State Representative Gary Gates, House District 28, was elected in a special election when State Representative John Zerwas stepped down in the middle of his term. Since taking office, the district has faced an unprecedented economic crisis.
Gates discussed his decision to run for state representative and issued his advice to district residents who are frustrated with health mandates.
Tell us a little bit about your background and what drew you to the position of state representative.
I moved to this area back in 1982 when I bought some rent houses and then bought a small little apartment complex and started my company with zero employees. Over the years, that’s grown from that to over 500 employees, and I own now 8,400 apartments throughout the Houston area and surrounding cities.
As the business grew, our family grew, and we started a couple of kids of our own. After we hit two, my wife couldn’t carry more, so we decided to explore adoption. We adopted a total of 11 kids from mothers with various backgrounds- drugs or in jail. Eventually we adopted a group of Black kids that had been in 20 different foster homes from CPS. That brought us up to 13.
What got me involved in politics was raising kids and running a business. Back in 2000, I was really pushing and advocating for a lot of things from the school district, and they kind of got frustrated and called CPS. The investigation was on Feb. 11, 2000. They took all of our kids on Friday night.
We got them back Monday morning in an emergency hearing, but it opened my eyes to shoddy government, and I decided I was going to step up and try to make some changes. Initially we sued the state- that resulted in the Fifth Circuit decision in 2005. That kind of changed the way they had to run the CPS system. Then I tried to change things legislatively.
Eventually, I decided to run for state representative back then.
You were elected during a special election after Dr. John Zerwas stepped down. What was it like, mobilizing that quickly to vie for his seat?
And over the years, I’ve run seven times and lost all seven. I’d kind of given up, but when John Zerwas decided he was going to step down, I talked to my kids and family and I said, “I’d like to give it one more try.”
I might stand before God one day, so I thought, “I know you had run those times, and it wasn’t your time, but what if this was going to be your time? What did you do? Did you tuck your tail and run?”
I said, “We’re going to give everything we can to that, and we’re going to do something different.” I knocked on 17,650 doors to win that election through the first round and then in the run off. That really helped make the difference. I walked 122 of the 137 days. The only days off- six of those days I went to Hawaii and did a Hawaiian Ironman in Hawaii. I did that race on a Saturday and caught the plane out on Sunday and flew all night and did 150 doors on Monday.
I knew it was going to be an epic race, and it turned out to be the largest turnout in Texas history.
My wife asked me, “Do you know what day this is?” And then it hit me. The darkest day of my life was Feb. 11, 2000 when CPS stepped in our lives, and I was sworn in on Feb. 11 2020 – 20 years to the day of the event that started me on this path. That’s the background of what brought me here now.
You had been in office for little more than a month when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Fort Bend County. Can you share with us that experience of moving straight into a crisis after taking office?
The speaker put me on two committees – appropriations and pensions – and then the coronavirus stepped up and kind of shocked everyone’s world. I can’t think of two better committees for me to be on than those two with my business background and my skill sets to help deal with what I think is going to be the biggest financial crisis Texas has ever faced.
And on the pension side, the state pension for state employees is really, really underwater. We have got to have some dramatic changes in that pension. So those are the two things – I’m glad to be a part of those committees and be able to bring what I can to help solve those problems.
Before the coronavirus hit, I’d met with about 90 percent of the republicans and about 50 percent of the democrats, and I just wanted to reach out, go meet them at a coffee shop in our district, and just get to know a little bit about them and their district.
Then the coronavirus hit and put a stop to that.
One of your biggest contributions to the community during this time has been your distribution of personal protective equipment. Can you tell us about that? What are some other things you’ve been doing to help the people of House District 28 through this crisis.
We decided what I wanted to do was call mainly senior citizens, because those are the ones that are being shut in the most to just see if there’s anything we can do to help. After a few phone calls, I started hearing it consistently said that they didn’t have toilet paper or masks and stuff.
Through my contacts, I was able to come up with those supplies, and eventually we came up with a care package that was two rolls of toilet paper, two KN-95 masks, two surgical masks, a pair of gloves, some hand sanitizer – we went through a distiller and bought 55 gallon drums and mixed them up – and then some Clorox. We came up with what really is a care package, and we started off with mainly senior citizens and delivering it to them.
We were doing about 10 to 15 a day. Then we decided, “Let’s do a drive through.” We posted it on our Facebook and at Cinco Ranch Library.
We thought maybe 100 people or something would show up, but the lines were over a mile long. We did over 800 deliveries that day. That’s when I decided to take it even bigger. We started sending out some flyers. Eventually now, today, we’ve done over 10,000 through our drive through distributions and probably about 5,000 home deliveries.
It’s starting to die down a little bit, but it’s been a great opportunity to give back to the community, especially for something that a lot of people really need, especially the older people who can’t get out. They’ve appreciated being able to have a home delivery.
As you know, we’re now in the middle of hurricane season, and we had a very near miss with Hurricane Laura. What are some of the things your office is doing to help prepare the area for a disaster, should one occur?
