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Is deep-red Texas ready for a gay Latina Democrat? Lupe Valdez thinks so

Lupe Valdez
Lupe Valdez is the youngest of eight children of Mexican American immigrants and served in the US army reserve, as a prison guard and a senior homeland security agent. Photograph: Scott Audette/Reuters

It would rank as one of the greatest political upsets of 2018 and a stunning rebuke to Trumpism: a gay Latina Democrat grabbing hold of the country’s biggest red state.

But is Texas ready for Lupe Valdez?

The question was first posed in Dallas in 2004, when Valdez scored a surprise victory to become the nation’s first openly gay female Hispanic sheriff on the same night that George W Bush secured a second term in the White House. She won re-election three times in Dallas county before announcing last month that she would resign to stand for Texas governor.

Born in San Antonio, the youngest of eight children of Mexican American migrant farm workers, Valdez, 70, was a captain in the US army reserve, a prison guard and a senior agent in the Department of Homeland Security, working drug and undercover investigations.

“To me she represents the kind of candidate that the Democrats have been looking for,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. “Someone who’s been a successful politician, who has a good record, especially on law and order issues. She is a Latina and that means potentially increasing support from women in Texas as well as Latinos; these are groups that the party needs to excite in order to be competitive in future elections.”

But, he added: “If she were to play up the fact that she’s gay and Latina I think it would be a potential problem in some constituencies in the general election who are not yet ready to have a Latina, LGBT governor.”

In a speech this week as she kicked off her campaign in earnest, Valdez mostly offered generalities, saying she would aim to build a “new”, inclusive Texas that respects diversity – in contrast to a current administration that obsesses over “fake ideas” such as a perceived need to regulate access to bathrooms for transgender people and to crack down on voter fraud and so-called sanctuary cities.

¡Ya basta! Enough!” she said.

“We continue to bring everyone into our campaign. Rich, poor, straight, gay, low-economic, high-economic, high-educated, low-educated, you name it,” she told reporters afterwards. “Nothing wrong with paying attention to the 1% but we’ve got to include the other 99%. We’ve got to stop doing things that cause harm to the majority of people and start doing things that will bring hope.”

About 200 supporters came to cheer on Valdez in a former wax paper factory south-west of downtown Dallas recently repurposed as a shared working space. The building, a largely empty shell, exudes a sense of ongoing restoration that could stand as a metaphor for Texas Democrats in general.

Texas’s Hispanic population grew by over 60% from 2000 to 2015, according to the Pew Research Center, and Latino people now comprise 39% of the state’s 28 million residents; 43% of Texans are white.

Texas’s four biggest cities voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and though Trump beat her by nine points statewide, Texas bucked the national trend as Democrats improved on their 2012 showing. But Hispanic turnout in Texas in the 2016 presidential election was 40.5%, a mere 1.7% improvement on four years earlier despite expectations that Trump’s incendiary rhetoric on immigration would provoke a wave of protest votes.

Despite the shifting demographics, Republicans remain formidable in rural and suburban areas and Democrats have endured so many statewide losses for so long that they struggle to find well-funded, high-calibre candidates. A Democrat has not won a statewide race in Texas since 1994.

Lupe Valdez: ‘Nothing wrong with paying attention to the 1% but we’ve got to include the other 99%.’
Lupe Valdez: ‘Nothing wrong with paying attention to the 1% but we’ve got to include the other 99%.’ Photograph: J Scott Applewhite/AP

There were lofty hopes for the 2014 candidate, former state senator Wendy Davis, who enjoyed significant funding and name recognition after her 2013 filibuster against a restrictive abortion law went viral and attracted national attention. But her campaign lacked a coherent message and she was derided by some rightwingers as “Abortion Barbie”.

Far from turning Texas blue, or even purple, Davis lost to her Republican opponent, Greg Abbott, by 20 points. That crushing defeat appeared sure to set the Democrats back for multiple election cycles – until the galvanising effect of Trump’s success gave them a degree of cohesion and purpose.

Last year protests reverberated through the Texas capitol as an emboldened, conservative-dominated state legislature introduced bills on culture wars topics dear to the Trump administration, such as forcing local police to cooperate with federal immigration agents, boosting border security, rolling back transgender rights, restricting abortion and suppressing the liberal inclinations of major cities.

Amid worries that hard-won rights are under threat – lawmakers narrowly failed to pass an anti-transgender bathroom bill – at least 43 openly LGBTQ candidates are running for office in Texas this year, three times as many as ever before, according to OutSmart magazine.

Among the nine other hopefuls ahead of March’s primary election are Andrew White, a moderate voice who is the son of a former Texas governor, and Jeffrey Payne, a businessman who owns a gay bar in Dallas.

Valdez is arguably the favourite to win the nomination, but Abbott, a popular – if low-key – conservative who succeeded Rick Perry, (now the federal energy secretary), reportedly has more than $40m in funds as he seeks a second term.

“I don’t know that even if she ran a great campaign and the message resonated and she had sufficient money it would be enough to unseat Abbott,” Rottinghaus said.

Still, there was guarded optimism at her campaign launch on Sunday. “I think she’s got her work cut out for her on this but I think she’s got a lot of support. She wouldn’t have been the sheriff all of these years if she didn’t have a good backing,” said Anita Bagnall, a Valdez supporter wearing a badge that depicted Wonder Woman punching Trump in the face.

She said that Republicans have “rolled back rights for minorities, anyone that wasn’t a white male … we’ve watched how everything we’ve worked for has gotten taken away from us.”

Donald Quarles, 47, said that Valdez’s sexuality could be an issue for voters in some parts of the state: “I think she’ll do great in larger cities in Texas, not so great in the smaller towns. Maybe she’ll do better than I’m suspecting, I hope so, but it’s harder in the smaller towns. A long-shot – but miracles can happen.”

The miracle would require a sharp increase in turnout by Hispanic voters, coupled with moderate Republicans rejecting the extreme policies embraced by the Texas GOP. “The way things are going, a complete reversal of how things have been in Texas could happen,” Quarles said. “That’s what we’re all hoping for.”

This article titled "Is deep-red Texas ready for a gay Latina Democrat? Lupe Valdez thinks so" was written by Tom Dart in Dallas, for theguardian.com on Friday 12 January 2018 11.00am

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