Washington is mired in partisan gridlock under President Donald Trump, but Kay Granger is working behind the scenes in her own way.
The longtime Fort Worth Republican isn’t one to tweet about the latest news cycle. You’ll rarely see the 11-term congresswoman on television trading political barbs or making fire-and-brimstone speeches on the House of Representatives floor.
Instead, the former mayor of Fort Worth has built a nearly impenetrable base of support and bipartisan respect in Washington, and it pays off back home.
One of the biggest benefactors of her work is Lockheed Martin, the massive defense conglomerate that is the nation’s largest federal contractor. The company, with $36.2 billion in government contracts in 2015, builds everything from missiles to satellites.
And in a sprawling factory in Fort Worth, it builds the F-35 fighter jet, the country’s most expensive defense program, employing thousands of workers along with myriad contractors sprinkled nearby. Granger is Washington’s biggest booster of the F-35. She defended the program in its darkest hours, after years of cost overruns in the mid-2000s, and more recently, when then-President-elect Donald Trump singled out the jet as an example of wasteful spending.
Granger is prepared to fight Trump for its survival.
She’ll take on her own party as well, if fiscal hawks try to cut defense spending. But the fight will play out in private if Granger needs to have it. Her behind-the-scenes leadership on defense spending already has paid off: She oversaw the yearly Department of Defense funding bill, which recently passed the House with bipartisan support, and Trump included massive defense spending increases in his budget proposal.
Day by day, she’s more likely to be chatting with Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis or working with staff on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee than appearing on a news talk show.
“I’m not on television as much as a lot of people,” Granger said in a recent interview with McClatchy. “I feel like somebody has to listen up here; there’s plenty talking.”
If anyone has a problem with Granger’s quiet approach to politics, it’s the conservative wing of her own party. Loud Texas voices such as Sen. Ted Cruz, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, state Sen. Konni Burton and, of course, Trump won elections against establishment candidates like Granger and convinced conservatives that Republicans who compromise with Democrats are not to be trusted.
“She’s a big spender and big government,” said Fran Rhodes, vice president for fundraising with the NE Tarrant Tea Party. “When there are things in front of Congress that grow the government and add spending – and spending that comes to her district – she’s all about that.”
But Granger has been able to weather the tea party storm, and the former schoolteacher’s spot in Congress appears to be hers as long as she wants it.
“Kay always brings to the table the fact that she’s a real listener. . . . She borders on being an introvert,” said Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, the second woman to hold the position after Granger led the city from 1991 to 1995. “I think it’s noteworthy that Fort Worth used to be described as a good ol’ boy network and she . . . broke through the glass ceiling.”
The 74-year-old’s political legacy as a Fort Worth power player has been secure, but there’s still work to be done, notably the unfinished Trinity River Vision project headed by her son J.D. Granger, a $900 million endeavor that’s far from over.
“I want to do something that’s lasting and worthwhile,” Granger said. “It doesn’t get done in front of the cameras.”
Lockheed Martin is a big player in Granger’s congressional district, which includes most of downtown Fort Worth and Western Tarrant County.
Trump’s penchant for creating headlines with tweets put Granger’s district in the spotlight after the president derided the cost of the F-35 fighter jet in December.
“The F-35 program and cost is out of control,” Trump tweeted. “Billions of dollars can and will be saved on military (and other) purchases after January 20th.”
The outburst put Granger in an awkward spot. The president-elect of the party she represents was badmouthing one of her district’s largest employers, biggest campaign donor and the U.S. government’s largest contractor.
Granger defended the F-35 after Trump’s tweets but avoided directly criticizing the president, and the strategy appears to have paid off. She spent the time between Trump’s election and his inauguration focused on building upon already strong relationships with the Pentagon, notably Mattis, who enjoyed wide bipartisan support in his bid for defense secretary.
“As far as the F-35, she’s been in discussions with the CEO of Lockheed,” said Republican Rep. Ken Calvert of California, who serves as Granger’s vice chairman on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. “I know that Kay has been discussing that with her and with the secretary (of defense) to see if they can find ways to speed up the line and bring down the unit cost. It’ll employ more people in Fort Worth, but long term it’ll employ more security for the United States.”
Granger says she would never favor the F-35 or other defense programs that could lead to more jobs in her district if it weren’t what’s best for the country.
“I never do that, because that’s not what you do and I wouldn’t do it,” Granger said. “I know the equipment made in my district.”
About three weeks after Trump’s tweets, Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson emerged from a meeting at Trump Tower with the then-president-elect to announce that the Fort Worth facility would add 1,800 jobs.
“President Trump is focused on increasing national defense expenditures but so is Congress, and I think . . . both sides of the aisle want to increase defense spending, so I think we’re in a good position with Congress,” Hewson said during a recent news conference.
The political winds shifted in favor of Granger without the congresswoman needing to say much in public.
Instead, Granger has voiced her support for the F-35 through official means as a founding member of the bipartisan Joint Strike Fighter Caucus and by signing a letter last October that expressed strong support for increasing the production of the jets, which now cost under $100 million apiece for the conventional takeoff and landing model.
