Ep. 63 Gina Ortiz Jones, TX-23
NICIE PANETTA: Greetings and welcome to another edition of The MidPod: The Midterms Podcast. I'm Nicie Panetta with Heather Atwood. Heather and I are in Austin, Texas this week for the Texas Tribune's Trib Fest and to report on more of the races here including Beto O'Rourke's challenge to Ted Cruz, and veteran MJ Hegar's bid to unseat John Carter in the 31st. As I'm recording this, Brett Kavanaugh is testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee after Dr. Deborah Blasey Ford's testimony this morning. I have a great many thoughts and feelings about what we have been witnessing on this historic day and I am sure that you do as well. But the one thing I'll say right now is that we must we must elect more women and more members of historically marginalized communities to public office.
NICIE: One such candidate is Gina Ortiz Jones. You heard a bit from Jones in Episode 50 of The MidPod. But now we want to give you a chance to get to know her better. She's the Democratic nominee in Texas's 23rd Congressional District, and she already has an impressive record of public service to our country. She's a first-generation Filipina-American who served in Air Force Intelligence as well as in the office of the U.S. trade representative. And she's running in a very close race against Representative Will Hurd who's a two-term incumbent Republican. We spent time with her this summer while she was campaigning after the Pecos rodeo parade.
NICIE: Gina Ortiz Jones thank you so much for spending some time with The MidPod today here in Pecos, Texas.
GINA ORTIZ JONES: Yeah well thanks for coming all the way out here.
NICIE: Have you spent much time in Pecos since you've been on the trail or even before?
ORTIZ JONES: Yeah so this yes I've been here several times over the course of the campaign and I have more fun every single time. But this is a large district. This is we're almost right right smack in the middle of it. So it's from San Antonio all the way to El Paso. And you know depending on where you're listening you know a reference point would be from Manhattan to Raleigh or from San Francisco to San Diego. That's how wide across this district is.
NICIE: How would you divide up the district because it's so vast geographically truly that you must have to sort of think strategically about the different pieces of it. So maybe walk us through that.
ORTIZ JONES: Yeah. Well you know it's interesting. I kind of liken this this district as a microcosm for the country right. You've got two large population centers on both sides. You've got San Antonio on one side you've got El Paso on the other. This is again is a minority-majority district 70 percent Hispanic. So this district that will I mean the country will be that by about 2040. Right. And obviously just given our demographics and our geography you know some of the national issues immigration, the border, trade, a lot of those things are playing out firsthand in this district. And so we've got a real opportunity and I think I would argue that's also why this district is always has always swung right because you know we're at really the forefront of many of these most pressing issues and that's why I think we see some of these issues a little bit differently than we might in other parts of the country.
NICIE: Yeah let's let's talk a little bit more about that. I had the chance to spend some time with the mayor of Pecos this morning.
ORTIZ JONES: She's great.
NICIE: Yeah. And our listeners may not know this is part of the Texas oil patch and it's actually booming. So there are definitely some challenges but challenges they seem to be working through. So maybe share a little bit about that.
ORTIZ JONES: Yeah this is I mean to your point you're exactly right there's a huge oil boom here. And so it presents some opportunities and some challenges right opportunities because when you talk about the resources needed to invest in our healthcare and our public schools and our infrastructure you know that's where that comes from. But there's also just kind of the natural growing pains and being able to keep up with how quickly things are happening. And so you know I look forward to being a good advocate for infrastructure. I mean you can see when you drive on the roads as I'm sure you notice there's a lot of big rigs a lot of things that are coming to the area. So growth is happening quite quickly and so the key now is to make sure that you know public safety concerns are addressed and that we we all grow you know in a way that's most positive for everyone in the community right. I think also when you think about some of the infrastructure that is needed here I mean the importance of broadband.
NICIE: And what do you see we hear this in rural districts around the country what do you see as the federal role in just specifically broadband?
ORTIZ JONES: So when you look at the difference in Internet versus Internet usage right. And that connectivity between urban and rural and urban. And so this is also I mean this is a large district. 70 percent of this is of the district is rural. So this is not just specific to this county but you know through much of the district and so there are three real factors that affect you know whether that gap expands, I think right now the average difference is about nine nine points six to nine points. But there are three factors that actually will will expand that division into in terms of internet usage is whether or not somebody is college-educated, whether or not that you know the family is a minority, or whether and whether they make 50 over 50 thousand dollars. Now if it's all three of those things you know if they're not college educated, they happen to be a minority and they make less than 50 thousand dollars. That gap grows to like 13 percent. Right. And so some of the challenges that are just continue to exacerbate upon themselves. So we have to have you know regardless of of you know some of the commercial aspects of this. I think there are some long-term public safety and public good interests that we need to be making in those types of investments and it's just the right thing to do.
NICIE: Yeah. You've been on the trail for over a year now?
