GRIFFITH, Ind. — Three thousand feet above Indiana’s 1st Congressional District, Jennifer-Ruth Green guided the yoke of a 1979 Piper Warrior through a cloud-etched sky, a steely blue Lake Michigan sunning on the horizon.
“I feel more peaceful, you know? I feel more calm,” she said, as she banked the plane east, making a big circle over the airport. She wore a black and green Jennifer-Ruth Green for Congress polo, a jean skirt, and black and white Chuck Taylor All-Star low tops. She was unwinding from a long day on the campaign trail, with no destination in particular — a rare moment for a hard-charging candidate.
Flying is key to Green’s still-evolving political brand. In one ad, she stands in front of a plane, wearing a green civilian flight suit with Civil Air Patrol and Tuskegee Airmen badges sewn on. “I’m not just a pilot,” she says, “or a combat veteran. I’m Jennifer-Ruth Green.” In another ad, she poses in front of a fighter jet with the at-risk kids she mentors in her faith-based, non-profit organization, MissionAero, aimed at introducing youth to careers in the aerospace industry.
The sun dipped in the sky. Green looked out of the pilot-side window and pointed to the steel mills that dotted the landscape of this corner of Northwest Indiana, farmland, and the Chicago skyline beyond on the western border of her district’s boundaries. The district includes U.S. Steel’s Gary Works, the largest steel mill in the nation, situated in Gary, a hollowed-out Rust Belt city. Economic refugees who have fled Illinois seeking Indiana’s friendlier tax climate have made this district more competitive in recent cycles, she said.
“It’s such an incredibly diverse district,” said Green, who identifies as Black and Asian. “The majority of the district is blue-collar workers who take care of their bills and take care of their families — the middle 80 percent of the country. You don’t have granola bars or tree huggers. Everybody sits in this happy middle.”
The political mood on the ground might not be quite as cheerful. There’s an unexpected amount of drama for a district that hasn’t voted for a Republican in 92 years. Green, 40, is locked in one of the nation’s most competitive congressional races against freshman Democratic incumbent Rep. Frank Mrvan. POLITICO rates the race as leaning Democratic. But Green has made it competitive by posting record fundraising numbers — she raised $1.3 million in the third quarter, which positions her to likely outraise Mrvan for the second straight quarter. It’s not just her unique story that has made her a formidable challenger, but the ways and places in which she tells it: She’s become something of a regular on Fox News, a Black messenger who is a useful soldier in the culture wars for Republicans.
“I wholeheartedly disagree that every system is inherently racist,” she said of critical race theory on Fox & Friends in July, “because if it were, I would not have had the opportunity of becoming a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force and the Indiana National Guard … And so I’m exhibit A, and a rejection of the notion that CRT is a thought process that is worth continuing to provide to our K-12 children.”
Green stands out even in a year when a historic group of 133 Black women are vying for spots in the U.S. House of Representatives. Of the 26 Black women in Congress, all are Democrats. Of the Republicans running in the 47 most vulnerable Democratic districts, 38 percent are military veterans, according to the Cook Political Report. Thirty-four percent are women. Twenty-three percent are non-white. Seventy percent are at least one of those things. Green is all three, just one of two candidates on the ballot this November to hold such a distinction. (Anna Paulina Luna, a fellow Air Force vet, who is Hispanic, is running in Florida’s 13th District.)
Green recognizes the rarity of being a Black woman and conservative — something she recalls having an awareness of early in life. “There was a point I remember thinking that it was us, the Powells and the Rices who were the only Black Republicans in the country,” she said, referring to the two former secretaries of state Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. When she announced her congressional bid last year, many friends and students who take flight lessons from her expressed “consternation” about her party affiliation.
She does not sound like a Powell or Rice, though. She has decried what she calls “woke madness” and equated abortion to eugenics against Black people, tweeting that “more Black babies are aborted than born in New York City.” In the wake of Dobbs, her position on abortion is going to make it harder for her to close the gap on Mrvan. Hoosier and national Democrats have hammered her anti-abortion rights stance, and her campaign privately fears the court’s decision could keep the district out of reach for Republicans.
Now, starting her descent back to the Griffith airfield, Green refocused on the flight plan. “Take off and landing are the most accident-prone times,” she said.
A month out until the election, Green is readying for her political landing. The Republican-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund has booked $2.85 million in ads through Election Day. The Democratic House Majority PAC, meanwhile, has spent or booked a total of $2.56 million to attack Green. Green’s been in a war zone before.
“Like butter,” she said, as eased the plane down in the summer heat.