But Granger has deep political ties to Lockheed Martin. The defense contractor’s political action committee and employees donated $125,300 to her 2016 re-election campaign even though she faced nominal opposition. That is the most money Lockheed donated to a member of Congress in 2016 and the second most of any politician; the company donated $141,294 to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Lockheed is Granger’s biggest contributor by far. There was a more than $100,000 gap between her Lockheed contributions and those of her second largest contributor, Bass Brothers Enterprises, in 2016. Since entering Congress in 1997, Granger has received $415,250 in campaign contributions from Lockheed’s political action committee and employees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Hewson herself was also a contributor to Granger’s campaign. In 2016, Hewson donated $2,700 to Granger, the maximum amount allowed under federal guidelines.
If the U.S. government wants to spend money on something defense-related, Granger will play a major role in the funding process.
“I’ve been involved in our national security in some form for 20 years,” Granger said. “Chair of Defense is a huge step _ it’s more than 50 percent of all appropriations the Congress does, so it’s a very powerful position – but more than that it sort of brings everything together that I’ve done.”
The Defense Subcommittee features Democrats and Republicans who have worked with each other for years, and it results in spending bills that pass with wide bipartisan support. The 2017 defense spending proposal spearheaded by Granger passed by 371-48.
“We have a wonderful relationship,” said Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., the ranking member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. “Because of the nature of our work a culture has been inculcated in that subcommittee. We start out in the morning and Kay and I will spend a lot of our time together.”
When it comes to defense spending, Granger appears to have a friend in the White House. Trump last month proposed $54 billion in additional military spending, and a good chunk of that would go toward an issue Granger is passionate about: troop readiness.
Granger said she recently had breakfast with Mattis, where he emphasized the need to increase funding for training, equipment and maintenance for the armed forces before adding new troops.
“We’re behind and we’re seriously behind, but we need to do it in a way that we move forward all together,” Granger said. “You don’t very often get a one-on-one conversation like that.”
Calvert and Visclosky praise Granger’s quiet leadership in the appropriations process and reinforce that she does something politicians aren’t known for: listening.
“There’s a number of members that you always see on TV,” Calvert said. “You have a number of members that are more like the workhorses, the people that get things done and have knowledge of the things they chair. She’s become really well-respected and knowledgeable because of the ties of defense. In that job you need people that are knowledgeable of the minutiae in that budget. There’s $600 billion, more or less.”
But the bipartisan praise of Granger’s work in Washington earns derision among certain conservatives.
Grumblings at home
Though the longtime lawmaker is well-positioned to win re-election for as long as she wants, elements of her own party criticize Granger, citing a lack of communication.
“She’s extremely unresponsive to her constituents,” Rhodes said. “I was in her district for a couple of years and she never holds (in-person) town halls. She holds telephone town halls, and people don’t get to ask questions. The questions are pre-planned and planted.”
Rhodes said the NE Tarrant Tea Party had liaisons with each local member of Congress and that Granger’s liaison was consistently ignored when he called her office to ask about a bill or issue.
“Every time he called her office he would get a runaround,” Rhodes said. “Sometimes it was on a bill that was being voted on that same day, and they never had any idea on how she stood on the issues.”
Rhodes said the tea party’s relationship with Granger was very different from their relationships with other local members. She serves as the liaison for Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, and frequently talks to him on the phone in person, even when the tea party disagrees with Burgess on an issue.
William Busby, president of the Arlington Republican Club, noted that Gragner hasn’t held an in-person town hall in years and that protesters at the Lincoln Day Dinner in downtown Fort Worth held signs decrying her absence.
“She’s only hosted one town hall in 10 years and I agree, where is she?” Busby said. “If you get yelled at that’s just part of the job. That just comes with the territory. And if they’re yelling at you it’s probably because you’re not doing what they want. Kay needs to hold a few more town halls and be a little bit more active with her constituents.”
Busby was a member of the Tarrant County Republican Party’s executive committee for a number of years, and he said he never saw Granger or someone from her office at their meetings.
Granger also openly split with her party during the presidential campaign. After a videotape was leaked showing Trump making lewd comments about women, Granger called for the Republican nominee to step down, but she voted for him and now supports him.
“We have heard rumors about the insensitive and vulgar things Mr. Trump says about women,” Granger said in a statement after the video was released. “But watching that video is disgusting. Mr. Trump should remove himself from consideration as commander in chief.”
Granger didn’t face the same partisan backlash for her decision to call on Trump to step down as she does for her perceived inattentiveness and big-spending ways among conservatives.
“A lot of people didn’t support Donald Trump,” Rhodes said. “People like me didn’t get out there and root for Trump like it would have been for Ted Cruz, so I just don’t see that having much of an effect.”
Rhodes acknowledged the electoral strength of Granger, saying that unless a Cruz-type figure comes along with “recognition and charisma” she isn’t likely to face a serious challenge from her own party.
Safe from the specter of hard-nosed campaigning, Granger wants to focus on a few issues beyond defense for the remainder of her time in Washington, notably education, defending Israel and the long-running Trinity River Vision project.
But don’t expect her to start doing segments on Fox News to get her point across.
“It’s worked pretty well for me. If you’re chair of Defense it worked pretty well to be doing it in a studious way,” Gragner said.