Vogue: The Female Candidates Who May Turn Texas Blue This November
By: Luisita Lopez Torregrosa
It’s been 32 years since Texas elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate. MJ Hegar is trying to break that streak.
Hegar—with her cherry-blossom tattoo, flashy Harley-Davidson, and combat scars—is challenging the incumbent John Cornyn and giving him his first serious challenge since the three-term senator was first elected in 2002.
Hegar is one of several promising candidates who has a chance of dramatically changing Texas’s congressional delegation, along with groundbreaking progressive Democrats like the Iranian-American Sima Ladjevardian in Houston and the Afro-Latina Candace Valenzuela in North Texas. Besides being women, they all have one thing in common: They are outsiders; they did not come up through Texas establishment politics.
“My campaign is a campaign for regular people,” Hegar says over the phone from her home in Round Rock, a suburb of Austin, where she lives with her second husband, Brandon, a Dell manager, and their two sons. I can overhear the boys, Jude, five, and Daniel, three, in the background.
She talks rapidly, excited: “I’m seeing a groundswell of support, hard-working Texans from both sides of the aisle.” They worry about health, putting food on the table and a roof over their heads. They “no longer believe the promises of politicians who’ve let them down.”
As significant as these Congressional races are, perhaps even more important is the heightened sense that the state itself might go for a Democratic president for the first time since 1976—yes, we’re talking 44 years—with Joe Biden running neck and neck with Donald Trump, or slightly behind, in some polls.
Is a blue wave about to roll over Texas?
For decades, almost a century, in fact, Texas was a Democratic stronghold, with Lyndon B. Johnson and Sam Rayburn dominating politics not only in the Lone Star state but in Washington as well. But Texas began to switch to Republican in the late 1960s and then with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1976. Today most members of the Texas Congressional delegation (including its two U.S. senators, Cornyn and Ted Cruz), all statewide officeholders, and the majorities in the Texas House and Senate are Republican.
Back in late winter, before the coronavirus hit Texas, Cornyn, 68, looked invincible. Hegar, a 44-year-old Air Force veteran with a Purple Heart, was given little chance to become the state’s first elected Democratic senator since 1992 (when Lloyd Bentsen ended his term). Polls showed her well behind Cornyn. Her poll numbers have since climbed (Cornyn leads 44-38 in the most recent survey), and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee pledged to spend at least $1 million on her campaign. She remains well behind Cornyn in overall fundraising, though.
“I have to earn their vote,” she says of potential voters. But she’s encouraged by her growing grassroots fundraising, which is adding contributors $23 at a time. She raised $1 million in the week after the runoff in July, according to the Dallas Morning News. Cornyn led Hegar $16.6 million to $6.6 million at midyear in 2020, according to the paper.
“I am going to tell you why we are going to win,” she tells me with not a shred of doubt. “We are going to win because there are more of us than there are of them.”
Mary Jennings Hegar adopted the name Jennings in honor of her stepfather who raised her after her mother fled from her abusive biological father in Connecticut. M.J. grew up in a blue-collar household in Cedar Park, in the Austin suburbs, the first in her family to go to college, graduating with a sociology degree from the University of Texas in Austin. “l didn’t always plan to go to college, but I wanted to become a pilot in the Air Force, and they required a college degree.”
She joined the Air Force ROTC, became an aircraft maintenance officer serving in Japan, and worked to secure a highly competitive spot in a pilot training program. After graduating from at the top of her class she signed up to go to Afghanistan.
Her time as a combat search and rescue pilot ended in July 2009 when the Taliban shot at the medevac helicopter she was copiloting. She was wounded in her rifle arm but returned fire and saved the lives of her crew and patients.
“My adrenaline was pumping,” she recalls. “All I thought about was the well-being of my brothers and sisters in arms that I was shoulder to shoulder with.” The crash left her injured and grounded her for good.
When asked what got her into politics, she talks about her involvement in an ACLU lawsuit against the Pentagon’s rule banning women from ground combat. She was asked to be the lead plaintiff in the case, which she and the ACLU eventually won. But her experience in Washington had a downside.
“When I went to D.C. with other pissed-off female combat veterans, I was told I wouldn’t be able to get anything done because I wasn’t a donor and didn’t have access to cigar-filled rooms in the boys’ club,” Hegar said. “At one point I showed up to a meeting with my congressman but was pushed off to an aide…. It ended up being the least effective meeting we had on the Hill that day. The experience left me feeling like the people who are supposed to be representing us in D.C. aren’t, and it was time we sent servant leaders with real Texas values to fight for us in D.C.”
Her political brand is hard to pin down.
“I am a Texan, and the fact is we are difficult to put in a box,” she says. “People tend to think of Texas as a red state, but we are far more independent minded. We overwhelmingly want everyone to have access to quality, affordable health care. We want to fix our broken immigration system…while keeping our country secure. We want universal background checks while supporting our Second Amendment rights. We believe in family values and know that means not letting the government tell us who we can love or what we can do with our bodies. Some people might view those stances as progressive, but here in Texas we view them as Texas values.”
