The word “badass” gets tossed around a lot. But MJ Hegar, a 44-year-old Texas Democrat who is running to unseat three-term Republican Sen. John Cornyn, has actually earned the tag.
After she went to the University of Texas in Austin, where she spent more than a few late nights blasting around the city on her Yamaha FZR600, Hegar joined the Air Force and became one of the first female combat pilots in the military. She flew helicopters mostly, fighting wildfires from the sky and piloting dangerous missions into Taliban-held regions of Afghanistan to rescue wounded soldiers. On one of those missions, her HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter was shot down and she had to be rescued herself, bleeding from shrapnel in her arm and leg. Now she is married, the mother of two young boys, age three and five, rides a Harley Davidson Iron 883, and is running for the U.S. Senate.
Hegar is not what most people would consider a natural politician. Whatever word best describes the opposite of slippery, that’s Hegar. She is direct, earnest, and, above all, serious. She is a woman who has ventured into the dark places and now wants to fight for a better world. But as a Democrat in red-state Texas, that’s tough. In 2018, she ran for Congress in Texas’ 31st Congressional District, narrowly losing to incumbent Republican John Carter. Now she’s trying to unseat Cornyn, whom Hegar calls “a spineless bootlicker” of President Trump. It’s a long-shot campaign — Cornyn is one of the Texas good ol’ boys, with plenty of campaign cash and powerful friends. But the political dynamics are rapidly shifting in the state, driven by disgust for Trump’s lies and Gov. Greg Abbott’s fumbling of the pandemic response, which turned the Lone Star State into a Covid-19 hotspot.
The latest polls show Biden and Trump in a virtual tossup and Hegar’s race with Cornyn tightening to single digits. One clear sign of hope for Hegar: The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee decided to pump $1 million into her campaign to help pay for TV ads and outreach. Defeating Cornyn is still a long-shot — to win, Hegar needs a big turnout from black and Latinx voters, as well as from Texas women. The Republican machine is deeply entrenched in Texas — even a well-funded shooting star like Beto O’Rourke couldn’t unseat Ted Cruz in 2018. But it may turn out that Hegar’s brand of politics is just what Texas needs right now to purge itself of Trump’s lies and failures. “I connect with voters,” Hegar tells me, “by actually giving a shit.”
This week I talked with Hegar in a video interview about the challenges of running a campaign amid a pandemic, bringing energy-industry workers into the climate change conversation, and what it means to “shoot like a girl.”
I want to start with the news of the day. Biden announced Kamala Harris is going to be his running mate. What went through your head when you heard?
I’m just so excited. I have so much respect for her. And it really made me so proud to support Vice President Biden, because I was watching how he was going to make that decision. Knowing that there were criticisms, and people were saying, “Is she loyal?” I hate that kind of language. I really respect leaders that surround themselves with people that will challenge them. And so I’m actually both proud of him and what it means for his leadership style that he would choose her and thrilled that she would be on the ticket, because she’s a very strong choice.
A lot of people have made that point, that she did criticize him quite aggressively during the debates, and yet he still picked her. I think that certainly President Trump would not be choosing anyone like that.
Yeah. And I think that Trump is making a huge mistake by attacking the fact that she questioned him. I think that it’s actually one of the strengths of the ticket. People are really tired of the types of leaders that surround themselves with sycophants and yes men. That is not an effective way to lead a nation.
Predictably, a lot of attacks have started. Trump calling her nasty, you know, there have been attacks about her as a woman. I’m really interested in your thoughts. I mean, you’re a woman running for the U.S. Senate seat in Texas. What has it been like for you so far?
First of all, his attacks on her I’m sure are just making her laugh. I mean, to get to the point where she’s at in her life, she has faced much worse than him and the little petty, childish things that he could throw at her.
What it’s been like for me has been…interesting. Really, I think I’ve had a unique experience less from being a woman and more from being not part of the political infrastructure in Texas. I’m a little bit of an outsider. But I think that’s something that Texans like. Texans don’t like politicians. We don’t like people that accept the system that they’re handed when that system is not serving regular people. But yeah, as a woman, I’m a Texas woman, and that’s a unique type of woman, I think. We’re tough. We’re ready to throw punches. We’re ready to get scrappy. I grew up in very rural Texas and then I became a combat pilot, so I am very confident I can handle anything they’re throwing my way.
I would say from having read your book and your descriptions of your combat missions, you do qualify as a badass, no question about it. And one of the things that I thought of when these attacks on Kamala started, was a passage from your book and the title of your book, which is Shoot Like a Girl. And I wonder if you could tell me why you chose that as a title?
