WASHINGTON ― Gina Ortiz Jones thought she could work for President Donald Trump.
When he won the presidency in November 2016, Jones, a career civil servant who served in the Air Force in Iraq under George W. Bush and as an intelligence officer under Barack Obama, stayed in her job as a director in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. But by June, she couldn’t do it anymore. Trump’s plans to gut education and housing aid hit too close to home for Jones, as someone who relied on reduced-cost school lunches and subsidized housing when she was a kid being raised by a single mom in San Antonio. She was also appalled by the president’s hires for top jobs.
“The type of people that were brought in to be public servants were interested in neither the public nor the service,” Jones, 36, said in an interview. “That, to me, was a sign that I’m going to have to serve in a different way.”
She found a new way to serve: She’s running for Congress. Jones has never run for office before, and if she wins, she would make history as the first lesbian, Iraq War veteran and first-generation Filipina-American to hold a U.S. House seat in Texas. Her hometown district, Texas’ 23rd, has also never been represented by a woman.
Jones wouldn’t have been able to grow up healthy or get an education without the opportunities she got from the federal government, she said. The only reason she could afford college, she added, was that she got a four-year Air Force ROTC scholarship — and it infuriates her to see politicians try to take away those chances for others.
“Talent is universal. Opportunity is not,” she said. “Folks in Congress, they do three things. They create opportunities, they protect opportunities and they erase opportunities. That’s how we have to be thinking about this very plainly.”
Jones, a Democrat, is trying to unseat two-term Rep. Will Hurd (R). It won’t be easy. She has to beat three other Democrats in the March 6 primary, including Jay Hulings, a well-known former federal prosecutor. If she can pull that off, she’ll face Hurd, who has the advantage of being the incumbent and well-financed. As of Sept. 30, Hurd had $870,000 in cash on hand compared with Jones’ $74,000.
But Jones is certainly viable. She’s picked up endorsements from major national groups including EMILY’s List, VoteVets and Victory Fund. Former Texas Democratic state senator and gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis endorsed her. A couple of weeks ago, Khizr Khan, the Gold Star father who gave a passionate speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, announced his support for her campaign, too.
“With leaders like Gina, our nation’s affairs are in good hands,” Khan said in a video announcing his endorsement. “I am supporting her for Congress because of her selfless, courageous leadership. She’s the leader we need for an interdependent world.”
If she can win the primary, Jones has some advantages over Hurd. This district, which stretches halfway across the state thanks to insane gerrymandering, has flip-flopped between Democratic and GOP representation for years, with nobody holding it for more than two terms since 2007. Hurd won his first term in 2014 by 2,400 votes against Democratic Rep. Pete Gallego. In 2016, Hurd won by 3,000 votes. Those are pretty close races in a district where roughly 115,000 people voted in the midterm and 229,000 voted in the presidential election.
This race is also happening amid a wave of Democratic victories around the country, with some high-level GOP operatives already bracing for a possible bloodbath in 2018.
Jones expressed frustration that Hurd routinely votes against his constituents’ interests but seems to get away with it because of his reputation for being “the nice guy.” Last year, Hurd gave people warm fuzzies about bipartisanship by live-streaming a 1,600-mile road trip with Texas Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke. HuffPost thought it looked fun (even if it was a political calculation by O’Rourke, who proposed the trip and announced a Senate run weeks later). Jones scoffed.
“When bipartisanship means two dudes get in a car and help each other get elected, we’re all fucking screwed,” she said.
Instead, Jones ran through Hurd’s record. He voted to delay the implementation of smog reduction measures by eight years, despite 1 in 13 Texans having asthma (with even higher rates in communities of color, like his). He voted nine times to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He voted for the GOP’s tax bill, which benefits the rich and raises taxes on middle-class families over time. He’s been quiet about Congress’ failure to renew funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which is set to expire and would affect 400,000 kids in Texas.
“When bipartisanship means two dudes get in a car and help each other get elected, we’re all fucking screwed.”
It’s particularly outrageous that Hurd hasn’t signed onto a bipartisan bill, the Dream Act, to preserve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Jones said. Trump ended the program in September, and young undocumented immigrants will begin losing protections in greater numbers in March unless Congress passes a law to keep it. If lawmakers fail to act, hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants are at risk of being deported.
Jones said the uncertainty around DACA is “a huge deal” in Texas’ 23rd District, where more than 70 percent of constituents are Latino.
“So I push back on the fact that some say, ‘Oh, he’s not that bad.’ His voting record is awful,” she said. “You don’t get to be a moderate just because you don’t say crazy shit.”
Hurd’s campaign spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
Since moving back to San Antonio in June, Jones has been living in the house she grew up in. Most people in her community are minorities. Many are low-income. As she’s traveled around the district, she’s met people in border towns living in rank poverty. Some have no running water. Some have no paved roads. Jones said the experience has been a stark reminder of how badly Congress needs diverse voices ― and that now is the time for her to throw her hat in.
“There’s just a point where you just ask yourself the question, ‘Can I afford not to do this?’” Jones said. “I think like a lot of women, you’re done assuming that somebody is going to do for you that which you can do yourself.”