Even before Texas Rep. Will Hurd announced he wasn’t running for re-election, Gina Ortiz Jones, who had narrowly lost to Hurd in 2018, had thrown her hat back into the ring. Her campaign for one of the most competitive districts in the nation had lost by 926 votes, which she credits to her authenticity and willingness to listen to the diverse needs of West Texas.
In August, Hurd announced he was retiring from the House, though at the Texas Tribune Fest last Thursday, he said he’s considering running for president in 2024, and that if he was running for re-election in his district, he would win again. Jones slammed Hurd the following day at her own festival event, remarking, “It’s a pretty confident statement from someone who’s scared to run.”
Splinter spoke to Jones ahead of her festival panel on why she was so eager to run for District 23 after such a disappointing loss, how her campaign and identity as a lesbian, Filipino veteran has challenged the notion of who is “electable” in Texas, and her mother’s role in her campaign.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Texas Democratic Party say their plans are to reach out to another 2.6 million people who are not registered to vote—and if they were registered, would vote Democrat—and then get another 1,000 people to be on the ground for them. Where do your plans fit into that?
For those that might not be familiar with the district, it’s from San Antonio to El Paso. It’s larger than 30 states. It’s a district that traditionally goes back and forth, and so it’s a large district. I say that because when you talk about showing up and showing up everywhere and making sure that every community hears from you and what you’re wanting to do, not only in the district, but for the state, for the country, it does start with also ensuring they’re registered, but you’ve got to show up with a message that resonates as well. So, yes, let’s get them registered, but we also need to be talking about the things that matter to people that will actually most get them to the polls on election day. And that’s what we’ve been doing. I came up just short last time, 926 votes, despite getting massively outspent. So, you know, working hard, showing up in each of the communities is really what it’s going to take, I think.
We’ve seen reporting that Texas Republicans are distancing themselves from Trump to get elected. Where do you see the Democrats having an edge there? Is that something you can tap into for your district?
One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do—not even as a candidate, but really as a person on this planet—is when I was in El Paso just after the shooting, and I saw 22 white crosses lined up and it was for each one of the folks that were unfortunately gunned down. White nationalist rhetoric from this president caused that domestic terrorist attack, the largest massacre of Latinos in American history—not in 1819, not in 1919, but in 2019. And so I think anybody is right to have pause if they are thinking that they were going to associate with somebody who talks about fellow Americans in that way, while refusing to address some of the most pressing issues in our country.
They’re intent on taking away healthcare protections for people that have a pre-existing condition. The fact that we’re the most uninsured state in the country. The fact that one in 10 kids in this country [lives in Texas]. And we’re dealing with not having expanded access to Medicaid under the ACA. So we have some real challenges. And so what we did is focus on what matters in Del Rio and Uvalde and Eagle Pass and the South side of San Antonio. You can’t get wrapped up in what Trump is doing and what they’re talking about in Washington, but really talk to the folks, to voters about what matters to them and how you’re gonna fight for them and make their lives better. That’s what this comes down to.
You lost by fewer than 1,000 votes. Why do you think that happened?
Well, this is traditionally a district that goes back and forth. It’s a swing district. To be honest, look, we were massively outspent, that’s just the reality of it. Outspent six-to-one when it comes to outside spending. It’s one thing to have a message, but if you’re drowned out by all these other special interests who have their own agenda that’s not necessarily reflective of values or priorities or needs of this district then unfortunately you get drowned out, that’s just the reality yet. But look, I got back in in the middle of May. We have already scared out Will Hurd. So we are quite optimistic despite coming up short last time. That’s the infrastructure that we are building upon and the momentum that we’re building upon to make sure that this district is flipped and it’s finally well represented.
Most people would be really exhausted after the kind of race that you ran last time. Why did you decide almost immediately that you’re going back in?
My district and our country is worth fighting for. That’s the short answer. I’m a first-generation American. My mother came to this country from the Philippines. She came here as a domestic helper and it’s a very special country where the daughter of somebody who came here as a domestic helper can run for Congress. It’s a very special country where I grew up at one point eating reduced lunch in subsidized housing. So to go from that to working in the executive office of the president, that doesn’t just happen. It happened because my community and our country invested in me. So it’s very much about protecting the opportunities that allowed me to grow up healthy, get an education, and survive.
