AUSTIN — A political ad with nearly three million views launched Mary Jennings Hegar's congressional bid into the national spotlight.
She's vying to represent District 31 in the U.S. House of Representatives. The District encompasses Williamson and Bell Counties. Since 2003, Republican John Carter has represented the District.
Hegar sat down with Ashley Goudeau to discuss why she's challenging him.
Ashley Goudeau: Tell our viewers a little bit about yourself, why you're running for Congress.
MJ Hegar: "Sure. I was raised in my district. I spent almost my whole life there, other than when I was stationed elsewhere in the military. I went to U.T., joined the Air Force and became an aircraft maintenance officer, worked on the F-16 and the B-2 stealth bomber for a few years and then I went to pilot training and became a combat search and rescue helicopter pilot. I did three tours in Afghanistan. In my third tour, I was actually shot down and had to engage the enemy in ground combat which did a couple things. It gave me a story that I could use as a vehicle to talk about other things like people would want to talk about the shoot-down and I could use that to talk about military sexual assault and PTSD and veteran homelessness and that's kind of when I became an activist. And then the ACLU gave me a call and said we think the ground combat exclusion policy is unconstitutional and I was like, 'The what policy?' You know I've been in ground combat, there wasn't a policy keeping me out. And really what it was was just a bad policy that was hurting the military. So, I joined forces with them and some of their female combat veterans and took on the Department of Defense and got the policy repealed. But then, Jeff Sessions said he was going to legislate the policy back in place. So, I went to D.C. to lobby both sides of the aisle to try to keep him from doing that, which would have been really bad for our military and I was successful. But while I was there, a lot of the way things were done there were just gross, frankly. You know the fact that people were paying more attention to whether or not I was a donor or what could I do, what kind of political capital could I give in response to people by supporting this. You know, not looking at whether or not it's best for the country. And I also noticed that I had a skill set. And that skill set was messaging and working with both sides and talking to people's motivations, which is different on the right and the left. On the left, I was talking about women's rights and on the right I was talking about military effectiveness and recruitment and retention and I was just looking around wondering why more people couldn't do that. Meanwhile, I was working for five years in the healthcare industry and seeing how broken that was in our country. And two years in business at Dell after getting a business degree from U.T. and seeing how many barriers there are to creating small businesses in my district. So, during the fight to try to open jobs for women, all of us that were in this fight went to our representatives to try to get an ear and mine had his door closed to me. And the more research I did back in my district, his doors closed to a lot of people. And we need and deserve more accessible representation. So, I decided to run against him."
Goudeau: You've never run for a political office before, do you think it's a little ambitious for your first go at it to be for Congress?
Hegar: "Yeah, it was ambitious to want to be a combat pilot. It was ambitious to sue the Secretary of Defense. And sometimes you have to be ambitious to make change. Although, I do think it's the appropriate level of office for me to run for since I've already been in D.C., meeting with and influencing the people who will be my peers."
Goudeau: Tell us a little bit about your campaign ad. It drew a lot of attention. What was the thought process behind that and were you surprised at all by the attention that it gained?
Hegar: "Yeah, I think more and more the issues are really important, but more and more what I'm finding when I'm talking to people in my district, the thing that people want to talk more about, is almost like the 'process-y' things. They want to talk about corruption, they want to talk about servant leadership and ethics and money in politics and all these other things. And I think that it was important for us to introduce me to the district in a way that showed them my background; who I was, why I was running for office and not what I was going to do, not a bunch of promises about what I was going to do, but things that I have already done. So, you can see pattern of behavior and character and you know what to expect from me when I am representing you."
Goudeau: Representative John Carter has represented the district since 2003. He is a long-standing Congressman. Is there something about his performance in particular that made you say, "I want to challenge him?"
Hegar: "A lot of things. I've voted for him in the past, like a lot of people in my district. And like a lot of the people who have voted for him, we've been sorely disappointed when we have then turned to him and needed him as our Representative. We deserve present representation, but we also deserve somebody who's going to go to D.C. and fight for our values and our rights instead of vote the way that you're told by your party. We need more independent-minded, discerning people who will be able to work with both sides and that's not what we have right now. John Carter has voted against some things that I think are pretty atrocious. He voted against the Violence Against Women Act, which was supported by Republicans and Democrats. He has shown a pattern of behavior that has not been good for women; voting to not fund military sexual assault prevention, things like that. He also runs, and I find this particularly offensive, he runs on a pro-military platform, but hasn't done anything meaningful for the veterans in his district. Things like voting against pay raises, voting to allow payday loans who have predatory practices up to 800-percent interest to prey on our military. He voted for the tax reform, which a lot of people don't know, took away a benefit for corporations to have a tax incentive to hire disabled veterans. So really, we need a fighter in that seat who is not going to ask 'Well which party sponsored this bill?' before deciding whether or not to support it, who is going to fight for working families in our district."
