Why you should care
Because this is a bellwether race for control of Congress.
One of Gina Ortiz Jones’ earliest memories involves quizzing her mother on her test to become a naturalized citizen. Victorina Ortiz had emigrated from the Philippines, raising two daughters as a single mother, at times working two jobs to support the family on the western outskirts of San Antonio. One item from the test prep that remains seared in Gina’s memory was Patrick Henry’s bold assertion at the dawn of the Revolutionary War: “Give me liberty or give me death!”
She’s not exactly taking up arms against the British, but the Air Force veteran feels the tug of history in ditching a career in the federal civil service to run for Congress — a gay woman of color, finding a way to respond to the Donald Trump era. Charging to the left of the Democratic primary, she sees no reason to play nice with Republicans if she makes it to the Capitol. “I’m all about compromising, but if your goal is to kick 13 million people off their health care, we’re probably not going to have a lot to talk about,” Jones tells OZY. She speaks with care, acknowledging that she got in trouble for cursing in a previous national interview. But the 37-year-old describes her path with a steely passion and disarming candor. How did she cope with serving under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell? “Well, you, like, lie.”
If the Democrats try to offer up a moderate Republican, that seems like the most losing strategy I’ve ever heard of — and frankly speaks to our record here in Texas.
Gina Ortiz Jones
Even close friends like Andrea Salazar didn’t know her sexuality until years later. They grew up together and attended John Jay High School, which Salazar describes as “really rough” — gangs, drugs, you name it. “There were definitely a lot of influences that could take you down the wrong path,” Salazar says. “And she’s always had tunnel vision and just saw something at the end that she wanted, and she didn’t let anything distract her.” Jones was a fixture on the student council and held other leadership roles before setting off to Boston University on an ROTC scholarship.
Her three years of active duty included a tour in Iraq as an intelligence officer for close air support missions in 2005. She left the Air Force to care for her cancer-stricken mother, who recovered. Eschewing law school, Jones then moved to Germany to work as an intelligence analyst for U.S.-Africa Command. She continued on to the Defense Intelligence Agency, where she advised on operations in Latin America. In 2016 she moved to the Executive Office of the President to serve under the U.S. Trade Representative.
When Trump was elected, she was not a fan, to say the least. But career civil servants transcend administrations, and Jones figured she would carry on. She lasted just five months, finding the people Trump brought in “interested neither in the public nor service.” Proposed cuts to education spending also bothered her, considering that was Jones’ own ladder out of tough circumstances. After consulting with those close to her, she says the basic question was: “Hey, are you part of the problem or part of the solution?” Jones moved back to San Antonio to live on her savings while she runs for Congress.
At 58,000 square miles, Texas’ 23rd district is bigger than Greece, running from San Antonio to El Paso and including more than 800 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s currently held by second-term Republican Rep. Will Hurd, a rising star in the party who has won a pair of razor-close races. A Black former CIA officer, Hurd champions bipartisan causes and distances himself from Trump on issues such as the border wall — playing to a constituency that’s 66 percent Latino. But he backed the tax cut law and voted to release a controversial Republican memo attacking FBI conduct in the Russia investigation.
Austin Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak says Hurd ran one of the best campaigns in the country in 2016, even as Hillary Clinton won his district. “They took their best shot at him the last time, and they failed,” Mackowiak says of the Democrats. “It’s hard for me to imagine they’ll have a better chance this time, but obviously he is representing the district and at times that means distancing himself from the national Republican brand or White House brand.”
Jones says she finds Hurd’s balancing act “nauseating.” It ties into her critique of her chief opponent in Texas’ March 6 primary: Jay Hulings, a former assistant U.S. attorney who has the backing of influential local Democrats Julián and Joaquin Castro. “The Republicans already think they have a moderate in Will Hurd,” Jones says. “So if the Democrats try to offer up a moderate Republican, that seems like the most losing strategy I’ve ever heard of — and frankly speaks to our record here in Texas.”
It’s a debate playing out across the country this year, with Democratic primary candidates split on issues such as Medicare for all — where Jones has positioned herself to the left of Hulings. Touting the endorsement of the Texas AFL-CIO labor union coalition, Hulings’ campaign manager, Chris Koob, says the difference in the primary isn’t ideological so much as geographical: Hulings has worked as a prosecutor in the area for years. “Although she went to high school here, she’s essentially parachuting in with the help of a bunch of Washington, D.C., groups,” Koob says.
Jones does credit Emily’s List (which backs pro-choice women) and Victory Fund (which backs LGBTQ candidates), among others, with keeping her from falling too far behind Hulings in fund-raising. But she says her decision to run was made primarily in consultation with close pals and her girlfriend, who now splits time between Washington and San Antonio. (“She’s a saint,” Jones says.) The bid came as no surprise to her old friend Salazar, who has half-jokingly told Jones she should run for president. “The ambition,” Salazar says, “it just doesn’t stop.”