WILSON, Heather

Image courtesy of the Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives
WILSON, Heather
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
1960–

Biography

In 1998 Heather Wilson became the first woman veteran of the U.S. armed services and the second woman from New Mexico elected to the U.S. Congress. In the House, Wilson served on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, as well as the Intelligence Committee where she helped shape national security policy in the years following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. In the House, Wilson spearheaded new consumer protections, as more and more Americans conducted business online, and passed additional regulations for wireless communications as cell phones grew in popularity. Back home, Wilson also passed a number of bills preserving New Mexico’s cultural heritage.

Heather A. Wilson was born on December 30, 1960, in Keene, New Hampshire, to George and Martha Lou Wilson, the second of three children. Her father, a commercial pilot, was killed in a car accident when she was six.1 Growing up, Wilson wanted to become a pilot like her father and grandfather, and when she was in high school the United States Air Force Academy began admitting women. She applied and was accepted to the academy and graduated an Air Force officer in 1982. She earned a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University where, by 1985, she earned a master’s and a doctorate in international relations. Wilson served in the Air Force until 1989 when she joined the National Security Council staff as director for European Defense Policy and Arms Control.2 In 1991, she married lawyer Jay Hone, and the couple settled in New Mexico. They raised three children: Scott, Joshua, and Caitlin.3 Wilson started a consulting firm and, from 1995 to 1998, served in the governor’s cabinet as secretary of the New Mexico children, youth and families department.4

When New Mexico’s Albuquerque Congressman Steven Harvey Schiff declared he would not run for re-election in the fall of 1998 to focus on his battle with skin cancer, Wilson resigned her state cabinet post and entered the Republican primary to fill the seat. She won the support of Schiff and Senator Pete Vichi Domenici, who lent her several trusted aides and called her “the most brilliantly qualified House candidate anywhere in the country.”5 But when Schiff died in March, the state scheduled a special election for June 23. With Domenici’s support, Wilson won the Republican primary for the special election over conservative state senator William F. Davis, which also propelled her to a sizable win in the June 2 primary for the fall election to the full term. Wilson won the June 23 special election with 45 percent of the vote in a three-way race against millionaire Democratic state senator Phillip J. Maloof and Green Party candidate Robert L. Anderson. Wilson took the Oath of Office on June 25, 1998, making her the first woman since Georgia Lusk in 1947, and the first Republican woman ever, to represent New Mexico.6

The special election was but a preview for the fall election for the full two-year term. In both elections, Wilson ran on the slogan “fighting for our families.” She called for better public schools, and the elimination of both the marriage penalty in the tax code and estate taxes. Both contests against Maloof were contentious and costly—the 1998 general election was the most expensive in New Mexico’s history at the time. Maloof, who spent over $8 million on the elections, tried to portray Wilson as an outsider. But Wilson, who spent over a million dollars herself, captured the general election in November 1998 with 48 percent of the vote. She won re-election in 2000 by seven points, and in 2002 and 2004 she defeated Democrat Richard Romero with roughly 55 percent of the vote. In 2006, when Republicans lost the majority in the House, Wilson faced her closest challenge, defeating Democrat Patricia Madrid by only 861 votes out of more than 211,000 cast.7

When Wilson entered the House in 1998, she received a seat on the powerful Commerce Committee (later renamed Energy and Commerce), including its subcommittees on Telecommunications, Trade, and Consumer Protection; and Finance and Hazardous Materials. She remained on the committee for the duration of her House career. Wilson also won an additional seat on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. But she left that assignment in the 107th Congress (2001–2003) for a seat on the influential Armed Services Committee, which allowed her to oversee personnel and infrastructure issues at two military installations in her district: Kirtland Air Force Base and the Sandia National Lab. In the 109th Congress (2005–2007), Wilson left Armed Services to return to the Intelligence Committee, where she chaired the Subcommittee on Technical and Tactical Intelligence.8

