About six years ago, Lupe Valdez traveled to Michigan in search of the farm where as a small child she picked green beans, the youngest of seven children in a family of migrant workers from San Antonio. She knew it was the Cryderman farm, located somewhere around the town of Armada in rural northern Macomb County, outside Detroit.
One post office directed her to another, and, finally, she was directed to an address where she found the farm just as she remembered it, now being run by Chris Cryderman, who in an old photo she had of herself, her parents and the Crydermans, was a babe in his grandmother’s arms.
What has blossomed since is a friendship, a kinship between Valdez and the family she once worked for.
“She’s my hero, frankly. She’s something else,” said Mark Cryderman, Chris’s cousin, who, a year older than Valdez and working summers on the farm, would have been in those fields with her though each was too young to remember the other.
“If you look at what she’s done and what she’s gone through to get where she is, it’s the story of America,” Cryderman said. “Really, that’s what made America great. People that just don’t quit. People told her she couldn’t go to college. She did that. People told her she couldn’t be sheriff. She did that. Now she’s going to go for governor. Watch out.”
“Just look at her whole life,” Cryderman said. “They ought to make a movie about her.”
It might take Hollywood to write a script in which Lupe Valdez is elected governor of Texas in 2018.
Even if 2018 turns out to be a very good year for Democrats nationally, it would take a blue wave of biblical proportions to carry Valdez into the Governor’s Mansion.
But, in a recent interview at her home in Dallas’ Oak Cliff borough, Valdez was unfazed.
“All my life, it’s been you struggle and you work for what you want and what you need and you just go out there and you get it,” Valdez said. “There were times in what I call my arguments with God — that are just discussions — when I always yell, `Why does it have to be so hard?’ And I always get the answer, `You are the one for it. You are the one for it. If it’s a tough job, you are the one for it.’”
In contemplating whether to run for governor, Valdez did not huddle with consultants. She went, as is her wont, on a silent retreat.
“The whole purpose was I need to be OK with me and it needs to be OK with my spiritual side and if it’s OK with that, I’m on,” Valdez said. “Often I go to Colorado, New Mexico. This time I was only gone for 3½ days. A little place in Grand Prairie. It’s just a hidden gem.”
“She’s very connected,” said Kathy Harper, a friend of more than 30 years, who met Valdez at the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas. “She’s connected to herself. She’s connected to the Earth. She’s connected to the universe.”
“That’s what keeps her grounded and able to do what she does,” Harper said. “She also listens very closely to the voice of God. The time to be quiet and just listen is important to her. She says that’s the important thing: `I have to shut up and listen.’”
“She’s very Zen,” said Susan Hays, an Austin attorney who chaired the Dallas County Democratic Party when Valdez first ran for sheriff in 2004. “I’ve described her as the tortoise that wins the race. She’s not very flashy, but she keeps on moving.”
Perhaps, but Texas is a big state, Valdez is little known outside of Dallas County, and the hare in this race has a huge head start. Greg Abbott first won election as governor in 2014, defeating former state Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth by 20 points. Before that, he served three terms as attorney general and six years on the Texas Supreme Court. He has his own epic story of overcoming adversity — he was just out of law school when a tree limb fell on him as he jogged, smashing his spine and leaving him a paraplegic.
And, at $43 million and counting, he has amassed more money in his campaign account than any candidate in Texas history.
“How can I compete with that?” Valdez asked a friend. “They said, `Either you’ll get the money, or you won’t need that much.’”
By the end of 2017, Valdez had raised less than $50,000 for her campaign, which she launched Dec. 6, a startlingly small haul. In a Jan. 18 conversation with Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune, she said she was now raising $300 to $500 a day. But even if Abbott stopped fundraising today, and Valdez maxes out at $500 a day every day of the year, she wouldn’t catch up to Abbott until the middle of the 23rd century.
‘I’d had enough’
As in past campaigns for sheriff, the comfortable home where she’s lived since the 1990s and which she now shares with her partner, Lindsay Browning, and three rescue dogs, is her campaign headquarters, though this time, she said, “I think we’re going to go somewhere for nine or 10 months so this can be totally campaign.”
So far, her sole paid, all-purpose campaign aide is Kiefer Odell, a 2016 graduate of the University of Texas, where he studied government and was head of the University Democrats.
Valdez said she’s interviewing people for campaign manager, but noted that there will be more talent available after the March 6 primary.
First she has to win the primary, in which, out of a field of nine candidates, her prime rival is Andrew White, a Houston businessman and the son of former Gov. Mark White, making his first run for elective office.
Valdez said the tenor of last year’s legislative session and special session persuaded her to run, especially what she saw as wholly unnecessary and hurtful debate about what bathrooms transgender individuals could use.
“I saw a picture of a transgender child grabbing the leg of, I don’t know whether it was man or woman, but I’m sure it was their guardian, and the look on their face was of so much hurt. It just broke my heart,” Valdez said. “What are we doing to our children? We should be helping a child adjust to where they’re at and grow into who they are. We can do a lot better. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
“I’d had enough,” she said. The time had come, she said, to “stop griping and do something, and I decided to do something.”