ORTIZ JONES: Yeah just about. That's right yeah we're coming up on. That's right.
NICIE: What would you say have been the biggest surprises?
ORTIZ JONES: The biggest surprises let's see. I mean folks are so excited for change. I think folks see every single day you know what's really at stake, and so many issues are not even partisan issues but they're just really about kind of right and wrong and who we are as a country. Right. I mean who we are as who we are and what does this mean for the next generation of Americans. You know one of my earliest memories is helping quiz my mom on her naturalization test. And it's why to this day I know Patrick Henry said, "Give me liberty or give me death." And so you know I think folks I would come to find out that I would never have to take that test. But I think you know so many of us feel like we're being tested. Right. You know what is this what does this time mean for me as an American. What does this mean in light of all the opportunities that I've been afforded. And I also think you know about my own professional experiences as well having served in countries where minorities and women are targeted. Having served in countries where government's disregard for conflict of interest has hollowed out those countries and then having seen also what happens when good people don't stand up and fight back. Right. And and do what's right for their community and for their country. And so I there's a lot of that sentiment when I'm on the trail and people knowing that we're not going in the right direction and frankly we need new leaders to make sure that we get on track.
NICIE: Yeah I was reflecting at the lunch today we had a great barbecue lunch before you gave out those trophies.
ORTIZ JONES: Wasn't that good?
NICIE: I am not yeah that was I don't get barbecue very often. It was pretty tasty. That just the feeling of community in a very multicultural setting and contrasting that with what we are dealing with in the news right now and this perception of anti-immigrant fervor that I get confused honestly at some point sometimes like what is real and what is just so exaggerated but the policies are very real that have been implemented. So I guess I'm wondering being in this this community on the border or near the border and so diverse and seemingly so peaceful, what do you make of what's what's become of us in the last two weeks with this immigration rollout?
ORTIZ JONES: This is you know this this is regardless of where you are though I think folks understand that you know keeping kids in cages is not the right answer. Right. This is beyond being a Democrat or being a Republican. But really you know the shocks the conscience to hear to hear the things that we hear. To see the images of these of these young kids. And so you know immigration is just one issue. I mean really frankly the one that the issue that comes up the most in the district is health care.
ORTIZ JONES: Yes.
NICIE: Even with this situate the human rights situation at the border?
[00:08:44] That again those images those sounds shock the American conscience. But so many people in the district are struggling to pay for their health care. I mean every day in this country 10,000 people turn 65 and in a district like this which also has a large veteran population you know people are very concerned about the future of the V.A. especially as these Republicans work to to work to privatize that. But look Texas is a state that did not expand under the ACA. One in six Texans does not have insurance right. Of the roughly two and a half million people in this country that would have insurance if their governors decided to expand under the ACA, of the two and a half million, a quarter of those people live in Texas. One in 10 kids in this country goes to school in Texas. Forty-five percent of our kids in Texas rely on chip or Medicaid for insurance and that's much higher in areas and communities of color and you know minority-majority districts like this one. So it's health care health care health care. A woman having a baby is five times in Texas is five times more likely to die during that process than if she had a baby in California. I mean these statistics and again when you look at these statistics just just shock us, right and so these disproportion the health care challenges that are faced in Texas are going to disproportionately affect the future of our country. Again we just look at the sheer size of our state.
NICIE: So tell me where the fire comes from. I mean I hear your passion it comes through so strongly. Where does it what's the source?
ORTIZ JONES: I'm you know I'm I know exactly how I got to where I am. I mean I worked hard and I studied hard but my country and my community invested in me. You know my mother came to this country 40 years ago. She graduated from the number one university in the Philippines but came here as a domestic helper. That was the opportunity that presented itself. She wanted a chance at the American dream so she jumped at it. And so that's why frankly that's what I was or my younger sister and I who she raised by herself, that's what we were reminded of every single day. That one, you know your trajectory in life is in no small part to being born here and two, too few folks will know in in our country will know what it's like to have to leave your home country to live your best life. So for me you know I know personally how I got here the investments that my community my country made in me. But again I've also seen what happens in other countries when women and minorities are targeted when governments disregard for conflict of interest has hollowed those countries out and having worked in national security I know our example is so critical in this world. Right. And so anyone that's willing that anyone that's working to tear tear that down or or or or frankly weaken us as a country I think I find it you know my moral obligation to stand up and protect the opportunities that allowed me to grow up healthy, get an education, and serve my country.
NICIE: What was the moment or the sequence of events that led up to you deciding to get into this race?
ORTIZ JONES: You know I'll be honest I knew my time in public service would likely need to be different after the election. I remember just that night that sinking feeling in my stomach thinking what does this mean. What does this mean for me. What does it mean for the country. What does this mean. You know. What does this mean. Right. And so look I was a civil servant. And...