In Congress, Wilson called to simplify the tax code and, as a veteran of the armed services, led the GOP’s opposition to the American bombing campaign in Kosovo. But on many social issues, Wilson broke with her party. She supported the requirement that federal workers’ health plans cover contraception (although she opposed using public money to pay for abortions) and she voted down an amendment that would have banned adoptions by gay parents in the District of Columbia. She also opposed a plan by the Republican leadership to move control of America’s nuclear weapons program, which was largely based in New Mexico, from the Department of Energy to the Pentagon.9

From her seat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, Wilson worked on a wide range of policies. In 1999, as more and more people used cellphones and other new telecommunication services, Wilson’s Wireless Privacy Enhancement Act of 1999 sought to add more protections to cellular and digital technologies. Her bill passed the House in March 1999.10 Somewhat similarly a year later, Wilson submitted legislation to cut down on spam emails as more and more people began to shop using the Internet; her Unsolicited Commercial Electronic Mail Act of 2000 cleared the committee and passed the House in July.11

Wilson also worked on a number of cultural preservation issues important to New Mexico in the House. In August 1999, Wilson’s bill authorizing the Secretary of the Interior to create programs and partnerships with state and local governments and organizations to protect landmark businesses and sites along historic Route 66 became law.12 Similarly, in 2002 the Senate version of Wilson’s Old Spanish National Historic Trail Act became law. The legislation added the Old Spanish Trail—which ran from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Los Angeles, California—to the National Trails System and authorized new federal protections.13 Wilson also helped create a partnership between the Interior Department and the University of New Mexico to protect and curate artifacts from the Chaco Culture Historic Park and Aztec Ruins National Monument.14 And in 2006, Wilson’s Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act became law. The legislation created grants in the Department of Health and Human Services to fund “language nests” and other “restoration programs” to teach children in Native American languages.15

In 2006 Wilson led efforts to ensure that Congress maintained oversight of the President’s terror surveillance program. As head of the Intelligence Committee’s Technical and Tactical Intelligence Subcommittee, Wilson learned that the National Security Agency (NSA) had instituted a warrantless electronic surveillance program in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Wilson expressed “serious concerns” over the range of the program which had no congressional oversight—an issue echoed by several senior congressional Republicans. By the end of 2006 the House had passed a conditional authorization for the NSA’s surveillance program.16

Wilson’s willingness to break with the party on certain issues led to resentment from GOP leaders. During the 108th Congress (2003–2005), for instance, Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Linus Barton of Texas required committee members to apply for a waiver if they wanted to serve on any other important committees. When Wilson supported a Democratic motion requiring the George W. Bush administration to release internal cost estimates of its Medicare prescription-drug law, Barton not only attempted to remove her from Energy and Commerce, he also refused to provide the waiver to allow Wilson to continue serving on Armed Services.17

Wilson chose not to seek re-election to a sixth full term in the House, and instead announced her intention to run in 2008 for the open Senate seat held by Pete Domenici who had decided to retire. Wilson narrowly lost the Republican primary and retired from Congress at conclusion of the 110th Congress (2007–2009) on January 3, 2009. Three years later Wilson again ran for a seat in the Senate from New Mexico, winning the primary but losing the general election.18

From 2013 to 2017, Wilson served as president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, in Rapid City. On March 21, 2017, President Donald J. Trump nominated Wilson to serve as Secretary of the United States Air Force. Confirmed by the Senate on May 8, 2017, Wilson served as Secretary until her resignation on May 31, 2019. She became the president of the University of Texas at El Paso in August 2019.19

Footnotes

1Heath Haussamen, “Difficult Childhood Drove Wilson to Seek a Better Life,” 17 May 2012, NMPolitics.net, https://nmpolitics.net/index/2012/05/difficultchildhood-drove-wilson-to-seek-a-better-life/.

