In her sermon on the stump, Mary Wilson calls for `radical empathy’


Wilson, mathematician and minister, is seeking the Democratic nomination for the 21st Congressional District.

Mary Wilson is trying to overcome a money disadvantage to defeat Joseph Kopser.

The predictable question for the two candidates in the runoff for the Democratic nomination in the 21st Congressional District came toward the end of the late April forum at the 290 Vinery in Johnson City: Would you vote to impeach President Donald Trump?

“The first thing I would do is just hand him a shovel and let him keep digging, just keep digging,” said Joseph Kopser, assuring his audience, “when impeachment comes up, I will be right there and vote for it, no problem.”

Mary Wilson was less combative.

“My answer is that I believe in due process,” Wilson said. “The House should be presented with the evidence — and I agree that Donald Trump is doing a great job of providing evidence to be presented — and then, with due process, we will follow our laws and follow our Constitution and we make our decision.”

It was a telling moment. Wilson, who Blanco County Democratic Chairman Terry Casparis, moderating the forum, had presented as a stalwart defender of progressive values, had taken a measured stand on impeachment. Kopser, a tech entrepreneur and 20-year Army veteran, who Casparis said was more prone to compromise, was all in for impeachment — a risky stand in a general election in a district that leans Republican.

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Months before, Joe Trippi, a national Democratic political consultant advising Kopser, said that the Democratic candidate best suited to win in the 21st Congressional District was the one who could appeal to those voters, across party lines, seeking calm amid the political chaos in Washington. What he did not anticipate was that it would be Wilson, simply being herself, who would hew most closely to that advice, finishing with the most votes, the only woman in a field of four, in the March 6 primary, while being outspent by Kopser 15 to 1.

Now Wilson, a mathematician and minister, is trying to overcome a similar money disadvantage to take the May 22 runoff with a campaign that sounds like simply taking her Sunday sermons from Church of the Savior on the road.

“At one of my very first forums, in my closing statement I said that I thought that it was important for us to love each other,” Wilson, 59, said in Johnson City. “Now I know that sounds like a minister speaking, but let me ask you this, how many of you have families, and how many of you have people in your family that are difficult to love? Same hands. How many of you are the ones that are the difficult ones?”

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“What it means to care about one another is actually hard work sometimes because we’re not always likable, we’re not always in agreement, and when it comes to working together in Congress we actually have to work together with people that we may not get along with, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans,” Wilson said. “It’s about working with people and building relationships across all kinds of aisles.”

“Somebody sent me a text the other day and said, `I think your approach of radical empathy is what our country needs,’” Wilson told the American-Statesman. “I didn’t coin that term, radical empathy, but that probably is a good way to describe what I am asking us to do.”

“She’s relational,” said Betty McDaniel, Wilson’s spouse of 25 years. “She can talk across people and get them moving.”

‘Painful process’

Mary Wilson grew up outside St. Louis as Mary Street, the middle child of five. Her parents lived paycheck to paycheck, themselves the children of generations of Missouri farmers who barely eked out an existence.

She went to Oklahoma Baptist University to study math. She wanted to go to Wake Forest University or Baylor University, but her parents wanted her within a day’s drive of home. It was there that she met and married Sam Wilson.

In Austin, studying for her doctorate in math at the University of Texas, Wilson recalled, “I had very young daughters, 2 and 3, and I had a professor tell me I need to have someone else take care of them and spend all my time in (the math building). I just said, `No, this is not me. They’re only going to be this age once, and I’m not going to miss it.”

She found a job teaching math at Austin Community College instead.

“It seemed like a better fit,” she said.

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At the time, Wilson had not yet come to terms with her sexuality.

“It was something that was there under the surface,” Wilson said. “I did not live in a time or a place or an environment where really exploring that was an option. Whatever questions I had, I had no place to go to answer them, to even ask them.”

“I came out when I was in my early 30s. I had these two kids. I had this marriage. It was all just a really difficult, painful process,” Wilson said.

Wilson and her husband divorced in 1993. She began a relationship with McDaniel, an electrical engineer to whom she had taught calculus.

A few years later, she started studying for the ministry at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

John Stanley was her pastor at Highland Park Baptist Church, a close family friend, but by the time she was ready to be ordained a minister, he had left the pulpit to become a stockbroker (he and his wife are now vegetable farmers in Wimberley).

“That was a very controversial thing at the time for a Baptist church to ordain a divorced, out lesbian,” Stanley said. “That was a big controversy in the church.”

Meanwhile, Church of the Savior in Cedar Park, which was created by Highland Park Baptist, was looking for an interim pastor, and asked Stanley. He suggested that he and Wilson become co-interim pastors. In March 2002, she and Stanley started co-pastoring.

Stanley said, “When Highland Park choked about ordaining a lesbian, the Church of the Savior, where Mary and I were already job sharing, said, `We’ll do it.’”

In April 2003, Wilson, who had been pastoring at Church of the Savior on her own since the previous November, became the first openly lesbian Baptist minister to be ordained in Texas.

‘Women are in the ascendancy’

As for many, Trump’s election was a shock for Wilson.

“It’s so hard to wrap my mind around Trump being in the presidency,” McDaniel said. “I didn’t think he’d get a single vote, seriously, and he is our president.”

“After a couple of months or so of just being sad and disappointed that Trump was elected president, I was wondering what else could I do,” Wilson said. She had marched, protested, testified and lobbied on issues, but she had never run for office or even worked on a political campaign.

“The answer came to me,” Wilson said. “You can run for office.”

Stanley wasn’t surprised.

“No, Mary’s dead solid. She knows what she’s doing,” Stanley said. “She knows what she’s about. This is not some whim.”

RELATED: Matt McCall hopes third run for Congress is the charm

Stanley was surprised, as was Wilson, when she placed first in the primary.

“Yes, I was thunderstruck and overjoyed,” said Stanley, who credits the charged environment around the #MeToo movement, the women’s march and Trump.

“Women are in the ascendancy,” he said.

“We have to change our system and the only way we are going to do that is to add some female voices. Now Joseph, I’m sorry that you can’t be a w…, well maybe you could,” Wilson said at the April event at the Hill Country winery to laughter.

“But it’s time, people all over the country have been moving in this direction,” Wilson said. “This is my time. Right now. This season.”

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