Goudeau: For the people in District 31, what do you feel are the most pressing issues for them right now?
Hegar: "So I think what people in D.C. have forgotten and this is largely for the rest of country too, but in my district people care most about what impacts them and their ability to put food on the table and take care of their kids. So for me, that's job creation, the economy, the cost of healthcare, the quality of education, things like that."
Goudeau: I think one of the things that's at the top of a lot of peoples' minds right now is immigration as well, especially when we saw those family separations happening at the border. It's a wide subject. It seems so broad to say, 'What do you want to see done about immigration?' But give us some ideas on what your thoughts are on how we address immigration in our country.
Hegar: "So I think a lot of times people think that the solution hasn't been discovered yet, but the fact is that really good solutions have been put forward, but because of the toxic, hyper-partisanship and gridlock in D.C., we haven't been able to move a lot of those solutions forward. So, I think we need comprehensive immigration reform. I think that most of the people in my district, we have a lot of veterans in my district thanks to Fort Hood, we have more veterans here than in 97 percent of the rest of the country. And veterans understand how important the security of our country is. So, with prioritizing first and foremost, security of our borders in our county, we absolutely have to have a pathway forward for citizenship. The answer is not to just block people from being able to become citizens. We have to be able to keep our promises to DACA recipients, people who have been working hard and not committing crimes and contributing to our economy and not being a drain on benefits and programs. We need to allow people who have joined our military to try to become citizens to actually be able to fulfill their obligation and become citizens. I just think that we need comprehensive reform with common sense, you know, people putting forward solutions and not playing this partisan battle about whose solution it was."
Goudeau: President Donald Trump has expressed his desire to build a wall at our border. What are your thoughts on the wall?
Hegar: "I think most people in the military have seen that there's a place for physical security, but that a wall along our southern border does a lot of damage, isn't very pragmatic, isn't going to be the best thing to fund. What we need is information technology. What we need is technological resources for our border patrol and for the organizations that are already there. We definitely need to limit things like tweeting out policy and having organizations have to respond to that and implement things poorly. I think that's part of what we saw with the family separations crisis. You know we had an organization, I am not one of the people who is saying 'I think we should abolish ICE.' I think that the organization took some tweet policies and tried to implement them and didn't have the resources or the guidance or the leadership to do so. So absolutely it's un-American to put policies in place that are using fear as a deterrent for people to come to this country instead of holding us up as a beacon of freedom and democracy to the world. That beacon of freedom and democracy is what makes America so strong and gives us a first place position on the world stage."
Goudeau: Let's talk about guns. After Parkland High School, after Santa Fe High School, we heard cries again for more reform. Do you feel like we need some gun reform, some different gun control or do you think things are fine the way they are right now?
Hegar: "You know, I think that we have a problem with our culture right now and there's a few things that I think we need to do to fix that. I am a gun owner, I am a strong advocate for the Second Amendment and I will defend peoples' Second Amendment rights. However, we also need some common sense safety legislation. I do think that legislation leads culture, so when you legislate something, it kind of allows for a culture of something else within your country and one of those things is the Dickey Amendment which was put in place to stop the CDC from researching gun violence as a public health epidemic. What that does is a couple of things, first of all, we're missing out on that research and the funding. But also it sends a message that nothing can be done and this isn't a public health crisis and it absolutely is. And I mean, beyond the headlines that we see and beyond the school shootings. The gun violence epidemic in this country is the greatest threat to our Second Amendment rights. So we've got to repeal the Dickey Amendment. We've got to end Citizens United, which is flowing a lot of dark money into politics and is one of the reasons why you see something like expanded background checks is something that has the backing of over 90 percent of Americans but we can't get it passed in Congress. That's because of Citizens United. So there's a few things we need to do in addition to some common sense gun safety legislation that I don't think we're going to see an impact to until we get those things done."
