Gina Ortiz Jones came close to making history in the 2018 election, and she feels confident she’ll achieve that goal this year.
Jones, a lesbian running for the U.S. House of Representatives from Texas’s 23rd Congressional District, would be the first Filipina-American in Congress and the first out member of the LGBTQ+ community elected to the body from the Lone Star State.
“I’d be honored to be the first of those things, but it’s so much more important that I’m not the last of those things,” Jones tells The Advocate.
As the district’s Democratic nominee two years ago, she came within a hair of achieving those firsts, finishing with 102,359 votes to incumbent Republican Will Hurd’s 103,285. But Hurd, the House’s only Black Republican, isn’t seeking reelection. The district’s Republican primary went to a July runoff between Tony Gonzales and Raul Reyes Jr., and after weeks of counting and canvassing, it appears that Gonzales, a solid conservative backed by Donald Trump, has narrowly won the nomination.
Jones, however, isn’t focusing much on her prospective opponent. She’s more interested in getting the message out about she wants to accomplish for her district, which stretches from her hometown of San Antonio west to El Paso, covering a huge rural area as well as parts of both cities. It’s larger than 30 U.S. states, she notes.
“I’m running to fight for the things that matter most and make sure we are talking about what residents care about,” says Jones, a former Air Force intelligence specialist who served in the Iraq War and later worked as senior adviser for trade enforcement in President Barack Obama’s administration.
One of the things that matter to Jones and the district’s residents is health care. One-sixth of Texans lack health insurance, the largest proportion of any state, she points out. More than a million have lost health insurance due to pandemic-related layoffs this year. And Texas, like many conservative-leaning states, didn’t expand Medicaid under the opportunity offered by the Affordable Care Act.
Jones supports expanding the ACA with a public option and other reforms as a move toward universal coverage, as does presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. That will allow people who like their current plan to keep it, where a government-sponsored single-payer plan would not. She has seen the critical importance of health insurance firsthand, she adds, when her mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. “It was good health care that saved my mom’s life,” she says, and she want to assure that everyone has access to it.
Lack of insurance isn’t the only health care challenge in her district, she says — there’s also a lack of providers. Eighteen of the 29 counties within its boundaries have three or fewer physicians, and three counties have none.
“We have to be thinking about how do we increase the pipeline of talent into rural health care,” she says. “We can’t afford to leave any talent behind.” Incentives for doctors to practice in rural areas might include assistance in paying off their student loans, Jones notes. “I think we’ve got to be creative about how to fill these gaps.” Investing in reliable broadband internet service to facilitate telemedicine is another thing that will bring more and better health care to rural residents, she says.
Better internet service will also benefit the local economy, as will investment in renewable energy, she says. And she’s a big backer of public education and making college more affordable and accessible as a way to enable people in her district to get ahead. Her platform includes support for community colleges and vocational schools, student debt relief, and other moves to build a pool of skilled workers to attract industry to the area.
Jones herself is an example of the value of education. She and her younger sister were brought up by a single mother who immigrated from the Philippines and initially worked in domestic service and other low-wage jobs even though she had a degree from the top university in the Philippines. The family lived in subsidized housing, and Jones and her sister (now serving in the U.S. Navy) qualified for reduced-price school lunches. “I don’t consider those handouts,” Jones says. “I consider those investments.”
Her mother eventually became a teacher in the San Antonio public schools, while Jones graduated in the top ten of her class from the city’s John Jay High School and earned a four-year Air Force ROTC scholarship to attend Boston University, paving the way for her career in national security.
Her time in the military, even as an ROTC cadet, had its challenges, though, not the least of them being that “don’t ask, don’t tell” was still in effect. As a condition of her scholarship, she had to sign a piece of paper saying she would not engage in “homosexual activity.” “It was a formative experience for me,” she recalls.
Naturally, LGBTQ+ rights are part of her platform. “I’m absolutely committed to making sure we pass the Equality Act,” she says. That bill, which would ban anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, and other venues nationwide, speaks to a basic issue, Jones notes. “Our folks are not asking for anything more or less than anyone else,” she says. Reversing the ban on transgender people in the military is another priority for her, as is addressing violence against trans people.
She’s likewise committed to gender equity and racial justice. With police violence against Black Americans much in the news, she recognizes the need to hold officers accountable for acts of brutality and to reform the system to prevent those acts.
She plans to deal with other problems that affect people of color as well. “Our African-American brothers and sisters are suffering disproportionately under the coronavirus and its economic consequences,” Jones says. She’s definitely dissatisfied with national and state leaders’ response to the pandemic, pointing out that some parts of her district didn’t have access to testing until 60 days after the first confirmed COVID-19 case in the state. “That is just unacceptable,” she says.
Campaigning during this time has required creativity. One of Jones’s solutions has been to hold virtual town hall meetings every Wednesday evening, both to reach voters with her message and connect them with services they may need during this crisis. Topics have included mental health care, LGBTQ+ rights, assistance for small businesses, emergency shelter for women and children escaping domestic violence, and immigration reform. “We try to be as good a resource as we can,” she says. Videos of the meetings are available on her Facebook page, with Spanish captions, and her campaign has published a resource guide in both English and Spanish.
Meanwhile, Jones and her team are “working our butts off,” she says, to assure she’ll win the congressional seat, plus generate votes for Joe Biden (possibly even turning Texas blue) and influence state and local races, as there’s a chance of flipping the Texas House to Democratic control.
The value of hard work was instilled by her mother’s example in pursuing the American dream, who knew “if she was willing to work hard, the sky’s the limit,” Jones says. The candidate has also seen the value of the social safety net she had while growing up, which allowed her to enter the military and work in national security, along with the consequences of inequality, having worked in countries where women and minorities are marginalized. “I’ve seen what happens when good people don’t stand up,” she says. These factors in her life are what motivated her to run for office.
“I think a member of Congress does three things at the end of the day. … A member of Congress creates opportunities, they protect opportunities, or they erase opportunities,” she says, adding that she seeks to create and protect. “I’m fortunate to have served our country,” she says, “and I know how critical it is to protect the next generation of Americans.”
Jones with her mother, Victorina Ortiz, at San Antonio Pride