that the folks who try to make a living in the fossil fuel industry will see the beginning of the end of their livelihood. If in fact the 'Green New Deal' is put forward the way that I think President Biden will push it, it does not bode well for folks in West Texas."

With that mind, what’s your advice for your successor, August Pfluger?

"(Pfluger) is going to do a great job. I've been working with August since the primary trying to help him be as prepared as a freshman congressman could be. The only advice I could give him is to continue to work hard like he did to earn that primary victory without a run-off. He's already been working to develop relationships among his incoming freshman colleagues. I think he wants to be on the steering committee. He's already emerging as as a leader in the freshman class."

More:Republican August Pfluger clinches TX-11th Congressional District win

What’s the best advice you ever got while in Congress?

"To try and not to be that knee-jerk reactionary when you first hear something. There's always two sides to every issue. And when a constituent comes to you they're always very passionate about whatever it is they're talking about. They think they have the right way to do whatever it is they're trying to get done. And that can be very persuasive, but if you don't know the issue, if you don't know both sides — and there's always two sides to every issue — you could wind up prematurely making a decision that traps you into something that you would rather not do. Or it forces you to reverse a position that you've taken because you didn't know enough about it. Always be very cautious about taking a position until you know the issue well enough to know both sides."

U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Midland, and other members of the House Committee on Agriculture visit a wool processing fiber mill in San Angelo on July 31, 2017.

Are you speaking from personal experience, or is this something you've seen happen to your colleagues?

"No, quite frankly, that's just how I've operated all my life — making sure I understood as much about a position as I possibly could before I made a decision on it. But I've seen a lot of my colleagues ...who are new to the game, and particularly during campaigning, will make pandering promises. ...If all you've ever done is campaign, then you're really susceptible to making all kinds of pandering promises. And once you get the job, you understand you probably should have taken a different track. They just didn't know enough about the (issue)."

Do you have any regrets about your time in office?

"The only vote I regret is ...the Budget Control Act of 2011, which set up the sequestration process that we've been struggling with over the last 12 years. That was a terrible bill. I voted for it, and that's the only vote I regret because it did immeasurable harm to the Department of Defense by forcing those automatic, (thoughtless) cuts onto the Defense Department during the Obama era. It's a vote I wish I would have gone the other way on."

Do you have any final thoughts about your time in office?

"When someone votes for you for a job as important as U.S. Congressman, that is a statement of trust, and the folks in District-11 have repeatedly reaffirmed their trust in me. I am grateful beyond words for the opportunity to have represented the good people of District-11. It's the highest honor of my life, and I couldn't be more thankful to the folks who helped me along these ways, the staff I've had in place all this time, and the constituents who voted for me time and time again ...just a heartfelt 'thank you'."

U.S. Congressman Mike Conaway speaks at an event on the Angelo State University campus celebrating a new exhibit and archive of materials from his time in office Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020.

You mentioned 'trust,' which is something that seems to be eroding in the political process here of late. How do we get more Americans to trust our political process again?

"Well, you got to hold people accountable for the times they breach that trust. You know (President Trump) right now is pursuing a number of lawsuits where voter fraud is alleged. He is completely correct in pursuing them whether they change the current outcome or not. People who cheated, who voted more than once, ...if any of that went on, and if we don't hold them to account then the respect for law is diminished.

"In this arena, it's already really easy to distrust the system...  We need to punish those who break the law and who abuse use the system. As you know, trust is earned over a long period of time, and it can evaporate in a blink of an eye. And if we have officials out there who have breached their job duties then they need to be held accountable, whether it's federal government, state government, or local. It's regular citizens who vote for somebody, put them in office, and then go about their quiet lives assuming who they voted for is doing the job correctly. And when they find instances where that's not the case, there should be a heavy punishment associated with the breach of that trust."

What are you looking most forward to after retiring?

"Well, obviously the standard pan-answer is to spend more time with your family, which is what I'll do. But I love the job I've got so much right now that I've haven't put a lot of thought into after January. We've got some pretty strict conflict of interest rules that prevent me from exploring some job opportunities. I will work somewhere, and hopefully stay in policy development in some form or fashion. I don't know what that might look like at this point, but there'll be a 2023 Farm Bill. If I could be helpful to certain producer groups in that regard, I'll explore those opportunities."

The U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

'To whom much is given, much is required,' Conaway delivers final speech on House floor

On Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020, Conaway delivered his final remarks on the floor of the House in Washington DC. Conaway, at times holding back emotion, thanked his colleagues, staff, constituents, and his wife — Suzanne Conaway.

Portions of Conaway's remarks are below: 

"When Suzanne and I began this journey in 2002, we had no idea that this is where it would wind up or how long it would last. All I knew was that I saw a window of opportunity to serve my community, and I thought I could do a decent job.

"Luke 12:48 says “to whom much is given, much is required.” That verse has guided much of my decision making because I have been blessed with so much in my life, more than I could have ever expected.

"There is often an easy path in life, but very rarely is it the right path to walk. I have done my best to use my Judeo-Christian principles to guide my life, and my time in Congress has been no exception. The work I’ve been able to do has been extremely gratifying, but not for the reasons one might expect.

"My time in Congress has been the absolute highlight of my professional career. I will miss wandering these halls late at night. I will miss looking up from my desk and seeing the Dome. But most of all, I will miss the colleagues who have turned into friends and my staff who has become family. Madame Speaker, God bless each one of you. God bless Texas. And may God continue to grace the United States of America, and I yield."

Watch Conaway deliver his final floor speech on House Floor

More:Angelo State announces Congressman Mike Conaway collection and exhibit

John Tufts covers enterprise and investigative topics in West Texas. Send him a news tip at JTufts@Gannett.com