Andrew White was just like you or me — if you or I were a millionaire Houston investor born to a former Texas governor. Then, late last year, everything changed. White, 45, decided to follow in his late father’s footsteps and seek the Democratic nomination for the state’s top political job. “I’ve never been elected to anything, so I thought I’d start with governor,” he proclaimed on his campaign website, a line that was later removed. “I’m a very conservative Democrat, or I’m a moderate Republican or I don’t care what you call me,” he told Texas Monthly in October.
White’s been murky on abortion, and his official position on border security sounds like it could be a copy/paste from a moderate Republican. “Our weak borders have read like a 1,254-mile-long ‘Open for Business’ sign to millions of undocumented immigrants and the criminals who take advantage of them,” he states on his campaign website.
And for two decades, White has owned what he refers to on his site as a “border security business,” which sells heartbeat-detection technology that helps governments around the world nab immigrants. Not exactly the ideal financial investment for a Democrat looking to harness an anti-Trump backlash.
But in a nine-way primary for the Democratic nomination, White cruised into a May 22 runoff with the help of a $1 million loan to his own campaign. His opponent now is Lupe Valdez, the former Dallas County sheriff whose frontrunner status seems endangered mostly by her inability to outline clear positions. The two are set for a first debate this Friday in Austin, where immigration issues could loom large.
White has struggled to reconcile a relative border hawkishness with the political realities of a Democratic primary, and he acknowledges he’s been learning on the job. “My heart for these issues has gotten so much bigger,” he told the Observer in a phone interview Monday. “Once you’ve spoken to thousands of people with a passion for this issue and you’ve heard their stories, once you’ve done the research to find out that what they’re saying is true … it will change you.”
That change is on display in White’s rhetoric about his border business, Geovox Security. On his campaign website, he boasts that owning the company has given him an understanding of “the challenges” of border security. But in a town hall held by the Latino youth group Jolt Texas last month, he changed tack in response to a critical question from the group’s director, Cristina Tzintzun.
“I’m sure this issue might be used against me that I have a, quote, border security business, but the reality is it’s used to protect people’s lives,” White said. He explained that immigrants can die of overheating and exhaustion while being smuggled across borders, a fate they could avoid if detected.
White’s company, launched with his father in the late ’90s, sells a technology called AVIAN that detects shock waves from a beating heart using sensors linked to a computer, purportedly locating someone hiding in a vehicle within seconds. It’s used in some Texas prisons, at the borders of multiple European countries, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection has tested the technology. Looking at Geovox’s website, you’d have no idea the company’s aim was saving lives.
The website features, for example, grainy video from a 2002 tech demonstration for Border Patrol in Laredo, depicting a scene the camera’s operator calls a “live catch.” An 18-wheeler gets pulled over by agents, and a message flashes across the screen: “The AVIAN system can detect stowaways in less than one minute.” Eight Hispanic men then file out, and the driver is placed in handcuffs as the others are ushered off-screen, presumably to be deported.
Another video is filmed in the Gaza Strip, where Israeli authorities are evaluating White’s gadgets. Text appears: “When one terrorist is too many, the Avian Heartbeat Detector System can dramatically enhance security at even the most secure border.” And a BBC news report is summed up as follows: “UK Immigration credits Heartbeat Detector with lowering asylum requests.”
What White calls “saving lives,” then, could just as easily be seen as facilitating deportation — a point he seems loathe to concede. “I don’t feel I need to answer that question in the way you want me to answer it,” White told the Observer, “because you’re asking a very basic question about border security: Should a country be able to have a border? I believe yes.”
“The Jolt organization came to me and said, ‘We’d really feel better if you’d sell this business,’ and I agreed,” White said. “This technology actually protects people, but nevertheless I’m happy to put the business on the market.” White added that he’d have to ditch the company anyway if elected, since it has business before the state. He wouldn’t disclose Geovox’s earnings, but did say it was “less than 10 percent of [his] portfolio.”
On other immigration issues, White sounds more like a liberal Democrat. He favors zeroing out the state’s contribution to border security, leaving the matter to the feds. He supports the right to seek asylum, and rejects the Republican notion that the system is full of loopholes or fraud. He supports a path to citizenship for the undocumented and thinks the country should allow more immigrants to come legally for work.
“Regardless of your position on immigration, the economy of Texas has come out ahead on this transaction,” he said. “What the Republicans would have you believe is undocumented workers are using our services and not paying in, but the numbers are the opposite.”
For her part, White’s opponent doubts the sincerity of his liberal epiphanies. “I have long known what my values are. I’m a Texas Democrat,” Valdez wrote in a press release announcing Friday’s debate. “I look forward to seeing which opponent shows up,” she jabbed. “The ‘very conservative Democrat’ or ‘moderate Republican.’”