An outspoken war veteran named Mary Jennings Hegar is attracting a lot of attention to the race for Congress in Texas’s 31st district. A recent Hegar ad, called “Doors,” went viral and drew some 3.5 million viewers. The 31st district is a solidly “red” district. Still, many pundits seem to believe that even though Hegar is a Democrat, she has a good chance to unseat the Republican incumbent, John Carter. In the April-to-June fundraising quarter, Hegar raised 1.1 million dollars, according to a report her campaign filed with the Federal Election Commission. That’s compared to the 267-thousand dollars that Carter raised in the same period.
Hegar has campaigned mainly on economic issues and healthcare. She has spoken about bringing new businesses to her district by leveraging the talent pool at Fort Hood. She also is calling for a single-payer healthcare system. Hegar says that she is counting on many Republicans to vote Democrat because she believes many Republicans are deeply disappointed in their own party. She blames this phenomenon largely on President Trump.
“I think being a Republican is not what it used to be,” Hegar told the Texas Tribune. She added, “Even though [the district] is historically Republican, I think some people are voting Republican because they have a misperception of what the Democratic Party is.” Hegar told the Tribune that she grew up Republican but now considers herself an “independent Democrat.”
Here’s what you need to know.
1. She Was a Combat Helicopter Pilot who Served Three Tours in Afghanistan
Hegar says she wanted to be a fighter pilot all her life. “From the time I saw Han Solo navigate the asteroid field in Star Wars, I’ve wanted to be a combat pilot,” she wrote. Of course, becoming a fighter pilot is a tough dream for anyone to realize, and it’s especially tricky for a woman. Hegar has spoken at length about the obstacles she faced, the teachers and others who discouraged her from following her dream. But she persevered, declaring that she has “a warrior’s heart,” and eventually joined the air force.
She served three tours in Afghanistan, where she flew combat search and rescue as well as Medevac missions. On her third tour, she earned the Purple Heart when she was wounded when she came under enemy fire while carrying out a Medevac mission. Hegar was assigned to rescue three soldiers whose convoy had been ambushed just north of Kandahar. As her helicopter landed, a 5.56 mm round shattered the co-pilot windshield and left her with fragments in her arm and thigh.In spite of her wounds, Hegar managed to return fire, saving the lives of the soldiers she had been sent to rescue.
Upon returning to Texas, Hegar joined an ACLU lawsuit calling on the Department of Defense to allow women to serve in combat roles. That same year, in 2012, the Department of Defense lifted the ban on women in combat zones. But Hegar told NPR that the fight wasn’t over yet. “The lawsuit remains open as a way for us to monitor integration, especially through a changing administration, and make sure that we don’t take any steps backwards.”
2. She Grew Up in District 31 & So Did Her Husband
Hegar moved to Cedar Park when she was 7 years old. According to her ad, “Doors,” Hegar’s father was abusive; one of Hegar’s first memories was of hearing her Dad throw her Mom through a glass door. When Hegar was 7, her mom moved the family to Texas to get away from Hegar’s Dad. Hegar says she met her now-husband, Brandon, in the neighborhood when they were both seven. Now, the couple is raising their own family in Round Rock, in District 31.
Hegar and her husband have two sons together. The older boy, Jude,is two, and the younger, Daniel, is just six months old. Her husband, Brandon, also has three children from a previous relationship, aged 16, 10, and 8. Brandon is a musician who plays in the band BK & ME.
Hegar graduated from Leander High School, where she was class president and a member of the cheer leading squad. She went on to the University of Texas at Austin. She did ROTC before joining the air force.
3. Hegar Has a Decent Chance of Winning, Even as a Democrat in a Staunchly Republican District
District 31 is rated “R+10” on the Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voting Index. The district went solidly for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. So the odds are, in many ways, stacked in favor of Hegar’s opponent, the incumbent republican John Carter. A Public Policy Poll carried out in November found that Carter had a six-point advantage over Hegar. A recent Washington Post spread about women candidates decided that Hegar is not likely to win her race.
But Hegar’s recent ad, and her compelling personal story, may tip the scales in her advantage. Slate reports that the most recent poll actually put Hegar ahead of Carter by two points. And in the April-to-June fundraising quarter, Hegar raised 1.1 million dollars, according to a report her campaign filed with the Federal Election Commission. That’s compared to the 267-thousand dollars that Carter raised in the same period.
Whether she wins or loses, Hegar has garnered national attention. She’s been written up in the New York Times and the Washington Post. And the likes of Elizabeth Warren have expressed their support for her on twitter. Whatever happens, Hegar is a candidate worth watching.
4. Angelina Jolie Is in the Running to Play Her in a Movie
Hegar is the author of a memoir, “Shoot Like a Girl,” that describes her experiences in the Air Force as well as some of the obstacles she has faced in her life — including her involvement in the ACLU suit against the department of defense. The book was released in March 2017.
The rights have been optioned by Tristar, and Angelina Jolie is reportedly negotiating to play the role of Hegar. Jolie has often spoken about the need for more strong female roles that celebrate the work of women. She said back in 2014, for example, “Many women are stepping forward and I look forward to people just seeing their work and giving them more opportunities, and I believe they will. They are,” Jolie said at the 2014 junket for Unbroken. “So I look forward to all of that good work to come.”
No release date has been announced for the movie yet.
5. Hegar Has a Lot of Tattoos
Hegar has called herself “the candidate with the floral tattoo,” because of the cherry blossom and lotus flower tattoo that winds down one arm. But her body art isn’t just a matter of personal taste. Hegar got it to cover up the shrapnel wounds that she got while serving in Afghanistan. During one of her rescue missions, a bullet shattered into 18 pieces and left her with a web of scars. She told the Austin-American Statesman that she had gotten tired of seeing her scars every time she bent down to pick up her babies. So, she went to local tattoo artist Mike Metaxa and got him to cover it up. The tree grew and grew until Metaxa eventually added a dragon coiled around the base.
Hegar also has her sons’ names tattooed on her arms, in Japanese characters. She chose to use Japanese because she spent a few years living in Japan.
Hegar is not shy about her tattoos, and is often photographed in a sleeveless top with the tattoos on display. She has said, “It’s reclaiming my body. It’s reclaiming my memories. It’s reclaiming my progress,” she said.