Gina Ortiz Jones is a United States Air Force veteran, former intelligence officer, and Democratic candidate making her second attempt at a run for a seat in the U.S. House to represent Texas’ 23rd District, where she faces a challenging battle to campaign across one of the largest congressional districts in the country stretching from San Antonio to El Paso. However, running on a platform that addresses the diverse needs of her district, Ortiz Jones is confident that the experience she brings to the table will win over voters in her district. If elected, Ortiz Jones would become the first Filipina-American woman to represent Texas in the United States Congress.
According to the US Census in 2010, the 23rd congressional district is home to nearly a million people, and the district stretches over 500 miles from El Paso to San Antonio. Additionally, the vast majority of the district identifies as Hispanic/Latino, and a large percentage either are foreign-born, veterans, and/or rural. How are you reaching out to the huge diversity of communities across this district—and has that been a significant challenge?
I’d much rather be in Socorro, in Alpine, in Eagle Pass, meeting with people to face to face, but the health and safety of my community and my team is our top priority during this ongoing public health crisis. But regardless of whether you’re campaigning in person or virtually, to be a good candidate and public servant you’ve got to do three things: know the issues, know your community, and be ready to fight for your community.
We have been very purposeful about reaching out to everyone in this district, including folks who are more difficult to reach. For example, early on during this crisis, it was clear that there wasn’t enough good information available in Spanish, so we put out a survey in English and Spanish to hear directly from folks about what they needed most. We put together a COVID-19 resource guide in English and Spanish, and we’ve been hosting a virtual town hall every week on topics including protecting DACA, veterans issues, and rural and border health care. We’ve done 22 weekly virtual town halls—and counting. We make sure to record those and apply Spanish captions, as well. All of those are available for folks to view and we are very proud of the fact that those will serve as a resource and will continue to serve as a resource and be as inclusive as we can be.
And of course our organizing team is continuing to reach out to voters across South and West Texas through phone and text banks—we just recently held a weekend of action where we contacted more than 28,000 people. So we are working hard every day and taking nothing for granted.
According to FiveThirtyEight, the 23rd congressional district is one of the most elastic districts in the United States—having been the seat of Republican Will Hurd since he assumed office in 2015, and prior to that being represented by Democrat Pete Gallego. You previously challenged Will Hurd for his congressional seat in 2018, falling short of winning by less than a thousand votes. Since then, a lot has obviously changed—but what do you think is different about 2020 that will shift the district back towards a Democratic ticket?
In 2018, we came up just short: 926 votes despite being massively outspent. This district is hungry for change, and that could not be more clear this year. I hear every day from folks who have lost a loved one, have lost their job, or have had to shut down their small business due to this crisis. The failure of politicians in Washington to take this pandemic seriously, to listen to medical experts, and prioritize the lives and livelihoods of working families has made it clear to so many that we need new leadership, and I look forward to ensuring this district is finally well represented.
Your previous experience comes from a 14-year career in intelligence working for several different administrations, and prior to that a successful career in the United States Air Force. What prompted you to leave this successful career to run for Congress—and how has this experience informed the priorities that you’ll likely pursue once in office?
As a first-generation American that was raised by a single mom, I’ve been fortunate to live the American Dream. Over my nearly 15-year career in national security, I’ve also seen firsthand the importance—the indispensability—of American leadership. I served in the Air Force and deployed to Iraq, have advised on operations all over Latin America and Africa, and wrapped up my federal career working to protect our economic and national security in the Executive Office of the President. I stayed on for six months after the election in 2016 to see what good I could do from within, but it became very clear that was going to be limited given the direction of this administration.
I’ve served in countries where women and minorities are targeted, where governments’ disregard for conflict of interest have hollowed out those countries, and I’ve seen what happens when good people don’t stand up in the face of tyranny. There wasn’t any one event, but I had to ask myself, am I going to be part of the problem, or part of the solution? Growing up here in San Antonio, things like reduced lunch and subsidized housing were critical investments that allowed me to grow up healthy, get an education, and go on to serve our country. I had to think about what I owe to the next generation given the opportunities that I had, and in Congress I’ll always fight to protect access to opportunity for working families like mine.
Your opponent in this election—Republican Tony Gonzales—was recently announced as the victor of his primary runoff following a tedious recount that came down to only a few hundred votes. What do you think this narrow victory says about Republican confidence in the district, and what’s the plan for campaigning against Tony going forward until election day?
This has never been about who I am running against, but what I’m running for. I’m running to serve this district—to bring down the high cost of health care, for a level playing field for hardworking Texans, and to make the investments in the first-class education, trade schools, and advanced-skills training we need to keep Texas strong. That’s what our focus has been on in this campaign, and that’s what my focus will be on in Congress.
Recently, the Huffington Post published an article claiming that the National Republican Campaign Committee had advised conservative groups to identify your sexuality in attacks. Since then, the NRCC has removed the information from its website—but before then, you responded on Twitter by referring to your experience serving in the military under “don’t ask, don’t tell.” What do you think this incident, and other attacks on LGBTQ candidates, says about how LGBTQ candidates are treated in politics? And how do you plan to respond to it as the election goes on?
I learned a long time ago that you can’t teach class and you can’t teach courage. As you mentioned, I served under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and I know exactly what it’s like to be faced with leaders who lack the moral courage to treat all Americans equally under the law. These attacks show just how little they have to run on. We’ll keep talking about the issues that matter most to this district, and they can answer to the people of South and West Texas about why they’re not interested in serving and representing everyone in this district equally.
Assuming you prevail in November, what would be your first priority in office?
My top priority, and the top priority of voters in this district, is fighting for quality, affordable health care. This is personal to me. When I came back from my deployment to Iraq, I wanted to surprise [my] mom, but she surprised me. She had been diagnosed with colon cancer and was already undergoing chemotherapy. I’ll never forget that sinking feeling—of realizing that I could lose my mom, but also that this could bankrupt us. Time and time again you hear awful stories where families go bankrupt through no fault of their own as a result of an unforeseen medical emergency.
Thankfully, my mom had good health insurance through her job as a public school teacher, and it helped save her life. I’m committed to making sure working families across this country have that same fighting chance. Texas is the most uninsured state in the country, and this district is one of the most medically underserved parts of the state. In 18 of the 29 counties in this district, there are three or less doctors, and in three counties there are no doctors. In Congress, I’ll work to expand access to affordable, quality health care.
The Politic has a wide audience of readers—from students on campus to hundreds of alumni across the United States and the world—if you’d like to, what would be one thing that you’d like to tell someone reading this interview?
No one is coming to save us—we have to put in the hard work to get our country back on the right track. There’s so much at stake in this election, and no one can afford to sit this out. As I mentioned, I came up just short—less than 1 percent of the vote—despite being massively outspent, so I know how critical every phone call, every text message is to helping us win this race. If you’re interested in helping us flip this district blue, please sign up to volunteer with us at https://www.mobilize.us/ginaortizjonesforcongress/. Thanks for being in this fight!