Bostonia is published in print three times a year and updated weekly on the web.
If Gina Ortiz Jones beats the Republican incumbent to win the US House of Representative seat in the Texas 23rd district in November 2018, she will be the first woman to represent her district. She will also be the first Filipina American and the first lesbian to hold a US House seat from Texas. The Democrat and former Air Force intelligence officer might also be part of the so-called Blue Wave to tip the balance of power in Washington, D.C., against President Donald Trump.
In fact, it was Trump’s 2016 election, which Jones (CAS’03, GRS’03) calls a “gut check,” that persuaded her to quit her job at the Office of the United States Trade Representative and return home to San Antonio to start her campaign. She won the Democratic primary in March and a runoff in May 2018, and will face two-term Republican Representative Will Hurd, a former CIA agent, in the general election.
Ortiz Jones graduated from BU with a bachelor’s degree in East Asian studies and a master’s degree in economics. She served with Air Force intelligence in Iraq and elsewhere from 2003 to 2006, and in a variety of other intelligence positions before joining the trade office in 2015.
Her district, which stretches from San Antonio to the outskirts of El Paso in southwest Texas, traditionally leans Republican, but the seat has been swapped back and forth between the parties for a decade. Trump’s stance on immigration—including separating children of asylum-seekers from their parents—should help Ortiz Jones with the more than two-thirds of voters who identify as Hispanic.
“This is a district that very much mirrors the challenges and opportunities we face as a country,” she says. “It’s a majority-minority district, something the whole country will be by 2040. We talk about the Wall and immigration policy because 40 percent of the US-Mexico border is in this district. A lot of the issues being discussed nationally are playing out in this district.”
Bostonia spoke with Ortiz Jones about her Congressional race and some of the issues confronting voters.
Bostonia: Is the United States a country in crisis?
Ortiz Jones: It depends who you talk to. There are some legal experts who would argue we are in a constitutional crisis. I think the election was such a significant emotional event for me because I’ve seen what it looks like in other countries when women and minorities are targeted. I’ve seen what it looks like when a government disregards conflict of interest, and hollows out the middle class, and ultimately their democracy. I’ve also seen what happens when good people don’t stand up and fight back. I am trying to respond by seeking public service again.
How do you respond to things like the separation of immigrant families?
It’s egregious. The pictures we’ve seen! With 40 percent of the border in the district, I think we see this issue just a little bit differently than the rest of the country. But frankly, as Americans, we all know that seeing a young child, a toddler, crying as they’re being held in a cage like an animal—that’s not the right thing to do. It’s so far from American, it’s unbelievable. It’s atrocious. I think we need leaders who are going to speak up and not be silent when this is happening. I look forward to doing that.
I think I also see it differently as a first-generation American myself. My country is special. There are not a lot of other countries where the daughter of someone who came to the country as a domestic helper can run for Congress. That doesn’t just happen. It happens because this country has historically understood that immigrants are the lifeblood of our country, and I think we need representatives who recognize that. When you look back, not only are compassionate immigration policies the right thing to do, but they make economic sense.
You have both intelligence experience and international trade experience. What did you think of Trump’s summit with Kim Jong Un?
It’s concerning on a number of levels. Is it historic that the two met? Yes. But we have no idea what they talked about. It sure does look like a wonderful photo opportunity and not a lot of substance. And what’s not lost on me is that we validated a dictator, someone with a known record of attacking his own people, someone who sent back an American who was tortured and in awful physical shape and died shortly thereafter.
But I don’t only think of the North Korea deal, but of what President Trump did before that at the G7 summit. Frankly, the way he’s treated our allies is just unbelievable. It shows what happens when you don’t know our history, don’t care about our history. We need members of Congress who are going to be a check on these things.
Given your service in intelligence in the Middle East, where do you stand on “enhanced interrogations” and waterboarding, things Trump is talking about bringing back?
Look, torture is against our values and has no place in our national security. That’s how I feel about that.
You came to BU on an ROTC scholarship, so you were bound by the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the military at that time. That meant keeping secrets?
It was actually a very deep secret. I could not be as open as I would have liked, because I needed that scholarship to stay at BU. I knew what I had to do. And when I served in the Air Force, that policy applied to me, too. If someone is ready and willing to serve their country, there shouldn’t be any policies—especially policies rooted in bigotry—that would prevent that.
When I think of national security, I don’t just think of Iraq, China, Russia—I think of the pipeline of talent into national security. I don’t think we think about that nearly enough. I think it’s outrageous that someone like President Trump, who’s never served a day in uniform, or anyone else in his administration is intent on crafting these policies that strip away rights from the LGBT community, including serving in our military. I think it’s just egregious, and I look forward to ensuring that it doesn’t happen.
We think of Texas as the reddest of red states. Has it been difficult campaigning there?
I must say Texas can at times get a bad rap. There’s a lot of opportunity here. I am the product of Texas just as much as some of the other people you hear about. We won our primary. I know that being a first-generation American lesbian veteran running for office in Texas is challenging some assumptions, but look, that’s the real Texas. There’s a fierce independence about every Texan. We’re a great state, and I’m looking forward to changing our representation so it reflects that.
Growing up with your mother and sister, was the social safety net important to you?
I know exactly where I came from and how I got here. For a time it was quite difficult, as my mother was working to get back into education, which is what she was trained in academically. There were times when she worked several jobs, and it was hard to make ends meet. Reduced-price school lunch, subsidized housing—I don’t see these as handouts, I see them as critical investments. Those were investments by my country and my community, and I went on to serve my country in and out of uniform for 14 years, and now I’m looking to preserve those opportunities for someone else. That’s why the election was such a gut check—I know exactly how I got here, and I didn’t do it by myself.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.