Valdez also opposed Senate Bill 4, the legislation backed by Abbott targeting so-called sanctuary cities, as fomenting fear based on false premises.
In 2015, Abbott had written Valdez accusing her of failing to fully comply with federal immigration detention requests “intended to keep dangerous criminals off the streets.” But her office said they were simply not holding people charged with minor offenses beyond their regular release date, and that they had not rejected any requests for detainers from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“I don’t know where he got his information from,” Valdez said. “We’re not going to let anyone who commits violent crime go free.”
Valdez had a rough first term as sheriff, but by her second term, with construction of a new tower and improved conditions, the jail, the seventh-largest in the country, passed state inspection in 2010 for the first time since 2003. The inmate population has been reduced, and the Justice Department ended four years of monitoring the jail.
Now, the Justice Department tells other jails to “go to Dallas and see how that model works,” Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price said.
“She’s been very progressive, she’s been a good partner and a good manager, and that’s all you could ask for,” Price said.
‘Always praying for other people’
For some, Valdez’s decision to surrender the sheriff’s office for what looks like a kamikaze run for governor, is baffling.
“Being the sheriff of Dallas County can be a very tough job and she seemed to have it nailed, so it seemed very odd to me that you’d quit a job like that,” said Vinny Minchillo, a Dallas political consultant whose clients have included George W. Bush and Mitt Romney.
But Price was not surprised that Valdez, who turned 70 in October and is in her fourth term as sheriff, decided to aspire higher.
“It’s more about, `I’ve done all that I could do here.’ This is a good exit stage left,” Price said.
“Can you be both surprised by something and not surprised at all?” said Kirk McPike, who managed her 2008 re-election campaign, and is now chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., the first LGBT person of color in Congress. “It’s a moment of, `What, Lupe’s running for governor?’ to, `Oh, of course, Lupe’s going to run for governor.’ I can see exactly why she is going to run for governor.”
“From a political perspective, I’d be hard-pressed to think of a better candidate that the state party could field for this office,” McPike said, poised to tap what could be a surge in voting by both women and Latinos.
But mostly, he said, “Lupe is probably the most genuine person you will ever meet in politics. She really is exactly what it says on the tin. She is a very normal, down-to-earth cop who really, really cares about doing the right thing and it shines through in everything she does.”
Her niece, Martha Cortez, 11 years Valdez’s junior, grew up with her disabled mother and sister in a cottage behind the Valdez’s home in San Antonio’s barrio.
“She has always been helping people one way or another,” said Cortez, who, with her children, lived with Valdez for nearly two years in Dallas when Cortez was going through a divorce before returning to San Antonio. “What you see of her is the way she is at home. Always thankful for what she has, always praying for other people.”
“Most of our life, it was trying to make it through the day,” Valdez said. “How am I going to make it to my next meal, a place to stay and food to eat. I can’t remember getting way past that until several years after college.”
‘I’ve just got to go’
Each year, the migrant work in Michigan enabled the family to buy something big on their return — a car, a refrigerator, a washer and dryer, a stove.
But, when she was about 7, her mother, Teresa, told her father, Plinio, no more. The youngest children — Lupe and Ramiro — needed to stay in school. Her father still went that year with the older boys, but before long returned home. He couldn’t do it without his wife. He got a job digging ditches for the city of San Antonio.
It was a turning point.
“A teacher in my middle school basically said to me, he pulled me aside, `I don’t do this to everybody in this area because I don’t think they are capable, but I think you are college material and you don’t need to be going to these schools. You need to go across town,” Valdez said.
Her parents were reluctant. Maybe it was the bus fare, or fear.
“I heard the phrase when my dad died that whenever I went beyond his capacity, he felt he couldn’t help me,” Valdez said. “If I stepped out of his comfort zone, he knew there was nothing he could do to help me.”
“My mom said, `If you go there will be discord in the family,’ and I said, `Mom, I’ve just got to go,’” Valdez said.
Attending Thomas Jefferson High School was a tough adjustment, she said, “going to a place where you don’t know a single soul and they all act and dress differently, and I wasn’t as advanced in the things they had learned.”
It was the same struggle to get her parents to agree to let her go to college, but both she and Ramiro went to Southern Nazarene University outside Oklahoma City.
Working her way through school, she said, “It took me 6½ years to get through four years of college. It took me a long time to get through, but I got my degree.”
‘I didn’t become like them’
After graduating, she enlisted in the Army Reserve — attaining the rank of captain — and later got a job as a correctional officer in Kansas City, Mo. From there she moved to a job in a federal prison in Seagoville, a Dallas suburb, and then to jobs as an agent with the General Services Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Customs Service. When the Homeland Security Department was created in 2002, she was made a senior agent.
Her assignments included undercover work.
