Lupe Valdez has her eyes set on a doubly historic feat ― a victory in the November elections that would make her both Texas’ first Hispanic governor and the first openly queer person to hold that office.
It won’t be easy. The former Dallas County sheriff, who is running on a progressive platform, faces a May 22 runoff for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination against Andrew White ― a straight, white Houston businessman and son of a former governor, who is running as a centrist.
Should she win that race ― and she’s favored, having come out well ahead of him in March’s nine-candidate primary ― Valdez will then confront an uphill battle to defeat Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. He beat his 2014 opponent, then-state Sen. Wendy Davis, in a landslide. And Texas hasn’t elected a Democrat to any statewide office since 1994 (the last one to win the governorship was Ann Richards in 1990).
But for Valdez, overcoming obstacles is nothing new.
The 70-year-old grew up one of eight children of Mexican-American migrant workers. Embarking on a career in law enforcement after a stint in the Army, she navigated the challenges of being a lesbian woman of color in conservative Texas ― ultimately making history in 2004 as the nation’s only Latina sheriff, and among the state’s first openly gay sheriffs.
“You want to see my scars?” Valdez joked to HuffPost in March, speaking of the discrimination she faced as a queer woman in Texas law enforcement. “The first four or five years [as sheriff] were extremely difficult. I got hate email and faxes. I got pushback from a lot of the good old boys.”
“You can make them stepping stones,” she said of her experiences overcoming prejudice, and “become a leader who is sensitive to the issues of people who have been discriminated against.”
For Latinos in the border state, who comprise nearly 40 percent of Texas’ population, a Valdez victory this fall would mark a triumph of representation ― they would finally see someone like themselves in the governor’s chair. Analysts say the Latino vote will be key for Valdez to win, as she and her campaign deal with the difficulty Democrats have long faced in Texas of trying to increase historically low turnout among that demographic.
“It’s long overdue to have Latinas sit in these halls of power,” said native Texan Amy Hinojosa, president of national Latina organization MANA. “When you think of the generations of girls to come, to see a Latina, a queer woman in the state house, that just represents such power for young women to be able to aspire to that.”
For some Democrats in Texas, it is precisely Valdez’s personal history and her background coming from underrepresented groups that makes her so appealing.
“Her story is very compelling. It’s a lot like that of a lot of people in Texas,” Ed Espinoza, executive director of progressive media group Progress Texas, told HuffPost. “She’s from an immigrant family, has military and law enforcement [background], is Latina, a lesbian. She came from nothing, went through the ranks.”
“That’s exactly what we’re lacking in statewide office,” he added. “Having a background that looks like the people you’re representing.”
Still, some Texas Latino activist groups have called out Valdez’s record as sheriff on immigration issues. They specifically note her department’s cooperation with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement ― and challenge whether her actions live up to her progressive platform.
Valdez was born in San Antonio, Texas, and until she was about seven years old she traveled with her parents and siblings as family members worked fields in Michigan and other states, picking green beans and other crops. Her parents, both U.S.-born Latinos, faced significant discrimination in the Texas of the 1940s and ’50s and struggled to find jobs, she said. After giving up migrant work, her dad was a ditch digger for the city of San Antonio.
Valdez paid her own way through college, earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Southern Nazarene University in Oklahoma and then a master’s in criminology and criminal justice from the University of Texas at Arlington. Joining the Army, she became a captain.
“The poorest zip code in San Antonio ― that’s where I came from,” Valdez said. “What that says to me is, someone who was able to go from that to college to the military, then a sheriff ― that’s a big jump. My passion is to be able to give that same type of opportunity to all of Texas.”
As sheriff, Valdez made a point of seeing that more employees of color were able to rise through the ranks. Her successor when she stepped down last December to launch her gubernatorial race was Marian Brown, Dallas County’s first black sheriff, who Valdez recommended for the post.
When you think of the generations of girls to come, to see a Latina, a queer woman in the state house, that just represents such power for young women to be able to aspire to that. Amy Hinojosa, President of national Latina women's organization MANA
Valdez is part of a cadre of Latinas shaking up the Texas political landscape. The state has never had a Latina member of Congress. But that is poised to change, with Latinas heavily favored to win in two House districts.
