The truth was spoken in the pre-event mic check: “Hello everybody. Welcome to the first Democratic debate-ish.”
Upstairs, gubernatorial candidates mingled prior to the event that was the first face-to-face meeting between Andrew White, Houston businessman and son of late Gov. Mark White, and former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez. They’re the top Democratic contenders in what was, at the time, a field of 10, all of whom showed up Monday night. On Tuesday, the field was whittled to nine because one candidate’s filing fee check bounced.
Debate-ish was right. To be fair, this was a forum, not a debate.
“I just want to remind you, we are all on the same team here,” moderator Travis Taylor, vice chair of the Tom Green County Democratic Party, said in getting the festivities going.
And that was the theme for the 90-minute event, with White and Valdez doing little to differentiate themselves from each other, their prime task before early voting for the March 6 primary begins Feb. 20.
The truth is many Texas Democrats know little about either of them. And many never have heard either of their voices. Hence, forums like Monday’s in San Angelo, where about 100 people showed up, are important.
The background is pretty simple: Valdez, 70, is the anointed candidate of much of the Texas Democratic Party leadership. White, 45, is the surprise interloper who has never run for anything. His goal is to establish himself as an extreme moderate who would have a better chance of beating GOP Gov. Greg Abbott, who’s expected to coast to renomination against two little-to-unknown primary challengers.
“I’m Andrew White, and I’m running for governor to bring sanity and reason back and to give Texans hope for the future,” White said. “Our state needs an outsider with a fresh perspective to fix this mess.”
He drew applause by saying he’d be a governor “who will stand up and fight Donald Trump.”
“We live in Trump’s prison now,” White said. “And I’m trying to break Texas out. It’s time for a change. We have to fight Donald Trump and the lies he stands for every day. We have got to fight Greg Abbott and (Lt. Gov.) Dan Patrick, and we must never ever, even for a second, think that today’s political world is normal. Because, by God, it’s not. This is not normal. We are not living in a normal time.”
Valdez, the last of the candidates to give opening remarks, began by noting the challenge of coming up with something that hadn’t already been said. She recounted her bio, including her military and law enforcement careers and her childhood in a family of migrant workers. She didn’t mention Trump, who Texas Democrats are counting on to bring folks of their ilk to the polls this year.
Valdez highlighted her service as the elected head of the 2,800-employee Dallas County sheriff’s department.
“So, I’ve dealt with issues day and night,” she said. “We talk about how we deal with solutions. Let me tell you, I had nine chiefs. Sometimes, we couldn’t agree on where we’re going for lunch. But we had to sit down and start learning how to work as a team and work together.”
“You have to learn how to serve and you have to serve in a way that does not harm the people. … So we have to stop the foolishness and the hate and the bickering,” she said. “We’ve got to start learning how to work together.”
White was asked about addressing climate change without disrupting the Texas energy sector. White kept his focus on Abbott, rapping him as someone who “does not believe in climate change.”
“Fracking is important to our state, and it can be done safely,” White said, calling for “regulators who care about the environment.”
Valdez was asked about wealth inequality.
“Some people … their bonus was bigger than my whole salary the whole year,” she said, praising companies that minimize the gap between their highest and lowest paychecks.
“We know there are levels” of income, Valdez said, but “there should be levels that we can all feel comfortable with. I know that a doctor’s going to make more than me. But a doctor should not make more than me in two days.”
The solution, she said, is to “sit down together” and work it out. To date, Valdez has talked mostly about the problems, not proposed solutions and has been short on specifics.
To his credit, White has offered some proposals, including a $5,000 teacher pay raise he says can be funded by closing what he calls a “$5 billion commercial property tax loophole.”
The other seven candidates have little chance of winning the nomination, but they could help send White and Valdez into a runoff. About the last thing Texas Dems need is a runoff that would force them to spend more money on intramurals. The other seven are Grady Yarbrough, Adrian Ocegueda, Cedric Davis Sr., James Jolly Clark, Jeffrey Payne, Joe Mumbach and Tom Wakely. Demetria Smith also was on the ballot until her check bounced.
As noted above, there’s not much time until voting begins. We need to hear more on the issues, especially from Valdez. We might find out there’s not much difference among the candidates. And if that’s the case — and it often is in primaries — it could become a campaign in which Democrats pick a candidate based on demographic factors and a best guess as to who can do a better job of getting Democratic voters to the polls in November.