When I was in the military, there was obviously constant training. And one of the things that we do is keep current on our weapons. We go out to the range and try to qualify on weapons or qualify as an expert, like I always tried to do. And so I was out on the range one day and one of my instructors said, “Well, you shoot like a girl.” And of course that phrase is used negatively so often, like “you throw like a girl,” or “you run like a girl,” or “you cry like a girl,” that I bristled at first and was kind of like, “What do you want from me? I just shot expert-level. How much better do I have to do to make you people happy?” And he was like, “No, that’s a compliment.”
He explained that women tend to be better marksman for various reasons, because they have a lower center of gravity or it’s respiratory or they’re competing with themselves, instead of trying to compete with the guy next to them on the line. And it was a moment for me. Like, wow, instead of feeling like I’m always playing catch-up or always have to prove myself, this is actually a strength and there’s probably other areas in being a combat warrior that being a woman is a strength. Things like our maternal instinct to be a mama bear, which I saw when we were shot down and the way that I treated my crew and my patients. And leadership style, decision-making, multitasking. So it kind of changed my focus. And I think that’s colored my political race as well. Because I am not trying to apologize for the things I’m not. I am embracing the things that I am.
The book details what it’s like as a pilot in the military, essentially a male hierarchy that you were kind of breaking through. How does that compare to running for Senate in Texas, which is also, let’s be frank, a very male dominated culture?
I would say it’s similar to when I was going to D.C. as a private citizen, years before I ran for office. I took time off work, I wasn’t a lobbyist or something, and I partnered with the ACLU. I went to D.C. to fight to open jobs for women in the military. I was condescended to and people were patronizing, and they kind of patted me on the head. They’re like, “Well, that’s cute that you want to change 200 years of military tradition.” But I was able to effectively build a broad bipartisan coalition of Republicans and Democrats to get that done. Partly because I was so underestimated, because of my ability to infiltrate that system, despite not being a donor and not having political capital and not, according to them, knowing what I was doing. It made [then-Alabama Senator] Jeff Sessions and the other people that I was trying to fight against — it made them underestimate me. And ultimately, I was successful. And I think that that’s happened here too. I think that John Cornyn has grossly underestimated not only me but the voters in Texas and our ability to detect bullshit. He’s going to pay the price for it in November.
I want to talk about the campaign of course. But I want to first talk about the pandemic and what’s going on in Texas. It’s starting to decline now, but it’s been a hotspot recently. I’ve been riding out the pandemic in Austin. I’ve seen it for myself. Half a million Texans have been infected with the virus and 9,000 deaths right now. Who do you hold responsible for this?
You know, I hold a lot of people responsible for it. Obviously, my focus is on John Cornyn. Obviously, [Texas Governor] Greg Abbott has failed us. Obviously people who have come before them have failed us. We had a health care crisis in Texas before the pandemic hit. We have nearly one out of every five of us without access to health insurance. We have rural areas that don’t have any physical access to health care. And we have politicians who consistently prioritize politics over public health, whether they are fighting for the insurance agencies and fighting to make it possible to discriminate against people for pre-existing conditions or sell us junk plans, or attacking women’s health care clinics because they provide abortion services. We’ve got to stop playing politics with people’s lives and start bringing people together.
John Cornyn has consistently downplayed the crisis. He doesn’t listen to experts, he spreads misinformation, saying things like, “We’re not sure if kids can even get it.” I mean, that’s so irresponsible, and clearly he’s being fed talking points and not doing his own research. I have such a lack of respect for people who don’t come to their own conclusions and make up their own minds. I mean when my team brings me an issue and says, “Here’s where we think you should be on this issue,” I’m like, “Oh, great, thanks for your thoughts on what I should think.” Then I go and do my own research. And I don’t see that with John Cornyn. I see a lap dog that just kind of does as he’s told.
He’s also failing us on the economic side of it. And that’s a big part of why I’m running against him. I think we need more regular people in office that have faced the challenges of regular people, because our legislators have been charged with finding solutions to those challenges. For example, he’s on three taxpayer-funded pensions right now. And that’s why he’s not fighting so hard to protect Social Security. Not just because it doesn’t impact him, but because he projects onto us that he’s never worried about Social Security, so why should we? And we do worry about Social Security.
So we need more people [in office] who have faced these challenges, because he’s clearly fighting for corporations. One of his main focuses seems to be protecting corporations from liability if they don’t provide their workers with a safe work environment and PPE and distancing and things like that. Instead of fighting for workers to have safe conditions. And so his list of failures just is too long to pack into this interview.
