Kay Bailey Hutchison is more than just a name on the largest desalination plant in Texas.
She’s a former United States senator, ambassador to NATO, author and a friend and dear fan of El Paso.
Hutchison was in El Paso in January to talk to the Tom Lea Institute, her second visit to the city in a year.
The plant on El Paso’s Eastside – the nation’s largest inland desalination plant – bears Hutchison’s name. It opened in 2007 and has gained global recognition for its reverse osmosis purification system that turns brackish water into drinking water.
Then a senator, Hutchison’s helped to get funding from the Department of Defense to develop the facility.
In 2007 remarks, Hutchison credited partnerships and work from Fort Bliss, city leaders, UTEP and Texas Tech for moving El Paso forward with the project.
“I can’t think of anything that is going to do more for the development of the El Paso community than this beginning and this partnership of the great institutions right here,” Hutchison said in 2007.
The Texas Republican was the U.S. representative to NATO from 2017 to 2021 and a U.S. senator from 1993 to 2013.
She sat down with El Paso Inc. in January and talked about NATO, her time in El Paso and what she’s been up to in the last couple of years.
Q: What brings you to El Paso this time around?
The Tom Lea Institute asked me to come, and Adair Margo, who I’ve worked with forever on so many projects.
When I was the U.S. ambassador to NATO in Brussels, Adair, who knows everything about Tom Lea, knew he had a lot of his inspiration in Italy. She asked if we could do a program about Tom Lea and his Italian experience, because of course Italy is an important member of NATO.
We had an event at the ambassador’s residence. The board of the Tom Lea Institute came. We had the Italian ambassador to NATO, and some of the Italian art community, in Brussels.
It was a wonderful program. It was fun to have the board members come and talk about that part of Tom Lea’s life.
Adair then asked about my coming and talking about what we did there, but I’m also going to do a book signing for “Unflinching Courage: Pioneering Women Who Shaped Texas,” my book about women who were part of coming to the state as pioneers and making a life here and creating the spirit of Texas.
I’ve had so much experience here with Fort Bliss. And when Fort Bliss was on the base closing list, we went to work. That’s why I went out to the desalination plant.
One of the complaints that was putting Fort Bliss on the chopping block was that there wasn’t enough reliable water. We worked with a team here, really led by Ed Archuleta and Dee Margo, and they put together a great team.
They put together the concept of the desalination plant, which would create enough water not only for Fort Bliss but also for El Paso.
I was last here in February 2022. I had a meeting here. The Texas Philosophical Society was meeting in El Paso. Adair and Dee Margo are members, and so is Heather Wilson, the president at UTEP.
We had a great visit out at UTEP. It was really fun to see how UTEP has grown. I worked with Diana Natalicio to get more research at UTEP, and that has really mushroomed and been very instrumental.
I knew Heather before, when she was in Congress and when she was Secretary of the Air Force. I was so pleased when she was named president after Diana. She’s the perfect person to lead this university.
Q: What have the past five years been like for you, with NATO, the pandemic and the after?
I loved my time at NATO. I served 20 years in the Senate and left in 2013. I was very close with El Paso during that time.
When I left the Senate, I was practicing law and was a television commentator for CNBC. I was doing great. Then I got a call from the secretary of state at the time, Rex Tillerson, asking if I would like to be an ambassador.
I originally said no, I don’t think so, because my son was a freshman in high school and thought that wasn’t going to work. I said I’ll think about it and talk to my son.
So I threw it out to my son and asked if he would like to go to high school in Europe. He said, “I’d love it!” So he just signed right up.
I called Rex back and said OK. I was so happy to be able to do that because I loved that experience.
I loved my colleagues at NATO. There were 30 ambassadors and we all worked together, whatever the alliance issue is at the moment.
America is the leader at NATO, and that’s very important. We’re the arbiter of things because we don’t have anything to gain except security for all of us.
Sometimes with the European countries, or other disagreements and other things, we’re able to lead because we’re always first out in security and thinking ahead on how we would address security issues.
Q: Did NATO give you a perspective on how other countries view the U.S. and its role in leadership and security around the world?
