Flashing an atypical resume for a Democratic candidate, Joseph Kopser hopes to parlay a military and business career into a seat in Congress — in a Central Texas district drawn to ensure smooth sailing for Republicans.
Kopser believes his biography can unlock doors to GOP voters and Republican-leaning independents disenchanted with President Donald Trump, providing an opening for a candidate campaigning on a progressive political platform.
“There are a lot of orphaned Republicans here in Texas who do not subscribe to what they see, who do treat people with dignity and respect. These party labels are really starting to wear thin on a lot of people, especially as the Republican Party has become the party of Trump,” said Kopser, 47.
“I believe that the American people should be treated as adults rather than be treated like a reality TV show audience,” he said.
Trump won by the district by 10 points, with 52.5 percent of the vote, in 2016, but Democrats see an opportunity because the more liberal or moderate areas in Austin and San Antonio have grown much faster than the district’s more conservative, rural areas.
Growing up in a Republican home in Lexington, Ky., Kopser considered himself a member of the Grand Old Party, but that affiliation began to weaken while he attended West Point and was exposed to people with a range of ideologies.
At the same time, he said, “rhetoric from Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter and all the talk shows and the evangelical Republican side” convinced him that national Republicans had stepped “far out of the mainstream of the American people and certainly the family that I had growing up.”
Kopser’s disenchantment with the Republican Party grew during his 20-year Army career, particularly when GOP leadership committed the nation to war in the Middle East in the early 2000s, but instead of asking Americans to sacrifice, implemented tax cuts that “cut off many of the resources we were going to need,” he said.
Although he tried to be apolitical during his military career, Kopser said he has long agreed with the Democratic Party’s positions on immigration, worker rights, abortion, equality for women and environmental protection. He also wants to ban the sale of firearms with high rates of sustained, high-velocity fire. “I’m not talking about taking guns away from responsible gun owners, but reducing the use of weapons of war in mass-casualty situations,” he said.
“I may be able to speak with Republicans, I may be able to treat them with dignity and respect because I grew up a Republican, but by no means does that mean I will be giving up on the progressive agenda we’ve been fighting for for decades,” he said.
Eyes on the sky
Like many kids, Kopser wanted to be an astronaut, a goal that led him to study aerospace engineering at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, which provided the college education his family couldn’t afford.
Impressed and inspired by a platoon sergeant who served as a mentor-adviser, however, Kopser chose ground combat leadership instead of Army aviation, a decision that led him to Texas and eventually to his current, and first, run for office.
It also led him to his wife, Amy, a friend of a friend he met on the first day of his first assignment after graduation — the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment at Fort Bliss in El Paso.
“I fell in love instantly, chased after her all summer, and was lucky enough to get her to come out with me on a date, and then the rest is history,” he said.
Nine moves and three daughters — now ages 23 to 18 — followed, including two deployments to Iraq, the first being a voluntary assignment in the summer of 2004 to help organize that country’s first elections after Saddam Hussein’s ouster. Kopser said he wanted to participate in the military’s top priority: the war on terror.
“As you can imagine, my wife was not very pleased with that decision but understood the calling and the passion for why I wanted to do it,” he said.
During his second stint in Iraq in 2006-7, Kopser was deputy commander of a 1,100-member battalion newly stationed in Mosul, overseeing logistics that included personnel, intelligence, tech, supply and maintenance during the 14-month tour.
Kopser left Iraq with the Bronze Star and a realization that would point him toward the next stage of his life — that the West’s addiction to oil was creating far-reaching problems, not only for the soldiers in harm’s way but for national security.
“I became a clean-energy warrior,” he said. “That’s what I called myself.”
A shift to business
After Iraq, Kopser was assigned to the Pentagon for two years, including the Army chief of staff’s office, where he helped with lines of communication to Congress, the White House and citizens on issues that included the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gay soldiers and the 2009 Fort Hood shooting that left 13 dead.
He also began pondering ways to improve the commute that kept him, and many others at the Pentagon, in their cars for far too long. He worked on algorithm to identify commuting and transit options in hopes of reducing time spent in traffic — improving quality of life as well as the environment.
Kopser carried that idea back to Austin, where he ran the University of Texas Army ROTC program while researching how to start a business. The result was RideScout, which created a map-based, trip-planning app by the same name.
Days after retiring as lieutenant colonel in 2013, Kopser went to work at RideScout with Craig Cummings, a co-founder and friend since West Point.
“He’s exactly the same person he’s always been — high energy, positive, solution-oriented,” Cummings said. “He’ll spreadsheet out his moves and, over time, develop a guide. He can’t help himself, but when he sees a problem he tries to come up with an efficient solution.”
RideScout was quickly scooped up by Daimler, the owner of Car2Go and Mercedes Benz, and Kopser stayed on for about two years before Trump’s victory in 2016 pointed him toward his next challenge: politics.
First, Kopser did his research.
“I didn’t know if it would be running for PTA president or City Council or school board. I mean, I spent a lot of time after November of 2016 trying figure out where I can best fit to try to solve problems,” Kopser said.
Then he saw a January 2017 House floor speech in which U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, a Republican who has represented the 21st Congressional District since 1987, urged Americans to get their news directly from Trump, calling it the “only way to get the unvarnished truth.”
“I said, ‘That’s it, this guy’s been there too long,’” Kopser said.
Smith thwarted that matchup when he decided to retire from Congress. Now, to face the winner of the GOP primary runoff between Matt McCall and Chip Roy, Kopser will have to win a runoff of his own against Mary Wilson, who received 30.9 percent of the vote to Kopser’s 29 percent in a four-way Democratic primary in March.
According to the most recent campaign finance reports, Kopser had raised $1.08 million by March 31 — 15 times Wilson’s total and double what Roy, the top-raising GOP candidate, had pulled in.
Early voting in the May 22 election begins Monday and runs through May 18.
ABOUT THE CANDIDATE
Joseph Kopser, 47, has a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and a master’s degree in public administration in government from Harvard University. He is married to Amy Kopser; they have three daughters, ages 23 to 18.
Priorities: Pass a Clean Jobs Act focused on clean energy jobs and job training; adopt universal health care coverage; address gun violence with universal background checks and a ban on military-style weapons; tackle prescription drug costs.