LGBT Texan Of The Year: Lupe Valdez

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(DV) There were four openly-LGBT gubernatorial candidates across the U.S. running in this year’s mid-term elections. Dallas County’s former sheriff, Latina lesbian Lupe Valdez was one of them.

While Valdez did not succeed in her bid to oust Republican incumbent Greg Abbott, she brought in nearly 43 percent of the vote — an amazing feat for an openly-LGBT Democrat in a state-wide race in such a deep red Republican stronghold.

Valdez’s campaign signaled a huge step forward for LGBT candidates — indeed, for all progressive candidates — in Texas. And for that reason, Dallas Voice names Lupe Valdez as our LGBT Texan of the year.

Valdez’s race was, “transformative,” said LGBT Victory Fund CEO Annise Parker, the former mayor of Houston who is herself a history-making LGBT candidate in Texas. And, she added, Valdez knew “when she got into it” that her run for governor was a long shot, a total uphill race.

Still, Parker said, Valdez is “an experienced candidate” with a compelling personal story.

Valdez is the child of migrant workers. She grew up in San Antonio, in a neighborhood without paved streets. On the campaign trail, she often told the story of commuting across town to attend a better high school and stopping in the bathroom when she got to school each morning to wipe the mud off her shoes. 

After she graduated from high school, Valdez paid for her own college and earned a masters degree in criminology from UT Arlington.

Valdez joined the U.S. National Guard, reaching the rank of captain. She then went on to work as a federal agent, investigating fraud and abuse in the U.S. and working undercover in South America to gather information about drug traffickers and money launderers.

As sheriff, Lupe Valdez always rode in the Pride Parade

In 2004, Dallas County Sheriff Jim Bowles, who had been in office for 20 years, was fighting allegations of corruption. A 30-year veteran of the sheriff’s department defeated Bowles in the Republican Primary, and Valdez won the Democratic Primary. The Latina lesbian was all but written off in the general election, but she surprised just about everyone by winning. With that victory, Valdez joined a handful of other Democrats to become the first Democrats to win county-wide office in Dallas in years. It was the year that Dallas County turned blue.

When she took office, Valdez knew that very few people in the sheriff’s department supported her. So she spent quite a bit of her first year as the county’s top cop winning over the support of her staff — and then replacing those who refused to accept the leadership of the country’s first lesbian Latina sheriff.

One of her biggest challenges as sheriff was bringing the county jail up to standards. Poor sanitation, an inadequate smoke evacuation system and substandard medical and mental health care plagued Lew Sterrett Justice Center. And the number of guards at the jail fell below a legally mandated guard-to-inmate ratio.

In 2010, the jail finally passed state and federal inspection for the first time in years. 

In 2016, Valdez hit the national stage when she was a prime-time featured speaker at the Democratic National Convention, and rumors that she was planning a run for higher office began to fly. But Valdez remained as sheriff until 2017, when she officially declared her candidacy for governor.

At that time, Kate Brown, who identifies as bisexual, had been governor of Oregon since 2015. The country’s only other LGBT governor was New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey, who came out in 2004 and immediately resigned from office amid scandal.

This year, in addition Valdez here in Texas and Brown, who won her re-election in Oregon, transgender candidate Christine Hallquist ran for governor of Vermont and Jared Polis, who is gay, ran for governor of Colorado. Hallquist lost in Vermont, but in Colorado, Polis made history as the first gay men elected governor of a U.S. state.

While Valdez didn’t win the governor’s seat in Texas, her campaign still has some victories to claim: Valdez closed the electoral gap between herself and Abbott by 6 percent compared to the 2014 election when Abbott defeated popular and high-profile Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis. Valdez got more than 1.7 million more votes than Davis did, and almost 800,000 more votes than Abbott did in his first governor’s race.

In addition to being the first lesbian to run for governor in Texas, she was the first Latina to run for the office. And she was only the fourth woman to receive a major party’s nomination for governor in Texas. 

Had she won, Valdez would have been only the third Catholic governor in Texas — Abbott is Catholic, as was Francis Lubbock who served from 1861 to 1863. But Valdez would have been the first Texas governor to have been born Catholic rather than converting after marrying a Catholic.

All of those factors figured into making her election a long shot in red Texas. But Valdez addressed that the night she won her runoff against Andrew White, son of former Gov. Mark White: “I am constantly hearing this is going to be such an uphill battle,” she told a crowd of supporters gathered for her runoff. “Please, tell me when I didn’t have an uphill battle.” 

Parker said Valdez connected to everyday people across Texas. 

“Lupe is Texas,” Parker said. “She built bridges. She connected to kids facing their own challenges. Win or lose, she was inspirational.”

While she doesn’t expect Valdez to run another statewide race, she said she hopes she stays engaged, especially with the state’s growing Spanish-speaking population. She can, Parker predicted, “be an amazing bridge-builder” with that community.

Valdez has been part of the Victory Fund family since her first campaign, and Parker said she expects the former sheriff will remain involved, teaching a new generation of candidates across the country how to run for office.

For Equality Texas CEO Chuck Smith, Valdez’s story is compelling. “She’s who we are as Texans,” he said. She demonstrates “our grit; our resourcefulness. We persevere through anything. She speaks to many people.”

And incoming Stonewall Democrats President Brandon Vance called Valdez an inspiration. “Her race was great in that way, especially to black and brown children,” Vance said, noting that young minority children can look at Valdez and said, “I can serve the public. She just did it.”

Vance said she inspired him to become the first African-American president of Stonewall and to run for public office himself. Most recently, Vance was a candidate in the Dallas City Council District 4 special election in November.

Vance also praised Valdez for being openly LGBT, too. “Over the years, she’s been open about who she is,” he said, noting that the first time he met Valdez, he was at the Round-Up Saloon.

A friend told Vance, “Hey, there’s the Dallas County sheriff,” and he responded, “What’s she doing here?” His friend answered, “Just enjoying herself with friends.”

So Vance walked over and introduced himself to the sheriff who was, he said, warm and gracious. Vance said he told her then that she made him proud.

Resource Center CEO Cece Cox praised Valdez’s gubernatorial campaign for raising visibility. “In Texas, it’s no small feat to run as an openly gay candidate,” Cox said. “We know she didn’t win, but her race was an act of bravery in itself.”

And, Cox said, Valdez inspired other people to run and be involved during her tenure as sheriff. “What I have noticed is that she showed up everywhere,” even though she could have played it safe by staying on the sidelines of the LGBT community, Cox said.

“But a lot of organizations would ask her to do things and she would show up every time,” Cox said. “She was engaged with the community.”

There are very few female sheriffs, Cox said. So “having an out, elected official in a position traditionally held by a man, that again opens up those doors and conversations and opportunities for people who come after her. Maybe someday we’ll get to a place where sexual orientation doesn’t matter, a time when what matters is what kind of person we are and how well we do our jobs. But we aren’t there yet.”

Mark Phariss, who ran for a state Senate seat in Far North Dallas and Collin County, called the Valdez campaign historic.

“I went block walking with her and she’s a hard worker,” Phariss said. “She very savvy. I respect her as a campaigner and like her as a person. I enjoyed spending time with her.”

Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance President Patti Fink said Valdez has given people in the community hope.

“She’s been elected four times,” Fink said. “She’s shown you can be LGBT, elected and out.”

She called Valdez an amazing leader in the past and expects her to continue to be a role model for the LGBT community in the future.              

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