Magda Gonzales has dreamt about Lupe Valdez.
In the dream, Valdez is campaigning in the border community of El Cenizo, a one-time colonia 16 miles south of Laredo where Gonzales lives, and Gonzales is vainly running all over the barely half-square-mile city of about 800 households trying to find Valdez and get a picture with her.
Wednesday night, at a lively rally at the Pan American Courts food truck park and beer garden in Laredo, Gonzales caught up with Valdez, 70, considered the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for governor, amid a final campaign swing that also took her to Corpus Christi, Kingsville, McAllen, El Paso and San Antonio. She is scheduled to end up Sunday night at the Travis County Democratic Party Ice Cream Social at VFW Post 856 in Austin.
“Lupe’s story is like mine,” Gonzales said of growing up without sidewalks or indoor plumbing. “I said, `Yes, that’s the one.’ And Beto O’Rourke, he’s the one. He is so empathetic. He’s here, he’s there, he’s all over the place, and that’s what we need, people that are passionate.”
O’Rourke, a three-term congressman from El Paso won the Democratic primary in March for the top spot on the Democratic ticket in November, challenging the re-election of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. But Valdez, a former Dallas County sheriff who received the most votes in the nine-way March primary, must prevail over 45-year-old Houston businessman Andrew White in Tuesday’s runoff to join O’Rourke on the 2018 Democratic statewide ticket.
Does Gonzales, who said she already has brought 100 folks to early vote in El Cenizo, know anything about White?
“No, actually,” she said. “I don’t want to know nothing about him. I’m focusing on Lupe.”
For Texas Democrats, O’Rourke is both the top of the ticket and, with his fundraising prowess and tireless campaigning style, their best chance of snapping a 24-year losing streak statewide. Which means that as Democrats choose between Valdez and White, an obvious question is which candidate would do the most to help, or at least not hurt, O’Rourke’s chances.
“Any Democratic candidate running statewide has to acknowledge that Beto is going to be the high-water mark,” said Josh Blank, the director of polling and research for the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas. “The question as a candidate you are usually thinking about is what the other party’s candidate is going to do. But for Democrats this year, it is just as important to think about how Beto is going to run his campaign and how you can supplement and feed off of it.”
When he jumped in the race in December, White, the son of former Gov. Mark White, was far less known politically than Valdez, a breakthrough politician when she was first elected sheriff in 2004, part of the transformation of Dallas County from red to blue. Valdez was serving her fourth term as Dallas County sheriff when she stepped down at the end of last year to run for governor, instantly becoming the presumptive front-runner.
But, after a halting start, White, who made a small fortune as a Houston entrepreneur and investor, proved a quick study and capitalized on assorted political missteps by Valdez that led a variety of opinion makers to conclude he is better prepared to be governor and do battle with Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in the general election. Several large Texas newspapers endorsed White, as well as a major LGBT group in Houston and Jolt, an organization of young Latino activists.
“That’s not a fluke,” said Judy Donohue, president of the Lake Travis Democrats, which sponsored an event in Lakeway at which White spoke to a mostly white audience of about 100 Wednesday night even as Valdez was speaking to an audience of some 60 Latinos in Laredo.
“I have no idea why Lupe Valdez decided to run for governor,” said Donohue, who said her club is split between Valdez and White. She’s prefers White to Valdez.
“She’s a rah-rah girl,” Donohue said of Valdez. “She needs to play that role. She needs to get people out to vote.”
But, despite her sometimes rough ride, Valdez’s appearance before a delighted crowd in Laredo is a reminder why she remains the favorite Tuesday and why, more than White, she has the potential to deliver crucial votes for O’Rourke and the rest of the ticket.
“We need to get the Latinos fired up and voting,” declared a fired-up Valdez. “My name is Lupe Valdez, and I have a voice, and I am going to put my name on that voice, and you are going to hear me very loud. We need to vote.”
At the Pan American Court, a cultural and political gathering spot, her audience seemed to love everything about Valdez — her recounting of her hardscrabble San Antonio beginnings as the eighth child of a family of migrant workers, her service in the military, as a federal agent for Customs and Homeland Security, her 13 years as the sheriff in Dallas County, her historic role as an out lesbian in Texas politics, and the way she weaves warmly remembered Spanish colloquialisms into her speeches.
“I can tell you that more people identify here with her than do with Beto, and I think it’s because she represents a cross section of everything that Laredo is kind of struggling to find,” said 23-year-old David Barrera, who recently organized a branch of the San Antonio nonprofit MOVE — Mobilize, Organize, Vote, Empower — in Laredo. “We love our vets. We respect our women. She’s Hispanic. It’s an interesting thing because I have not met anybody here who doesn’t like her – even the Republicans are like, `I like her.’”
Barrera, who founded the Webb County Young Democrats, will needle those Hispanic Republicans, telling them, “but she’s for abortion,” and he said they’ll respond, “Well, you can’t like everything about a person.”
“I think you’ve got a lot of people here who don’t know any other single candidate but who know who she is because of Hispanic media,” Barrera said. “You see a lot of coverage, especially here in a border town.”
Barrera was impressed when he walked with O’Rourke through a Laredo neighborhood during a campaign swing a couple of weeks ago with how he seamlessly moved back and forth between Spanish and English. But Valdez, he said, has a more intimate, organic way into the heart of voters here.
“I’ve heard Beto O’Rourke. He is such an eloquent orator, he has his points – A, B, C, D,” Barrera said. “She speaks very simply, very comfortably, but it resonates with her because she looks like somebody I grew up with. She looks like my grandmother, and I love my grandmother.”
“I just have to listen to her because if not, I’m going to get emotional because my grandmother didn’t get the chance to do X, Y and Z, because she was born into a machismo culture that held her down and she, to this day, still holds to those tenets,” Barrera said. But, he said, his grandmother has made it very clear, “I’m going to vote for her.”
Webb County, like much of the rest of South Texas, is deep blue.
O’Rourke “is going to win this county,” Barrera said. “It’s just a question of how big he is going to win it.”
And that might depend in some measure on who the Democratic candidate for governor is.
Both Wendy Davis in 2014 and O’Rourke in 2018 lost Webb County to little-known Hispanic opponents in the Democratic primaries. In a two-person race, Davis won 10,446 votes, or 44.2 percent, against Reynaldo “Ray” Madrigal, a former Corpus Christi municipal court judge and frequent candidate for various offices. O’Rourke, in a three-person race, won 8,803 votes, or 41.7 percent, finishing second to Sema Hernandez from Houston, a Bernie Sanders supporter, who won nearly half the vote.
In the Democratic primary, Valdez won 12,191 votes, or 58.7 percent of the vote in Webb County. White finished a very distant second with 1,968 votes, or 9.5 percent. He has essentially forfeited the Rio Grande Valley in the runoff, devoting his time and resources elsewhere.
Turnout is everything. The big difference for Democrats in 2014 was not that Abbott performed all that much better than Perry had four years earlier. It was that Davis performed significantly worse than 2010 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White, winning 4,000 fewer votes than White in Webb County, and some 300,000 fewer votes statewide.
O’Rourke, working tirelessly for more than a year, has devoted himself to visiting all 254 counties in Texas, going places where Democrats long ago stopped competing, to reduce the margin he will lose by in many of those places. But that won’t help much if he can’t drive up turnout in South Texas. Sergio Mora, the former Webb County Democratic Party chairman who emceed Wednesday’s Valdez rally, said, “Lupe being an Hispanic female just adds to the ticket in ways I don’t think Andrew White can.”
White’s counterargument is that, most urgently, “what we need is a candidate at the top of the ticket who can organize a campaign. She doesn’t help the ticket in money-raising. She doesn’t help the ticket in being able to articulate policy and a vision for the state. If she’s going to help Beto, she’s going to have to learn all these other things, which she’s proven not to be able to do, so the question is not helping with one group or the other. The question is can you help the ticket, which I’ve proven I can in more ways than one.”
White pointed to a Quinnipiac Poll released in mid-April, which rated the Texas Senate race as “too close to call,” with Cruz at 47 percent and O’Rourke at 44 percent.
While the poll found Abbott with strong job approval numbers, it also gave him only 7 points more than White, 48 percent to White’s 41 percent. Abbott had 9 points more than Valdez, 49 percent to her 40 percent.
“To be able to say I’m within 7 points, and people really don’t know who I am — I think the Democratic donors will be excited to see what we have to offer in this general election,” White told the American-Statesman. “I don’t have to raise as much money as Greg Abbott to be successful, but we do have to raise a big chunk of money to put together a race, and I think I have best chance of doing that.”
