Meet the Texas women who are leaving the sidelines to bring Trump down

Record numbers of women all across America are plunging into politics in response to the presidency of Donald Trump and to a Republican-led Congress that doesn’t properly represent them

David Usborne
El Paso, Texas
Saturday 20 January 2018 14:59 GMT
Meet the Texas women who are leaving the sidelines to bring Trump down

The words come spinning out of Gina Ortiz Jones at a table in La Fogata, a roadside Mexican eatery on the eastern edges of El Paso, Texas. Tirades of frustration and fury aimed at her former boss, Donald Trump. But she can be to the point, too. Is she going to win this November? “Yes.” Would we be having this conversation if Hillary Clinton had won in 2016? “Probably not.”

Ms Jones, a veteran of the Iraq war, orders coffee. She shouldn’t, she says, ignoring the salsa and chips in plastic dishes on the table cloth of pink and white roses. Her mission now is tough: to oust the Republican incumbent of the 23rd District of Texas, Will Hurd, and reclaim the seat – it’s bigger than France, running from El Paso to San Antonio – for the Democrats.

It could be lonely. Ms Jones, 36, is American-Filipino and a lesbian. This is Texas after all. But in reality, she has a decent shot. She knows, moreover, that she is part of a swelling army of female candidates across the land plotting their own runs for seats in Congress. Together, if enough are successful, they could help Democrats retake control of the House of Representatives, a switch of power that would slam the brakes on Donald Trump halfway through his first term and help open the path to impeachment proceedings against him.

Another in that army is Veronica Escobar. Her sights are on the district immediately next door, the 16th, which covers most of El Paso itself and points west. It is in play because its current representative, Beto O’Rourke, also a Democrat, has resigned it to run against Republican Ted Cruz for a seat in the US Senate. If Ms Escobar, who gave up her post as County Judge in El Paso, prevails, she will, astonishingly, be the first Latina ever sent by Texas to Congress.

At Geogeske, a sleeker lunch spot close to the heart of El Paso, Ms Escobar agreed she could have stayed in her old position – and in her comfort zone. But she was moved to run, she says, because of “this terrifying fear of Donald Trump and what he is going to do to our country”.

Veronica Escobar hopes to become the first Hispanic politician sent by Texas voters to Congress
Veronica Escobar hopes to become the first Hispanic politician sent by Texas voters to Congress (

Gina Ortiz Jones is the ex-soldier but it’s Veronica Escobar who describes what she is doing in military terms. “I feel as though a battle is raging in Washington DC. More people need to enlist and I am ready to enlist,” she says. It’s a fight, “between some very ugly fundamental aspects of human nature like racism and bigotry and fear-mongering versus the most beautiful ideals that our country was founded on,” she adds. “Our democracy in many regards is at stake.”

By the last count almost 400 women were planning to run in this year's midterm elections in the US, the most ever. Some will be weeded out in the primary elections, which in Texas are only seven weeks away, where no fewer than 50 women hope to make it all the way to Washington. That is especially striking when you consider the Lone Star State has not sent a new woman to Congress since 1996. Ms Jones and Ms Escobar are both confident they will beat off rivals from their own party to be the candidates in their districts.

Encouraging them have been groups dedicated to helping and funding women to run for office, at national and at state levels, such as Emily’s List in Washington DC, which specifically offers support to Democratic women willing to stand up for abortion rights. In the two years leading up to the 2016 cycle, it received enquiries from 920 women interested in maybe taking the plunge. So far, running up to the 2018 midterms, it has been contacted by more than 25,000.

Such a burst of energy from progressive women is unnerving Republicans as they prepare to defend their House majority. (Democrats need a net gain of 24 seats to flip the chamber.) They similarly fear a higher turnout among women voters, with whom they are already in trouble. According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted in mid-December, Democrats are polling 32 per cent ahead of Republicans with college-educated women when asked who'd they prefer to see in control of Congress after November. With all women it was a 20-point gap.

“The Democrats and some outside groups like Emily’s List have been more active, better funded and more focused on recruiting female candidates,” says Matt Mackowiak, an Austin-based strategist to Republicans. “Women want more women in office to deal with issues that are relevant to them, like healthcare. If the Democrats find a way to dominate with female voters that would be a big problem for Republicans but I don’t see any evidence of that at this point.”

That women meant to be a main engine of the anti-Trump resistance became clear the day after his inauguration when half a million joined the Women’s March on Washington to protest his agenda. Volunteering as a road-crossing guard was Ms Jones. With an important job as trade advisor inside the Executive Office of the President, she was already struggling to come to terms with the fact that Barack Obama was no longer her employer. Mr Trump was.

She lasted until June when she did a “gut check” on herself and left. “It just became increasingly difficult to be part of that administration personally and professionally,” she says. (La Fogata, the restaurant we are in, is named after the Spanish for “bonfire”, no doubt where she would light a Trump effigy.) “I had worked in national security for 14 years and I think his policies actually ran contrary to national security,” she adds. Jones was appalled that after committing herself for so long to public service, Mr Trump was bringing in people who were “interested neither in the public nor in service”. Since his inauguration, moreover, Mr Trump has fallen short even of her lowest expectations.

“Never in our wildest imaginings could we have foreseen that the President of the United States, a country that was based on immigration, would be talking about s***hole countries,” she says. “No, I could not have imagined that.” She also came to feel that he was attacking people who are her own, including immigrants — she was raised by single mother who came to the US from the Philippines – and also the LGBTQ community. Just as Ms Escobar hopes to be the first Latina member of Congress from Texas, she hopes to be the first out LGBTQ member.

A chalk slogan in Los Angeles on International Women's Day last year
A chalk slogan in Los Angeles on International Women's Day last year (Reuters)

A wider revolt among women was inevitable, says Ms Ortiz Jones. “We have a president who thinks it's OK to grab women by the genitals. Is it really a surprise that women are fired up?” And it’s about taking control before it’s too late. “It should surprise no one that women, who stand to lose so much under this administration, are standing up and saying, ‘I am going to run because I am going to stop assuming that someone is going to do for me that which I can do for myself’.”

Dangling a spoon over her tortilla soup, Ms Escobar reflects on why it has taken so long to get more women into Congress, which remains 80 per cent male and 80 per cent white and thus can barely consider itself representative of the people it is meant to represent. Partly, she says, it was because of the sacrifices required to run for office, especially for those with young families or who didn’t have the easy connections to raise money. But that’s finally changing. “For a lot of us now, it’s just, ‘Screw it, we have to get it done’. You need to throw caution to the wind.”

Because hers is the most Democratic district in Texas, she needs only to win the primary contest against her party rivals in March, after which she will be all but set. Like Ms Ortiz Jones she hopes she will go to Washington waving a banner not just for women but in particular also for the immigrant community, El Paso, where she has lived all her life, is on the very front line of Trump’s campaign to crackdown on immigration. It would also be where part of his touted new wall is meant to be built, a proposal which, in her eyes, is in itself a form of attack on immigrants in America and also against Mexico, its neighbour.

“You are going to go after us?” she says, as if Mr Trump were listening. “Well, you know what? The border is going to send one of our own to you to fight back.” That would be her. And, if they are lucky, she will have Gina Ortiz Jones as reinforcement and, possibly a whole brigade of freshly minted Democratic Congresswomen from Texas and far beyond.

“I mean 2018 really could be a year for some significant change and it really could be the year of the woman. It is very exciting,” she says. So exciting, Ms Escobar veers off again into the language of battle, but this time on a galactic, cinematic scale. “The oppressed and the marginalised are rising up against the empire!” she says, only half joking.

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