Gina Ortiz Jones raised eyebrows in November 2018 when she attended the orientation for freshman representatives to Congress. Initial results of her race against incumbent U.S. Rep. Will Hurd showed her losing, even though a recount was still underway.

A few days later, she officially lost by 926 votes, but Jones knew she wasn’t ready to give up her efforts to win back the sprawling 23rd Congressional District for the Democrats.

“I deliberately took time to make sure that I was serving in the best possible way,” Jones told the San Antonio Report last week. “And 926 votes was very close … and to come that close shows that the district is ready for change.”

In August 2019, Hurd (R-Helotes) announced that he would not seek reelection to a fourth term, just three months after Jones announced her second bid for the seat.

That gave the former intelligence officer and captain in the Air Force a long runway for her 2020 campaign.

Her 2020 Republican opponent, Tony Gonzales, a former Navy cryptologist, faced a tough primary election against Raul Reyes that resulted in a runoff delayed until July because of the coronavirus pandemic. Winning by 45 votes, Gonzales wasn’t officially the nominee until after a partial recount that ended on Aug. 21, 53 days before the start of early voting in Texas.

Gonzales and Jones have spent some of that time so far needling each other on issues such as on health care, national security, and how they’re run their respective campaigns during the coronavirus pandemic.

Gonzales acknowledges the sizable head start his opponent had. “No doubt, she’s been running for four years,” he said.

To raise his profile among voters, Gonzales has started attending high school football games across the district on Friday nights – while taking safety precautions, he added. He believes his in-person approach will win the hearts of voters.

While Jones has established an aggressive social media campaign and a “virtual field office” that hosted more than 27 online town halls, Gonzales is using her strategy to criticize Jones as a “virtual representative,” hammering her for staying in the Washington, D.C., area and not traveling often around the district, which includes all or parts of 29 counties.

Jones previously lived in Washington but now resides on San Antonio’s West Side in the Heritage neighborhood, not far from Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, where she was first assigned.

For her part, Jones stands by her virtual outreach strategy in the swing district that includes more than 800 miles of U.S.-Mexico borderland between El Paso and San Antonio.

“I will continue to lead by example and continue to listen to experts and listen to voters,” she said. “We are far from done with this [pandemic].”

Jones’ early candidacy, name recognition from the 2018 race, and a Democratic push to flip the seat have given her a significant fundraising advantage. She reported raising $1.7 million in 2020’s third quarter and claims to have pulled into $5.7 million during the election cycle.

Gonzales’ campaign contributions through June 30 approached $1.15 million, and he took out a $65,000 loan. Third-quarter campaign reports were not yet available from the Federal Election Commission.

The two will participate in a live debate in Uvalde Thursday at 7 p.m. on KSAT-12 and online.

A graduate of San Antonio’s John Jay High School, Jones joined the U.S. Air Force as an intelligence officer and was deployed to Iraq. Her subsequent assignments took her all over the world until she became director for investment at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, a position she left in 2017. If elected, she would be the first Filipina-American in Congress. 

Jones, a lesbian, served under the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which allowed lesbian, gay, and bisexual people to serve in the military so long as they did not disclose their sexual orientation.

Earlier this year, the National Republican Congressional Committee’s website DemocratFacts.org “instructed outside groups to include reminders of Jones’ sexual orientation in advertising and mailers,” according to HuffPost. The website later removed the language that said “Jones and her female partner lived and worked near Washington, D.C., not Texas.”

After Gonzales launched a website called “Where is Gina?” that accused her of ducking debates, Jones hit back by launching a website and ad campaign dubbing her opponent “Phony Tony” for his use of a fake Border Patrol agent in a campaign ad.

Despite their campaign sniping, both share a recent military background that includes the long-running conflict in Iraq. After joining the U.S. Navy, Gonzales was stationed at bases across the country and was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Interested in politics since he was a child, he said he found his recent passion while working as a legislative fellow in Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s office.

Gonzales has gotten endorsements from Hurd, Gov. Greg Abbott, President Donald Trump, U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Houston), and others. Crenshaw even featured Gonzales in an action movie-style joint ad campaign with other GOP candidates.

Gonzales’ top priority is economic mobility by way of bringing better-paying jobs to the district. “I’ll be focused on creating an ecosystem that attracts businesses [and] making sure small businesses aren’t overregulated,” he said.

Ensuring that veterans get the economic opportunities and mental health care they deserve are also issues high on his list of priorities.

For Jones, health care – and improving the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – tops her list.

“Health care is by far the No. 1 issue in this district,” she said.

While Jones noted that the ACA isn’t perfect (the number of uninsured people decreased from 2010 to 2016 as it was implemented, but the average premium increased) it protects people with pre-existing conditions from being denied health insurance coverage. She supports adding a public option and negotiating down the cost of prescription drugs.

Meanwhile, she said, “this administration has no plan to replace [the ACA].”

Trump issued a largely symbolic executive order last month declaring that people will not be denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions.

That protection absolutely has to be part of what’s next, Gonzales said, but “I do not support universal health care. I support [the] patient’s choice. … We have to empower these private practices to allow them to fill a lot of these voids.”

But public funds should be used to Invest in human capital, Jones said. That includes health care, education, and closing the gaps between urban and rural communities. That will be what gets the district through the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, she said. “When you invest in people, you’re actually investing in the strength of this country.”

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@sareport.org