NICIE: You were working on trade issues is that right?
ORTIZ JONES: Yeah I was working on a specific portfolio. It's called the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. And so it's a portfolio that looks at our economic international security interests at the same time. Right, foreign interest foreign direct investment is very important to our economy. But how do we ensure that you know any foreign company trying to buy that American company that there are no national security risk associated with that. So I think you know that's frankly to me the new front line. How do we understand our our economic and national security interests at the same time and loved the portfolio. But I just I just knew I wanted to stay on and see what good I could do from within the administration. But it became professionally and personally hard to do that. I grew up in San Antonio. I went to the kind of high school where you start with 900 kids only 500 graduate. Right. It's a community of color, lower middle income families. And I had to think about how my own community would fare under you know misguided policies under this administration. So I you know it came to a point where I knew I had to step up and serve my country my community in a different way.
NICIE: Was there any particular aspect of the new administration that was sort of the signal to you that no this isn't the right place for me right now?
ORTIZ JONES: Yeah. You know I'm not going to I can't point to one thing. But one recurring thing and I mean many of folks are hearing about it and reading about it almost on a daily basis which is unfortunate. Look as having been a public servant for as long as I have I think public service is a high calling. Right. There's nothing more important than the nation's work. And it was an honor to do it in and out of uniform. And so to see frankly the caliber of people that were brought in that were interested in neither the in neither the public nor service much less public service that really showed me that my contributions from within were going to be quite limited and I'd have to step away and see public service in a different way.
NICIE: You know this is something we have not spent a lot of time on in The MidPod so let's just spend a second on that and you referred to having seen more corrupt governance in other countries and you're alluding as well to to the caliber of leadership that we're getting under the Trump administration. Do you want to talk about that at all? The sort of the quality of public service that we're getting and some of the conflicts of interest that you're seeing.
ORTIZ JONES: Yeah I mean again I think public service is a high calling but I think to be a good public servant you have to know that your job is to serve all of the public right regardless of gender regardless of socioeconomic background right regardless of religious beliefs. And so it's really that that mindset and frankly you're dedicated to a cause that is bigger than you. Right. And it's about our yes certainly it's about our constitution it's about our American values and how do our policies reflect that. And I think look a member of why I wanted to seek this office in particular is I think a member of Congress does three things. I think they create opportunities, they protect opportunities or they erase opportunities. Right. They do that with their voting record. They do that with their record of silence. And as we're seeing that silence is just as dangerous as that vote. And so I very much look forward and we need people that understand you know again that the gravity of of of doing those three things in somebody's life creating protecting or erasing opportunities and then frankly understanding that no one does this but no one does this by themselves. Right. It's about investing in the next generation of Americans. You know again there's there's there are a few countries where the daughter I can't think of another one to be frank where the daughter of somebody who came here as a domestic helper can 40 years later run for office at this level and this country is special. We need to remember that we need to protect the opportunities that allow that to happen.
NICIE: Maybe this is a moment to talk about the race a little bit. You have someone who by many accounts is a very worthy opponent, somebody who's also served the country in a variety of ways. How do you see the race unfolding?
ORTIZ JONES: Yeah I think this is this is will be a good race. Yeah this is I think when we look at yes people have they have oftentimes pointed the similarities in our in our background. But I think what's most important is how that background is used. Right. And so for me yes I bring a knowledge about national security. I think mine is a little bit different though. I think when I think of national security it's not just China, Russia, Afghanistan, you know Iraq. To me it's also very important that we think about the pipeline of talent into national security. Right. And it's this is then you need to focus on the strength of the middle class. Right. Many of these countries where I served and worked on part a lot of the issue was because they did not have a strong middle class. So yes I have a background of national security but anybody that knows anything about national security knows that it relies and requires a strong middle class which is why I'm talking about the importance of investing in healthcare. Why and I'm talking about the importance of of you know an immigration policy that reflects our values and why we need to invest in the things that create opportunities for everyone because you need to strengthen the middle class.
NICIE: This brings up something that Heather and I my cohost have been talking about a lot recently which is that from our travels around America, we have at least at this point concluded that education could be actually the most important challenge that we face as a nation. And yet we, unlike many of our fellow wealthy countries, finance and manage education very much at the local level. I worry that this could end up being a disaster for us not because people aren't well-intentioned but because there just isn't that equality of opportunity and education because of the way the disparity the disparities that we see. So could you just talk about that issue and how you think you might be able to have an impact?
