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Woman, lesbian, Filipina-American, Iraq veteran: how Gina Ortiz Jones could make Texas political history

The Daily Beast

May 24, 2018

Gina Ortiz Jones will make Texan political history four times over if she wins the 23rd congressional district. She tells Tim Teeman about serving under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

When Gina Ortiz Jones served in the U.S. military, she did so in the closet, trapped—like so many—by the strictures of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

In November, should the Democratic candidate beat two-term Republican incumbent Will Hurd, she may become the first out-lesbian, first Iraq War veteran, and first Filipina-American to represent Texas’ 23rd Congressional District.

“Yes, and the first woman,” Ortiz Jones told The Daily Beast, correcting the familiarly cited three “first-evers” attached to her name to four.

“That matters, frankly. A woman having a baby in Texas is more than five times more likely to die in that process than if she had that baby in California. Representation matters—in no small part, on health care. I would be honored to be the first in a number of respects, but more important is that I am not the last. We will have made progress, but there is still a lot of work to do.”

The 23rd is a district of firsts: In January 2015, Hurd became the first black Republican elected to Congress from Texas when he took office.

On Tuesday, Ortiz Jones, a 37-year-old former Air Force intelligence officer, beat Rick Treviño, a former high school teacher, in a Democratic runoff, winning more than 17,000 votes. (Also in Texas on Tuesday, Lupe Valdez made history by winning the Democratic gubernatorial primary; she could become the first openly lesbian governor in the country should she beat Greg Abbott in November.)

Hurd is someone, Ortiz Jones told The Daily Beast, “who continues to either vote against the district or be silent on issues that are important to folks here.”

As any pugnacious politician would, Ortiz Jones proudly claimed that she was “much more aligned” with the interests of those living in the district—stretching from San Antonio to El Paso, running along Texas’ border with Mexico—than Hurd.

Ortiz Jones said serving in uniform and in a subsequent national security career had contributed to her desire to become a public servant as a politician.

On her website, she writes that after leaving active military service, she advised on operations in Latin America and Africa, including advising on military operations that supported South Sudan’s independence referendum, “and serving in the Libya Crisis Intelligence Cell.” Ortiz Jones also served as the senior adviser for trade enforcement, a position President Obama created by Executive Order in 2012.

“My experiences in and out of uniform are transferrable,” Ortiz Jones told The Daily Beast. “I have a record of putting my country above everything else. That’s what people here are hungry for. They want somebody that gets things done. Frankly, if we don’t get it done, how are we held accountable?”

The current Congress, and Hurd, have showed themselves incapable of serving the population of the 23rd, Ortiz Jones said.

Voters would know, she hopes, that she and her sister were raised by a single mother, Victorina, “the fact that at one point in time I relied on several programs as a young child. All of those were critical investments that allowed me to earn a ROTC [Reserve Officers’ Training Corps] scholarship that allowed me to get an education and serve my country. When I talk about my experiences, I know where I came from, I know how I got here, and I know now my responsibility to help others get here.”

Around 40 years ago, Ortiz Jones’ mother left the Philippines for the U.S. to work as a domestic helper, before moving herself and her two daughters to San Antonio, where she became a teacher. For the last 22 years, she has taught at Harlandale High School in the city.

Ortiz Jones wrote about coming out to her mother when she was 15 in a resonant National Coming Out Day Facebook post last October.

“Mom, I think I like girls,” Ortiz Jones recalled saying.

“My mother replied, not bothering to look up from the magazine she was reading, ‘I think you just like the clothes that they’re wearing.’

“And that’s how I came out to my mom… In hindsight, I knew she was just trying to protect me. I think it was difficult for her to accept what I was saying at the time, because she knew it would be harder for me.”

It was hard for Ortiz Jones to fully enjoy her four-year Air Force ROTC Scholarship at Boston University, she wrote in the same post, because she had to “sign a piece of paper agreeing not to engage in homosexual behavior. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was the policy, and my education depended on it. My education depended on me not being able to be me.”

“Specific to being a member of the LGBT community, there are some strong parallels between my experiences having to serve under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Dreamers today,” Ortiz Jones told The Daily Beast. “I know exactly what it’s like to have worked hard for something and live in fear that it could be taken away from you. If they found out I was gay I would lose my scholarship, I would lose my opportunity to serve my country. I think there are some parallels between that and the needless uncertainty and needless anxiety that some of our Dreamers are facing.”

Ortiz Jones said 4,000 Dreamers live in the 23rd District. Hurd has been “silent” on their plight, she said. “When I look at Will Hurd’s record on immigration, I liken it to someone setting their house on fire and showing up at the last minute with a pail of water.”

Texas Monthly’s R.G. Ratcliffe summarized Hurd’s position in August 2017 thus: “The two most damning accusations against Hurd is that he voted in favor of repealing Obamacare during his first term and only voted against repeal this year; and that he speaks out against the border wall, but once voted to fund it.”

Hurd defended his flip-flopping in the piece, and in January 2018 introduced a bill to grant permanent legal residency to Dreamers, along with some border security measures.

For Ortiz Jones this was too little, too late, and his flip-flopping on issues damning and significant. She also criticized Hurd for voting “to deny our Dreamers’ ability to serve in the military,” and for voting to restrict access to health care for trans members of the military.

“As a veteran, and having served in national security for 14 years, that vote is particularly disappointing,” Ortiz Jones said. “He has created a military readiness issue. If one person is not 100 percent, that unit is not 100 percent, and the mission is at risk.”

In a statement sent to the Daily Beast, Justin Hollis, Hurd’s campaign manager, wrote, “I would have thought that a former analyst would have done better research on the issues. Will Hurd has led the fight to secure our border and provide a permanent legislative fix for DACA recipients. So, would she sign on to the discharge petition to have a vote on a bill that does just that?

“Further, Gina Jones has stated publicly that she is in favor of closing military bases, a move that would cost thousands of jobs in the district and impact military readiness. That is just irresponsible.”

Late Thursday afternoon, Ortiz Jones told the Daily Beast that “of course,” she would sign the discharge petition. “Our Dreamers deserve a permanent solution. However, Will Hurd’s full record on DACA shows he has done more to fight against Dreamers – not for them.

“As a veteran, I understand the importance of the military missions that are executed from this district. I will fight like hell to protect those jobs, as well as bring additional missions to the district. To be clear, the greatest harm to military readiness and national security continues to be Republicans like Will Hurd who take active steps to discredit Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.”

When asked about the psychological effect of being closeted for so long, Ortiz Jones noted the first of the Air Force’s “core values” was “Integrity First.”

“It was never lost on me that we are holding ourselves to these core values and yet every single day you were breaking that. That was because of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The cost of serving your country was not being true to yourself, and that’s why it’s so important that when people like me have these life experiences—in national security and as a member of the LGBT community—that we speak up because we can’t go back to those times.

“We have people like Vice President Pence and Will Hurd who by their silence and their actual votes could take us back to that place in a very short amount of time. Yes, we’ve made a lot of progress, but let’s be very clear: This administration, these Republicans, are intent on repealing that progress.”

A reporter asked if Ortiz Jones had been in the closet throughout her service.

“Yes, you had to. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell applied the whole time: There was no negotiating there. It’s hard to bring your full self when the policy is for you not to bring your full self. The military is very known for the special bonds among service members. If you can’t be honest about what you did over the weekend, or who you’re seeing, these are the basic things people know about one another.

“Not to be entirely truthful hampers the quality and kind of relationship you have with your co-workers, these people who are putting their lives in your hands and you put yours in theirs. Again, we have to make sure we don’t go back to that.”

About President Trump’s determination—despite the courts so far stopping him—to institute a ban on transgender troops, Ortiz Jones said, “Well, it’s not super surprising given he has never been involved in any public service or national security. Based on his politics, he doesn’t know about national security in a number of ways, much less how to manage talent in national security. To arbitrarily move to ban transgender folks from serving, let’s be clear: It’s based on bigotry.

“We have current members of the military who are transgender who are doing an excellent job and that’s what’s most important—people able and willing to serve and do the nation’s work. They should be celebrated for their sacrifices they and their families are making—not discriminated against.”

Access to health care for all is one major issue Ortiz Jones will be campaigning on, as well as the iniquity, as she sees it, of Trump’s new tax plan, which benefits the wealthiest and leaves lower-income Americans worse off.

Ortiz Jones believes the district is winnable. Hillary Clinton won it by three points in the general election, and Hurd has a 3,000-vote majority she believes she can overturn. He also has a lot more money than she does in his campaign chest, for now at least.

Having grown up in the area, Ortiz Jones is passionate about ensuring a good education for what she says is a “community of color, of lower middle-income families. Nine hundred kids go to high school, 500 graduate. I want to serve this community.”

Ortiz Jones has been with her partner, a photographer, for a year and a half. “She is very supportive and encouraging and excited. I am very fortunate to be with her.” Her mother remains “a force of nature. There are not many countries where the daughter of someone who came to this country as a domestic helper can run for Congress—and all this within 40 years.”

In times not so distant, being an out politician would have instantly given your opponent a crude stick to beat you with.

“For me, I have strong examples. Annise Parker [former out-lesbian mayor of Houston, and now the president and CEO of the Victory Fund, which supports LGBTQ candidates to get elected]. This is also the state of [former governor] Ann Richards and Barbara Jordan [the first African-American representative to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Texas]: a line of strong women. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. To those who have been fortunate like myself, we owe it to the next generation to make it possible for them to serve and achieve what they are capable of achieving.”

So, she is not concerned about her sexuality being used against her?

“I grew up in a time where yes, I was also sensitive to that. Look at the Republicans and their agendas. I don’t put it past them not to make an issue out of it. But in this day and age, that speaks more to them and their lack of platform than anything else. Look, bring it on. We will continue to speak about the issues voters care about, and continue to carry the day.”