Editor’s Note: This article is part of “Out for Change in 2018,” a monthly series on LGBTQ candidates in Texas, who were the subject of our January issue. For more, visit tinyurl.com/outforchange2018.
Look out, Austin: there may soon be a new sheriff in town.
In fact, Guadalupe “Lupe” Valdez is counting on it, as the longtime former Dallas County sheriff faces off against Republican incumbent Greg Abbott in Texas’ gubernatorial race on November 6.
Valdez won the Democratic nomination in the May runoff against Houston’s Andrew White, the son of former governor Mark White, making her the first Latina and the first lesbian to win a major-party nomination for governor in the Lone Star State.
“I wouldn’t have left a really neat job if I didn’t think I could win this. I could still be sheriff and win re-election.”
“Texas is the first state in the nation to nominate a lesbian for governor, and if young people and the Latinx community and LGBTQ people get out to vote, we’ll be the first state to elect a lesbian governor as well,” says former Houston mayor Annise Parker, president and CEO of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which has endorsed Valdez and lists her among its “game-changer” candidates in 2018.
But Valdez faces an uphill battle. No Democrat has won the state’s highest elected office in nearly 30 years, and Abbott was sitting on a $40 million war chest when the race began. In July, Abbott had roughly $29 million in the bank, compared to Valdez’s $222,000. But she is undaunted.
“This election will not be bought,” Valdez says adamantly during an exclusive interview with OutSmart. “What is that $40 million getting the average Texan?”
In a Time magazine profile in May, Valdez emphasized that Texas is not a red state, but rather a non-voting state.
“The hardest part,” she says, “is getting our message out. Once they get it, they get on board.”
And she’s been trying to get her message out the old-fashioned way, traveling around the state in a custom-painted pickup truck, shaking as many hands and talking to as many Texans as possible. She does have some key factors working in her favor, including backlash against the current presidential administration (“Thank you very much, Trump,” she says), as well as fellow Democrat Beto O’Rourke, who is polling well against GOP senator Ted Cruz. With straight-ticket voting still allowed in Texas, O’Rourke’s popularity could be a tide that raises all Democratic boats this November.
As to why O’Rourke has been getting the lion’s share of media attention, Valdez points out that he started running more than a year before she did.
“Plus, he started with $1 million from his congressional war chest,” she says. “But in our polling, I do better than he does among Hispanics and drop-off voters.” (A drop-off voter is one who typically votes only in presidential elections, and turning them out for the midterms could be crucial this year.)
Valdez’s top issues are a progressive wish list: LGBTQ rights, healthcare, gun violence, civil rights, immigration, and water. But she’ll tell you her first priority is public education.
“There were doors opened for me that would have never been opened without my education,” Valdez says. “Education is what gives you a fighting chance. Public education is the equalizer. And a child born in the Rio Grande Valley should have the same opportunity as one born in Houston.”
The daughter of migrant farm workers who was born in the poorest zip code in San Antonio, Valdez walked dirt roads to catch the bus and ride it across town to get to a decent school. She was the youngest of eight children, and her family struggled. But they lived by the motto “educar para elevar,” or “educate to elevate.”
“My mother said education was the way out,” Valdez recalls. “And she insisted that the youngest two children go to school.” Her older brother earned a doctoral degree, and she worked two jobs to put herself through Southern Nazarene University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in business. After obtaining a master’s degree in criminology from the University of Texas-Arlington, she became a captain in the U.S. Army before working as a jailer and an investigator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Homeland Security. She retired from federal law enforcement in 2004 to run for sheriff in Dallas County.
“I talked to so many people about that first run, and they all said it would be an uphill battle, and that the first thing to put out should not be that I was a lesbian,” she says. She stuck to her message that the Dallas County jail system was broken (having failed state and federal inspections) and left it to her opponent to out her as gay—which he did.
“But the majority of Texans are not what is considered the ‘Texas’ brand,” she explains. “They are more tolerant and more interested in getting things done.” She was confident she would win, but was surprised when the early vote showed her losing.
