The Mission at Hand: A Conversation with MJ Hegar
Mary Jennings “MJ” Hegar is a politician, Air Force veteran, businesswoman, and former teacher vying for the Democratic nomination in Texas to face off against Senator John Cornyn. Relying on her experience as a veteran and community leader, she believes her prior service aligns with the type of leadership the U.S. needs at a time of hyper-partisan politics that affects the way Americans deal, interact and especially empathize with one another. In 2017, she published the memoir Shoot Like a Girl: One Woman’s Dramatic Fight in Afghanistan and on the Homefront, which describes lessons learnt from her service abroad. Hegar also sued the Air Force in a landmark case in 2012 to remove the Combat Exclusion Policy. She will be advancing to a runoff election for the nomination against Royce West.
The Politic: In your book Shoot Like a Girl: One Woman’s Dramatic Fight in Afghanistan and on the Homefront, you state:
“I learned an important lesson about staying focused on the task at hand. It was important to have dreams, but if all you did was envy those who were living out your dreams, you would never manage to achieve them yourself. Dream big, then force yourself back down to earth to keep plugging away at the minutiae that will bring those dreams within reach.”
How are you focusing on the minutiae considering the scope of running a statewide campaign in Texas? What is the day-to-day process like for you when you’re trying to move this project forward?
Hegar: Everyday my team and I remain focused on the mission at hand, defeating Senator John Cornyn and delivering D.C. a healthy dose of Texas values. Right now, since we aren’t organizing in-person meetups amid the COVID-19 pandemic, staying focused on the day-to-day tasks we need to do has become as important as ever. Throughout the campaign, my top priority has been traveling tens of thousands of miles to hear directly from Texans about the challenges they face, and we are not letting this new reality stop us from continuing to connect with Texans. We are getting creative with how we reach voters and mobilize volunteers. In the last few weeks, we have set up virtual events with groups across Texas and launched a six-week virtual organizing bootcamp to empower volunteers to reach out to their friends and neighbors about the campaign. My time as a combat search and rescue pilot prepared me to adapt and do what needs to be done to complete the mission.
According to the US Census, Texas is home to nearly 29 million people, and the state is one of the most diverse in the country. Nearly 40 percent of the state is Hispanic/Latino, 17 percent are foreign-born, and we have over 1.5 million veterans. There exists a massive urban-rural divide across the state’s geography. How are you reaching out to the huge diversity of communities across the state?
We can’t win without engaging all voters. From San Antonio to Dallas to Lubbock to Houston to El Paso to McAllen and dozens of other communities across Texas, I have been on the road meeting with and talking to Texans from all backgrounds about the issues that matter most to them and their communities. I have met with labor unions in apprentice shops and on the picket line, talked about gun violence prevention in the living rooms of passionate activists, heard from local leaders in our border communities about the challenges they are facing, and visited health care clinics to hear from patients and providers about what needs to be done to make healthcare more affordable. Going forward, we will continue to engage every voter and let them know that this election matters to their lives. Come November they will have a choice between electing an ass-kicker who will fight for them or an ass-kisser who has sold them out to the special interests and billionaires who fund his campaign.
You led the March 3 primary with 22.3 percent of the vote, followed by your competitor for the runoff, Royce West, who won 14.5 percent of the vote. If you were to break down the differences between the Democratic voters in Texas, to what groups or interests do you think you were a more appealing candidate?
One of the biggest problems we have in our broken political system is too many career politicians who are feeding the partisan rhetoric and the politics of division to grab the spotlight and get re-elected. The reality I have found when talking with Texans across the state is that on the most critical issues facing our country and families—including access to affordable health care, quality education for our kids, and common sense legislation to address the gun violence epidemic—there is widespread agreement on solutions. We just need to elect people who have the courage of their convictions to get it done.
Texans are looking for a fighter who has faced the same struggles they have faced and will stand up against the special interests and money that are corroding our political system to get shit done. When I see a problem I fix it. When I saw people injured on the battlefield, I flew in and saved them. When I saw the military was being hurt by a policy that excluded women from combat jobs, I fixed it. When I saw how hard it was for working parents to run for office and have our voices represented, I fixed it. That type of can-do attitude is exactly what Texans are looking for.
Assuming you advance to the runoff, what steps would you take to engage young voters and progressives, who have tended to gravitate towards West’s issue stances and legislative record in the Texas Senate?
I reject the framing of this question. If you look at the results from the March 3 primary, where we came in a strong first place with over 400,000 votes across the state, you can see that we built a diverse grassroots campaign that includes young people and progressives. Over the course of these conversations I have found that there is widespread agreement that Washington needs to start working on solutions to the biggest challenges Texans are facing. I am fighting to make healthcare affordable and accessible to everyone by making Medicare available to all who want it. I am fighting for aggressive action on climate change by supporting major investments in new clean energy production, infrastructure, and manufacturing. I am fighting for the safety of our communities by championing common-sense gun safety measures like universal background checks. I am fighting to end the humanitarian crisis at our southern border and push for comprehensive immigration reform. I want all Texans to fight alongside me so we can get the progress everyday Texans desperately need.
