When there was flooding in Midland County last year, Michigan’s senators went to the area to survey the damage.
But when Texas was in the grip of a winter storm that left millions of people without clean water, heat or electricity, Sen. Ted Cruz (R) went on a last-minute vacation to Cancun, Mexico.
The nationwide condemnation was swift after people on the airplane and at the airport shared photos of the senator. Cruz initially blamed his daughters, saying they wanted to go on a trip and he was just accompanying them because he “wanted to be a good dad” ― even though his wife also came along ― leaving the impression that he had always intended the trip to be for just one night. He later gave a more apologetic statement, admitting he had made a mistake and had cut his trip short.
“Much of the reaction in the days that followed was driven by partisan Democrats and the news media,” Cruz told HuffPost on Tuesday. “I think reporters are in withdrawal right now from not having Donald Trump to report on.”
Some Cruz defenders argued that it was fine for the senator to leave the country because there really wasn’t anything he could do anyway. “Do they expect Ted to go there with, like, a blowtorch and start defrosting all of the pipelines?” asked right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro, though he also said Cruz’s trip was “bad optics.”
But senators say there’s plenty for them to do during natural disasters ― and often, just being on the ground is a crucial role.
“Just to make sure the state needs are taken care of at the federal level [and] be a conduit,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
“You show up in person to help people directly,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). “You help to rally people around a rescue package or any help from the National Guard. You’re on the phone or in person talking to people and working with local officials all the time. What can I do? What can I do? You have a prominent position ― you’re not the governor, but you have a prominent position you can use to do things.”
Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.) said that when Pennsylvania experiences flooding problems, he tries to connect federal and state agencies to get the resources flowing.
“Sometimes just being there a few days after the fact, communities have been flooded ― they appreciate that, even if they know you’re not coming with a check or a definitive guarantee of support,” he said. “They just want to be able to connect with you.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) echoed that, saying, “When there’s a huge crisis in your own state, sometimes the best thing to do is be on the ground because it gives you insights as to what’s happening.”
It’s true that politicians aren’t always helpful right away. They have to be careful not to divert resources and attention away from aiding victims, and there’s a difference between helping and staging a photo-op.
But plenty of other public figures were helping out Texas.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) raised nearly $5 million for Texas relief efforts and traveled to the state to help distribute supplies. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) ― who ran for president in 2020 and Senate in 2018 ― organized volunteers to make more than 780,000 wellness calls to senior citizens after the storms.
“The whole point is people are suffering. You need to try to do whatever you can,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who talked about his own experience responding after tropical storms and volcanic eruptions.
“Sometimes it’s just doing small things, just lending a hand physically,” he added. “Sometimes you’re on the phone with the Region 9 administrator for FEMA or the governor. It’s true that you don’t have a role that is formally within the chain of command, but a Senate office has tons of resources.”
On Saturday, after he returned to Texas from Mexico, Cruz tried to make amends by handing out bottled water to residents experiencing shortages amid the winter storm. He shared photos of himself online as if nothing happened, writing #TexasStrong in a post on Twitter.
“My focus has been on understanding why 4 million Texans lost power and the policy steps we need to take to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Cruz said of the disaster on Tuesday. “That was my focus as it was happening and continues to be where I think the priority of Texans is.”