Can an openly gay, Filipina-American Air Force veteran win a congressional seat in Texas?
By JAMES BARRAGÁN | The Dallas Morning News | Published: October 20, 2018
DEL RIO, Texas (Tribune News Service) — On paper, Gina Ortiz Jones is one of Texas’ strongest Democratic congressional candidates.
She’s a woman. She’s an Air Force veteran. She’s openly gay. She’s the daughter of a Filipina immigrant who raised her as a single mom.
If her southwest Texas district, which stretches from El Paso to San Antonio, followed national Democratic trends, Jones would be a shoo-in to win in November.
Jones’ problem is that it doesn’t.
Texas’ 23rd Congressional District, the only true swing district in the state, is almost evenly split between Democrat and Republican voters. For the last four years, the heavily Latino district has been represented by Republican Will Hurd, an African American who has won over constituents by focusing on outreach and blazing an independent streak that has at times put him at odds with President Donald Trump.
But Jones, a 37-year-old from San Antonio and a political newcomer, sees a path to victory. She can best represent the district because she knows what its residents have experienced, she says.
"Not many people go from reduced lunch to the executive office of the White House," she says, referring to her time as a security adviser on trade in the Obama administration.
She also wants to challenge Hurd's image as a moderate. She criticizes his votes to fund a border wall and repeal the Affordable Care Act as votes against his constituents and started a website dedicated to those votes.
"The person I'm running against is big and bad on CNN but votes lockstep with the president," Jones says.
To have a shot at winning, she has to convey her message to voters. Big Democratic donors have helped, including a $244,549 contribution from the House Victory Project and the Emily's List affiliate "Women Vote!" spending more than half a million dollars on ads against Hurd. But Hurd also has deep pockets. And, in a sign of confidence, Republicans decided to save their money and canceled pro-Hurd radio and TV ads in the district through Election Day.
But Jones continues to travel the district which is 538 miles across, stopping at local VFW posts, labor unions, restaurants, art walks and football games.
"I'm Gina Ortiz Jones; I'm running for Congress," she says as she shakes hands with people at a Del Rio High School football game.
"I think I've seen you on TV," a woman replies.
Jones needs these interactions to have a shot. The question is whether she'll have enough of them to convince voters to abandon Hurd.
"If you had just a generic Republican versus a generic Democrat, there would be relatively little question that the Democrat would win," said Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University. "But you don't have an ordinary Republican running. You have arguably the best campaigner and best incumbent. If you had one draft pick to run in Texas as a Republican, you'd pick Will Hurd."
Investing in the future
In her neighborhood of West San Antonio, Jones says, 900 students will enter a high school freshman class and only 500 will graduate. It’s a low-income community, with many students of color who aren’t getting a fair chance, Jones says. She knows that struggle. She’s lived it.
But with help from government programs, she earned an ROTC scholarship to Boston University before serving in the Air Force in Iraq. Eventually, her military and national security experience led her to the executive office of the White House.
“Those are not handouts. They are investments in the next generation,” she says. “At the end of the day, this race is about protecting the opportunities that allowed me to grow up healthy, get an education and serve our country.”
Jones believes the poor and disenfranchised should get a hand from the government to be level with the rest of the country, like she did. And she says everyone should be able to afford health care.
“Nobody should go bankrupt because they had a medical emergency,” Jones said.
That take has convinced voters like Jessica Drake, a 41-year-old military wife who has four children and owes more than $80,000 in student debt. Her husband will retire from the Air Force at the end of the year, and the stay-at-home-mom who tried going back to school in her 30s, is stressing about her family’s health care coverage.
“I tried to educate myself and here I am, stuck,” she said at an event with Jones at Memo’s Restaurant in Del Rio.
Drake has another reason for supporting Jones. Earlier this year, one of her daughter’s friends told her mother she was gay. It didn’t go over well. But Jones became an inspiration to the girl.
“She’s authentic,” Drake said. “She really cares.”
Jones has publicly discussed how difficult it was to tell her mother she was gay. She also served in the Air Force under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which barred openly gay people from serving in the military.
Jones said she doesn’t shy away from being a member of the LGBT community — she recently was the grand marshal of the Eagle Pass Pride Parade.
But she doesn’t want to dwell on it, either. When she meets potential voters, she tells them about her plans to require universal background checks for all gun purchases, do away with donations from corporate political action committees and improve internet speed in rural areas.
“I think talking about who we want to be as a district, as a state, as a country, that’s what people want to hear about,” Jones says. “That’s what’s on the ballot.”
Border, a big issue
Many residents of the district, which shares an 800-mile border with Mexico, say border security is their top issue. Many live within miles of the Rio Grande and work for the federal agencies tasked with holding the line.
At a campaign stop, Esther Chapoy says she’s worried about the “porous” border. As a retiree from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and an independent voter, she says she isn’t impressed by Jones’ ideas on how to stop illegal immigration.
Jones wants to provide a path for citizenship to immigrants who came to the country illegally as children. She also wants to invest in the State Department to help countries in Central and South America so that immigrants don’t come running for our border. She doesn’t support a wall, like the president has suggested, or Hurd’s plan to beef up technology at the border.
“I’d rather have smart kids than a smart wall,” she says. “To me, it’s not [about] a wall or no wall, but how else can I spend $25 billion?”
Mark Jones, the political scientist, said people in the district are concerned about the border because they have to bear the consequences of “extreme policies on both sides.”
“They’re a group of people who agree more with Will Hurd on border security than Trump on the right and than Gina Ortiz Jones on the left,” he said. “They want a secure border, but one where people can cross and do business and visit relatives.”
Hurd has also worked to nullify one of Jones’ biggest strengths, her military experience, by claiming she supports Base Realignment and Closure, which could lead to closing military bases. The district is still feeling the effects of closing San Antonio’s Kelly Air Force Base in 2001.
Jones says that was an attack lobbed at her by her primary opponents and Hurd is misleading people because he doesn’t want to talk about his own record.
“I was very clear about that,” she tells a woman who stops her at the football game. “I’m against closing any more bases.”
Though the challenges are steep, Jones is convinced she’s headed toward victory. She keeps moving. There are more voters to convince. She thinks back to her time in the Air Force and as a national security expert.
“It was always about, what can you do at the end of the day?” Jones says. “That’s what has allowed me to be successful, and I think that’s what voters want to hear: ‘What are you going to do for us?’ ”