You mentioned the governor, Greg Abbott. One of the most controversial aspects of the handling of the pandemic in Texas was opening up early and doing what he called a phased rollout. What are your thoughts about the role the governor played in this?
I was trying to raise the alarm as much as I could, when it was clear that some of his orders were going to be allowed to expire with no milestones, no rubrics, no data, no crisis management behind it. And when I say that, what I mean is, both in the military and when I worked in health care, we had a very systematic way of dealing with a crisis. If the ICU beds were 60 percent full, then we were in, you know, code orange, and when code orange is declared then these 12 actions kick in. And there was none of that, there was none of these, like, milestones. I would have preferred to hear “We will reopen businesses when we have this amount of testing in place, this percent of positive tests, this hospital capacity” — whatever the experts deem are the conditions for reopening. Then we should fight like hell to meet those measures.
I was just in the Rio Grande Valley talking to a nurse who was saying that one of her patients needed a Covid test [and] said, “Well, it’s going to be a couple weeks before I can put the $150 together that it’s going to cost me to get that test.” And so we have people waiting who need tests because they can’t afford them. It’s just so broken. We need testing, we need contact tracing, PPE. Listen to frontline workers.
Economically, we need to fight for the backbone of our economy, which is the middle class and working families, not just the stock market and the CEOs. We need to ensure that essential workers have the ability to do their jobs to keep things up and running. And we need to make sure that cities and counties aren’t going to go bankrupt and have to close down essential services like paramedics and fire. I feel like I’m watching a huge leadership failure, and I’m watching a lot of things break down that if they would just apply a little bit of leadership and crisis management instead of politics, that they’d be able to fix.
You talked a little bit earlier about how Texas has got its own kind of culture.
I was just down in West Texas, and virtually nobody was wearing masks. And you know, there’s a cultural thing, especially in Texas, to mask-wearing. How do you deal with that? The whole “I’m sort of too macho for the virus” kind of thing.
Yeah, we saw the same thing with seat belts, with people acting like it was some big con or a constitutional infringement to have seat-belt laws. But now it’s kind of embarrassing if you get in a car with someone and you don’t put on your seat belt.
So how do I sell these measures to voters in Texas? I think the way I do that is by talking about government overreach. It’s not government overreach to ask you to wear a mask. The Republican Party pretends like they want the lowest possible level of decision making and the local government and small government and no government interference. And yet they want the government to be able to tell you who you can marry, they want the government to be able to tell a woman when she can have children. Greg Abbott comes in and overrules lower level local government officials who are doing stay-at-home orders and mask orders. If he truly believes in low level of government decisions, then he shouldn’t be overruling these lower level officials that are trying to keep people safe.
Tell me how what you’ve seen in the pandemic has changed your views about health care.
The pandemic has solidified my views, frankly, because I thought that the employer-provided model was not in Texas’ best interest for a couple reasons. Like I said before, we had a health care crisis in Texas before the pandemic — one out of five Texans didn’t have health insurance. Not only is that egregious from a human dignity standpoint, but also an untenable business model for hospitals in Texas. When I worked in health care, I saw how difficult it was to keep the lights on and still provide care. I mean, we’re not turning people away just because they don’t have insurance, right? So people would come and seek care in the most expensive area, which is trauma care in the ER, urgent care, for things that could have been caught by their family doctor if they had insurance. The fact that so few people have health insurance really makes health care so much more expensive in a place like Texas, that we have to spread the cost of care for everybody across the people who do have insurance. There’s a reason why when you go into the emergency room, if you take a tablet of ibuprofen, that ibuprofen costs $50.
I had TRICARE when I was in the military, which is basically like military Medicare, and that is the best care that I’ve ever received. And so I want people to have access to that. I don’t see the benefit in forcing people onto Medicare. I see the benefit in providing people the option to choose Medicare if they want to, because one of the things we value in Texas is choice and freedom and I think that people should have the ability to decide what access to quality affordable care should look like for them and their families.
On your website, you said that one of the reasons you decided to run was because you have two kids — how old are they now?
Three and almost six.
Oh my God, you are so in the thick of it right now. Wow.
Every day around here is Teacher Appreciation Day.
You said that one of the reasons you ran was because of them and because of climate change. Some years ago, I was talking to Al Gore and he said that everybody he knows who cares about climate change has had an “oh shit” moment where they suddenly realize what’s at stake and why it’s so important. What was your “oh shit” moment?
I guess having kids. Until you have kids, you’re in this a little bit of a selfish kind of bubble and then once you have kids, all of a sudden, you want to go and Bubble Tape the entire world and put bumpers on every corner and a little plug in every electrical outlet and try to protect your kids as much as possible.
