In a stunner, Jolt, a year-old organization of young Hispanic Texans with ambitions of spurring a surge in turnout this year, endorsed Andrew White over Lupe Valdez for the Democratic nomination for governor Sunday after a town hall at which Valdez failed to effectively answer questions about whether her record as Dallas County sheriff was “anti-immigrant.”
“I think they saw a clear difference in the ability to understand and articulate a vision for the future,” White said of the endorsement by Jolt’s leadership after the better than two-hour town hall before an audience of some 200 at the Austin Film Society Cinema.
Founder and Executive Director Cristina Tzintzun said they chose the name Jolt “because when Latinos come out to vote, we are going to be a shock to the political system, not only of Texas but of the entire country.”
Their first endorsement ever could also jolt a race for governor in which Valdez, who led White in the March 6 primary 43 percent to 27 percent, is seen as a heavy favorite in the May 22 runoff because of her identity as a path-breaking Latina who was elected Dallas County sheriff four times.
White, who in February won the Houston GLBT Political Caucus even though Valdez is a lesbian and he is straight, said Jolt’s backing defied “the knee-jerk expectation that she would get the endorsement.”
“It says a lot about the organization, it says a lot about Lupe, and it says a lot about me,” said White, a Houston entrepreneur and the son of former Gov. Mark White.
It was a question from Karla Quiñones, an 18-year-0ld senior at W.T. White High School in Dallas, that crystallized ongoing concerns about Valdez’s record in the Latino activist community, and her inability to offer a crisp and clear response.
“Miss Valdez,” said Quiñones, the daughter of Mexican immigrants who grew up watching Valdez coverage on Univision, the Spanish-language television network, “you were the sheriff of Dallas County for many years, and it seems that your legacy was one of supporting anti-immigrant policies that actually expanded ICE enforcement.”
“Given that, one, the Dallas community walked out of your forum with (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) saying that you turned your backs on them; two, you complied with every ICE request for warrantless ICE detentions even when other counties, like Travis County, were taking a courageous stand against them … why should we trust you today?”
Valdez thanked Quiñones for a “chance to explain.”
“Of course, look at me, I’m going to fight for as much immigration as I can,” Valdez said, detailing her vigorous opposition to Senate Bill 4, the ban on so-called sanctuary cities passed by the Legislature and signed into law last year by Gov. Greg Abbott.
She talked about the May 2015 community engagement meeting in Dallas at which immigrant activists confronted Sarah Saldaña, director of ICE, over what crimes constituted just cause for deportation.
“I brought in the director of ICE so they could come and explain the whole situation that was going on, and there were a couple of people who were upset with me because I couldn’t explain what was going on, and they literally got up and turned their backs and walked away,” Valdez said. “The thing that was uncomfortable about that was there were many people there that needed to hear what they needed to do, what they could do, and the director of ICE was standing right there to tell them. But because of that, they weren’t able to hear the direction that could have been given and the paths that they could take.”
After the town hall, Valdez was asked about Quiñones’ question suggesting she had an “anti-immigrant” record.
“I think it was one person’s opinion,” Valdez said, recalling her vocal opposition to SB 4.
“As you recall, the governor actually sent me what I call nastygrams because of my decision of defense of the people that were being deported and separated from their parents,” Valdez said.
Valdez was also asked about a 2015 federal civil rights lawsuit brought by Dallas County jail inmates against the county and her as sheriff, claiming they were being illegally detained because of “immigration holds” placed on them for ICE.
Valdez said the lawsuit was “filed against immigration being able to take people from the jail; the lawsuit was against the authority of ICE to be able to deport.”
“The lawsuit is still going on, so I have be real careful how I discuss that,” Valdez said.
Asked about Quiñones’ question of whether she deserves the trust of the Latino community, Valdez said, “I think there’s a misunderstanding of the track record. I went to fight SB 4 way before anybody else.”
With that, Valdez told the scrum of reporters, “I’ve given you some answers. You wanted some answers, and I’ve given them to you. OK, now let us do what we love to do best and deal with some of the voters and go on to some of the other things we’ve got to do.”
“I think the story is Lupe is not who we think she is in many respects, and that young lady and her question makes it clear, and the fact that Lupe didn’t answer the question makes it even more clear,” White said. “She danced around it.
“She’s still not answering the questions in a detailed, specific manner, and today shows that one more time. That’s why she has been avoiding a debate this whole time.”
Jolt also endorsed U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Republican Ted Cruz on Sunday, but that was no surprise.
O’Rourke, who addressed the town hall, reiterated afterward for reporters that as a “genuine, undecided, interested voter in Texas,” he would like to see White and Valdez debate.