“I almost gave up hope,” Valdez recalls. “And then I heard people screaming from the other room.” She had beaten her Republican opponent by some 18,000 votes. Valdez went on to win re-election in 2008, 2012, and 2016 by even larger margins.
During her time as sheriff, she met Dr. Lindsay Browning, a chiropractor and owner of Urban Hippie Chiropractic, at the Round-Up Saloon, Dallas’ iconic gay country-and-western dance club. They hit it off, partly due to their shared love for dachshunds. They each had one, and when they got together, they decided to add a third dog, a Red Heeler. When Valdez was considering running for governor, the couple discussed the campaign at length.
“We talked about how Lindsay would be alone a lot,” Valdez says. “But she understood; I told her this was bigger than both of us.” As for marriage, she says they have talked about it but there just hasn’t been time. “Maybe when I’m 90,” she laughs.
Valdez’s keen sense of humor was on full display in a viral video in 2016, when Browning surprised her with a birthday present, a red Tesla, as she finished an interview with the Dallas Morning News. “This was not paid for out of county funds,” Valdez yelled toward the camera as she and Browning took off in the new car.
“You can’t take yourself too seriously,” Valdez says. “You have to laugh and hug a little every day.”
This attitude has undoubtedly served her well during a few stumbles on the campaign trail.
At a debate before the runoff, White called out Valdez for cooperating with ICE when she was sheriff, a charge she denied while admitting she had been faced with an imperfect choice: follow federal detention orders or lose funding.
“You can’t take yourself too seriously. You have to laugh and hug a little every day.”
Then in May, the Houston Chronicle reported that Valdez owed $12,000 in overdue property taxes on multiple properties in two counties. Her campaign spokesman, Juan Bautista Dominguez, said she was paying off the 2017 bills in monthly installments, and blamed Abbott’s failed leadership for unpredictable and burdensome property taxes. Property-tax reform is another one of her key issues. By the end of June, her taxes had been paid in full.
As for Abbott, the incumbent has been a staunch opponent of LGBTQ rights and has vigorously defended the state’s ban on same-sex marriage as both attorney general and governor. Last year, after the Texas Legislature failed to pass an anti-transgender bathroom bill, Abbott called a special session so lawmakers could further consider the measure.
Chuck Smith, CEO of Equality Texas, says of Abbott’s tenure, “I would have to label it a failure.” Equality Texas’ Texas Equity PAC has endorsed Valdez.
“[Lieutenant governor Dan] Patrick is the ringleader of extreme anti-LGBTQ measures,” Smith says. “There have been times when Abbott could have stood against him, and he didn’t. He failed as a leader to sit him down and put a stop to the bathroom-bill nonsense and just focus on more important issues, like school finance or property taxes. I would love to see Lupe Valdez be elected governor and represent all 28 million Texans.”
Mayor Parker, meanwhile, says the record number of LGBTQ Texans running for office this year “signals a change in our state politics.”
“While bigoted state legislators in Austin continue to divide the state and target our community, Texans are voting for LGBTQ candidates because we are authentic, values-driven leaders who deliver on promises,” Parker says. “Lupe symbolizes the positive vision voters are hungry for—and their growing disenchantment with the divisive politics governor Abbott cynically champions for his own political gain. If Lupe pulls off a victory come November, we’ll know LGBTQ candidates can win statewide office anywhere.”
But even if she pulls off the upset, could Valdez make a real difference in Austin with a Legislature that continues to be dominated by Republicans? She thinks so.
“In Dallas, we couldn’t get people to decide where to go for lunch,” she says. “But when people get hungry, they compromise.”
Valdez believes that Democrats will gain seats in the House and Senate in November, changing the dynamics in the State capitol. “And if not, there is the veto power,” she says.
At 71, Valdez could go home to Dallas, her partner, and her three dogs if she loses the race, and retire in comfort. But she’s not even contemplating that.
“I wouldn’t have left a really neat job if I didn’t think I could win this,” she says. “I could still be sheriff and win re-election. Why would I have plans for failure?”
For more on Valdez’s campaign, visit LupeValdez.com.
This article appears in the October 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.