When I was a pilot, the rescue motto was, “These things we do that others may live.” And when I had kids that solidified that and magnified it. And recognizing the economic impact of climate change, the national security impact of climate change. My kids might decide to put on the uniform one day, and the Pentagon has said this is one of the greatest national security threats. And so there’s just so many reasons why it’s in our kids’ best interest that we do something about this. The Texas economy is 15 percent in the energy industry, and if the energy industry in Texas does not accept and embrace the fact that the next chapter of energy is renewable energy, then we are going to lose these energy industry jobs. Let’s not go the way of Blockbuster. Let’s go the way of Netflix and make sure that we have innovation and vision and leadership in our industry.
That’s all true. We’re in the twilight of the fossil fuel era. But the question is how long that twilight lasts. How do you go to the Permian Basin and talk to drillers and people who are in the industry and convince them that by talking about renewable energy and climate change you’re not just putting them out of a job and taking food off their table?
I am not going to pretend that this applies to everybody, but the vast majority of workers in the Permian Basin and in the energy industry that I’ve talked to recognize a need for a change. And in fact, I mentioned we had a health care crisis before the pandemic — we had an economic crisis in the energy industry before the pandemic. In January and February, Russia and Saudi Arabia started flooding the market with oil, and oil prices were already plummeting. Then as soon as the pandemic started, we should have been able to see that there would be this drastic reduction in demand that would only make the economic crisis worse, but we had a lack of leadership there too.
So you have people who are trying to provide for their families who feel that same sense that I was describing about my kids — they don’t love the fact that they’re putting food on the table in a way that’s hurting the environment that their children are going to inherit. So they want to be a part of the conversation. And I think that’s the key. We really need to center our energy workers in the broad coalition of stakeholders that we need to bring together, and use their energy expertise as we pave the path forward.
One of the goals in Biden’s climate plan is a net-zero electricity grid by 2035. Do you think that’s an achievable goal?
I think we need to set aggressive goals. And I think that one thing I learned in the military, especially when you’re on a rescue mission and you get shot down and you get isolated and have to defend your perimeter, you learn a plan is just something from which to deviate, right? So I don’t really think that we should be deciding if something is achievable when we’re setting the goal. We need to set the goal and then figure it out.
If Biden wins, and if you’re in the Senate, it’s pretty likely that there’s going to be climate legislation. I think it’s widely agreed among economists and others that meaningful climate legislation will mean, in some form or another, a carbon tax. Will you support that?
You know, I stand with the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club, who support a carbon tax but also understand that it needs to be done in a way that doesn’t just pass the burden on to the middle class and to economically disadvantaged areas that are going to have to pay more for gasoline and for milk and for transportation and things like that.
I think a lot of focus is paid to carbon taxes, but it’s not a silver bullet that’s gonna fix everything. It needs to be a part of a more comprehensive plan. It’s also important to think outside of the box and try to figure out new answers to this challenge. We need to set aggressive goals for the expansion of clean, renewable energy, but we also have to talk about investing in clean energy manufacturing, sustainable transportation, modernizing the grid.
The conversation about climate is also a conversation about racial justice, environmental justice. And that leads into the other big thing that happened since you declared your candidacy, which is the Black Lives Matter movement and the killing of George Floyd, who was from Houston. How has this changed your candidacy and your politics?
I’ve been talking about the need for reforms in policing [and] criminal-justice reform for years, like so many people have. And I think what’s different now is that our calls for reform will finally not fall on deaf ears. I think that this election is really our opportunity to be heard loud and clear. Every day, I am profoundly and deeply aware that I’m asking to represent folks across Texas who have been let down and sold out by a system, and by the people, by the way, who have been holding up that system, that refuses to enact the reforms that will make a difference in our communities. I support proposals that are outlined in places like Campaign Zero, that include ending for-profit policing practices and ensuring that police departments are a part of and representative of their communities. But I also think that we need to support leaders in the criminal justice system and in the police who want transparency and reform.
So you had a pretty tough primary, where you had a number of challengers, one of whom was African American. And I think it raised a lot of questions about how you as a white woman will connect with black voters at a time like this.
We were able to connect with black voters and other underserved communities, frankly, throughout the congressional campaign that I ran last cycle, and it’s just through actually giving a shit. You have to earn people’s vote. You can’t take them for granted. You have to work with leaders in the community. In the black community, faith leaders are very important. And we have so many amazing women on the ballot and a lot of amazing women of color on the ballot. And I’m running a very coordinated campaign and trying to lift them up and their voices. And so it’s really just about connecting with people and listening to them, not just talking at them.
