The Buffalo Soldier Gate at Fort Bliss. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales returned $5,800 in campaign contributions from El Paso business leader Woody Hunt the day after the Texas Legislature rebuffed a plan to place Fort Bliss in the San Antonio Republican’s congressional district.

Hunt, the chairperson of El Paso-based Hunt Companies, made two $2,900 contributions to Gonzales’ campaign — the maximum allowed under federal law — on March 12. Gonzales returned the contributions on Oct. 19, according to a campaign finance report filed Monday with the Federal Election Commission. Hunt and many other El Paso leaders opposed efforts to place the Army base, one of El Paso’s largest employers, entirely in the San Antonio-based 23rd Congressional District.

In a statement to El Paso Matters, a spokesperson for the Gonzales campaign said: “Rep. Gonzales continues to be laser-focused on delivering results for TX-23, especially the brave men and women of Fort Bliss. As a retired service member, he’s a dedicated champion for our armed forces. He will continue to work on securing the border, tackling inflation, bringing opportunities to the district, taking back the House and Mr. Hunt doesn’t share that focus.” 

Hunt has not responded to a request for comment.

U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales

A person familiar with the redistricting initiative — who asked not to be identified because of potential consequences for speaking publicly — said congressional Republicans in Washington, D.C., were pushing the Texas Legislature to include the entirety of Fort Bliss in Gonzales’ district to boost his influence.

The Texas Senate approved the plan on Oct. 8, but many El Paso business and political leaders pushed back against the effort. The Texas House of Representatives amended the proposal on Oct. 18 to place largely unpopulated parts of Fort Bliss in Gonzales’ district but the rest in the El Paso-based 16th Congressional District currently represented by Democrat Veronica Escobar. The Senate concurred with that House redistricting plan the same day and Gov. Greg Abbott later signed it into law.

The 23rd Congressional District stretches from San Antonio across more than 800 miles and 29 counties to the eastern edges of El Paso. As of the 2020 census, approximately 11% of El Paso’s population is located within District 23.

El Paso business executive Ted Houghton said he believes Gonzales refunded Hunt’s donations because of Hunt’s lobbying efforts to keep Fort Bliss within the 16th Congressional District. Houghton also participated in that effort.

“We did get the map changed,” Houghton said. “But I think unfortunately there was some fallout there and I think you’re seeing the results of that fallout.”

Woody Hunt

Hunt has donated millions of dollars to political efforts over the years, mostly to Republican candidates and committees. He also sometimes donates to Democratic candidates and donated $5,800 to Escobar’s campaign last year. FEC records show that he contributed almost $500,000 to federal candidates and political committees in the first nine months of 2021.

Hunt contributed $5,000 on March 12 to Honorship Courage Commitment Political Action Committee, which is affiliated with Gonzales’ campaign, according to Federal Election Commission records. That contribution wasn’t returned.

Hunt Companies — a nationwide development company that has built housing on military bases — spent over $2 million in federal lobbying expenditures in 2021, according to Open Secrets, a nonpartisan research group that tracks money in politics.

Campaign contribution refunds are not rare, according to Open Secrets. Common reasons for refunding a contribution can include leftover funds in a losing campaign, party affiliation changes and legal issues with accepting the donation. 

Disclosure: The Woody and Gayle Hunt Family Foundation and Ted Houghton are financial supporters of El Paso Matters.

René Kladzyk covers congressional elections, border issues and other topics. Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters.