Texas hasn’t sent a new woman to Congress in over 20 years. That’s the entire politically aware lifetime of millennials. But this year, in one of the five most-watched national races for Congress, Gina Ortiz Jones, a young woman of color and Iraq War veteran, is running a close race as the Democrat against an incumbent male Republican. This is Texas and the 23rd is the most “swingey” district in the state, locals told me, flipping like hotcakes between Democrats and Republicans in recent years. It promises to be tight up to the very end. (Ortiz Jones’s opponent recently characterized the race as a “knife fight.”)
Given the adrenaline-pumping expectations of a wave election of young women Democrats, running as millennials and courting millennial voters who slept through the 2016 election, one would expect to see Ortiz Jones all over Instagram and Twitter. But instead of selling a brand on social media by plastering platforms with videos and photos of her in her Air Force fatigues, doing squat thrusts in the yard of her childhood home in San Antonio, her Instagram is filled with headshots of unhappy-looking mothers of children with autism, breast cancer survivors, a DACA recipient who is grateful that Ortiz Jones understands the hardships of immigrants. These heart-rending images reflect Ortiz Jones’s platform, but do little to sell the candidate to her peers.
Meanwhile, her opponent’s attack ads depict her as a fake Latina who dropped her Filipino middle name to pass as white in Washington. Will Hurd, one of two black Republicans in the House, is the in-by-a-whisker (3,000 votes) current congressman for the 23rd district. He runs at least one television ad a week guilting his rival by association as Nancy Pelosi’s puppet and a “carpetbagger” whose “home” in Washington, D.C. is depicted by stock photos of luxury condos.
Only in the last month has Ortiz Jones, a fresh-faced, lightly freckled, proud Filipino-American woman, posted a no-nonsense Facebook video in response:
Here’s the deal. San Antonio is my home. I graduated from John Jay High School. I’m an Iraq war and U.S. Air Force veteran. I served when my country needed me. Will Hurd is on the attack because he doesn’t want to talk about his votes against our health, our education, and our opportunities.
At 37, Ortiz Jones is a bonafide millennial, running against a 41-year-old who has voted eight times against the Affordable Care Act, when healthcare is one of the top issues on the minds of Texas voters. Unlike Ortiz Jones, Hurd is a politician by profession. As a congressman, he is exactly what he falsely accuses her of being: a Washington insider.
It’s not that millennials aren’t paying attention to Texas campaigns right now—they are. Ortiz Jones’s biggest scene-stealer is Beto O’Rourke, the 46-year-old white male Democrat running to represent Texas in the Senate. He posted a video of himself skateboarding to get his signature Texas Whataburger and mocked his opponent Ted Cruz for preferring White Castle. O’Rourke has a massive social media following: 271k followers on Instagram and 659k on Twitter. In contrast, Ortiz Jones has just 15k followers on Twitter and 1,785 followers on Instagram.
So, who is Gina Ortiz Jones? And why, in a district that borders Mexico with 49 percent Latino voters versus 42 percent of whites, is her lead diminishing in the last days before the election?
I had to fly from New York down to deepest South Texas to find out.
Her communications director, Noelle Rosellini, was little help. She wouldn’t tell me the number of field staffers and forbade me from talking to any volunteers. An exhausted one-woman band, this Phi Beta Kappa from Penn State with five months of campaign experience as a press lead for Hillary Clinton in 2016, refused to admit me to Ortiz Jones’s campaign headquarters (one room with insulation falling out of the ceiling.) Inside, four frantically busy twenty-somethings couldn’t find any literature to give me beyond fliers dropped off by Ortiz Jones’s mother.
Rosellini told me the campaign didn’t want any in-depth national profile of Ortiz Jones. Why? No reply. She promised me a half-hour interview with Ortiz Jones. I followed Ortiz Jones’s car from San Antonio 143 miles to Eagle Pass on the Mexican border, with stops for her two meet-and-greets with a total of maybe 75 voters. My interview was cut off at 17 minutes.
Why was the campaign so reluctant?
Since her opponent has attacked Ortiz Jones for allegedly misrepresenting her background, I opened the interview by asking her about her name: “People ask me, where did you get your name?”
Ortiz Jones looked startled. “People ask you that?”
Yes. Many people who are already leaning toward you.
“My name is Gina Maria Ortiz Jones. In Filipino tradition, your middle name is your mom’s maiden name.”
It took several attempts to get an answer to “Whose name is Jones?” It comes from her father, Henry Jones, a white man born in the United States. “I don’t talk about him,” Ortiz Jones says, “He wasn’t really in my life. I was raised by my mother.” She adds that her parents “separated when I was very young.”
These admissions sounded like soup bones that had been scalded to disintegration by painful memories. An article in the San Antonio Express-News revealed that young Ortiz Jones was an “A” student in middle school, but received straight “U’s” for “unsatisfactory behavior,” (possibly the defensive mechanism known as acting out). Her seventh grade English teacher, Mr. Hillis, told her, “Gina, I could see you being a CEO of a company one day. That is, unless you get put in jail before that.”
Ortiz Jones faced a juvenile court judge in her freshman year of high school. Rebellious and ready to receive six months probation for an altercation with another student, as she tells it, she caught a look of disappointment on the face of Victorina Ortiz. This is the single mother who raised her and her younger sister in the absence of Ortiz Jones’s father, who was a Korean War veteran with PTSD and substance abuse problems. Once Ortiz Jones found something of a father figure in her student council advisor at John Jay High School, Calvin Buckholtz, she won her first political office, as president of the student council in her senior year, and graduated near the top of her class.
As Ortiz Jones told me proudly, “My mom is the strongest influence in my life. She made the decision to leave the Philippines to chase the American dream. (She was a teacher in the Philippines.) I’m very proud of her sacrifice and her courage. She humbled herself and came to America as a domestic helper. She wanted a better life for herself and children she might have.”
Victorina worked so many jobs cleaning white women’s homes, her two daughters had to communicate with her through a notebook. “Sometimes we wouldn’t see her for a couple of days. We’d write a note about passing an exam. She’d write “‘good job on that,’ see you in a couple of days,” Ortiz Jones told me. A devout woman, she would remind her daughters, “Make sure you’re up and dressed because you and your sister are altar servers at St. Rosalia’s Catholic Church in San Antonio.’”
When the 15-year-old Ortiz Jones told her mother, “Mom, I think I like girls,” Victorina hardly looked up from her magazine as she said, “I think you just like the clothes that they’re wearing.” In hindsight, Ortiz Jones thinks that her mother was trying to protect her, knowing how hard it would be for her.
Seeing the military as a channel to pursue an education that she could otherwise never afford, Ortiz Jones earned a four-year Air Force ROTC scholarship and 16 other scholarship offers before choosing Boston University. There she would earn both a B.A. in East Asian studies and an M.A in economics. To qualify for a career in military intelligence, she went on to study military arts and sciences at the U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies and earned another master’s degree. She then joined the Air Force and was deployed to Iraq during the peak of George W. Bush’s unpopular war. Embedded with the Army as an active duty intelligence officer, her job was to guide American fighter pilots on when to respond to enemy engagement.
“Embedded” is a cruel word to describe her experience in Iraq. It was still the era of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the Clinton-era policy that prohibited LGTBQ service personnel from disclosing their sexuality. Just as she was not allowed “to tell” through her six years of advanced education, neither could she allow herself in the military to be seen or caught with a romantic attachment to a woman; not allowed throughout college, not allowed in her three years embedded with the Army as an active duty intelligence officer in Iraq.
About the anguish of her isolated personal life in those years, Ortiz Jones is unusually forthcoming. When her battle buddies would talk about their weekend plans, she had to either disengage or outright lie. “The immeasurable cost was not being able to form the type of bonds that military members are known for forming with one another,” she wrote in a Facebook post. One false step, and she would have had to forfeit her scholarship and drop out of college.
She told me how it haunted her even later, as an Air Force captain: “I know what it’s like when you’ve worked so hard for something, and you live in fear every day that it could be taken away from you. If they found out I was gay, they would take away my opportunity to serve our country. And my opportunity to die for our country.”
This is a woman who had to learn how to hide. It may help to explain her extreme guardedness; perhaps a touch of PTSD. She jokes about her opponent running “90,000 attack ads a day against me.” What is factual is Hurd’s sleazy attempt to paint his rival as “Washington’s candidate, not ours,” is untrue. A former clandestine officer for the CIA and two-term insider in the House of Representatives, Hurd is more of an insider than his opponent.
But Ortiz Jones is private about where she lives in San Antonio since she began her campaign a year ago. She does keep an apartment in D.C. and regularly visits her girlfriend there.
Even an admiring resident of Crystal City, Texas, a Ms. Ruiz who went to the same high school as Ortiz Jones a generation earlier, asked me at a campaign event, “What’s with the ‘Jones’? Is that her married name?” But Ms. Ruiz went on to say, “She’s what we need now—she’s young, new ideas, she hasn’t spent her life as a politician—she’s about service above self.”
Captain Ortiz Jones hung tough on active duty in Iraq for three years until word came—not from the stoical Victorina—that her mother was being treated for colon cancer. That prompted her daughter to leave the military in 2006 and go back to her family home in San Antonio to care for her mother. For the next two years, she worked for a consulting company. Her mother survived. This is not the kind of sacrifice one hears about in many male politicians’ resumes.
As she says often on the stump, “You can’t teach courage and you can’t teach class.”
In 2008, she was able to pick up her career in military intelligence. Thrilled to be selected for the team that set up the first U.S. Africa Command, she remembers working in Mozambique with local officials to provide medical assistance to the local population. “I was the only woman in the room talking with military leaders,” she told me. “They were all male and older. I was distressed because I know in these communities, it’s really females who are in charge of making sure the kids and the community is healthy.” She made an effort to get village women involved in the decision-making. “We worked toward that, to reflect American values and serve the actual needs of the community.”
But it was her strategic understanding of how foreign economies work and affect U.S. national security that won her a giant leap in career status in 2012. As she likes to say on the campaign, “It’s not often that a girl goes from subsidized housing and reduced school lunches to working in the Executive Office of the President, where some of the most important decisions affecting our country and the world are made.”
This was during the Obama administration. She worked alongside the National Security Agency and the CIA to spot security risks in foreign investments and ferret out theft of American trade secrets, the Houston Chronicle reported in October.
Once Donald Trump was elected, she told me, she saw that the people he was bringing into his cabinet “did not put the country’s interest before their own.” She left after six months.
When she decided to try to reflect her values by running for Congress, “The first question that political people asked me was, ‘How much money can you raise?’” She has refused to take corporate money.
“But my community and my country invested in me,” she adds. “Emily’s List is fully invested in this race, “ says Lucinda Guinn, a battle-hardened vice president of campaigns for pro-choice Democratic women. “This is a must-win seat to win back the House.” As of earlier this week, Hurd’s total donations ran around $1.5 million. Ortiz Jones’s campaign confirmed that their candidate had collected a total of $2,455,971.10, a million more than Hurd. She is also supported by End Citizens United, a non-profit dedicated to ending the fiction that corporations are people and thus can multiply their campaign contributions. Ortiz Jones also gives back. She set up a scholarship for her high school, where only 300 out of 900 kids go on to college. One of her scholarship recipients, Matthew Baiza, she hired for her campaign team.
The great hope for Ortiz Jones is the fact that 41 percent of Latinx voters between 18 and 34 in Texas are registered to vote this time. But it’s the vast border region where the winning votes for her lie, and where she recently made a five–day swing. A local official in Cotulla, who grew up near the border, told me, “Because this district has been gerrymandered again and again, there are thousands upon thousands of residents who haven’t been communicated with enough to want to turn out in an election.”
Her major objectives are to open up more opportunities for children like herself and to secure health insurance for all (she supports single payer) while protecting DACA and keeping families together. To protect herself from rabid “Build the Wall” voters, she’s walked a thin centrist line. She supports funding ICE and US Customs and Border Patrol.
But on the campaign trail, she sticks to bread and butter issues like healthcare, an issue where she and Hurd are light years apart. The statistics of basic needs that she rattles off are startling: One in 10 kids in America are educated in Texas. Almost half of those kids’ families, 45 percent, rely on the Children’s Health Insurance Program or Medicaid for health insurance. One in six Texans is uninsured. And Ortiz Jones’s district is so immense, driving from one end to the other is the equivalent of driving from New York City to North Carolina. But in South Texas, much of the landscape is rural and lacking in wireless cell phone coverage.
Of all the “firsts” that Ortiz Jones represents—the first woman who would represent Texas’s 23rd Congressional district; the first Iraq War veteran; the first Filipina daughter of an immigrant, in a district full of first-generation immigrants—the least perilous is her open celebration that if elected, she would be the first out woman to represent Texas in Congress.
This was crystal clear when I followed Ortiz Jones to Eagle Pass, a small town on the Texas-Mexico border. A molten sun was laying down its rays on the community park when Ortiz Jones arrived for the town’s second annual Pride Parade. A boisterous crowd of about 200 eagerly awaited her—men in bare-butt drag and buxom trans mamas in gold lamé and little daughters with eagle-feather crowns. I spoke with Annette Zuniga, a local resident, 33, a married Latina with children. She was curious about Ortiz Jones’s “hyphenated name.“ She asked me, “Is she part Hispanic?”
Before the candidate spoke, Zuniga told me “I’m not that much into voting.”
With a bare-bones introduction, Ortiz Jones appeared on stage, slender in a cotton tweed dress and ankle boots—no adornments whatsoever. “I want to wish you a happy Pride. It takes a lot of courage to say ‘I am proud of who I am. I am proud of who I love. And if you have a problem with that, it’s your problem.” The cheers were deafening.
She continued: “People always ask me, ‘Why run for this office?’ I’ve been very fortunate. I served under ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ It’s so important that we gather like this and remind each other how strong our community is. But we must also remember how quickly we could lose this, by people who don’t like us, who don’t want us to serve in the military. In days, we start early voting—it’s the most important election in our lifetime! So let’s go out and give ‘em hell!”
Hearing this modest woman, Zuniga was dazzled. “The way she spoke, so authentic, the confidence behind her words—she was inspiring. Just the fact that she came up here on only the second Pride parade in a hyper-conservative town on the border of Mexico! I can relate to her. Her mom supports her choice. I want to do that as a mom. I’m going to vote—for her.”
As Ortiz Jones says, “You can’t teach courage.”
Gail Sheehy is one of the founding writers of New York and has been a contributing editor to Vanity Fair since 1984. She has written about the character and psychology of presidential candidates from Robert Kennedy to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and world leaders from Margaret Thatcher to Saddam Hussein. Sheehy is the author of 17 books. Passages (1976) was named by the Library of Congress one of the ten most influential books of our times. Her latest book is a memoir called DARING: My Passages.