Overall, White has raised $624,000 and loaned his campaign $1 million while Valdez has raised $370,000 and loaned her campaign $20,000 — very small amounts for a gubernatorial campaign and a tiny fraction of Abbott’s record war chest.
“Andrew White’s a safe candidate,” Blank said. “He’s probably not going to screw up that much, but he’s also probably not going to do much to help O’Rourke. Andrew White is the Democrats’ candidate from a party that no longer exists. His strongest case has been that he will probably run a more competent campaign, and I think that’s probably true, and he will probably inflict fewer wounds on himself than she would, but the upside is also pretty low.”
‘Not your everyday politician’
With $41 million in cash on hand as of its last report in February, the Abbott campaign has been treating Valdez as the presumptive nominee. In recent weeks, the campaign has set up an anti-Valdez campaign website, beating up on her for her support of abortion rights and opposition to Senate Bill 4, the state law enacted last year banning so-called sanctuary cities
“A year ago, Gov. Abbott signed legislation that banned sanctuary cities in Texas to ensure we get dangerous criminals off our streets and keep our communities safe,” Texans for Greg Abbott spokesman Alex Treviño said in releasing an anti-Valdez web video Wednesday. “While the governor was fighting to pass this legislation and keep Texans safe, Lupe Valdez joined fearmongers in opposition to the law. Lupe Valdez has made clear she would ‘eviscerate’ the ban on sanctuary cities, preferring instead to make Texas a sanctuary state in the footsteps of California.”
But those are fighting words for Magda Gonzales.
“Lupe’s going to help us as Latinos to stop the hate,” Gonzales. “I think it’s not fair to stop me and ask me for my papers.”
In fact, it was Gonzales’ eldest son, Raul Reyes, who, as the mayor of El Cenizo — he was first elected 13 years ago at the age of 21 — brought the first suit to block implementation of SB 4. Reyes, who was turned on to Valdez by his mother and had never met her before, introduced Valdez to the Laredo crowd Wednesday night. He is now the Democratic candidate for Webb County treasurer.
White said it’s clear that Abbott sees Valdez as an easier mark and is focusing his attention on her in hopes of helping her win the nomination.
“He’s aware that I’m not the average person that has gone against him,” Valdez told the Statesman. “I think he’s just getting an early start. He’s starting earlier because he knows he’s got a challenge ahead of him. I’m not your everyday politician.”
Valdez is untroubled by any stumbles along the way.
“You get better as you go,” Valdez said. “This is not my first election. When have I done one that was easy?”
Valdez said that if she is the nominee she is prepared to address the full range of issues a governor must confront.
“We’re up to the challenge. We will be where I need to be,” she said.
An avatar of Hispanic ascendance
Valdez expects the general election campaign to get ugly.
“He’s going to tear me down any way he can — this way and that way and that way and that way, he’s going to tear me down,” Valdez said of Abbott. “But when it’s over I’m still going to be standing.”
“‘It is going to be unpleasant,” Valdez said. “That’s the type of human being he is.”
Abbott wants to crush Valdez the way he crushed Davis, defeating her by 20 points, but that might be difficult. Republicans nationally enjoyed a very good year in 2014. This year is looking a lot better for Democrats in races across the country.
But Abbott also has bragged about winning 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2014. He has said that it is imperative that the first Latino governor of Texas be a Republican. He frequently notes that his wife, Cecilia, a Mexican-American, is the first Latina first lady in Texas history.
Block said that if Valdez is the nominee and she cuts into Abbott’s margin with Latinos, she can, even without winning, help set up the Democratic narrative going forward.
“He can say, ‘Well that’s because I was running against an Hispanic candidate and surely she was going to do better than Wendy Davis,’” Blank said. “But every Democrat can say, `No, it’s because your party has made it a point to disrespect Hispanics in the state.’”
In serving that purpose, Blank said of Valdez, “Her biggest weakness may also be her biggest strength. She’s not a very good politician per se, but she’s a good avatar of the Hispanic ascendance in the state.”
O’Rourke won’t say who he’s voting for in the runoff, though he publicly nudged Valdez to accept a debate with White to better inform undecided voters like himself. Apart from passing greetings when they crossed paths twice at Austin events, Valdez and O’Rourke have never had a conversation.
But, Valdez said, that’s understandable.
“We’ve both been busy as all get-out,” she said.