Jennifer-Ruth Green Reports for Duty
A self-described “military brat” in a family of six, Green grew up in Long Beach, California and Sacramento where her father, an Air Force senior master sergeant, was stationed.
Her father studied Russian, and her mother, a native of the Philippines who spoke Tagalog, wanted their children to learn another language but couldn’t find a Russian school in the area, Green said. “So four of us went to Japanese school” — every Saturday, from second to 10th grade. Later, she would pick up Spanish, French and Tagalog.
When she was in kindergarten, her mother went back into the medical field, and so her father watched her after school. “We’d come home and we’d have two hours and it would be either 30 minutes of rest, 30 minutes of piano practice, 30 minutes of chores, 30 minutes of just reading,” Green said. “And then after that, we could all have dinner” — but while giving a 5-minute brief of whatever they had just read. Whoever won pocketed a dollar bill.
Green attended the United States Air Force Academy, graduating in 2005 as one of just 15 Black female cadets in a class of 919. Her intention was to become a pilot but she didn’t pass her flight training, according to military records, and transferred into special investigations, which “identifies, investigates and neutralizes criminal, terrorist and espionage threats.” By 2009, she was a captain stationed in Iraq, part of a unit responsible for turning over the provisional government to the Iraqis. “It was a treacherous time,” she said.
Her job, in part, was to conduct site visits at the national training center, Iraq’s FBI equivalent, evaluating their facilities and law enforcement curriculum. Her military evaluations praised her for evaluating 24 Iraqi intel course syllabi, something that expedited “curriculum development by months” and “professionalized agent training.” She “personally advised [the] Iraqi equivalent of [the] FBI Academy Director,” according to military records obtained by POLITICO.
Green’s mostly stellar military record took an unexpected hit in early 2010, according to military records. In an evaluation of her performance spanning from March 15, 2009 to Dec. 15, 2009, she received a “does not meet standards” rating in leadership skills, professional qualities, and judgment and decisions. The evaluation centered on “two instances of lacking judgment while deployed; handling your weapon and wandering away while at a [forward operating base].”
In the first case, she was given a letter of counseling for loading her weapon inside a military facility. The second more serious incident occurred in September, according to her military records, when she and a small group of officers visited the national training center. She left the group to climb into a cramped guard tower where Green says an Iraqi serviceman sexually assaulted her by grabbing her breast and exposing himself.
She said she was advised not to report the assault by a staff sergeant, who was also a military equal opportunity representative. He told her that “if American leadership complained to Iraqi leadership, they would continue to see women as liabilities and limit their ability to serve….”
The poor evaluation, which was performed by someone who was not in Iraq with Green, affected her ability to rise in the ranks and in 2012 she was removed from active duty as part of a larger force reduction, according to her records. Green has appealed the evaluation, citing supporting letters from her superiors stationed in Iraq. Her direct supervisor, a senior agent in the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, wrote in her appeal that she “did an outstanding job in her duties; I did not question her leadership, judgment or professional skills.”
In 2017, she joined the Indiana Air National Guard. She now serves as a lieutenant colonel and commander and chief information officer. She has received consistently high evaluations.
“I’m a survivor of sexual trauma in the military, and I am being forced to discuss it publicly for the first time because Congressman Mrvan or his supporters obtained — either illegally or by egregious error — military records describing my sexual assault as well as performance reviews, and peddled those records to the media with the intent smear me and my military career,” she wrote in a statement to POLITICO. “The performance review being pushed to discredit my leadership is false.” (Green has not contested the authenticity of the documents, which were obtained by a public records request and provided to POLITICO by a person outside the Mrvan campaign.)
“After reporting my assault against the advice of officials in my command, my career was intentionally derailed. I appealed the findings with the military and the issue is settled. I have unquestionably progressed as a military member, promoting to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, and successfully completed a command tour,” Green wrote in her statement to POLITICO. “As I have always, I will move forward and succeed despite obstacles such as this thrown in my path.”
A Department of the Air Force spokesman said: “We remain committed to building a culture of respect, where sexual assault and harassment are not tolerated in any form and we will do this by supporting victims and prosecuting offenders through the Uniform Code of Military Justice.”
Jennifer-Ruth Green Watches the State of the Union
Green settled in to watch the State of the Union in February 2020 on her couch. She watched House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tear up the pages of the president’s address.
“It was a visceral gut reaction. I just felt sick to my stomach,” Green said. Not long after, the political novice decided to run for Congress.
“The third most powerful person in the country, knew that for her to have applause, and to have people write a headline about her was more important than making sure that our adversaries didn’t see instability, just led me to believe that there’s a great failure there,” she said.