She denies she wants to upset the system. “I am an effective disrupter. I want to improve the system. I want to give it a kick.” And true to form, when Kamala Harris became Biden’s running mate, Hegar fired off this tweet: “We need more badass women like Kamala Harris in power! I can’t wait to fight alongside her. Let’s do this!”
Few would call Sima Ladjevardian a badass woman, though she probably wouldn’t mind. A fearless, soft-spoken lawyer, immigrant, and activist, she decided to run for Congress last December to challenge a freshman congressman, former Navy Seal, and ardent Trump supporter.
“I thought, I am the person who can take this guy out,” she tells me on the phone from her home in Houston. “What kind of example would I be to my children, to my friends, to my country, if I didn’t take him on.”
“I believe in this nation because this nation believed in me, and I feel a sense of duty to protect it,” Ladjevardian (pronounced “lahj-ee-var-dee-un”) says. “That’s why I’m running for Congress in this existential moment—the American dream I found here is in jeopardy, and my neighbors are suffering.”
Struggle, fear, and loss are not new to her. Her family had to escape from Iran in November 1978 shortly before the revolution. “As a little girl surrounded by chaos and violence,” she says, “America was the beacon of hope on the horizon. I kept hoping the Americans would come and save us.”
Ladjevardian was 12, in fifth grade, when the ground in the classroom in the private school she attended in Tehran began to shake. The noise of gunshots reverberated in the air. Chaos was breaking out everywhere. But she made it out safely. At home, her mother had started packing for a “weekend trip,” but Ladjevardian feared they might not return. They were flying to Paris, a familiar city where they had friends and connections. Ladjevardian gathered a few photos and other mementos into a lunchbox and said goodbye to her grandmother, a member of the Iranian congress who chose to stay behind. Ladjevardian’s father, an attorney and congressman, would join her, her mother, and her brother in Paris days later.
“My mother was in shock,” Ladjevardian says. “I became the de facto parent, taking care of my brother. It was very scary.” After two years in Paris, they were able to leave for the United States on a business visa. They settled in Carmel, California, where relatives had a real estate business. She learned English while attending high school and, because she was Iranian and had a thick accent, felt prejudice firsthand. But she didn’t let that deter her. She wanted to study international law, enrolled at UCLA, and went on to U.C. Hastings Law School in San Francisco, where the vice-presidential nominee is an alumna.
“I’m so happy Kamala Harris is the pick for vice president,” Ladjevardian says. “We actually graduated in the same class from U.C. Hastings, and it’s amazing to me that our paths are intertwining again in this pivotal moment for our nation. In some ways, it feels prophetic.”
After finishing law school, she married Masoud Ladjevardian, a Houston businessman, and moved to Texas. “He had told me Houston was beautiful, with palm trees. When I got here, I asked, What happened to the palm trees?” She has lived in Houston 30 years, worked at a law firm a few years, and raised her son, Dara, and daughter, Atissa.
In 2005, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was 38. Her children were in fifth and third grade. She did not tell them she had cancer, kept it secret through all her treatments and hospital visits. The children thought she had some other health problem, she says. She didn’t tell them for several years and now wonders if she did the right thing. “I just wanted to protect them.”
Another shock jolted her when Dara tried to die by suicide. In seventh grade, he had become a target of taunts and bullies in school. “He was depressed, tried to kill himself…. Took pills.” Dara recovered and was elected president of his eighth-grade class.
But that “made me realize I had to reach out, I had to educate people about who we are.” She threw herself into community organizing, fundraising for nonprofits, working for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. “I was at the Javits Center that night of the election, and when we found out she had lost, I had flashbacks to all the disappointments in my life.”
By 2018 she was a well-known political insider as Beto O’Rourke’s advisor and fundraiser in his race against Senator Ted Cruz. He almost won, a feat at that time in Texas, and in 2019 Ladjevardian joined his brief presidential campaign. When Ladjevardian, who is 54, jumped into the race against Republican Dan Crenshaw, she was prepared.
“I feel very good about the race,” she says. Her campaign has picked up momentum lately. The coronavirus outbreak and the Black Lives Matter protests, which she supports, highlighted her issues (health care and racial and ethnic justice) and heightened her profile among minority and immigrant voters who make up 39% of her district.
Candace Valenzuela, a 36-year-old political newcomer, pulled a surprise when she won her Democratic primary runoff for a Republican congressional seat in North Texas. If she does succeed in her increasingly minority district, Valenzuela, the mother of two, will be the first Afro-Latina in the U.S. Congress.
Her troubled childhood informs her politics. Valenzuela lived through homelessness when she was a child, but eventually became the first of her family to go to college. Today she describes herself as a progressive, fighting for expanded health care and immigration reform. “If we want equity and justice,” she has said, “we can’t just fight for ourselves, we have to fight for it for our brothers and sisters.”
Sounding confident, Ladjevardian says that Hegar and Valenzuela and “the whole movement in Texas—the wave of energy, excitement, and hope led by many strong, passionate women—will push Texas closer and closer to its inevitable flip.”