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'Called to protect': Air Force veteran Gina Ortiz Jones sets sights on Congress

The Texas Democrat and out lesbian says she’s running to “protect the opportunities that allowed me to grow up healthy, get an education and serve our country.”
Image: Gina Ortiz Jones
Gina Ortiz Jones.Ana Isabel Martinez Chamorro

Former U.S. Air Force Captain Gina Ortiz Jones was deployed in Iraq when she received devastating news: Her mother, a public school teacher, single mom and Filipino immigrant, had been diagnosed with colon cancer.

“Thankfully, she has good insurance,” Jones, a Democrat running for Texas' 23rd Congressional District, said.

Her mother, Victorina Ortiz, survived her battle with cancer, but in a state where about 5 million people lack health insurance, others may not be as lucky. It’s a major reason why Jones, 39, has made affordable health care a pillar of her campaign.

“For me, this isn’t academic; these aren’t talking points,” Jones told NBC News. “Health care is personal for me, because it was health care that saved my mom's life.”

Image: Gina Ortiz Jones and her mom
Gina Ortiz Jones and her mom.Ana Isabel Martinez Chamorro

Jones supports protecting and expanding the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as “Obamacare,” which provides health insurance to millions of Americans and includes protections for those with pre-existing conditions.

Texas is the most uninsured state in the country, according to the United States Census Bureau, and is one of 14 states that did not expand Medicaid under the ACA. In Jones’ district, a heavily Latino part of the state that stretches along the Mexican border between San Antonio and El Paso, many counties lack enough doctors to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, she said. To date, more than 800,000 Texans have been diagnosed with the virus, and over 16,000 have died.

“Health care is my top priority, not only for my personal experience in why people need quality, affordable health care, but also because it's the No. 1 issue that voters bring up to me, and it's the No. 1 issue affecting their everyday,” Jones said.

In 2018, Jones narrowly lost her first campaign for the 23rd Congressional District against the Republican incumbent Will Hurd, who is not seeking re-election. This November, she faces off against the Republican nominee Tony Gonzales, a Navy veteran and adjunct assistant professor at the University of Maryland.

An out lesbian, Jones would be both the first Filipino American woman to serve in Congress and the first openly gay representative from Texas if she wins. She is one in a “rainbow wave" of at least 574 LGBTQ candidates who will be on the general election ballot this November, according to a new report released by the Victory Fund, a group that trains, supports and advocates for LGBTQ candidates.

Jones is an Iraq War Veteran and military intelligence officer who worked as a national and economic security adviser under the Obama and the Trump administrations before resigning in 2017. She served in the military during “don’t ask, don’t tell,” an era when gay, lesbian and bisexual service members were forbidden to be public about their sexuality. In 2011, then-President Barack Obama repealed the policy. Five years later, in 2016, the Pentagon lifted a separate decades-old ban on transgender troops that scholars say dates back to the 1960s. Last year, the Trump administration reinstated a ban on trans service members, forbidding them from serving openly. Jones said the ban “sends the wrong message.”

“For this administration to reverse that, essentially based on nothing but bigotry, shows just how out of touch they are, and why it's important that we have leaders that will ensure everyone in our country is protected equally under the law, and ensure that those ready and willing to serve the country have the opportunity to do so,” Jones said.

Earlier this year, the candidate’s sexuality became a focus of the National Republican Campaign Committee. In August, The Huffington Post reported that the committee, on the NRCC-run website Democrat Facts, instructed “outside groups to include reminders of Jones’ sexual orientation in digital and television advertising and mailers, highlighting an image of Jones with her partner and the talking point that “Jones and her female partner lived and worked near Washington, DC, not Texas” before Jones ran for Congress.” The group has since removed references to Jones’ “female” partner, but still includes a photo of the couple on the website.

“I mean, it's the year 2020, we are living through a pandemic and an economic crisis, and for them to choose to attack me personally, again, just shows the type of gutter campaign that they want to run,” Jones said.

Jones resides in San Antonio, where she grew up. The veteran said her 15 years experience in intelligence and national security taught her about “the importance” and “indispensability of American leadership.”

“I really felt called to protect the opportunities that allowed me to grow up healthy, get an education, and serve our country,” Jones said. “That made my story, my service, possible, and that’s why I’m so committed to fighting for working families in this district.”

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