Goudeau: When we talk about education,in the State of Texas, the state legislature plays the largest role in funding and deciding things for our children and their education, but do you think there are some things on the federal level that can be done to help prop up Texas schools?
Hegar: "I do. I think that we obviously need to be talking about funding but there's a lot of things that impact. I don't think a lot of these issues are in silos. It's not like 'this is gun legislation,' 'this is education.' I think there's a lot of things that cross. Ending Citizens United is one of those things. Another thing is investment in infrastructure. So in my district, we have an issue accessing broadband. Well, that impacts healthcare with delivery of telemedicine. It impacts small business creation. It impacts education. So, I think infrastructure investments and funding for education. But I also think since my district has been missing present representation, our representation is largely absent. I think one of the things I can do to impact education, I have small kids that I'm raising in this district; one of the things I think I can do to impact, to help get really effective people elected at the state house level. I'm trying to help people up and down the ballot that I think are going to go and fight for our kids and not act in a partisan way and do things like support evidence-based science and try to keep politics out of civics and history. There's a lot of things that I think we can be doing."
Goudeau: Let's talk a little bit about health care. That is another thing that impacts a lot of Texans. We have the highest uninsured rate of people in the country, they're here in Texas. What would you like to see done related to healthcare?
Hegar: "Yeah, we have a lot of metrics that we're not proud of here in Texas. I mean it's pretty common to talk about the maternal mortality rate, people who have no health insurance which by the way when we talk about the cost of providing medical insurance to people, we often need to also include the cost to society and the cost to taxpayer dollars of people who don't have insurance, who are getting their primary care from the emergency room. Look, the bottom line is we've got to get quality, affordable health care and available healthcare to people. I worked in healthcare for five years. I saw that the healthcare costs in relation to our growth of GDP is not sustainable, not for any level. And we've got to get healthcare out to rural areas; accessible healthcare. Women's healthcare has been something that's been politicized and been difficult to spread to places like my district. So you know I think that we need to stop the partisan battle. Again, this is another area that I think has been highly politicized and we're playing with people's lives. So I believe we need to fund a solution, possibly a Medicare for all model, I think that that would be effective. We're not going to see solutions to the challenges that everyday Americans are facing until we have more everyday Americans who have faced those challenges in D.C. In D.C. we have a lot of people who haven't had to worry about their health care costs; who haven't had to worry about social security and taking care of aging parents; who haven't had to worry about the minimum wage or you know anything like that.
Goudeau: You also talked about job creation. That that's something that impacts everyday people in your district. What things would you like to see done on a federal level to stimulate more job creation?
Hegar: "So, the top job creators in my district are Dell and the healthcare industry. So obviously I'm going to be partnering a lot with the local healthcare providers and for the networks, the network I used to work with and other networks, to stimulate job creation and make sure that they have the resources that they need. But the number three job creator in my district is small business. And I think that it's a very American thing to encourage entrepreneurship and creation of small business. But there's a lot of barriers that keep people from creating small businesses. Those things include drowning in student loan debt, having your healthcare provider tie you to your current job. A lot of people can't quit their job because where would they get health care from? The education system. So you have to live in this area because you're trying to live in a good school district for your kids. Ot you're tied to your house because of housing costs. So I think there's a lot of things we can do. We've got to start removing these barriers to small business creation. And a lot of that, I don't have the answers to everything, a lot of that is in present representation and collaborating with not only chambers of commerce but you know, teachers and unions and all of the different groups in the district who have been trying to get an audience with our current representation and have fallen on deaf ears."
Goudeau: Give our viewers a final thought about why they should vote for your opponent in this election.
Hegar: "I think we've got to do something about corruption. We've got to do something about stagnant partisanship and gridlock. And I have, I'm not going to make promises about what I'm going to do, I'm going to tell you what I've already done, is I have a history of serving this country. We need selfless, servant leaders in office. I've always been happiest when I've been serving this country and now that I'm out of the military, I'm looking to extend that service. We need to elect everyday people who are facing the challenges that Congress is trying to legislate solutions to. And we need people who are going to stand up and support things like term limits and voting for pay raises for our military. You know a lot of our current representatives are voting against pay raises for the military but voting for pay raises for themselves and for very high dollar retirement packages and things like that. So I have a history of serving my district, serving my country, acting with integrity and character and trying to put the needs of the people in my district ahead of own."
KVUE News has reached out to the incumbent, Republican Congressman John Carter, about an opportunity for an interview. We hope to share it with you when it happens.