Why you should care
Because it’s hard to run as an “average person.”
This story has been updated since first running in February 2018.
In the darkest days, when her life was coming apart, Mary Wilson had a hard time turning to God. What began as a soul-searching look into a childhood scarred by abuse led Wilson to realize that she is gay and needed to divorce her husband, while still caring for their two young daughters. “I just can’t even pray right now,” Wilson remembers confiding in a friend. “I don’t want to. I don’t know what it means. I don’t know how to.” The friend replied: “That’s OK. I’ll say your prayers for you.”
Wilson’s voice quakes with emotion now, more than two decades later, when describing the moment. Today she stands as a person liberated and transformed — from a math teacher to a pastor, happily married to a woman and running for Congress. She’s sitting on a futon in her office in a small church outside Austin, Texas, having just wrapped up a morning ministering to the congregation. She sprung one of the biggest surprises in Texas politics this year to make the May 22 Democratic primary runoff, but her meager campaign bank account makes her the underdog. Will voters send this 58-year-old pastor to the den of sin known as Washington? Wilson remains “hopelessly hopeful.” She’s survived worse.
Over soup after the service, Wilson talks a bit about her campaign and how some Democrats “think I’m an asshole” because she’s a minister.
She grew up Southern Baptist outside of St. Louis, plowing through the Bible in her spare time, the daughter of a machinist who helped build component parts that were bolted onto NASA spacecraft in some cases. She always felt an itch to make faith a vocation because she loved Bible stories and the idea of helping people, but math was her best subject in school — so that’s what she studied at Oklahoma Baptist University (where she also picked up a husband) and for her master’s at SUNY New Paltz.
By the time Wilson started a PhD program at the University of Texas, her girls were 1 and 3, and she knew that the demands of a tenure track position would keep them apart too much. So she exited the program, choosing instead to teach math in high school and community college, making sure remedial students learned the basics. She worshiped at Highland Park Baptist Church, where she was a star on the church softball team — an intense competitor known to kick trash cans in frustration, says John Stanley, her pastor at the time and a longtime friend.
Then the clouds descended. She was 32 years old when a combination of psychological counseling and deep reflection allowed her to come to terms with the sexual abuse she had suffered as a child and with her sexuality. Enormous change followed: She came out as a lesbian, ended her marriage, started a relationship with Betty McDaniel — and decided to leave calculus for a higher calling. After taking seminary classes part-time for several years, Wilson asked Highland Park to ordain her, but the church was split over the idea.
“Baptists sometimes do very well at the don’t-ask-don’t-tell, and as long as it’s not a public issue, they were completely happy to support Mary,” says Stanley, who at the time was a member of the congregation but not its pastor. When it came to the public stance of ordaining her, however, “the congregation really kind of choked on that,” he says. Stanley thinks Wilson would have won a vote, but she withdrew her request for ordination rather than cause a schism. And she’d already found a home at Church of the Savior in nearby Cedar Park.
The contrast could not be more clear between the humble church tucked behind the FAA tower and the sprawling megachurch across the street. The flu-thinned crowd of two dozen on Super Bowl Sunday shares joys and concerns in a worship service that feels more like a conversation. They’re a small but active bunch — from handing out food to needy schoolkids to building Habitat for Humanity homes. David Chapman, who serves on the church council, says Wilson’s arrival in 2002 greatly improved the “pastoral care” side, building the community. “She’s not the ‘high church’ kind of person,” Chapman says. It has dual denominational affiliations with the Alliance of Baptists and the United Church of Christ, but most of all it’s a welcoming, easygoing place.
Wilson’s Sunday morning message is apolitical — though when asked what they are compelled to do, as Paul was to spread the Gospel, a few congregants mention resisting Donald Trump and fighting for LGBTQ rights. Over soup after the service, Wilson talks a bit about her campaign and how some Democrats “think I’m an asshole” because she’s a minister. “We have a pastor who curses and is human, and we like that,” Helen Coffman chimes in.