When we have this conversation around electability, most of the time it is focused on white men being electable, and how certain traits about people who aren’t white men make them unelectable. What do you think your own candidacy has said about this narrative, especially within as conservative a state as Texas?
I think the most important thing is authenticity, right? People want to know that you get it, that you know the issues, and that you’re going to fight for them. And so being authentic and open about your lived experiences and how that shows you—I’m not reading about some of these issues, I know firsthand. It’s really talking about how your life experiences has called you to serve. And again, that’s why I say this is about protecting the opportunities that allowed me to grow up healthy, get an education, and serve our country. And so the fact that a first-generation lesbian veteran came within a 926 votes of flipping one of the most competitive seats against a formidable Republican, outspent six-to-one, in South and West Texas, shows you that voters want authenticity. Somebody that gets it, somebody who’s going to fight for them. That’s what is electable.
Between your previous campaign and this campaign, have you changed the platforms you’re running on?
Healthcare is still the No. 1 issue in the district by far, in the most uninsured state in the country. It sounds a little bit—the issues are a little bit different—depending on where we are in the district. In San Antonio, it’s primarily the cost of healthcare. But when you get into some of our rural communities, it’s very much about the infrastructure that is lacking, that would help to realize things like telemedicine and tele-psychiatry, because there are such staffing challenges. So this continues to be something that I want to focus on and bring attention to, not only because it reflects the needs of the district, but it’s also an area in which I could work on with anybody regardless of what party they’re in, because rural healthcare is an issue in New Hampshire, it’s an issue in the middle of the country as well. And so I think finding an issue—if you’ve got good intentions, you want to work on this, I’ll work with you on it.
Similarly with an immigration policy that reflects our values. Some of these issues it does matter that it’s happening in Texas and that’s why I think it’s Texas leadership. You know, one in six active DACA recipients is in Texas. Between California and Texas, that’s nearly half of the country’s Dreamers.
And earlier when I talked about being authentic and showing how your lived experiences reflect why these are priorities for you—I’m not a Dreamer, but I know what it’s like to have worked hard for something and live in fear that it can be taken away from you. I live right down the street from the University of Texas at San Antonio, which is one of the largest student Dreamer populations. When I was an ROTC cadet at Boston University, one of first things I had to do was sign a piece of paper saying I will not engage in homosexual behavior, because Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell applied to me even then.
So every day I lived in fear that I would lose my scholarship, my opportunity to serve my country, my opportunity to die for our country if need be. So I have to think that there are some parallels between how our Dreamers feel, they live in fear that what they’ve worked hard for—their opportunity to get an education, to give back to a country that’s given them so much—could similarly be taken away from them just because there aren’t leaders with the courage to do the right thing and keep the promise that we made to these young people. The priorities haven’t changed so much. I think what we are seeing though is the potential cost of four more years of this administration.
We’re working on this 50 States project, and I had received this feedback from someone who felt that you were code switching in your previous campaign to present yourself as Latinx. To give you a little background, my mom’s Filipino, and I’m also half white, so being mixed, that’s something I run into often, people thinking I’m Latinx. And even though you are forthcoming in your interviews and at your rallies that you’re Filipino, do you feel like there’s any sort of merit to this accusation? What is your response to the people in your district who may have misunderstood you?
Throughout the campaign, my mom plays a very central figure, because of her sacrifices as a first-generation American and also because of her healthcare story, which is why for me healthcare is very important. I talk about when my mother—when came back from Iraq and she told me that she’d been diagnosed with colon cancer, had the surgery to have it removed, and was already undergoing chemotherapy, and that’s why I returned back to San Antonio to be with her. And so my mom is prominently figured through all of my campaign materials and I’m very proud of my mom. And you know, when my mother came to this country, she graduated from the No. 1 university in the Philippines. She came here, again as I mentioned, as a domestic helper. She brought a couple of things with her. She brought a work ethic, she brought her education, and she brought her name, and I’m very proud of—I wouldn’t be here without her sacrifices or her example. So I’m very proud to have her on the ballot with me.
Clarification 2:40 p.m. ET: An earlier version of this article made the interview subject’s last name unclear. Her last name is Jones. We regret the error.