MJ Hegar, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, is already envisioning how she’d work with U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz — confident that she will win both the Democratic nomination and the election in November.
Hegar is competing in the July 14 runoff election against state Sen. Royce West. The winner will face off against Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in November. Backed by national Democrats, Hegar led by 7% in the 12-way primary in March.
Hegar is a retired Air Force officer, helicopter pilot and recipient of the Purple Heart. She announced her candidacy for the U.S. Senate in April 2019 after a high-profile but unsuccessful campaign to unseat incumbent U.S. Rep. John Carter.
In 2012, she successfully sued the Department of Defense to repeal the Ground Combat Exclusion Policy, which prohibited women from serving in ground combat units.
She sat down for a virtual conversation Thursday morning with The Texas Tribune’s Washington bureau chief, Abby Livingston, to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic, her strategy to beat Cornyn and policy.
“I am a combat veteran and a working mom and a fighter, and I've already been successful taking on the dark forces in D.C.,” she said. We can tighten up the race and make it even closer than it is now.”
The Tribune will sit down with West on Friday. Here are some highlights of the conversation with Hegar.
Livingston: As a mom, not just a Senate candidate, where do you stand on the debate about kids returning to school in the fall?
There are concerns about returning to school amid the pandemic, Hegar said, but she also understands that it’s the best option for some families. For her, the problem isn’t solely about the schools.
“If you want to open schools in the fall, you don't demand that they open — you control the pandemic,” she said. “Other countries, other states have been able to do it much better than we have here in Texas.”
Hegar, who has 3- and 5-year-old children, said she would be homeschooling her older child during the fall but recognizes that isn’t an option for every family.
“If the goal is to get schools open in the fall, the question should be: What do we have to do between now and then?” she said.
What would tangibly be different in Texas amid this pandemic if you, not Cornyn, were a senator?
“In Texas, we're just getting our asses kicked, and we really need more access to testing — and we need that testing to be covered,” she said. “We finally recognize that, you know, it's actually not in society's best interest to have such a huge chunk of people without health care.”
She said she would call out state and federal leaders on mistakes and make sure Texas had the appropriate response to the pandemic.
“We need to have leaders that aren't afraid to go against the grain to call out failures in leadership,” she said.
I don't think anyone thinks it was a perfect program, but how do you think the Paycheck Protection Program loans have played out in Texas?
Current relief efforts are not supporting essential workers, and the loans are overlooking many businesses — namely those owned by people of color, she said. It’s important to provide relief to all Texans.
“If we don't have leaders in place that are going to fight for regular working Texans, then the economy is only going to recover for the strong, powerful special interests and the people who actually have the ear of people like John Cornyn right now,” she said.
Can you describe to me your approach to being someone in the public arena, before and after the death of George Floyd?
Hegar said racism in the criminal justice system and policing is a symptom of the country’s problem grappling with bias or structural racism. She said she’s glad to see policies becoming widely supported targeting racial inequality.
“It seems like these things that we've been fighting for so long are finally becoming mainstream,” she said. “I'm optimistic that our calls for these reforms won't fall on deaf ears like they have for so long.”
Right now is a critical time to take action on these calls and to yield tangible benefits, she said.
“Our country has an opportunity to live up to our title as the leaders of the free world and to live up to our potential as being a beacon of freedom and hope and democracy — but not while that opportunity is not equal for everyone,” she said.
If you win, your fellow senator will be Ted Cruz. How does that work?
“I gotta tell you, I'm really looking forward to seeing him in the Senate dining hall and grabbing my tray and saying, ‘Hey, Ted, how's it going? Let's talk about immigration reform. Hey, we still got kids in cages. Hey, how about that one out of every five Texans doesn't have health insurance?'” Hegar said. “He's gonna be like ‘Oh, my God, can I just eat my lunch in peace?’”
She said she has seen Cruz work collaboratively in the past if he believes it benefits the state, and she would leverage that to work together.
“We'll see if he runs for reelection again after four years of eating lunch with me,” she added.
How do you handle compromising on policy issues?
Hegar said for her, it’s less about compromise and more about reframing issues to show how a policy benefits Texas as a whole — fitting into both parties’ objectives.
“We have to be leaders and sacrifice our own egos and be humble and go in and figure out what their values are, and then speak to those values,” she said.
When she was advocating for women in the military, she showed Republicans how it was hurting the military rather than leaning on social issues, she said. For environmental concerns, she said she’d do the same. When talking about climate change, she’d emphasize the energy industry’s need to adapt to stay competitive — which benefits the economy, she said.
“I just don't think that we have to compromise away our values, we just have to be willing to have the conversation with people that reaches out to them and talk to them about their values,” she said.
What is your strategy and message to beat John Cornyn?
“We need to be able to define who I am and what I'm fighting for before John Cornyn tries to come in and define that for us because we've already seen that he's willing to lie about us,” she said.
Hegar said she believes it will be “very easy” to beat Cornyn if she can expose his weaknesses and raise the resources she needs to accomplish that.
“It's completely the fact that John Cornyn clearly doesn't have a spine,” she said. “We don't abide a bootlicker very well. So I think the strategy is to show people that John Cornyn is a career politician who lives at the top of an ivory tower, metaphorically, and doesn't understand the plight of regular working people.”
She contrasted that with her own experience — working service-level jobs, being laid off before, as well as serving in the military.
“I am worried about whether or not Social Security is going to be there for me. I have worried about where am I going to get my health care when I got laid off. I've bartended and waited tables,” she said. “I have served my country in uniform and understand the cost of deploying troops.”
How would you increase the cohesion of the Texas delegation if approved?
Hegar said she thinks it’s important that the delegation be collaborative and recognizes that her own goals will be impossible without teamwork.
“I just think we have too much D.C., and we need more Texas values,” she said.
The conversation series is presented by AT&T and Walmart and supported by TEXAS 2036 and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas. Media support is provided by KXAN.
Tribune events are also supported through contributions from our founding investors and members. Though donors and corporate sponsors underwrite Texas Tribune events, they play no role in determining the content, panelists or line of questioning.
Disclosure: The Texas Tribune, as a nonprofit local newsroom and a small business, applied for and received a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program in the amount of $1,116,626.
Correction: A previous version of this story spelled Hegar's name wrong in one instance.