A photo of MJ Hegar

She Is Running

MJ Hegar Wants to Bring Ann Richards Energy to Congress

The Texas military veteran who served three tours in Afghanistan points to her sworn duty to protect the country as her motivation to flip the Senate in November

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Mary Jennings Hegar broke her first glass ceiling in the military. After being told that the frontline was “no place for a woman,” Hegar was selected for a competitive spot in the Air Force’s pilot training program, and she went on to serve three tours in Afghanistan as a commissioned officer. When she came home with a purple heart—and injuries sustained during a rescue mission in which her helicopter was destroyed by the Taliban—she also became one of the only women ever awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor.

Hegar continued her fight for gender equality in the ranks, taking on Sen. Mitch McConnell in successfully advocating for overturning military policies that held hundreds of thousands of women back from service. That was the beginning of a new and unexpected career for Hegar as a politician: In 2017, she published a memoir, Shoot Like a Girl: One Woman’s Dramatic Fight in Afghanistan and on the Home Front, and ran for the U.S. House of Representatives. She narrowly lost her bid for that seat, but in 2019 she decided to try again—this time, taking aim at incumbent Texas Senator John Cornyn. In March of this year, she won the primary election—and in November, she just might upend two decades of right-wing rule.

Former Texas Gov. Ann Richards once said, “I feel very strongly that change is good because it stirs up the system.” Hegar’s victory would provide a crucial stir to the power structures in Washington—and it would also bring a different kind of Lone Star State voice to the fore.

This is the fifth in DAME’s interview series with the Democratic women vying to flip the Senate in 2020.

You’re a military veteran with a purple heart. You’re an author, you’re a professor, you’re a coach. Why did you decide to enter politics?

I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. I didn’t really know what that domestic threat would look like when I was in my twenties—but when I came home and challenged the ground combat exclusion policy, and took on people like Jeff Sessions who were trying to keep jobs closed to us just because we were women, I realized that so much of the injustice and the things that are a domestic threat to our Constitution happened in D.C.

I was there as a private citizen. I took on the system and the good old boys’ club. I was able to build a broad coalition of support from Republicans and Democrats to make our military stronger. I felt like I had really done something good for my country—and I was looking around and wondering why more people who were there in an official capacity, who are being paid by taxpayer dollars, couldn’t build a broad coalition and couldn’t bring people together to move the needle on making our country better and our country stronger.

You’ve also said that Texans deserve someone who represents them and their experiences. What does your ideal Texas look like?

My Texas is an Ann Richards Texas. It was a long time ago, so people forget that we’re the state of LBJ and Ann Richards and Barbara Jordan. The people that we’ve been electing are not reflective of the majority of the people who live here. There are so many roadblocks to working people running for office that we end up with this political elite—independently wealthy attorneys who have never worried about whether or not Social Security would be there for them, getting access to healthcare, sending their kids to a public school and fearing that they’re going to become a victim of gun violence. We have a government that can sometimes show a real lack of leadership and an inability to work for regular people. We have a government that protects large corporations and the independently wealthy.

You can see it right now with the coronavirus. People are really scared—and our current Senator who I’m running against, John Cornyn, keeps tweeting out things like a picture of him drinking a Corona beer, and being like “you know, it’s going to be okay,” and “this coronavirus thing is going to be a cakewalk if you just use social distance.” He is only thinking about the thing that worries him, which is contracting the virus. He doesn’t understand that the majority of his constituents are the waitress who is not making any money because the restaurant’s empty, or the single mom who’s going to lose her job because her kid’s school closed and now she has to stay home, or the small business owner who opened recently and their business is going to fail, the kids who depend on school for good nutrition and for meals.

We really desperately need leadership that depends on, invests in, and relies on science and experts—and also understands and comes from the working class.

Obviously, healthcare right now is just so important—but what are some of the other issues that you’re excited to dig into if elected to the Senate?

Texas is on the frontlines of every major issue that we talk about. With climate change, whether it’s from the perspective of the energy industry in Texas or how hard we’re getting hit. We have a gun violence epidemic here in Texas. We have the highest rate of uninsured people in the country, not just the highest number. Because we can’t just make this an everything campaign, we focus on corruption in government—because until we get corporate money out, and until we get people who are just there to serve their own interests out, we can’t see movement on climate change and gun violence and women’s reproductive rights, which are under attack in Texas and are causing clinics to close in a state where we have a horrifying maternal mortality rate, and we have rural areas that don’t even have access to cancer screenings. We can’t touch all of those other very important issues until we get a handle on getting the corporate influence out of politics.

How do you hope to influence other women who may be considering politics during this campaign run?

I’m excited to be helping not just bring my voice to the table, which is helping bring more women’s voices to the table, but also mentoring other candidates and bringing other women up and convincing other women to run. I love being in a position to help other women see that there is a vacuum of leadership and that they don’t need to wait. We really do need more women’s voices and mother’s voices at the table.

Being a politician was not my life’s dream—in fact, it kind of turns my stomach to go and be a part of this machine. But if that machine is running your country, and you’ve taken an oath to defend your country, then you feel the need to put on your gloves and your galoshes and get in there and clean it up. Women’s rights are human rights and women’s rights are family rights, and in a lot of families, the woman is a single mom and is taking care of the future of our country. I think that having more women at the table helps us recognize that and helps us prepare for the next couple of generations.

What are the benefits of specific support networks for women candidates?

When I was one of only a few women in a predominantly male career field, there were organizations for women that I shunned. I was like: I don’t want to act like I’m different, I’m not looking for a leg up, I just want it to be judged on my merit. But the truth is that we don’t operate in a society that judges people on their merits. Women candidates do get treated very differently. There’s a lot of misogyny—even in the press, even among Democrats. There’s a lot of sexism that is unconscious bias. And the system right now is set up to support white privileged, straight males. I don’t think that there’s any problem at all reaching out to Emily’s list and Annie’s list and organizations like VoteRunLead that lift up women—because it’s not lifting you above your male colleagues; it’s leveling the playing field.

What does a campaign look like when the person running to flip a Senate seat is a working mom? 

The whole team becomes a family. My boys definitely look at my team members as aunts and uncles, and they come to the office and we have toys set up for them, and the staff members take turns playing with them if I go into a call.

I get this question all the time on the campaign: How do you do this with small kids? When do you see your kids? They don’t ask the men that, but there is this almost insinuation that I’m a bad mom for running for office.

There are a lot of high-risk, emotional issues at stake during this election. I can imagine how that must fatigue you and your whole team. How do you stave-off burnout?

By remembering what we’re fighting for. The first story that pops to my mind was a man who was tearfully telling me his wife got a terminal diagnosis and chose to die within two months, instead of six, because the six-month extension to her life would have bankrupted her family with pharmaceuticals, and he said: “I know you can’t help me, but can you please do something about that and not let this happen to someone else.” I talk to people every day who are saying: my kiddo got a really rough diagnosis and I can’t afford the care, so I had to quit my job so that we could qualify for Medicaid.

Those stories on the trail are what get me through this. I would never think of quitting because what we’re doing is so important. We absolutely have to flip the Senate. Mitch McConnell won’t allow votes on legislation that can help working families in Texas. We can’t allow that. We have to have a government that is voting on legislation based on what’s good for the country, not partisan politics, and playing games with people’s lives. We need a government that is going to be putting the good of their constituents first, instead of their careers.

DAME is partnering with Women Count to amplify the campaigns of the Democratic women running for Senate in 2020. To learn more about each candidate’s platform, visit https://womencount.org/

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