“I was fascinated by the whole special agent thing,” said her friend Kathy Harper. “I’ve never known anyone who when I hug her there’s a gun there. I learned all sorts of things about holsters.”
When Valdez would disappear for periods of time, Harper would never know where she was. Once she got a postcard from South America. All it said was “Lupe.”
Of her undercover work, Valdez said, “I think people watch too many movies, and they assume all your work is like a movie.”
Her father accepted her military service — she had brothers who served, and the military was seen as a way out of the barrio — but he did not like her decision to work in law enforcement.
“San Antonio in the ’30s and ’40s was very prejudiced against Latinos, and the military was not,” Valdez said. “What my dad saw a lot, and I saw it too was, is once an Hispanic joined the police force, they became just as ruthless. Several of my brothers got beat up by police and not for doing anything.”
“You can beat the arrest, but you can’t beat the ride – it was common back then,” Valdez said, calling to mind a phrase that meant that just because a cop couldn’t make a charge stick, didn’t mean they couldn’t administer a beating on the way to the station.
“My dad said, ‘You are going to become like all the rest of them,’ and we had a cousin who married an Hispanic police officer and he beat her up,” Valdez said.
“I knew it wasn’t going to happen to me,” Valdez said. “I remember saying to my dad, `I’m not going to be like the rest of them,’ and he said something to the effect, like, `Yeah, right.’”
“I didn’t become like them,” she said.
Her father ultimately honored her badge.
‘Never discussed it’
Valdez never directly confronted her parents about being a lesbian, leaving it to them to figure it out.
“Of course we were a strong Hispanic family, but I always brought my girlfriends home, and I have always been very blessed and I had decent choices,” Valdez said.
“We never discussed it,” Valdez said. “It was there, but we never discussed it. But my mom and dad loved the women I was with because they were always good women.”
“Ramiro told me that at one time – of course my mom was always in the kitchen — at one time he was sitting at the kitchen table and he said, `You know, mom, that Lupe is a lesbian,’ and that mom stopped what she was doing and she turned around and said, `Don’t ever say that again. I don’t want you to ever say that again.’ And that was that.”
The Rev. Don Eastman became close with Valdez, who was then a prison guard, almost as soon as he became pastor in 1978 of Metropolitan Community Church. That church has since morphed into the Cathedral of Hope, which Leo Cusimano, publisher of the LGBT newspaper Dallas Voice, describes as “the biggest gay church in the world.”
Eastman relied on Valdez. When Eastman traveled to churches in Mexico, Valdez would accompany him as his translator, but also as a sound voice.
“She is very humble and very wise,” he said.
And, from 1987 to 2003, when the Metropolitan Community Churches would hold biennial international conferences, Valdez was in charge of security at a time when that really mattered.
“Character is the most important thing anybody brings to public office, and when it comes to character, Lupe excels,” said Eastman, now retired in Florida. “I would never underestimate Lupe.”
And, said Cusimano, who knew her well before she was sheriff: “She was always out. She was never not out to me.”
Out and about.
“One thing she did religiously, she went to the Round-Up to dance,” Eastman said.
The Round-Up is a venerable gay country-and-western dance hall on Cedar Springs Road, the spine of Dallas gay community. It is where Lady Gaga, when that name meant nothing, asked to perform, and where she returns after performances in Dallas at bigger venues. But, with its straight-ahead country music and intermittent line dancing, it also has a homespun wholesomeness to it.
“A lot of straights go there too — they know it’s a gay bar — because it’s neat music to dance to,” Valdez said. “I would dance a lot. I did it basically to release stress and to keep my weight down. I would dance five hours a night.”
It is also where she met Lindsay Browning, her partner going on five years now.
Browning, a chiropractor, owns Urban Hippie Chiropractic, walking distance from where she now lives in Oak Park.
On Valdez’s 69th birthday, Browning presented her with a red Tesla.
“The hippie business is pretty good,” Browning said at the time.
‘I sat in the car and cried’
When Valdez approached the Cryderman farm for the first time in nearly 60 years, it was all there — the barn, the tree with the silo in back, though the tree was bigger, the Crydermans’ three-bedroom house, which had seemed a mansion to her when she was a child. Gone was the two-room shed with the outhouse where her family stayed. The work her family did is mechanized now.
She pulled over.
“I sat in the car and cried,” Valdez said, and then composed herself before approaching Chris Cryderman, who was out back working, to introduce herself.
A year later, Mark Cryderman, who is in the solar energy business, came to Dallas for a trade show and called Valdez. They had dinner, and she gave him a tour of the Dallas County Jail.
“It was literally a life-changing moment,” he said. “It blew me away.”
The Crydermans invited her and Ramiro, who lives in Denton, to their family reunion on the farm the following summer. They both went.
“We consider her and her brother as part of the family,” Cryderman said. “I’m privileged to know her. If she gets elected, I’ve got to be there. I’m coming for the inaugural.”
The American-Statesman is also profiling Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew White, a Houston businessman and son of late Gov. Mark White.