ORTIZ JONES: Yeah you know I mean I so I am the daughter of a public educator right. I mean it's been it was an ROTC Air Force ROTC scholarship that allowed me to go from John Jay High School in San Antonio to Boston University. And I know very well that a lot of what I've been able to accomplish is because of the investments in education in public education and then you know the education that I had from from undergraduate on. And so I'm extremely concerned about the state of our public education system. And again one in 10 kids in this country goes to school in Texas right. And so when I think about the importance of public education it's not only what the secretary of education is doing but also the assault on public education from Austin. And frankly I'm as concerned about the pipeline of talent into the classroom. Right when you look at frankly how difficult it is we are making it for people just to get into the classroom good folks to teach right. I mean when you look at funding for their for their retirement, when you look at funding for health care, I mean teachers are already touched in heart. But the fact that teachers in Texas and I think throughout the country you know have to take on a couple of jobs just to make ends you know ends meet that that's concerning for me. So I very much am committed to ensuring that we you know we invest in public education in a way that our country requires and that starts with the classroom but also ensuring that we've got good leadership and people at the helm that are going to do the right thing for the kids.
NICIE: I want to make sure I get a real sense for you on on the immigration issue. There's a discussion playing out right now about this open borders closed borders question and I'm wondering if you could share your thoughts on it.
ORTIZ JONES: Yeah I mean it's not about open and closed it's about having policies that reflect our values. Right. I mean we've had a process in place for people that are that are seeking asylum. There was nothing wrong with that policy frankly. And we need to continue to allow people you know who are seeking refuge from from abuse and torment in their own countries to seek refuge in the U.S. Again we have a policy we have a process in place. And so the zero-tolerance policy has really created frankly frankly a crisis that did not have to exist. And again we really the focus now is to ensure that these kids that have been separated from their families at the border are reunited with their families. We have got to get this right.
NICIE: How would you characterize your opponent's, Representative Hurd's, actions on this on this area of policy so far?
ORTIZ JONES: Yeah I'll be honest with you. I liken his whole record on immigration as if somebody kind of set your house on fire and then they showed up at the end with a pail of water. Right. I would argue the reason that we are in this situation that we're in is because you know he at one point in time voted to defund DACA. He sided with the very the other extreme Republicans and challenged the constitutionality of DACA. He also voted to deny DREAMers the ability to serve in our military. He has yet to explain you know provide a good explanation for why we can't keep the promise that this country made to 800,000 DREAMers there are 4,000 DREAMers in this district alone, between Texas and California That's 45 percent of this country's dreamers. Right so again the outsize effect that some of these policies have on all populations. So so that's you know plus his silence. You know when when when this president was calling immigrants "animals," representative Hurd was silent. When this president is talking about people coming from "shithole countries," Representative Hurd is silent. So your awful voting record plus your record of silence, plus the Republicans demonstrated willingness to over and over again use the most vulnerable among us, kids who kids who need a little bit of help, as pawns.
NICIE: I'm curious. You happen to be gay yourself. And did you have to serve in the military at all under Don't Ask Don't Tell? I'm wondering how that experience informs you of being you know marginalized in that way.
ORTIZ JONES: Yeah well you know so I I often talk about my time my ROTC scholarship that took me to Boston University I was honored to receive that. But I know exactly what it's like to have lived in fear every single day that an opportunity that I worked hard for could be taken away from me. Right. Because Don't Ask Don't Tell, Don't Ask Don't Tell applied to me even as a cadet at Boston University. So if they found that I was gay they were going to take away my opportunity to get an education. My opportunity to serve my country, my opportunity to die for my country. Right so I'm not a DREAMer but I have to think about that similarly that needless anxiety that needless fear that our DREAMers at the University of Texas at El Paso, at Sul Ross State University at Alpine, at the University of Texas at San Antonio that needless fear needless anxiety that they're living with.
NICIE: What's your analysis of why it's so hard for Republican members of Congress to stand up more for probably what they believe in their hearts, I don't know I can't speak for them, but why are they why are they why do they find it so difficult to stand up to President Trump and his more noxious policies?
ORTIZ JONES: You know I don't know because I don't have that problem. You know what I'm saying. I know exactly how I got here. I know the opportunities that allowed me to get here. And I am very much committed to ensuring that the next generation of Americans have those same opportunities just as talented just as hungry and need a little bit of help. So no one's ever going to have to ask me where I am on DREAMers. I support a clean DREAM Act right. No one's ever gonna have to ask me where I am on funding the children's health insurance program. You know I know exactly what it's like to need those programs and that's why I know it's so important that we make those critical investments those aren't handouts those are investments in the next generation of Americans.
NICIE: That was Gina Ortiz-Jones, Democratic nominee in Texas 23. To learn more about Gina and her campaign, visit GinaOrtizJones.com. Tune in next Tuesday for our roundup of the exciting action in Iowa where Democrats have hopes of picking up two or even three seats in the House. This is the state that saw the biggest swing from Obama to Trump. But President Trump's trade war and his conduct in office are giving many Iowans reasons to reconsider their support. A strong lineup of Democratic candidates are campaigning up and down the ballot. Thanks for listening and thanks for being active citizens.