2“Heather Wilson,” United States Air Force, accessed 5 March 2020, https://www.af.mil/DesktopModules/ArticleCS/Print.aspx?PortalId=1&ModuleId=858&Article=1183103.

3Leslie Linthicum, “Friends Say Wilson’s Husband Content on Sidelines,” 19 July 1998, Albuquerque Journal: A1.

4"Heather Wilson."

5John Mercurio, “GOP, Wilson Win in N.M.; Democrats Learn It’s Not Easy Beating Green,” 25 June 1998, Roll Call: n.p.

6Rachel Smolkin, “Rep. Wilson Takes Office with a Little Help From 4-Year-Old Son,” 26 June 1998, Albuquerque Tribune: A6.

7Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present;” Josh Kraushaar, “Wilson Angles to Replace Domenici,” 4 October 2007, Politico: n.p.

8Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Women Chairs of Subcommittees of Standing Committees in the U.S. House, 1947–Present.”

9Politics in America, 2002 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2001): 660–661; Almanac of American Politics, 2002 (Washington, DC: National Journal Group, 2001): 1023–1025.

10Wireless Privacy Enhancement Act of 1999, H.R. 514, 106th Cong. (1999); House Committee on Commerce, Wireless Privacy Enhancement Act of 1999, 106th Cong., 1st sess., H. Rept. 24 (1999): 1–3.

11Unsolicited Commercial Electronic Mail Act of 2000, H.R. 3113, 106th Cong. (1999); House Committee on Commerce, Unsolicited Commercial Electronic Mail Act of 2000, 106th Cong., 2nd sess., H. Rept. 700 (2000): 7.

12House Committee on Resources, Route 66 Corridor Act, 106th Cong., 1st sess., H Rept. 137 (1999): 3; Route 66 Corridor, Historic Preservation Act, PL 106-45, 113 Stat. 224 (1999).

13Old Spanish National Historic Trail Act, H.R. 3691, 107th Cong. (2002); Old Spanish Trail Recognition Act of 2002, PL 107-325, 116 Stat. 2790 (2002).

14Hibben Center Act, H.R. 3258, 108th Cong. (2003); Hibben Center Act of 2004, PL 108-413, 118 Stat. 2325 (2004).

15Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act of 2006, H.R. 4766, 109th Cong. (2006); Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act of 2006, PL 109-395, 120 Stat. 2705 (2006).

16Eric Lichtblau, “Republican Who Oversees N.S.A. Calls for Wiretap Inquiry,” 3 March 2006, New York Times: A12; Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Republican Speaks Up, Leading Others to Challenge Wiretaps,” 11 February 2006, New York Times: A1.

17Jonathan E. Kaplan, “House Leaders Encourage Détente on Wilson, Barton,” 4 May 2006, The Hill: 22.

18“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

19“Mines Family Welcomes Wilson Family,” South Dakota School of Mines & Technology Foundation, June 2013, https://foundation.sdsmt.edu/document.doc?id=107; Congressional Record, Senate, 115th Cong., 1st sess. (21 March 2017): S1898; Congressional Record, Senate, 115th Cong., 1st sess. (8 May 2017): S2820; Wesley Morgan, “Air Force Secretary Is Stepping Down,” 8 March 2019, Politico, https://www.politico.com/story/2019/03/08/heather-wilson-stepping-down-1213085; Vic Kolenc, “Heather Wilson, U.S. Air Force Secretary, to replace UTEP President Diana Natalicio,” 8 March 2019, El Paso Times (TX): A9.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

University of New Mexico
Political Archives, Center for Southwest Research and Special Collections

Albuquerque, NM
Papers: The papers are not yet accessible for research.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Heather A. Wilson" in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U. S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006.

Wilson, Heather A. "International Law and the Use of Force by National Liberation Movements." Ph.D. diss., Oxford University, 1988.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Armed Services
  • House Committee - Commerce
  • House Committee - Energy and Commerce
  • House Committee - Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence
    • Technical and Tactical Intelligence - Chair
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