“I can remember when I was a kid in Texas, seeing how powerful former Gov. Ann Richards was,” Hinojosa said of the state’s second woman to hold the position. “The fact that she was a woman standing up to all of the good old boys, that was monumental in my development and my thinking of where a woman’s place is.”
“For a state that will soon be majority Hispanic, to see a Hispanic woman on the ballot ― this is really a pivotal moment,” she added.
When Valdez was a girl, she never imagined she’d become a politician. In her own family, she said she was often treated “less than” compared to her brothers.
“In our family, women did not have as much opportunity,” Valdez said. “I remember getting angry at my dad ― he would show my brothers how to fix a car, but wouldn’t show me. He’d say, ‘You’ll never need it, you just take care of the kids.’ And I would get so angry.”
Later in life, she asked her brothers why they had teased her so harshly.
She recalled one of them telling her: “You don’t understand, Lupe, you’ve done everything we wanted to do, and we were not able and you did it. And you’re the woman.”
After she left home, Valdez continued to face barriers ― from the public as she ran for sheriff, and her own coworkers when she got the post ― particularly as a queer woman.
“When I ran for sheriff, it was quite conservative,” Valdez said. “They’d say: ‘A lesbian, how can they care about the community?’”
As a result, while Valdez was never closeted, she also “didn’t publicize it and wear my flag around me,” she said.
“If I was asked I didn’t deny,” Valdez said. “I would have preferred it didn’t come up.”
Along with the landmarks Valdez’s election would set in Texas, she would be the nation’s first lesbian governor (Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, who took office in 2015, identifies as bisexual). Valdez has won the endorsement of several prominent LGBTQ groups, including the national Victory Fund, the Equality Texas PAC and several state chapters of Stonewall Democrats. For the runoff, the Houston GLBT Caucus endorsed her opponent, White.
When speaking to HuffPost, Valdez hesitated to place her identity as a queer woman and a Latina as central to her platform. “That’s not where I’m putting my emphasis,” she said.
Instead, Valdez insisted that the issues she is focusing on ― better education, health care and the economy ― were ones “all Texans” care about.
“There are a lot of things she could tap into: being a woman, Latina, queer ― but how those identities are going to play out with Texas voters is a big question,” said Brittany Perry, an assistant professor at Texas A&M University who specializes in U.S. politics and Latino representation. “You want to appeal to the Latino population, but there’s also a lot of conservative tendencies [there].”
In Valdez’s case, Hinojosa speculated that having a Hispanic name on the ballot would draw some Latinos to support her. But ultimately, most wouldn’t vote for her simply because they want to have someone who looks like them in office, but also because Valdez reflected many of the values important to Latinos, and to many Texans at large: her Christian faith, working-class roots, law enforcement and military experience. All of those factors could help win over more moderate Texans, as well as older Latino voters, who tend to lean more conservative on social issues.
A key issue in the campaign will be immigration. While Latinos don’t all come down the same way on immigration issues ― especially in Texas, where many are not immigrants and have been in the U.S. for generations ― it is still a hot-button issue in the state where President Donald Trump wants to build part of his border wall. While Abbott has expressed support for sending National Guard troops to the border and having a wall in certain areas, Valdez said she would fight against a wall “with everything I have.”
There are no perfect politicians, and Texas needs a change. Angie Junck, director at Immigrant Legal Resource Center
Valdez has positioned herself as staunchly pro-immigrant and has made a name in recent years as a fierce opponent of Abbott’s anti-immigrant policies. She clashed with the Republican in 2015 when she said Dallas law enforcement would only cooperate with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents on a case-by-case basis.
Last year, Abbott signed the notoriously anti-immigrant Senate Bill 4 into law, meant to punish “sanctuary cities” that limit local law enforcement’s cooperation with federal agents. (A lawsuit against SB4 is moving through the courts.)
