National News

In Texas Governor’s Race, Valdez Faces Resistance From Fellow Democrats

Posted June 18, 2018 6:43 a.m. EDT

AUSTIN, Texas — Even in the close-knit circles of Texas liberals, Lupe Valdez, the Democratic nominee for governor, conjures up a disparate set of opinions — far from the united front the candidate wants to evoke.

Democratic Party officials often hail Valdez as a progressive godsend bound to inspire Latino voters: a former Dallas County sheriff who became the first Latina and open lesbian to top the party’s ticket in Texas, at a time of controversy over the Trump administration’s family separation practice for unauthorized immigrants.

“She doesn’t need a GPS to know where the grass roots are,” said Jim Hightower, an Austin progressive who introduced Valdez, a spirited populist, at a recent party fundraiser. “She has lived the issues.”

But among some activists on the left, particularly those opposed to immigration policies of President Donald Trump and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, there is anger over several high-profile incidents in which they deemed Valdez hostile to some progressive reforms to immigration and criminal justice policy.

During her tenure as Dallas sheriff, Valdez drew significant criticism for allowing Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to detain certain Dallas County prisoners for its deportation operation. The jail overseen by Valdez was accused of several civil rights violations in a Department of Justice lawsuit, and was the site of a 2015 homicide where a man died in the jail’s lobby after an interaction with officers.

Valdez has also failed to secure endorsements from a statewide organization of young Latinos called JOLT and from Houston’s Stonewall Democrats, an LGBT organization. Leaders of both groups say they shunned Valdez partly because she too often leans on her personal identity to sidestep policy questions.

The Rev. Jeffrey Hood, a progressive pastor and political organizer in Dallas, who criticized Valdez following the 2015 homicide at the jail, said that voting for either Abbott or Valdez in November was a non-starter.

“Just because she’s lesbian doesn’t mean she’s progressive, and just because she’s Latina doesn’t mean she’s progressive,” Hood said.

The tension around Valdez’s candidacy reflects ongoing clashes over identity politics in the Democratic Party, as liberals try to harness the energy of minority groups that are demanding for their voices to be heard. It also points to the sometimes competing interests of party officials singularly focused on winning elections, and a morally rigid grass-roots base that is newly empowered in the current wave of anti-Trump activism. And while there is broad interest on the left in recruiting candidates from diverse backgrounds, activists are also increasingly pushing politicians to adopt the language and policy goals of their movements — not just be more liberal than their Republican opponents. The Trump administration’s practice of separating children from their parents when apprehended at the border, and the pain and turmoil it has caused, have only intensified the passions of immigration reform advocates.

The situation in Texas has left some Lone Star progressives looking jealously to their Southern compatriots in Georgia and Arizona. In Georgia, Stacey Abrams has made history as the first black woman to be nominated by a major party for governor while also energizing grass-roots groups with progressive red meat, prioritizing causes like criminal justice reform and gun safety in her policy platform, which could help Democrats further their grass-roots network in the typically Republican state. Arizona’s Democratic hopefuls have also shifted left ideologically, which has only intensified the backlash against Valdez.

Ginny Goldman, a political strategist and the former head of another large progressive group called Texas Organizing Project, said that Valdez “has a lot more she needs to do to in order to reflect the new energy and new politics that this state is moving toward.”

If this ambivalence and even opposition continue in November, it would surely doom Valdez, a daughter of migrant workers who rose through the heavily male ranks of law enforcement and spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Valdez already faces long odds in the historically deep red state, which last voted a Democrat into statewide office in 1994 and supported Trump in the 2016 election by almost 10 percentage points.

The uphill climb would become an impossible one without the wholesale support of the Texas progressive community and immigration activists — key forces in the Democrats’ decades-long efforts to increase turnout among the state’s Latinos.

Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat who is challenging Republican incumbent Ted Cruz, has excited state party insiders with better-than-expected poll numbers and fundraising, but several party officials privately acknowledged a muted energy surrounding the governor’s race — partly because of the progressive criticism Valdez has faced during the primary.

“People want real change in their lives, they want someone who’s going to fight and deliver for them — and just having a ‘D’ next to your name isn’t enough,” Goldman said.