There’s not a lot that I can do as a member. But I’ve hired a pretty good staff, because I have the ability. The state only gives you enough money to maybe hire one or two staff members, and because of taxes and big issues, I was funding most of my staff just out of my own pocket.
We were ready, because there’s been a certain uptick in the demand for legislative members and staff with unemployment and people to help navigate through that process. If the hurricane had hit, then we were going to be ready to be able to deal with whatever those issues were, and even in the future, because a lot of times it’s government bureaucracy that gets people tied up. We have the ability to try to help clear the way and deal with issues that people have during these difficult times.
Do you have any projects you’re working on right now that you can share with us?
There hasn’t been a lot for the members of the legislature to do, because so much is with the governor through emergency powers, and so the individual members really haven’t had that much of an input right now. What I have been doing is to get ready for the next session, because the bigger issues that I’m going to be dealing with is with the budget.
We’ve had the Black Lives Matter incident come up, and I’ve always had a passion for the minority community. My 8,400 apartments are workforce housing types, and I probably have one of the most diverse families you could have with Hispanics and Blacks in mine. I think it gives me a little bit different perspective.
In owning all those apartments, one thing that’s always frustrated me is, I never see kids that grow up in these complexes. They never come knocking on my door for a job. We have over 500 employees and 98 percent are blue collar-type workers – HVAC, electrical managers and stuff – you don’t need a college education.
I made it part of my campaign, but I’ve seen through this crisis, and there’s a big, big issue of bringing vocational training back. I’ve really been digging into this issue.What I’m seeing is where a lot of schools want to pat themselves on the back for providing vocational training. The thing is, they’re not providing it in the areas where the greatest demands for skills are needed.
That’s what I want to try to change and make sure that money going into the school districts for vocation training is going into the right type of programs. You see too often that what causes all this disturbance, especially in the minority community, is that if they don’t go to college, and they graduate from high school, they’re not prepared for today’s job market. I want to bring it in where by eighth and ninth grade this training is available. While the goal, of course, is always college, the fact is that 75 percent are not going to go to college or will never graduate with a college degree.
I really think that can help solve a lot, if everyone has a good path to opportunities out there. Just like with my kids, they had better opportunities, but no telling where they would have been. Seventy-five percent of Black males in the CPS system end up in prison. None of mine are in. Why? Because they had opportunities.
I adopted some difficult kids, and while not every kid can have the same opportunities maybe as mine, there is a minimum level of opportunities that everyone should have. I think that would help solve a lot of the stress that you see happening out there. And that’s what I want: to be a part of that. I’ve reached out to a number of my democratic fellow members, and I share with them what my passion is, and they want to know how we can develop legislation to deal with that.
What advice do you have for the residents of Katy and the surrounding area for navigating these times, when it feels like we’re inundated with so many crises?
I know a lot of people are frustrated by the mask and how in and they want to open up businesses. I feel that what is happening right now is going to have economic consequences that’s going to go far beyond this pandemic.
We have so many businesses that have been affected. I think it was unfair how we went around picking winners and losers and who could open and who could not. We need to have a little bit more confidence that people could have made precautions and monitor who was coming into their stores and so forth.
People can make their own decisions where they want to go, so I wish we had not shut down so many, because we are going to have a lot of businesses that don’t have the capital to open back up. The last thing that we should do right now is shut down again, because people that are struggling are not going to be able to survive economically.
At the same time, while I might have my own preferences about masks, we need to come together. You’ve got to understand and see that I sympathize somewhat with the governor, because some people have picked on him that he’s gone too far. Some say he hasn’t gone far enough.
I can tell from the emails and requests I get that there are people that legitimately feel one way about the mask and about their benefit. I’m not going to sit there and argue with them.
I go down to the stores, I go to Lifetime Fitness, or I go to a restaurant, and I really have compassion for these employees who are having to go to work. They’re making maybe $30,000 a year or $40,000, and they’ve got to wear a mask all day long or they won’t have a job.
And I’m going to sit there in support for them. I’m going to wear a mask, regardless of how I feel. When I go into that business, I’m going to support it, because I want that business to stay open. I’m going to do everything that I can, and I encourage everyone else to do the same.
We’ve got people struggling, and we need to cooperate.When I go out to a restaurant, I give an extra tip – a minimum of 20 percent – because many of these businesses that I go to are still operating at 50 percent.
We go to these various restaurants on Saturday afternoon with a bunch of the kids, and we all get together and go have lunch. We used to be waiting lots, and now these businesses are operating at 50 percent, and even at 50 percent, we have no problem finding a table.
This is horrible, because these businesses make all their money from Thursday to Sunday. If they’re only operating at 50 percent on Saturday, what’s going on the other days? If we want to help keep these businesses open, we need to just be considerate of other people’s feelings.
Let’s just wear the mask, and we’ll work our way through these times. It’ll pass. We’ve had these kind of things happen in the past. This one isn’t quite as devastating as some others, whether the 1918 flu or some other other times.
I just encourage that we be considerate, because I can see from my emails that people are all over the range. I was elected to represent everyone, not just one particular faction of people.
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