Gina Ortiz Jones was in the campaigning in the Big Bend recently. While in Alpine on February 15, she sat down for a quick interview with Gazette Publisher John Waters. Here is a slightly condensed and edited transcript of that interview.
Gina Ortiz Jones graduated from Boston University and is a former Air Force intelligence officer. After serving in the Air Force, she worked in the Defense Intelligence Agency. She worked in the Office of the United States Trade Representative, during the Obama administration.
John Waters: An introduction, please?
Gina Ortiz Jones: There aren’t a lot of countries where you can say that, if you work hard, if you study hard, the trajectory in life is the best it can be. It certainly wasn’t the case for my mom, Many folks will not know what its like to have to leave your home country to live your best life. So when I say this country is special, I know that first hand. But I’ve also seen it in the countries where I’ve served, in and out of uniform. I’ve seen what happens to countries when governments target women and minorities. I’ve seen what happens when governments completely disregard conflicts of interests and how that’s eroded democracy, the democratic republics at the core. What it does is break the trust between the governed and the governing; and when that really breaks down its hard to turn back. So, I felt really called to protect the opportunities that allowed me to grow up healthy get an education and serve my country, There aren’t a lot of countries where the daughter of a woman who arrived here as a domestic helper could one day run for U.S. Congress. That just doesn’t happen in a lot of places. I worked hard, I studied hard, but my country and my community invested in me and now it’s my turn to protect those opportunities for somebody else.
John Waters: Elaborate a bit on your education: I understand you have a B.A. and M.A. Did you go directly into the military after receiving your Masters?
Gina Ortiz Jones: I was on a ROTC [Reserve Officers Training Corps] scholarship that took me from John Jay High School in San Antonio to Boston University. They wanted me to focus specifically on East Asian studies and I did that. I’ve been naturally very attracted to economics. There was an opportunity to double major and my GPA was high enough that I was able to participate in a program where you work on your Bachelors and Masters at the same time, so after four years I graduated with two Bachelors and one Masters. Obviously, I had already committed to serving in the military and, frankly, was very much looking forward to that. I was a junior when 9/11 happened, and I knew my time in the military was just going to be different than I had originally thought it would be. But I very much looked forward to serving my country.
John Waters: You mentioned there was more than one country you served in: what were these?
Gina Ortiz Jones: In Iraq, I was a civil servant with the Defense Intelligence Agency advising on operations all over Africa, Mozambique. We were in Swaziland. I did not actually go to Southern Sudan, but supported operations there that were tied to their independence, when they voted for independence in 2011. There was a lot that needed to be thought of in terms of humanitarian assistance, potential disaster assistance, but also [in terms of] long-term planning for what security cooperation would look like in a country that was going to be birthed, that was the size of Texas but had only a hundred miles of paved road, and a literacy rate of about one percent. I’ve been fortunate to work on national security in a number of ways — on the front line in Iraq, looking through a different lens than most folks think of as ‘national security.’ My most recent work experience is working in the Executive Office of the President [under the Office of the United States Trade Representative], where I had the opportunity to look at economics and national security and the linkage between the two. That’s really going to be the way that we’re going to have to be thinking more strategically about our security interests.
John Waters: Which administration did you work in?
Gina Ortiz Jones: I worked in the Executive Office of the President, under Obama. He set up the Interagency Trade Enforcement Center by Executive Order. In that Executive Order, he said there would be a senior representative from the intelligence community. This was really focused on enforcing the trade deals. I did that and then I was asked to formally join the office of the U.S. trade representative to lead their portfolio. It’s called the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., and what that does is look at foreign companies trying to buy U.S. companies, and make sure there are no national security implications. If there was a particular country that we might have an adversarial relationship with and they were looking to buy the current company doing IT for the Pentagon, that’s obviously something we would make sure was up to snuff. To me, that was fascinating, because the ways things are going, technology could go into a tank, but it could also go into a toothbrush. How do we now think more holistically? How do we use our economic relationships in the way that best serve our national security interests?
John Waters: In the last fifteen years in the House of Representatives, this district has seen Hurd, Gallego, Canseco, Rodriguez and Bonilla all serve. Given that turnover, why do you want this job?
Gina Ortiz Jones: I think fundamentally a member of Congress does three things: they create opportunities, they protect opportunities, or they erase opportunities. They do that with their voting record, and, as we’ve seen recently, people can also do that with a record of silence. Given how fortunate I have been, the opportunity to serve the community and apply my professional as well as my personal backgrounds in service to protecting and creating these opportunities for folks, that’s where to do it: in the House.
