When the 116th Congress opened on January 3, 2019, a historic 127 women swore in to serve in the United States Senate and House of Representatives. Thirty-one were first-time members of the House, seven more than the previous record number of newbies in 1992 that birthed the term “Year of the Woman” in the political arena.
They demolished barriers: The Legislature welcomed its first female Native Americans and first female Muslims. The youngest-ever. First women elected senator in Arizona, Mississippi and Tennessee. First women elected representatives from Iowa. First Latina representative from Texas. First African American women representatives from Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Jones came a hairline from clinching a seat in the hallowed hall that would have anointed her as the first Filipino American woman member of Congress, had she garnered under a thousand more votes in her campaign for Texas’ 23rd congressional district. She was so close she conceded only after two weeks, after all votes were completely counted, even attending freshman orientation on the invitation to contenders in still-uncalled races by the Committee on House Administration.
The Democrat nabbed 102,359 or 48.73%, almost ousting Republican Will Hurd, who had owned the seat since 2014. That scenario won’t recur, she promises how that she has declared her pursuit of the same post in 2020.
“There is no higher calling than public service, so I'm still as motivated to serve my community and country again as I was last year,” she told Positively Filipino. “Despite being massively outspent, I came within 926 votes of replacing the most formidable Republican in the House. This district is ready for change, and I look forward to serving her.”
Change is definitely in the works because the incumbent, the lone black member of the House of Representatives and a former CIA operative, announced last month that he is retiring from Congress.
His potential successor believes her time has come.
“To be successful, I think you have to do three things: Know your community/district, know the issues, and show you're ready to fight for your community. This is a massive district - it's larger than 30 states. People want to see you in their communities. Show me how you campaign, and I'll show you how you'll govern,” the John Jay HS grad candidly reiterated her campaign credo. “We showed people throughout this district that they mattered, and I was ready to serve. We worked our asses off, and we're ready to do it again.”
Her campaign website sums up her motivation:
“Gina is running for Congress to bring her unmatched experience, unique perspective, and the core values instilled in her while growing up in San Antonio to work for us in Washington. Gina will fight every day to ensure all Americans are given the opportunities and promise of a better future that our country gave to her and her family.”
Who is Gina Ortiz Jones?
Since her 2018 run, information about her has been splashed all over digital space, highlighting her stellar career from modest beginnings.
The 38-year-old was born in Arlington, Virginia, to a Filipina teacher who came to this country from the Philippines. A gifted student, she obtained a 4-year scholarship to Boston University from the Air Force ROTC, nabbing a BA in East Asian Studies, a BA and master’s in economics. She became an intelligence officer and was deployed to Iraq under the Bush administration. She earned the rank of captain in the Air Force and served as Senior Advisor for Trade Enforcement in the Obama administration. In her final assignment, she was a Director for Investment at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, a post she held until June 2017.
She was frank about her decision to end her service in the White House at that time: “The type of people that were brought in to be public servants were interested in neither the public nor the service...That, to me, was a sign that I'm going to have to serve in a different way,” she told Huffington Post.
Evidently she felt she did not belong, hence her return to her childhood home, to chart her next journey.
“I identify as a public servant,” she responded to the question on identity, a matter that more than ever has fired up political discourse. “While I'm running for Congress as a Democrat, when I served in the Air Force and as a civil servant, it was never about party. It was always about doing what we'd been asked to do in the interest of the country, building the team to get it done, and holding ourselves accountable if we fell short. That is a public servant's mindset, and that's the mindset I'll bring in service to this district to address our country's challenges and opportunities.”
Call it moxie, this self-assurance to win over an electorate that is over 68% Hispanic, 25% white and 4% black, where less than 2% identify as Asian or Native American. And yes, many of them saw the millennial, biracial candidate as the one who can stand in their shoes and confront their district’s problems.
Jones has obviously done her homework.
“Texas is the most uninsured state in the country, so health care is the number one issue voters want to discuss -- everything from the cost of prescription drugs, to the inaccessibility of care if you're an older veteran living in our rural communities, to the need to invest in infrastructure that enables underserved communities to benefit from telemedicine and tele-psychiatry,” she pointed to a concern she knows is reverberating throughout the country, particularly with the looming presidential elections.
“These are challenges that affect many districts throughout our country, and I look forward to working with anyone to bring down the cost of prescription drugs, invest in the infrastructure that closes the health care and education outcome gaps between our urban and rural areas, and ensure our veterans are receiving the care they've earned - regardless of where they live,” she speaks from experience. “As an Iraq War veteran who gets my care through the VA, this will absolutely be an issue I lead on.”
Her own family has had to face prohibitive costs when her mother battled and recovered from colon cancer.
Empathy, a quality most politicians invoke but few exhibit, comes naturally for Jones.
She was born in this country, but she does not judge the multitude attempting to reside here through the back door, so to speak. Her story can be traced to a similar path. Without mentioning “immigrant,” a pejorative now due to right-wing rhetoric, she discloses her maternal beginnings in the race for the 23rd congressional district, which stretches from San Antonio to El Paso, site of the recent massacre of 22 shoppers at a Walmart by an alleged white supremacist.
While Jones did not directly address PF’s question on how she reacted to the mass shooting, she referred to the sacrifice her mother made to get here, a common situation that belies conventional wisdom about the education if not the intention of foreigners seeking to settle in this country.
“My mother is from Pangasinan, and she earned her graduate degree from UP-Diliman. She had already been teaching in the Philippines for several years when the opportunity to come to the U.S. presented itself,” she tells PF. “The opportunity was to come here as a domestic helper, and she jumped at it, because like so many she wanted a chance at the American Dream.”
Like her mother, she follows her heart. At 15, Jones came out to her mom amid the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that kept her sexual orientation private.
Her mother Victorina Ortiz figures prominently on her platforms, but her father does not, leaving PF inquiry about the circumstances of her birth in Virginia and childhood in Texas unanswered. Ortiz Jones does disclose one of the biggest lessons Victorina imparted to her two daughters.
“She reminded my younger sister and me every day that we would have to find a way to give back to a country that had given us so much, and that we were lucky - not smart - to be born here. It's why I served in the U.S. Air Force and as a civil servant, and it's why my sister serves in the U.S. Navy to this day.”
She honors her heritage.
“My sister and I are proud mestizas,” says the candidate. “We're not completely fluent in Ilocano, but we're fluent in Ilocano food!”
Her pride in her ancestry is not lost on Filipino American activists of the political persuasion. Her slogan, “The promise of America is worth fighting for” rings loudly among Filipinos inspired two generations ago to confront the Marcos dictatorship by the martyred Senator Benigno Aquino’s final words: The Filipino is worth dying for.”
This week she will get a chance to bond with fellow Filipinos at a reception - fund-raiser Sept. 5 in San Francisco.
The US Congress has been elusive to Filipino Americans, with longtime Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott, retired Ohio Rep. Steve Austria, and California freshman TJ Cox among the rarified bunch that can claim inclusion. If the stars align for her next year, Jones will have broken multiple barriers – gender, racial, and sexual orientation, as the representative from the Lone Star State’s 23rd congressional district.
Emily’s List, Asian American Action Fund, The Victory Fund, Serve America and Vote Vets and Gold Star parent Khizr Kahn, have endorsed Jones for the US Congress.
For information on the reception for Gina Ortiz Jones, contact Rodel50@gmail.com
Cherie M. Querol Moreno is a three-term Commissioner with the San Mateo County Commission on Aging and executive director of nonprofit ALLICE Alliance for Community Empowerment. She is executive editor of Philippine News Today and contributor to Inquirer.net, Rappler and GMA News Online.
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