The Texas Signals profiles a progressive leader in Texas each week. This week we spoke to Gina Ortiz Jones. Photo by Ana Isabel.
Gina Ortiz Jones, a former Air Force captain and public servant, came within half of one percent from ousting U.S. Rep. Will Hurd last year. When asked if she’d heard of his recently announced retirement, Jones said, “Heard of it? I caused it brother!”
A native of San Antonio and veteran of the Iraq War, Jones is again running for the same congressional seat. “Do I think he’s scared of a rematch? Yes,” Jones said. “Do I think that if I weren’t running, he would be running? Also yes.”
Her campaign will take her through thousands of miles of South Texas– ground zero for so many of the Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies and rhetoric. The massive 23rd congressional district stretches 500 miles from San Antonio to just outside El Paso, following the Rio Grande all the way in between.
Home to more than 700,000 mostly Latino residents, it’s Texas’ largest congressional district and is also the largest congressional district bordering Mexico. Earlier this month, nonpartisan election analysts at Cook Political Report changed their rating of the district from “toss up” to “lean Democratic.”
“We’ve showed up all throughout this district,” Jones said. “This is a district that is larger than 30 states– 40 percent of the Texas-Mexico border is in this district.”
Campaigning in the vast region in 2018 taught her that there was a careful balance between fighting for issues that make national headlines– like the migrant detention camps on the border– and everyday issues residents are facing, like putting food on the table.
As the daughter of a single mother who emigrated from the Philippines, Jones said she is heartbroken and angered by the mistreatment of migrants who have risked everything to move to the U.S. She said her mother graduated from the top university in the Philippines with a graduate degree but moved to the U.S. to work as a domestic helper. “My younger sister and I were reminded everyday that we were lucky to be born here– not smart– lucky,” Jones said.
Jones said her district is on the front lines of Trump’s racist policies along with the entire Texas-Mexico border that is suffering from the president’s white nationalism. “To see 22 white crosses lined up that don’t have to be there,” Jones said of her recent visit to El Paso, “it’s a reminder of what’s at stake.”
If elected next November, Jones will be among the few openly gay members of Congress.
“It’s funny, I’m looking at the living room where that happened,” Jones said of her childhood home in San Antonio where she came out to her mom at 15. “She was flipping through a newspaper or a magazine or something, and I don’t know what came over me but I thought, you know what, I’m going to tell her.”
“And I told her ‘I think I like girls’ and, without missing a beat, she didn’t even look up from what she was reading and said, ‘I think you just like the clothes that they’re wearing’,” Jones said, laughing. “And so, it was kind of logical in one way, but it was her own way of shutting down the conversation, which it effectively did. And we didn’t talk about it again. And that was that.”
She said her mom is now extremely supportive and has always loved her unconditionally, but at the time, she believed her mom was just trying to protect her.
After graduating high school, Jones earned a four-year Air Force ROTC scholarship to Boston University where she graduated with a degree in East Asian studies and a master’s degree in economics. After college, she joined the Air Force and was deployed to Iraq as an intelligence officer helping coordinate air support for ground troops.
During her three years of active duty, including her tour in Iraq that lasted several months, she said it was difficult serving under “don’t ask, don’t tell”– a now-defunct U.S. policy that allowed LGBTQ individuals to serve in the military as long as they weren’t out. She said that today, DREAMers in her district — those who, as minors, were brought to the U.S. by family members — are going through the same thing and have to hide part of who they are just to survive.
Her experience with the military and various defense agencies taught Jones to think critically about sending American men and women into harm’s way. “We have to understand why we’re there and about the day after,” Jones said.
Jones left her life as a public servant in June 2017 after serving in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative during the end of Obama’s second term and the first six months of Trump’s presidency. Even as a neutral public servant, Jones said she was constantly asking herself if the policies being pushed out by the Trump administration comported with her values. The answer, obviously, was no. So Jones returned to Texas with the hope of flipping her home district and fighting the Trump administration in Congress.
“To be honest, politician is not a word I would use to describe myself,” Jones said. “I much prefer what I have been for 14 years, which is a public servant. The opportunity to serve my community and my country– a community and country that built me– that drives me.”