In an hourlong interview in Austin near the Texas Governor’s Mansion she seeks to soon inhabit, Valdez defended her progressive credentials and record as Dallas County sheriff. She cast herself as a “compassionate cop” and at one point listed what she considered accomplishments: lowering the inmate population at the jail, allegedly curbing abuse and harassment among her employees, rebuffing ICE’s detention requests for individuals with nonviolent allegations, and reducing the number of inmate deaths at Dallas County jail to below the national average.

She also cited her vocal opposition to S.B. 4 — a divisive Texas law signed under Abbott that empowered police officers to question the immigration status of anyone they arrest or detain.

“I’m the only one in this race who’s fought against anti-immigrant bills,” said Valdez, positioning the choice between herself and Abbott as a binary one for progressives.

At other times she conceded that she was forced into “imperfect choices” during her time as sheriff. Valdez repeatedly mentioned how Abbott had threatened to pull funding from Dallas County if Valdez refused all cooperation with ICE at her Dallas County jail.

“I actually did a lot of good — even on the immigration front,” Valdez said. “But I guess when you have it coming from both sides, you’re doing the right thing.”

JOLT, the statewide political group working to organize young Latinos across Texas, spurned Valdez in the Democratic primary race for governor and backed her opponent — a white man — because members were “troubled by Ms. Valdez’s lack of depth in policy,” said the group’s executive director, Cristina Tzintzún.

During an April candidate forum hosted by JOLT, Valdez angered some progressives when she avoided a question about her immigration record that had been posed to her by a first-generation American high school student. Instead of explaining her decision to honor some ICE detainers while sheriff, Valdez began her answer by saying “of course” she would be an advocate for the immigrant community in Texas as governor.

“Look at me,” she said.

Valdez later issued an apology for not providing a more specific answer, but some of JOLT’s young members remain righteously enraged.

“You were a Latina when you were helping deport people, so why should I trust you now?” said Marco Mejia, a 19-year-old student at University of Texas at Austin who was in the audience that day.

“For our community, negotiating with ICE is not an option,” said Esther Sarai Ramos, a 20-year-old JOLT member who also attends Southwestern University near Austin. Valdez “said that she didn’t take action out of fear of being defunded. But for us, it’s not a matter of you getting defunded or not, it’s a matter of will I ever see my uncles again.”

Pointing to her recent primary victory, some supporters of Valdez dismissed the progressive criticism of the candidate as nitpicky and overblown, a petulant critique from fringe groups more interested in political points than winning elections. Abbott gleefully signed the controversial S.B. 4 legislation, they point out, and is a staunch critic of liberal priorities like same-sex marriage and abortion rights.

But other supporters, even ardent ones, acknowledged that more work needs to be done to win over those skeptical of her law enforcement past.

“The young activists expect a lot more — but that’s coming and it’s going to be addressed,” said Frumencio Reyes, a lawyer and Democratic activist in Houston. He also offered the young activists some pragmatic advice.

“It’s in their best interest to give in a little bit and let Lupe do what she needs to do,” Reyes said. “Work with her rather than step out of it and don’t do anything — because it’s not like Gov. Abbott is going to be anyway more accepting to them.”

More than 200 miles away from Houston, however, in the Dallas metro region where Valdez was once a high-ranking law enforcement official, some young progressives have already heard this advice and seemingly discarded it. This is the community where Mejia, Sarai Ramos, and two 18-year-olds named Karla Quiñones and Melissa Mejia lead voter registration efforts targeting Latinos, but they have refused to extend their efforts toward helping Valdez.

“I refuse to be a political hostage to the Democratic Party,” Marco Mejia said, citing the former sheriff’s history in Dallas County.

After attending the JOLT event in April where Valdez faced criticism, the young organizers said they are considering not voting for governor at all. Though they continue to politically organize in the area — including one instance when they invited high school students to a fake house party, only to register the attendees to vote — each has also urged family members and classmates to consider abstaining rather than back Valdez.

Quiñones, an incoming freshman at Texas Tech University, recalled that she once looked up to Valdez — one of the first Latinas she ever saw hold public office.

“It feels like she’s turned her back on her own community,” she now says of her former role model.