Stanley, who shared the interim pastor gig with Wilson in her early days at Church of the Savior, says that Wilson’s personal struggles have made her a better pastor — even as they exacted a toll. “She knows every baby that’s been born, knows how everybody’s marriage is doing,” Stanley says. “There’s a place for more intimacy with your pastor.”
Wilson’s political activism launched in 2005 when, believing a pastor’s perspective was needed, she testified against Texas’ proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. She’s rallied in favor of Planned Parenthood and, in what really got her blood boiling last year, against the “bathroom bill” requiring that people use public restrooms corresponding to the gender on their birth certificate. (The bill died in the Texas House.)
But it took Trump’s election to prompt Wilson to run for office for the first time. She liked her local representatives, from the school board to the state senate. Not so U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, a 30-year veteran Republican. Wilson says she offered herself up to local Democrats as a “sacrificial lamb” to run against Smith, but she wasn’t embraced. The Democratic favorite would end up being Army veteran and tech entrepreneur Joseph Kopser, who by the close of 2017 had raked in nearly $700,000 in campaign funds to Wilson’s $23,000. Meanwhile, Smith announced in November he’s not running for reelection, and a whopping 18 Republicans have charged into the primary. Texas’ 21st District leans GOP, but prognosticators give Democrats a fighting chance this year.
At a forum for the four Democratic candidates in the small Hill Country city of Boerne — pronounced like the left-wing presidential candidate, though the county went 77 percent for Trump — the mood is relatively cordial. This is in part because Wilson sets the tone by asking all the candidates to say something they admire about the other people running. She praises Kopser for his Army service.
But the next day, in her office after church, Wilson says she is still bothered by a minor scandal in which parts of Kopser’s website were shown to be copied and pasted from Wikipedia and other sources. She’s also miffed at Kopser campaign fliers that show him with President Barack Obama. Though Obama did give Kopser an award for his work on clean energy, Obama has not endorsed in the race. Wilson took a shot at Kopser when a local newspaper was interviewing the candidates, then fielded a peacemaking call from Kopser’s campaign manager. “When trust is broken, it’s not easily regained,” Wilson says, implying the wounds will outlast the primary. (“Joseph enjoys a great relationship with all of his primary candidate peers,” campaign manager Ian Rivera says, calling the primary “an amicable race.”)
Wilson marvels at the difficulties of running for Congress as “just an average person” with a day job and few connections to politics or wealth. A story about fundraising totals in the local paper didn’t even mention her. Once some bigger names got in — former Capitol Hill staffer Derrick Crowe, a favorite of progressive groups, and former Travis County Democratic Party executive director Elliott McFadden are also in the race — Wilson thought about bailing. But then she realized she was the only grandmother in the race, not to mention probably the country’s only gay math teacher turned pastor running for Congress. In March, she shocked the Texas political establishment by earning more votes than anyone else in the primary — earning her a runoff matchup with Kopser, with the winner facing a Republican in November. After the vote, she fielded her first call from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington. As she told the Texas Observer, the staffer was politely asking, in effect: “Who the hell are you?”
She draws on the first career when talking about the importance of education or even her pro-choice politics. “When people talk about abortion rates, what they’re talking about is a curve that does this,” Wilson tells me as she traces a parabola with her hand. After the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, “for a while the number of abortions were increasing, but from a calculus point of view, they were increasing at a decreasing rate, so there was this idea that things were leveling off. … Now abortion rates are at the lowest they’ve been since Roe v. Wade.”
The pastor side comes out when she’s engaging a room full of voters with stories and light humor, ticking off a liberal laundry list –- pro-choice, pro-environment, pro-immigrant — with a “love your neighbor” twist. Wilson keeps the faith, maintaining that she will win by appearing in front of as many groups as possible, and all it costs her is gas money. She feels like she won over some folks in Boerne after they picked up yard signs. But she can’t afford to reach voters en masse, and a loaves-and-fishes miracle with campaign funding does not appear imminent.
She wraps up the interview with OZY in her church office, and then it’s time to swap wardrobes from pastor to outsider candidate before she hits the road for a campaign event down in San Antonio. Off goes the rainbow pastor’s stole, complete with a Black Lives Matter pin. On comes the leather jacket.