You can certainly see how our allies think of us. NATO is 30 allies that have pledged our treasure to anyone who is attacked. If any country in NATO is attacked, we’re all attacked and all in.
We also have 40 partners. We do work with our partners to try to have a solid group that is an alliance of 70 sometimes. That means that other countries work with us, they train with us, drill with us.
It means that if we have an autocrat like what’s happening right now with Putin and Ukraine, or any other autocrat, whatever country has a leader that’s trying to get power by force, we can put together these coalitions that will come together to fight for freedom, democracy and human rights.
It’s very important in world security that we’re a force of 30 allies and 40 partners to stand up against malign activities like warfare, cyberwarfare, against any other country that does recognize human rights and freedom.
Q: As Congress and the Texas Legislature get started again in the new year, are there any issues you’re keeping your eye on that might affect Texans?
We must stay steadfast to help Ukraine. They’re fighting for their country. We don’t have boots on the ground, but we are giving them help through equipment. That’s very important that we do that. If President Putin is successful in overrunning Ukraine, then he’ll go to other countries.
What he’s trying to do now is to recreate the former Soviet Union. We need to stop them now here. Ukrainians have shown such a spirit. That’s the major thing Congress needs to ensure.
Not only is Putin needing to be stopped so he doesn’t try to go into a NATO country, but it’s also a message to President Xi of China, that he has to realize that western alliances in NATO and our partners throughout the world are going to stand up to any blind intent against other countries.
If they will play on a level playing field, we can be competitors. That is fair game. If they decide to try to take over Taiwan, for instance, or use leverage which they’ve done against Australia when they suggested China should be more forthcoming on COVID information, then China retaliated against Australia.
Australia is one of our strongest partners. We need to be able to stand up against that.
Q: What’s your perspective on what the Republican party looks like right now?
Both the Republican and Democratic parties have fringes that are very vocal. But I think the mainstream of both parties can work together.
When I was in the Senate for 20 years, and I was in the Texas Legislature before that, we worked on common goals. Not that we agreed with everything, but we could do what needed to be done to move things forward.
Things got more toxic because the hard left and hard right are so unwilling, and compromise is a dirty word. Compromise has to be part of any legislative body. Every representative has a voice for their constituents.
If you run on a platform and want to achieve what you ran on if you win, that shows the people wanted what you’re saying you wanted.
I’ve always had a lot of bipartisanship in my dealings in the legislative process. The atmosphere is toxic right now. I don’t think we’re making progress for our country.
We have too much debt; I worry about the debt and that it’ll be harder to get under control. We need to have a bipartisan effort to bring that debt under control, or inflation is going to continue.
I can’t even buy a dozen eggs right now, it’s so expensive. It’s mind-boggling. We need to address these issues that are really hurting the capabilities of families to do basic things.
Q: Where are you headed from El Paso, and how’s your 2023 shaping up?
I have a lot on my plate. I’m headed to Washington, D.C., where I’m on the NASA advisory council. I worked with the administrator of NASA, Bill Nelson, who was a senator from Florida.
We worked together on the NASA reform bill, which has put the private sector in the production of the next shuttle flights we’re trying to put into place. Space exploration is so important. It’s important for human needs; it’s increased our medical capabilities, but it’s also a security issue.
We now have space as a domain for possible war. We have to have a defense that would deter that. NASA and space exploration is part of that. We have satellites up there, China has them, Russia has them, Iran has them and we have to be able to compete on that playing field.
I’m really enjoying that because I admire Bill Nelson so much, and he asked me to be on that advisory council.
Then I’m on the Bank of America global board. Because I’ve now had so much foreign policy experience, that’s been really fun, to be able to do things together with members from every country where the bank does business.
It’s really a fun board, and we get to talk about policy issues in all those countries and inform the executives of the bank on what the lay of the land is in those countries.
I’m also on the Dallas mayor’s international advisory committee. He’s put together a committee of all the Dallas residents who have been ambassadors. We have about 10 or so members from Democrat and Republican administrations.
I feel really close to El Paso and have so many friends here. I’m always glad to get a chance to come out here. It’s just really fun to stay in touch.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Sara Sanchez at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 915-534-4422.
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