The First Major-Party Latina Candidate for Texas Governor Faces Long Odds

Lupe Valdez

Texas hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since Ann Richards won in 1990, and so far, polls aren’t showing that the 2016 election will break that streak. But the party’s nominee, Lupe Valdez, is undaunted.

“Everybody tells me it’s an uphill battle,” Valdez told Time last month. “But my response to them has always been: when hasn’t it been?” She recounted her childhood living in the poorest area of San Antonio with her parents, who were migrant farmworkers, and eight siblings. Now 70, Valdez has fought poverty, racism, and homophobia throughout her career. She served in the Army National Guard (attaining the rank of captain), worked as an agent with the Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security, and in 2004 was elected sheriff of Dallas County, the second-most populous county in Texas. She was the first openly gay Hispanic sheriff in the state.

Although she’s also the first LGBT Latina to win a major-party nomination for governor in Texas, she hasn’t yet won over the state’s lefties—her actions as sheriff bother some progressives in the state, and a couple of progressive political groups endorsed her straight white male opponent in the primary she won May 23. Valdez allowed Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to detain some Dallas County prisoners for deportation, and the jail she was in charge of has been accused by the federal Department of Justice of civil rights violations. In an interview with the New York Times, she defended her record as sheriff, insisting she was a “compassionate cop” and that she had lowered the inmate population, reduced the number of inmate deaths below national averages, and refused to allow ICE to access prisoners arrested on nonviolent charges.

Valdez also spoke out against Senate Bill 4, a state law Republican Governor Greg Abbott signed last year that bans sanctuary cities and allows the police to question people about their immigration status during interactions as benign as traffic stops.

Since the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy began separating children from their families at the border, Valdez has visited the detention center in Tornillo (near El Paso) with Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke and made continuing statements urging the governor to speak out about the inhumane situation: “Greg Abbott’s continued silence is deafening,” she wrote in a statement published in the Dallas Morning News. “As children are being torn from their parents on our soil, the man who lectures us about morals and values has silently condoned this inhumanity.”

When the border crisis started gaining traction this month, Governor Abbott insisted, in lockstep with President Trump, that only Congress could end the terrible separations of families; he wrote a letter to that effect to Texas’s congressional delegation in Washington on the same day that Trump changed his mind and signed the executive order meant to end the practice. Abbott has hardly spoken about the situation since, while Lupe Valdez has continued tweeting and holding press conferences to highlight his inaction.

She’s spoken out about other progressive issues as well, including abortion rights, equal pay, voting rights, health care (particularly the state’s refusal to expand Medicaid accessibility), and environmental protection. She’s a gun owner and calls herself a supporter of the second amendment, but insists that Texas should require background checks and close loopholes in the process that allow people with a history of domestic violence to pass.

Although few observers think she’s likely to defeat Greg Abbott in November—Texas Monthly published an article with the online title, “Just How Doomed Is Lupe Valdez?”—Democrats are hopeful that her presence at the top of the state’s ticket will encourage Latinos to come out in November. Whether or not Valdez herself wins the governorship, a big turnout could help push other candidates, including Beto O’Rourke and down-ballot Democrats, over the top. It happened when she won her sheriff elections in Dallas County: “She . . . upset the entire political establishment that thought that a Democrat could never win in Dallas County,” Manny Garcia, deputy executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, told the magazine.