Veteran-turned-congressional candidate draws attention for personal campaign ad

The ad is garnering attention for its candid presentation of sensitive issues.

ByABC News
June 25, 2018, 11:36 AM

A campaign ad released Wednesday by a progressive running in Texas’s 31st Congressional District in 2018 is gaining national attention for its candid presentation of issues including domestic violence, misogyny, and money in politics.

MJ Hegar, a decorated Air Force veteran who led the fight in 2012 to overturn a policy barring women from direct ground combat, is challenging U.S. Rep. John Carter, a Tea Party Republican who has held his seat for 15 years, in a district that includes a major military base.

While Hegar will face an uphill battle in a deep red district, progressives with similar profiles have seen success in this year’s primaries. Two female air force veterans recently won Democratic nominations: Chrissy Houlahan for Pennsylvania’s 6th district, and Amy McGrath for Kentucky’s 6th district. McGrath’s acclaimed ad is packed with parallels to Hegar’s video.

Hegar thinks her new ad is already moving the needle on her campaign. On Wednesday, just hours after the video was released, Cook Political Report updated the TX-31 seat from “Solid” to “Likely” Republican.

The bio spot, entitled “Doors,” tracks the barriers Hegar has faced both personally and professionally, from her mother’s decision to “walk out the door” on her abusive father, to the discrimination she experienced as a female pilot and the doors she says were shut when she lobbied Congress for the rights of servicewomen, without the backing of corporate PACs.

“When I was in D.C. trying to make real change and fight for a stronger military, I was treated like I was not important because I was not a donor,” she told ABC News.

This isn’t Hegar’s first time sharing gritty personal details with the public. Her 2017 memoir, "Shoot Like a Girl," is now being produced as a biopic, with Angelina Jolie starring as Hegar.

The book includes candid discussions of controversial issues facing the military, including her allegations of sexual assault against military physician. Hegar has emphasized the importance of destigmatizing sexual assault.

After serving three tours in Afghanistan as a major in the U.S. Air Force, Hegar earned a Purple Heart and was honorably discharged after her plane was shot down by Taliban combatants.

In 2012, Hegar filed suit with four servicewomen against the U.S. Secretary of Defense. Backed by the ACLU, the veterans in Hegar, et al. v. Panetta argued against the Combat Exclusion Policy, which barred women from direct ground combat, winning a victory in 2013.

While she celebrated the outcome, Hegar insists that “legislation leads culture” and policy victories are only the first step in broader social progress.

She thinks progressive change is only beginning to come to military culture. “It seems like a lot of the steps we’ve taken are having an impact, but it is still largely a good old boys’ club.”

PHOTO: Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, leaves the House Republican Conference meeting in the basement of the Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017.
Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, leaves the House Republican Conference meeting in the basement of the Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017.
Bill Clark/AP

Hegar, who describes herself as an “adrenaline junkie,” decided her next target would be the influence of big money in politics. In “Doors,” she says that she was shut out of the political process because she wasn’t a wealthy donor.

“One of those closed doors was my congressman, Tea Party Republican John Carter. Apparently being his constituent, and a veteran, wasn’t enough to get a meeting. I guess I also needed to be a donor,” she says in the ad.

Hegar has made her own rejection of corporate PAC money a centerpiece of her campaign, and in April gained the endorsement of the anti-corruption organization End Citizens United.

The candidate is also backed by veterans’ advocacy groups like VoteVets, and sees her military background as compatible with many traditionally progressive causes. For Hegar, a robust defense and national security platform includes opposition to travel bans, independence from foreign oil and support for environmental legislation.

While Hegar sees climate change as a pressing reality and a national security issue, she says respects differing views including those of climate change skeptics. Still, she says there are other compelling interests in transitioning to renewable energy: not least, American reliance on foreign oil.

“I accept the science, but I respect other people’s freedom to be discerning and make their own decisions. But they can’t deny that our military pays the price for our dependence on foreign oil,” Hegar told ABC News.

On the recent immigration crisis, Hegar says she doesn’t know “why Secretary Nielsen still has her job,” and that she’s baffled at many of the Trump administration’s actions.

“I don’t understand a lot of the things I’m reading in the news and I’m seeing on TV, and I think that a lot of Americans are feeling that way. We’re kind of like, are we watching a dystopian movie playing out, or are we watching the news?”

Responding to Hegar's ad, Todd Olsen, a spokesperson for Carter’s campaign, cited a recent instance in which Carter worked with a veteran constituent.

When Charles Nelson, an army veteran, needed a kidney transplant, he found that the Department of Veterans’ Affairs’ choice program wouldn’t cover a transplant from his son, Coty, who is not a veteran.

Carter sponsored the Veterans’ Transplant Coverage Act, which passed on June 7, ensuring that non-veteran organ donors like Nelson’s son are eligible for VA health care coverage for transplant operations.

“John Carter is respected because of his responsiveness to constituents,” Olsen told ABC News.

Editor's note: The original version of this story misstated the name of the lawsuit filed by Hegar in 2012. It is Hegar, et al. v. Panetta.