Gina Ortiz Jones walks into El Rodeo de Jalisco, a modest Mexican eatery in a San Antonio strip mall serving tacos and comfort food, shortly after 8am. At first glance, she looks just like anyone else ordering breakfast at the small establishment; from the Hispanic family that drinks coffee as they await mole chilaquiles, to the table of workers who appear to be enjoying a hearty meal before a long day.
Her hair is pulled back into a ponytail that hangs off one of her shoulders, as she dons black joggers, sweats and a buttoned vest. The Air Force veteran effortlessly blends in with the residents of San Antonio, dubbed “Military City” for being home to the largest active and retired military populations in the country.
In fact, the only obvious difference between her and anyone else in Texas’s geographically and politically diverse 23rd district is that she could soon become its next congresswoman.
“I think I’m best positioned to represent this district when I look at my life experiences,” she tells The Independent. “I grew up here in San Antonio, I’m a first-generation American, I was raised in a home where English wasn’t the only language spoken, I was raised by a single mom and it was a four-year Air Force ROTC scholarship that allowed me to graduate from John Jay high school not too far from here and get a college education. Then I went to serve my country.”
Jones is the 23rd district’s Democratic candidate for congress; a sprawling region which occupies the majority of the state’s border with Mexico and spans the southwestern portion of Texas, reaching all the way to western San Antonio.
In a midterm season that’s producing a range of firsts, the young candidate checks off many boxes: she will become the first Iraq war veteran, first Filipina and first out lesbian from Texas to serve in congress if elected.
The Democrat currently trails Republican incumbent Will Hurd in the latest polls, giving her the same statistical uphill battle facing Beto O’Rourke, who has himself launched a unique Democratic campaign for the US Senate in the reliably red Lone Star state.
Both candidates have latched onto a swell of energy among Texas voters – who are frustrated by the status quo in Washington under Donald Trump – by attempting to focus on the issues, rather than their party affiliation.
Here’s the deal: San Antonio is my home. I graduated from John Jay, I’m an Iraq War and USAF veteran, I served where our country needed me.– Gina Ortiz Jones (@GinaOrtizJones) October 8, 2018
Hurd is on the attack because he doesn’t want to talk about his votes against our health, education, and opportunities. We deserve better. pic.twitter.com/YoEKljmM4T
Jones went on to work at the Office of the US Trade Representative under former president Barack Obama after serving in the Air Force intelligence operations in Iraq. She left shortly after Mr Trump took over the White House, before launching her congressional campaign and securing the Democratic nomination during the Texas primaries.
“I know what it’s like when your voice isn’t heard as much as others. As I speak with folks throughout this district, that’s a feeling that comes up, time and time again, that they don’t feel like they’re heard, they don’t feel like they’re represented,” she says. “And that’s in part because they have a representative who says one thing in their district and then does another thing in Washington.”
Hurd, her opponent, is another unique candidate. A former undercover CIA officer, he’s the first black African American Republican from Texas ever elected to congress. He oversees a majority-Hispanic swing district that narrowly voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, and he called on the president to drop out of the race at the time.
Hurd recently published a New York Times op-ed titled, “Trump is Being Manipulated by Putin. What Should We Do?”
And yet, the Republican has voted in line with the president’s position 95 per cent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight’s project, “Tracking congress in the age of Trump”.
With three weeks left until the election, Jones is out-fundraising Hurd nearly two to one. She asked The Independent to extend a message to her opponent, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment: “Stop running scared and debate me on TV,” she says.
Her campaign has called for six debates across the district in an effort to make the election accessible for voters, after the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce invited the two candidates to debate.
In a letter to Hurd, she wrote, “This election must be accessible to all voters in this district, allowing them the chance to hear from the candidates on a variety of important issues facing our district, and not just from the sort of special interests that are already advertising on your behalf.”
Hurd’s campaign manager, Justin Hollis, responded: “We’re shocked that Gina’s boss, Nancy Pelosi, is letting Gina take six days’ vacation from fundraising in California … Nevertheless, we’re happy to debate in the fall.”
At a recent event, Jones asked Hurd directly, who appeared to agree to a debate.
If given the chance, Jones hopes to spar on her differences with Mr Hurd over perhaps the most fundamental issue facing Texas, the uninsured capital of the United States: her region’s lack of health care access.
Asked how she would immediately work to expand access and affordability, she responds: “Medicare should be negotiating prescription drug prices – that’s something we can work on right out of the gate.”
When it comes to her long term plans, the candidate discusses investing in the education system in order to close outcome gaps that leave medical clinics without trained professionals across the district’s rural regions.
“There are 11 community health clinics in this district; and one in Crystal City has had an opening for a full-time position for three years,” she says. “These are medically underserved communities, financially underserved as well, educationally underserved, and I think looking at ways in which we can incentivise medical professionals to work in our rural areas is good for all of us.”
She adds, “We should also invest in the infrastructure of broadband, which helps make something like telemedicine and telepsychiatry a reality.”
In the event that Jones unseats Hurd in the November elections, she could become one of the most important people on Capitol Hill over the next two years, as the president seeks to make good on his own campaign promise of a sprawling wall across the US-Mexico border.
For her, the issue hits home.
“When I think of [the wall], I ask myself how else I would want to spend $25bn,” she says. “I was speaking with a border agent in Alpine recently, and sure, there are parts of the border that could use additional fencing. But is there a better way to spend $25bn than on a wall that would run right through Big Bend, which is a huge source of economic activity in West Texas? It doesn’t make sense from an economic standpoint, and it doesn’t make sense in terms of reflecting our values as a country.”
Whether Jones is able to secure the votes to win the 23rd district likely relies on strong support from the same key demographics which Democrats like O’Rourke will need for victories in the upcoming election: typical non-voters and the large Hispanic population across the state, which includes a range of political ideologies.
While younger Texas Hispanics tend to support Democratic candidates, a significant, older faction of the voting bloc was raised in deeply religious communities and espouse conservative stances on issues like abortion and immigration.
But Jones has been able to avoid aligning herself with national Democratic leadership in the eyes of local voters by presenting herself as an independent voice, and one that is willing to put her community’s interests before party.
“This race is not about politics for me, this is quite personal … this is about making sure our community is well represented,” she says. “My story should be possible for someone just as talented, just as hungry and who could use just a little bit of help.”