On January 25, 2017, Lamar Smith, House Representative for Texas’ 21th congressional district and Chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, gave a floor speech extolling the virtues of Donald Trump. In his speech, he argued that it was “[b]etter to get your news directly from the president. In fact, it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth.” Seeing the speech covered by every major outlet, Mary Wilson, one of Smith’s constituents in Austin, Texas, began to consider a run for office.
“I just thought, no, I can’t live with that and not respond, because truth is too important to me,” Wilson said, interrupting her busy campaign schedule to talk with Millennial Politics about her policies and why she decided to run. For her, an adherence to truth is integral to the nation’s well-being.
Mary Wilson’s devotion to truth comes as no surprise considering her background. Wilson currently serves as the pastor of the Church of the Savior in Cedar Park, TX, where she was ordained in 2003. Before that, she taught mathematics to junior high and high school students, and then at Austin Community College, where she served as Assistant Dean for Mathematics and Sciences and Assistant Department Head of Mathematics in addition to her teaching duties. Both math and religion are ways to examine the truth of reality, and while some may find her career change surprising, Wilson sees them as deeply related. She notes that many of her idols, the great mathematicians and scientists of history, such as Sir Isaac Newton, Blaise Pascal, René Decartes, Gottfried Leibniz, and Alfred Whitehead to name a few, avidly studied both the sciences and faith in an attempt to understand the world.
The fact that politics has become infiltrated by a desire to shade, distort, or outright avoid the truth gave Mary reason to run for the House. After consulting with her family, friends, and congregation, Wilson decided to throw her hat in the ring. Her wife, an engineer, and her two children, a middle school science teacher and an immigration lawyer, often chime in with fundraising and campaigning ideas. She built her platform on a few central policies: empowering public schools and increasing access to education, reforming immigration to protect families and promote legal immigration, and lowering the maternal mortality rate. All of these policies are tied by a push to increase opportunities for youth.
Wilson is one of five children of working class parents. She recognizes what it means to live paycheck to paycheck. Her parents came from a rural background, having worked on southern Missouri farms during the Depression. Her mother became a school secretary, and her father was drafted into the Navy at eighteen before becoming a union worker molding parts for spacecraft and aircraft. “I know there are people who work really hard every day of their lives and never make a dime of money. The reward is not monetary reward,” she says, crediting her parents with giving her and her siblings the opportunities to pursue higher education and live more comfortable lives than them.
Having had those opportunities, receiving a BS in Mathematics from Oklahoma Baptist University, an MA in Mathematics from SUNY, New Paltz, a Masters in Theological Studies from Austin Presbyterian Seminary, and a masters of Divinity from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, she worries about what the future holds for her children and grandchildren. “There’s a part of me that’s actually very concerned about my grandchildren now, that their options are actually becoming fewer rather than more with the way that things have been going.”
Wilson sees public schools as the bedrock of a community. She is a strong opponent of school choice, which in Texas has most recently meant a push for the creation of tax credits and education savings accounts that could be applied to private and charter school tuitions. Critics argue that this takes money away from public schools, and Wilson adds that these choice programs take the state’s elite schools and further racially segregate them, disadvantaging kids and failing to work for the public good. Wilson says that public schools are “being intentionally deconstructed and assaulted on both a state level here in Texas and on a national level,” referring to actions taken by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos under the Trump Administration, and by the Texas legislature. Access to quality education, she believes, is the best way to address systemic poverty.
Wilson’s views on immigration, like her views on education, are about providing the best chance possible for children. With her youngest daughter being an immigration lawyer, having colleagues who take in foster children, some of whom are immigrants, and intimately knowing people who work at detention facilities, Wilson has a much more in-depth picture of immigration than most. It can take upwards of twenty years to immigrate legally to the United States despite the country’s skill in vetting candidates, and she pushes for shortening this process to four to five years to curb undocumented immigration and prevent families from being separated for decades at a time. She’s also heard horror stories of infants being taken from their parents at detention facilities and argues against this action as a deterrent. “We have a policy in our government of separating parents from children as a quote-unquote discouragement, but it’s just cruel. And the only people it really hurts are those children, and I am not up for hurting children.”
The healthcare policy of the Wilson campaign is centered around maternal mortality and women’s health. At 35.8 deaths per 100,000 live births, Texas has the highest maternal mortality rate not only in the United States, but in the entire developed world, with a rate almost twelve times higher than Poland’s. Wilson argues that this is largely related to the effect politics has had on medicine and choice, specifically blaming Republicans for wanting “to get into people’s business on a personal level in a big way,” despite being the party of small government. Whether it’s necessitating funereal rights for fetal remains of miscarriages or defunding women’s health clinics like Planned Parenthood, she finds the actions of elected Republican representatives a direct assault on women’s health and stresses the need for greater choice and opportunities to women. “When women have opportunities–economic opportunities, job opportunities, family and community support–when women know they have options, then they are less likely to actually choose an abortion.”
On top of her main policy platform, Wilson is a vocal proponent of the Separation of Church and State. Though she grew up in what she describes as a fundamentalist background, she claims greater exposure to other ideas as a deciding factor in her changing views.
“For me, Separation of Church and State means, in our public realm, people of faith or people who choose to practice no faith tradition are all treated equally,” she says. “To me, that’s incredibly important. That’s what, to me, makes America really unique among the other countries of the world. When we do that, I think we’re at our best.”
Wilson has taken her platform on the road in an attempt to talk to her community directly. She attends meetings, forums, and knocks on doors. If she’s not on the road, she’s on the phone, trying to engage as many of her district members as possible.
At one of the candidate forums she attended, Wilson was asked which of the committees she would prefer to serve on in the House if elected. She ranked her top three choices, the first being the Ethics Committee, feeling she could really focus on holding her fellow congresspeople accountable. After that was the Education Committee, where she could most effectively be a stalwart for public education. Third was the Agricultural Committee, because “that’s the committee that feeds people.” Each of these committees touches on what seem to be the central tenets guiding her campaign: truth, children, and devotion to people.
But with four candidates left in the Democratic field for the 21st district, she still must clear the hurdle of winning the primary and then the general before having the opportunity to serve on any of those committees. However, Wilson feels that she has some key traits that make her stand out from the rest of the pack. She is the only one without a political background going into the race, giving her that outsider edge. She’s the only woman still in the race at a time when “women are tired of not being heard.” Her ministerial and professorial backgrounds have made her a very active listener, focused on finding common ground with people even when she can’t always change their minds. And she is a unifying figure, able to speak to all parts of her district, saying “I can talk country. I can talk Jesus. And I can talk math and science.”
The primary election, which occurs on March 6, 2018, with early voting starting on February 20, rapidly approaches. Wilson plans to continue her campaign strategy of meeting as many members of her district as possible. “What people really want,” she says, “is to hear from the candidates.” Once the primary is over, she will still face an unknown opponent from a crowded Republican field in the general election as Rep. Smith has announced that he will not seek reelection.
Ultimately, Wilson sees her history of being involved in her community as a teacher, minister, and activist, as a tremendous asset. From traveling to the Texas capitol building to protesting for LGBTQ rights all the way to standing with protestors at Standing Rock, Wilson follows a need to help her fellow humans. Her connections to her community run deep, and her desire to make a difference drive her campaign. “I’m one of the people. I don’t have D.C. connections. I don’t even have huge political connections. I’m just a person trying to make the world a better place.”