I asked her if what happened a year later on Jan. 6 was perhaps more egregious in terms of demonstrating instability to our enemies.
“I would say they would feel that it would be a source of instability as well,” Green said, though with notably less enthusiasm.
Green entered early into what would become a crowded primary field.
In May, Green won her seven-way primary by figuratively hugging Donald Trump, and criticizing her most prominent opponent, Blair Milo, for not attending the 2016 Republican Convention. Milo, the former mayor of LaPorte and a Navy veteran, was the only person in the field who had previously won elected office. In one ad she called Milo a “Never-Trump Liberal,” criticizing her for having reservations about attending the GOP convention in 2016. Now, Green is distancing herself from Trump. “President Trump was just very, very vocal in his style of leadership,” Green says now. “And his personality was not something that I want to emulate.”
Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor, former ambassador to the United Nations and potential presidential 2024 candidate, arrived in town recently to fundraise for Green, netting her another $20,000 or so as she continues to outraise her Democratic challenger. A few weeks earlier, Green pumped discounted gas alongside former Vice President Mike Pence. The last Republican who ran in this district spent only $14,000 and lost by 16 points. Green racked up more than that in one event, a signal that she is a different kind of GOP candidate.
Jennifer-Ruth Green in Brazil
“I’m going to pray for dinner,” Green said, a bacon, cheese and potato omelette and Coke before her at Mi Tierra, a Mexican restaurant at the airport in Griffith. “Dear Lord, thank you very much for this food. Thank you very much for the safety. God, I ask that this food would be blessed to our bodies and help us get back safely to our homes tonight.”
Green’s favorite character is Barnabas, a “minister of missionaries,” she says, who helped the Apostle Paul spread the Gospel. She was inspired to get her pilot’s instructor certification in 2015 while on a mission trip in Brazil, where there was a need for pilots to fly into the Amazon.
Green sees herself as a political missionary, a cultural translator who can bridge the divide between Republicans and minority communities on issues like the social safety net.
“I think when we talk about welfare programs, we just can’t have people who get a job and then all of a sudden you’re cut off entirely,” Green said. “That’s just not an incentive and it’s more debilitating than it is helpful.” On this issue, Green presents herself as a moderate Republican — making her a better fit for a Democratic district.
Mia Love, the former Black Utah Republican congresswoman, said Green’s hopes to lead such an effort could meet resistance if elected. “What she thinks and what the reality she is going to find are vastly different, because there are people that are in Washington who have seniority and committees that will lead on those issues, when in reality, she might be the right messenger,” Love said.
I asked Green what she makes of Christian nationalism, the newly ascendant ideology in the Republican Party. “I think sometimes when we talk about the Christian nationalism movement, we forget that concept of love,” Green said. “It doesn’t allow us to have the opportunity to respect other people or other people’s decisions. And so I do respect the fact that we were founded as a Christian nation, but Christianity is all about loving people. And so I want to bring that back.”
Jennifer-Ruth Green Plays Defense
Down the homestretch of the race, Democrats are trying to paint Green as an extremist on abortion, running an ad highlighting her no-exceptions stance — “Not even if a woman’s life is at risk. Not even if she is raped. Not even if the victim is a 10-year-old little girl,” the narrator says. The ad refers to the horrific and headline-grabbing case of an Ohio native forced to cross the state line to receive an abortion in Indiana after the Dobbs ruling. It’s a case that imbued the Indiana’s legislative session — the first one convened in a special session following the court’s overturning of Roe — with a tense emotional energy.
On this day, Indiana’s new abortion law, among the most restrictive in the nation — with narrow exceptions for rape and incest through 10 weeks — took effect. “I support the legislation,” Green said. “I’m pro-life and I believe that people can disagree on this issue. At the national level, the federal level, I would wholeheartedly support a 15-week ban, late-term abortion ban with exceptions of life of the mother, rape and incest.” In other words, she endorses Lindsey Graham’s abortion ban proposal, which comes as she’s getting hammered in this traditionally Democratic district over her anti-abortion stance.
And what did she make of the 10-year-old’s case? “That’s a really difficult situation. I feel very bad for victims of sexual assault,” Green said. “My heart grieves for that. And I think, you know, Indiana has exceptions for those kinds of cases.”
Green isn’t conceding political defeat and insists all the pressure is on her opponent Mrvan.
“The military has taught me that I value good ideas,” Green said. “So I don’t care where they come from. And at the end of the day, if they just say, ‘Jennifer is a thoughtful leader of character,’ then I’ll be happy with that.”
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