According to a survey question we sent out to Democratic activists in Texas, who were predominantly politically active young people, as well as majority women and people of color, the majority say that gun violence and climate change are among the issues that have shaped their experiences growing up in Texas. The state has consistently ranked amongst the highest number of school shootings since 2017, and in August 2017, Hurricane Harvey displaced more than 30,000 people in the Houston area and caused billions of dollars in damages. How do you plan on combating gun violence in Texas, particularly in the context of the state’s strong attachment, culturally and historically, to Second Amendment rights?
From Sutherland Springs to Santa Fe to El Paso to Midland-Odessa, sounds of war have rung out in Texas churches, high schools, and stores. As a gun violence survivor, mom of two young boys, and responsible gun owner, this is personal to me. Enough is enough. We must pass common-sense gun safety legislation to require background checks on every single gun sale, including closing the gun show loophole—a proposal that the majority of Texans support. We must pass red flag laws limiting access to firearms for domestic abusers—including closing the “boyfriend loophole.” We must fully fund the CDC to reverse the damage of the decades-long ban on gun violence research. We must stop selling assault rifles that were intended for war. We must call on state and local officials to end open carry. We can enact these policies if we make our voices heard. I am proud to be endorsed by gun safety groups like Giffords and the Brady PAC, and I’m eager to join these front line organizations to finally put an end to senseless gun violence.
How do you plan on working towards combating climate change, particularly in the context of the proposed Green New Deal, or constant issues over relief funding for afflicted areas such as Houston or Puerto Rico?
As the mother of two little boys, climate change is my number one issue. Climate change is the greatest threat to the health and safety of our communities, the world we are leaving for the next generation, and our national security. We cannot wait any longer to take action.
In Texas, we are witnessing firsthand the effects of climate change. We’ve seen devastating hurricanes like Harvey, and multiple catastrophic “500-year” floods in a matter of a few years. It was clear to me as I was flying search and rescue missions around Galveston after Hurricane Ike in 2008 that the status quo was not sustainable.
We must set aggressive goals for the expansion of clean, renewable energy, and invest in clean energy manufacturing, sustainable transportation, and modernizing our energy grid. Texas has the opportunity to be America’s leader in wind and solar energy, and we should use our natural, renewable resources to create jobs here in our state.
As of March 12, 2020, a race-tracking agency reporting to Ballotpedia rated the general election “Solid Republican” and two rated it “Likely Republican.” No Democratic candidate has won a statewide election in Texas since 1994. However, that being said—incumbent Senator Ted Cruz only won by a narrow margin over challenger Beto O’Rourke in the 2018 race. You also contested Congressman John Carter for his seat in 2018, who only won with a margin of 49-50% of the vote. Have circumstances improved for this election, particularly as you’re facing off against senior Senator John Cornyn?
Texas is going to be the biggest battleground state in the country in 2020. Senator Cornyn is facing the toughest reelection of his lifetime—just a week ago we saw the third race-tracking group shift the race away from Solid Republican. From siding with big pharmaceutical companies to shilling for the gun lobby and accepting illegal campaign donations, Texans know Senator Cornyn isn’t working for them. Especially now as we face a global pandemic, his failed record on health care, Medicare, and Social Security won’t go unnoticed by voters. By contrast, as a combat vet who’s bled for our constitution and a working mom who shares Texas values, I’ll always stand with Texans on the issues.
How are you hoping to engage voters to turn out in this election in the same way they have done in the past?
In 2018, I defied expectations by mobilizing hundreds of new volunteers and doubling turnout to close an initial 22-point gap to less than 3 points in a gerrymandered red district. Now running for Senate, I’ve already proven I can build a well-funded campaign operation that will scale up to meet the needs of both a runoff election and general election against Senator Cornyn. I’ve raised over $4 million with donations from over three quarters of Texas’ counties, illustrating widespread support for our campaign. But this is just the beginning, and I’m focused on talking with voters across the state to hear their concerns and share my record of taking on tough fights. I’ll continue talking with everyone from labor unions and health care workers to local leaders at the border and working families. I’m also spearheading creative ways to engage with voters and ensure their voices are heard amid the COVID-19 pandemic, participating in virtual town halls and launching online organizing bootcamps.
Day one in office, what piece of legislation are you bringing to the Senate floor and why?
Texans are sick and tired of watching D.C. politicians put special interest donors and political games over the needs of the people. It is time to clean up our broken system and return the power back to people. We will not get the needed action on health care, climate change, lower-cost prescription drugs, common-sense gun safety measures, or comprehensive immigration reform until we get the influence of money out of our political system. On day one, I will work to pass comprehensive campaign finance and ethics reforms that ensure Washington is accountable to the voters—and no one else.