“People who rape, murder and abuse, commit violent crimes, I have no trouble saying no to ― and I often joke I wish I could say that to a lot of Americans,” Valdez told HuffPost.
“But people who came here for a better life, get picked up for a broken taillight or speeding, who make as many mistakes as the rest of us Americans make ... which one of us who has no sin can cast the first stone?” she continued. “We should just leave them alone.”
Some immigrant advocacy groups who work in the Dallas area contend that Valdez didn’t always go far enough as sheriff to counter state and federal pressures on cooperating with ICE. Several groups HuffPost spoke to said that Dallas law enforcement officers have often cooperated with federal immigration agents in handing over undocumented detainees.
“It’s exciting that more Latinos are running, and especially for a Latina to run in a governor race. But what’s important is for people to look at a person’s record to reflect what they do, and not just what they say,” Felix Villalobos, an attorney with the Texas immigration law organization RAICES, told HuffPost. “Valdez is a politician, not an advocate of the immigration community.”
Villalobos said that when he and his colleagues find out an undocumented client has been arrested, “it’s pretty much understood” that they’ll end up in an ICE detention center.
The Dallas “area of responsibility” for ICE ― which includes Dallas County, as well as the rest of Northern Texas and Oklahoma ― had the highest number of immigration arrests in the country in 2017, according to a Pew study.
Angie Junck ― a director at Immigrant Legal Resource Center, a national immigrant rights organization that has worked frequently in Texas ― noted the difficulties Valdez faced as a local official trying to challenge strong anti-immigrant pressures from the state level.
Last year, Abbott pulled funding from Texas’ Travis County after Sheriff Sally Hernandez implemented a policy limiting local law enforcement’s cooperation with immigration agents. Hernandez’s policy was later invalidated by court rulings in the SB4 litigation.
“There are no perfect politicians, and Texas needs a change,” Junck said, calling Valdez a far better alternative on immigration than Abbott. “I hope Valdez takes [the] charge seriously and really fights for the rights of [immigrants]. Do I know if she’s there? I don’t.”
Last week, Valdez’s controversial record on immigration came to the fore at a local town hall event, as Dallas high school student Karla Quiñones challenged the candidate on her department’s apparent cooperation with ICE. After Valdez provided what some viewed as an insufficient response, the group hosting the event, Jolt Texas ― which aim to mobilize Latino voters in the state ― decided to endorse White in the upcoming runoff.
The next day, Valdez issued a lengthy apology, saying she “fell short” in her answer to the student, and noting tensions she faced as a local official navigating federal and state immigration policy.
In response criticisms on immigration, the Valdez campaign told HuffPost earlier in April that amid the anti-immigrant pushes at the state and federal levels, it was hard for Valdez to “compensate for a broken immigration system.”
“Sheriff Valdez’s position on the need for immigration reform and building trust in the immigrant community has been abundantly clear,” her campaign wrote by email. “There is no doubt that Sheriff Valdez knows Texas needs a governor who knows and trusts immigrants in our state.”
A Valdez victory in the runoff against White will intensify speculation on whether the state’s growing Latino population will finally transform Texas ― long a solidly red state ― into a politically competitive one.
“Maybe not this year,” Perry speculated of Valdez’s chances against Abbott in the general election. “Maybe down the road. Maybe we’re paving the way for future Latino candidates in Texas.”
Abbott, who has raised more than $40 million for his re-election campaign, will be favored in a race against Valdez. But several upsets have occurred in elections in the post-Trump era ― such as the unexpected wins by Democrats Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania or Doug Jones in Alabama ― that suggest the 2018 elections may not all go as predicted.
For Valdez, there was one moment right after the March primary that cemented her potential to galvanize voters in a state she described as “changing”: A woman stopped her at a store, said she was a new citizen and that she had just cast her first vote as an American ― for Valdez.
“What a neat feeling,” Valdez mused, “to hear someone say my very first vote was for you.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated that Valdez is Texas’ first openly gay sheriff. She was preceded in that distinction by Margo Frasier, who served as sheriff of Texas’ Travis County from 1997 to 2004.