Pressure was mounting over the weekend for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Lupe Valdez to agree to debate her runoff rival, Andrew White.
The two candidates have appeared together multiple times at campaign events in recent weeks, but they haven’t interacted. White, son of the late Democratic Gov. Mark White, has never held office and finished a distant second to Valdez in the March primary, so he has more to gain from a debate.
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke and Justin Nelson, the party’s nominee for attorney general, said this weekend that Valdez, the former Dallas County sheriff, should debate White.
“I really don’t know enough about the two candidates, and the best way that I know is to have them each answer the same questions and be on the same stage and be able to understand what the difference is,” O’Rourke said after a Sunday morning town hall-style event before an overflow crowd at Southwestern University in Georgetown. He had previously endorsed the idea of a Valdez-White debate.
A high-profile exchange between the two rivals represents White’s best chance to break through with voters. Valdez came in first with 43 percent of the votes in the March 6 primary. White finished second with 27 percent. The winner of the May 22 runoff will face Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in November.
Asked by a Democratic activist at a campaign event at North Austin brewpub Black Star Co-op on Friday night if she was going to debate White, Valdez replied, “I’m open to any kind of debate, but my staff are the ones who are going to take care of all of that.”
Pressed for a firmer answer, Valdez said, “You know there’s only certain decisions that they let me make, and most of them have to do with policy. … I can’t even tell you where I’ll be in the next few days. They’ll tell me. So they’re taking care of that.”
On Saturday night, after a Texas Democratic Party event featuring the statewide ticket at the Sheraton Austin Hotel, Nelson told the American-Statesman that he believed a Democratic gubernatorial debate was imperative.
“I’ll be proud to support whoever comes out of the primary, but I, for one, would like to see a debate, and I think I speak for a majority of people who are going to vote in this primary that they want to see them have a real discussion of the issues,” Nelson said. “I think in the service of democracy, debates are vital, so I think we should embrace that.”
Nelson and O’Rourke both said they would not publicly endorse either candidate before the runoff.
Debate over debates
“We’re having a debate about whether to have debate, and there shouldn’t be a debate about that,” White, a Houston entrepreneur, told the Statesman on Sunday.
“Passing on the responsibility of deciding on a debate to your staff isn’t a true sign of leadership,” White said. “She should be out there saying, ‘Let’s have a debate, and my staff will pick a date, and we’ll be there.’ And I think the strategy that they are using is just to delay.
“We’re less than four weeks away from the start of early voting,” said White, who would prefer multiple debates. “If we don’t pick a debate date in the next week or two, there just won’t be one.”
Valdez’s campaign spokesman Juan Bautista Dominguez said Sunday, “We will be glad to work out a debate schedule closer to the runoff date when voters are more engaged, but this primary won’t be won on 30-second debate sound bites.
“It’s going to be won by going to areas of the state where we know we need to build on our support, make improvements and have real, values-based conversations,” he said.
White said his campaign has said “yes” to a number of debate offers from news organizations and Democratic Party groups.
“From what we’ve heard, her team, they just don’t respond to requests; they are just not interested in working out the details,” White said.
White said Valdez’s campaign has also insisted that joint appearances, like one Sunday night at Sun City Texas in Georgetown, not include any questioning of the candidates.
Karina Kling, the political anchor for Spectrum News’ “Capital Tonight” in Austin, is among those seeking to put together a debate.
“We’ve been working with both of them,” Kling said Sunday. “White’s team has confirmed, but we have not gotten any confirmation from Valdez. Her team has said they are still considering debates.”
Valdez hasn’t always performed well when asked questions she didn’t know in advance.
In endorsing White over its hometown candidate in the March Democratic primary, The Dallas Morning News wrote, “We were disappointed by her gross unfamiliarity with state issues, however, particularly an almost incoherent attempt to discuss state financing. At one point, Valdez, 70, volunteered that she didn’t know whether the state was spending $8 million or $8 billion on border control. (It’s closer $800 million.)”
On Wednesday, in an interview for Spectrum News, reporter Max Gorden asked Valdez about her failure to win the nomination outright by capturing more than half the vote in the March primary.
“You’ll have to remember there were nine of us, and if every one of them got 2 percent, I still couldn’t get 50 percent because of the amount of folks there were,” Valdez said. “But you’ll also remember I got the highest vote count. I had 43 percent of the vote. I tried to get that 50, but with so many of us that just wasn’t possible. Now that there are just two of us, we can actually decided who’s going to be the candidate.”
Of Valdez’s faulty primary math, campaign spokesman Dominguez said, “She misspoke.”