KILLEEN, Texas ― MJ Hegar, the 42-year-old military hero running for Congress in a tough red district, wants people elected to office who’ve actually faced the challenges lawmakers are supposed to be fixing. People who’ve worked minimum-wage jobs, worried about health care costs, counted on Social Security and struggled to feed their families.
These are things that “my opponent hasn’t done and that this political class hasn’t had to do,” Hegar told HuffPost from her office in Round Rock, a city about 20 miles north of Austin.
Hegar, a Democrat, is looking to defeat John Carter, an eight-term Republican incumbent in Central Texas’ 31st Congressional District. The task is formidable: Carter prevailed against his Democratic challenger in 2016 by more than 20 percentage points. But Hegar’s gripping personal story has helped her outraise Carter, and progressives are holding out hope she will help usher in a Texas “blue wave.”
Hegar has large brown eyes, underlined with shadows, and an intense presence. When we meet, she’s wearing sneakers and a short-sleeved shirt that shows off the tattoo of cherry blossoms winding down her arm.
Her tattoos cover scars from bullet fragments.
She grew up in Cedar Park, Texas, with a single mom who worked three jobs to put food on the table, she explains. She attended Leander High School and worked minimum-wage jobs, including at Little Caesars Pizza. One of her first memories, she has said, is her father throwing her mother through a glass door. Later, a mix of patriotism and self-described “adrenaline addiction” led her to the Air Force, where she became a combat search-and-rescue pilot. She served three tours in Afghanistan and was awarded a Purple Heart after she was shot down by enemy fire while protecting her crew and patients.
She was then part of a 2012 lawsuit against then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta challenging the ban on women in ground combat, a fight she said brought her death threats. Hegar ultimately prevailed when Panetta reversed the ban in 2013.
Hegar featured her story in a campaign ad in June that went viral and helped launch her to the national stage. But that doesn’t mean she’s running to join what she calls the “good ol’ boys’ club” in Congress — a point that came up last month when Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat, participated in a Carter fundraising event.
“We have a system where, for the most part, only independently wealthy people can run for the higher levels,” Hegar told HuffPost. She had to quit her job to run, she said, a “huge financial hardship” on her family. It’s a decision that many working people interested in running for office just can’t make.
Similarly, she explained, the fact that it’s still so unusual to see children in professional environments, including politics, also presents a barrier for women . Hegar — whose days start with “snuggles and kisses and diapers” — often brings her young children to events, and she began her campaign while breastfeeding. At a recent event, she made a point of thanking voters for bringing their kids, too.
Hegar’s argument that the divide between voters and the political class is greater than that between the left and right, is perhaps unsurprising coming from a Democrat in Texas. On a whole, voters in her district went for President Donald Trump by a margin of more than 12 percentage points in 2016. But Hegar is hedging on voters judging her by her character rather than just her party.
She has focused her message on local issues, such as veteran support and broadband access. And when it comes to big national issues, she threads a careful line ― she’s for “common sense” gun safety legislation but notes her household has five firearms. She is for abortion rights but is careful to mention that abortion opponents support her. And when asked whether she supports decriminalizing unauthorized border crossings, she told HuffPost, “I think it should remain a misdemeanor.” But Hegar doesn’t shy away from firmly progressive stances. She is for the legalization of marijuana; she told HuffPost she supports public funding for Planned Parenthood; she also “strenuously” opposes a 20-week ban on abortion, citing the “heartbreaking” cases in which a child will not survive past the womb.
She also questioned Trump’s attempt to bar transgender individuals from serving in the military. “The men and women I served with and was shot with and who I lost — no one gave a shit what their sexual orientation was [or] if they were transgender ... Incompetence gets people killed, not gender, sexual orientation, race, religion.”
At the end of the day, people in her district, Hegar argued, aren’t as concerned about the fight over Justice Brett Kavanaugh — or “Mueller and Russia and Hillary and emails, and whatever else is political pundit-y.”
They’re focused on putting food on the table and taking care of their families, she said.
If she’s elected as their congresswoman, she promised, “I won’t forget that.”
Next month, Hegar will find out whether her pitch works — whether voters in her district will turn out not for the Democrat but for MJ: the candidate who says she never thought she would run for office, who drops curse words, rides motorcycles and would love to purchase a sporty Harley as soon as she has a job again; who gets inked by Mike Metaxa at Arthouse Tattoo; loves the breakfast tacos at Juarez Restaurant & Bakery, and who is convinced voters are “really tired of seeing fake people.”
So far, a New York Times/Siena College poll has shown Carter with a 15-point lead. (Her campaign said their recent polling shows Hegar is within 4 points of Carter. His campaign claimed polling showing he has a 21-point lead.)
Carter vehemently disagrees with Hegar’s characterization that he’s absent or disconnected from voters. He understands the challenges that families face “better than most because he’s faced them himself,” his campaign spokesman, Bruce Harvie, said in an email. Carter worked a minimum-wage job to put himself through law school, Harvie noted.
“I don’t know who these out of touch members of Congress are that Ms. Hegar is referring to, but Congressman Carter certainly isn’t one of them,” Harvie said.
At a small meet-and-greet at a Hilton Garden Inn in Killeen, a city near the Fort Hood military base that is dotted with campaign signs for Carter, Hegar told supporters that there are more people like them than they think. For too long, she said, people have believed “because we live in a red state, if we spoke out, we would be discriminated against, we would be the minority voice. It’s not true.”
One attendee at the meet-and-greet, Kenneth Rosson, a bearded veteran who lives in Killeen, came across Hegar’s ad online. He might not believe in everything she does, he said, but he likes that she seems focused on her constituents and is bipartisan. As far as turning the district, or Texas, blue, “I don’t really care what color it is, as long as it’s the right person.”
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