As a woman in a predominantly male career field, I know how it feels to have people talk for you, speak for you, even well-intended people who are trying to advocate for you. So I don’t make that mistake. I don’t go and speak for people that I don’t have a shared experience with. I don’t know what it’s like growing up black in Texas, for example. It’s so important to me that I bring those voices to D.C. and that those voices have a place in my policy development, and not just, you know, not just lip service.
Actually giving a shit. That’s a radical idea.
I know, right? It’s really outside of the box. I mean, Texans can tell if you’re feeding them a line. Our BS meter is so sensitive, and if you just are paying lip service or blowing sunshine up somebody’s butt, they’re gonna call you on it.
I have to say, I’ve seen your ads when you’re on a Harley or whatever the particular motorcycle it is. I used to be a professional motorcycle racer myself, and I have a very good bullshit detector for people who use motorcycles as sort of props, and having read your book, where you’re actually talking about the different tailpipes and things on bikes, I was like, “Oh, she’s the real thing.”
I wrote that book before I ever thought that I was going to run for office. Having read it, you can attest to the fact that it is not campaign propaganda. I had to check the statute of limitations on some of the things that I had done to make sure I wouldn’t get in trouble. Like when I talked about going out to old abandoned airports and racing with other sport bikes on runways. I was like, “Am I gonna get in trouble for that?” I thought, “I can’t run for office.”
I don’t have the ability to be a snake oil salesman and pretend something. I’m a very transparent person — the person that you’re talking to right now is the same person I am with my kids and my husband, and I’m just very, well, I have integrity, you know. I thought that would be a hindrance in politics. I had written this book that was this very open, transparent reflection of all of my faults and mistakes and things that I had done wrong. And the answer that I got back was, people are really tired of that fake political persona. And so my team largely just kind of lets me be who I am. We think Texas is looking for authenticity. We don’t want to elect somebody who’s been in some little bubble of privilege their whole life.
The last Democrat to run a big Senate race in Texas was Beto. He had a lot of money, he showed up at every barbecue, every festival, he was everywhere. Now, you can’t do that, even if you had the money. You are running in the midst of COVID. You have to run a completely different kind of campaign. How are you thinking about that?
The military officer in me sees a challenge and wants to turn it to an advantage. And I think that we’ve done that. Texas is a giant state. The first year of the campaign, we were driving tens of thousands of miles. I was always on the road. And sometimes it would take a day to drive out to Lubbock and a day back, to go to Lubbock and talk to 15 or 20 people. And a lot of times the people who were showing up are already supporters. You didn’t have a lot of undecided people showing up. They weren’t going to take away time from their hard work to come and meet a candidate that they’re not sure about. We’ve taken the virtual environment and really made me and my platform a lot more accessible that way. And there’s a lot of people who don’t have broadband or don’t have devices, and so we try to do things through snail mail and telephone and things like that, to make sure that I’m accessible to the state. So I think that we’ve made it a strength. We have exponential momentum. The fundraising and the polling and the number of volunteers, everything is just growing and growing and growing. And I attribute that to the fact that my team was very agile and was able to adapt to a virtual environment.
There’s a lot of talk right now about whether Texas can go blue in the election. Obviously, how Biden does there will have an impact on your race. But what does the winning coalition look like for you? How is it different than what Beto was dealing with in 2018?
This is just such a completely different race from the midterms. First of all, because it’s a presidential cycle. But also, was Beto’s grassroots momentum about Beto? Was it a cult of personality? Or was it a grassroots movement to reject the status quo and demand that we have a system that works for us instead of just for the rich and wealthy corporate special interests? And I have found that enthusiasm is well intact, and they’re ready to be tapped again.
It’s on me to make sure that I earn that momentum and that vote and that energy and excitement, but it’s also not about me. And I think that there’s a lot of strength in recognizing that. When I was fighting to open jobs for women in combat, I was getting all sorts of accolades, being named one of Foreign Policy magazine’s leading global thinkers with people like the Pope and Angela Merkel. But I recognized that it wasn’t me that they were honoring. They were recognizing the movement of opening jobs for women in combat.
Most importantly though, John Cornyn is no Ted Cruz. John Cornyn is not Texas. Ted Cruz, love or hate him, he bucks the system and independent voters love that. There were a lot of people in my congressional district [in 2018] who voted for me and Ted Cruz, and while I would try to evangelize and get them to vote for Beto, that’s part of the reason I outperformed all of the statewide candidates in the rural half of the district. The fact that Ted Cruz had a 52 percent approval rating when he went up against Beto, and John Cornyn has anywhere from a 28 to a 32 percent now. It is a very different race.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.