Waters: Turning to local issues, on your website you have a statement regarding Internet access: “Ensuring rural communities have access to reliable high-speed Internet, because of a widening digital divide means too many Texans can’t access critical services and opportunities.” The Big Bend is plagued by frequent outages to both Internet and phone service. Can you address this and what would you do about it, as a member of the House?
Gina Ortiz Jones: Last time [I was visiting the Big Bend], we experienced this firsthand, trying to set up meetings. It was hard to get a hold of anybody: everyone had a busy signal. We finally just showed up at places and everyone was like, the lines been cut. It was actually a public safety concern, as it was the same line that emergency services use. When you think of that, it really speaks to the importance of ensuring that people have critical infrastructure, just as critical as the road to get to where they need to be. The road now is often Internet access. I think as a member of Congress, when looking at making investments in infrastructure, we need to be thinking about the digital infrastructure. Yes, we need the infrastructure; we also need to understand its effects on income inequality. If there is a way in which we can help level the playing field, just ensuring people have access to gather information helps address all of these things. As a member of Congress, when looking at how do we invest in infrastructure, I would be a very vocal advocate to ensure that the entire district — not just San Antonio, but every part of the district — is afforded access to this critical infrastructure.
John Waters: What are your views on the Trump-proposed border wall?
Gina Ortiz Jones: One, I do not agree with the need for a border wall. I think we have yet to see any type of functional analysis, any security analysis that suggests such an investment would actually yield the type of results that people are thinking that it would. The wall is not needed. It wouldn’t serve its purpose and there are so many other needs, not just in this district, but the state and the country that could benefit far more from $50 billion. It would also be unfortunate if we were to invest in something that again, has no real security purpose, but that would also be a constant reminder of the very negative sentiments that underlie the reasoning as to why it’s needed.
John Waters: The Trump administration had proposed eliminating funding for long-distance Amtrak passenger service. Amtrak stops a few blocks from here. What are your thoughts on Amtrak and this infrastructure?
Gina Ortiz Jones: Connectivity, digital or physical is important. The only reason someone would support [discontinuing Amtrak service] is if they’ve never been out here to see how critical that linkage is. I think it is necessary.
John Waters: What are the two top issues that confront this district?
Gina Ortiz Jones: As we’ve travelled the district and heard from voters, one issue that comes up consistently is health care. Access to quality healthcare is an issue, in a number of ways. Now, it sounds different in San Antonio than [it does] in Uvalde, or Crystal City, or when we are visiting one of the clinics, in Presidio. Access to quality health care: do they have access to services they need? In rural Texas, it is the tyranny of distance — getting there — and then, potentially being challenged to attain the services you need.
In no small part, student debt has also come up as an issue, as another crosscutting issue. In Eagle Pass, we were just meeting with folks and [their student debt] it’s crippling. It’s nearly three times now than what is was when they originally took out the loan. And [some do] not have the economic opportunities to pay back that loan. For others, feeling trapped in their job that they would really prefer not to be in, only because they need healthcare. The intersections between economic opportunity and healthcare are something we need to grapple with. One in ten kids in this country goes to school in Texas, so we also have to look at our public education system. How do we prepare kids for the next generation of economic opportunities without saddling them with this crippling debt? That’s not a rocket science problem; that’s a math problem. A little bit of moral courage, and we can solve that one.
John Waters: The Trump administration is cutting funding to the National Park Service, your thoughts?
Gina Ortiz Jones: Our parks are our natural treasure — we should treat them as such. We should protect them. I know the Trump administration has some relationships that are unsavory and their intentions on what they are doing with our national treasures are very concerning. I would be an advocate to protect these things for ourselves, and for our future generations.
John Waters: Assuming you get elected, day one, what would your priority be?
Gina Ortiz Jones: The priorities have always been advocating for healthcare, advocating for equitable economic opportunities, certainly for this district and for this state — thinking about investing in public education. Again, when I mentioned one in ten kids in this country goes to school in Texas, we have to be thinking in light of what is coming out of this Department of Education. And in light of what’s coming out of Austin, how do we ensure setting up our kids for success? I think that really starts with investing more in early childhood education to help level the playing field. With this administration though, it’s really quite volatile, so it will be interesting to see January 2019 what we’re actually up against. Hopefully, he will not have Twittered us into some war.
John Waters: Any final thoughts or comments?
Gina Ortiz Jones: Some people say, “You could mathematically win this if you just focused on San Antonio.” But, look: I was raised by a single mother. I know what it’s like to feel you don’t have access to the opportunities that some others may have. So it’s not in my DNA to leave people behind or to not ensure I’m hearing all sides of the story. As a good public servant, it would be ridiculous to focus on just a handful of folks. You have to get the entire story and that ensures that you represent everybody in District 23. And I look forward to doing that.