The Dallas Morning News
Valdez relishes her role as underdog
She has little funding or staff, many critics, but has beaten odds, obstacles her whole life
When Lupe Valdez told Elba Garcia she was running for governor, the Dallas County commissioner thought it was a joke.
“I laughed,” Garcia recalls. “I said, ‘You must have a million dollars in your campaign.’ Then I saw the look on her face. It’s the same look she had when she told me she was running for sheriff, that look of determination.”
If she’s going to win the Democratic primary March 6 and upset Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in November, Valdez will need determination and more.
The former Dallas County sheriff is undertaking the challenge of a lifetime with a paltry campaign fund, a tiny staff and low name recognition outside Dallas County. And now she has a
tough primary battle against Houston investor Andrew White, the son of former Gov. Mark White. She’s stumbled at times, particularly when trying to make points on major issues.
As criticism mounts, Valdez is undaunted.
“Admittedly we’ve had a bad start,” Valdez said during an interview at Norma’s Cafe in Oak Cliff, her cheery disposition turning into a moment of seriousness. “I don’t care what the establishment says. I don’t care what they’re seeing. The people believe in us.”
Valdez’s belief that she can become governor is rooted in her life experiences, which have been defined by overcoming obstacles, blazing trails and a faith that God is directing her path.
Her campaign theme is an ode to the underdog, a role she’s most comfortable playing. From picking green beans on a Michigan farm, to becoming an undercover agent, to being the first woman, gay and Hispanic elected Dallas County sheriff, Valdez’s message is that with a good education and thriving community, anything is possible.
“When was it ever easy for you? When you were out in the field, when you were working two jobs, when you were one of the few women in the tank battalion?” she said of her talks with God. “You know what it is to get out and get the job done. Get up and go do it, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Valdez’s niece Martha Cortez is 11 years younger than Valdez and lived near the Valdez family in a San Antonio barrio.
“She’s honest and what she says is what she does,” Cortez said. “It’s great what she’s doing. She’s an inspiration. I just hope people are motivated and vote.”
Farm vs. school
Six years ago Valdez traveled to a farm in Armada, Mich., just outside Detroit, where her family lived during the summer. They picked green beans for the family that owned the place.
At the farm, she reflected on the “shack” her family lived in during harvest season, remembering how they had to sweep out the spiders and flies to make it livable. She remembered how she followed her mother around the fields, trying her best to keep pace.
“I played and I picked. ... I had my own little basket. My mother was always behind me making sure I did it right,” Valdez said. “Take the ones on top and pull up the plant to get the beans underneath.”
Guadalupe Valdez was born Oct. 11, 1947, in San Antonio, the youngest of eight children of migrant farm workers Plinio and Teresa Valdez.
Lupe and her brother, Ramiro, came along 11 years after their other siblings, and the gap between children would embolden her mother to insist that young Lupe not be relegated to a life in the fields or other blue-collar pursuits. Teresa Valdez insisted on education, even as her husband countered that his youngest daughter should get a job or get married.
“She had six kids, then 11 years of no children and then two more,” Valdez said. “I guess during the 11 years, she determined education was important for her children.”
The arguments over young Lupe’s development raged for years. Then one year her father left for Michigan with the five older children, leaving Valdez, her brother and mother in their hometown in San Antonio.
“He took the five older kids and he left,” she said. “The joke among the women was that he couldn’t make it, that he would be back. ... He came back within two months.”
“The last of the two children were able to go to college. My brother has a Ph.D. and I have a master’s,” Valdez said.
Valdez attended Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, Okla. She got her master’s degree in criminal justice from the University of Texas at Arlington.
Her family’s struggle is a reason Valdez is passionate that every Texan deserves a good education, a foundation of her campaign for governor.
At the farm in Michigan, Valdez remembered the family’s hard times while waiting to meet members of the Crydeman family, the farm’s owners.
“I just sat in my car and cried,” she said.
Mark Crydeman, the grandson of the man who owned their family farm, has since struck a friendship with Valdez. Crydeman, who is one year older than Valdez, said he played with Valdez and her brother when they were kids.
“The whole thing was pretty amazing,” Crydeman said. “When you think about how far she has come, and what a success she is, it’s truly amazing. She’s an incredible person and she can be governor.”
After school, Valdez began working different jobs in law enforcement.
While a corrections officer in Kansas City, she stumbled on a flyer for the Army reserve.
“I saw an ad that said get paid for weekend work,” Valdez said. “I said, ‘Heck, I can do weekend work and get paid.’”
In the Army, Valdez rose to the rank of captain.
After Kansas City, she began working for various departments of the federal government as a law enforcement officer or agent. For the Department of Agriculture, for instance, she specialized in curbing food stamp fraud. It was there she saw the importance of diversity.
“I became a great undercover for food stamps,” Valdez said. “I was the female minority and they were all white guys. How are they going to be undercover for food stamps?”
During her career with the federal government, she also worked for the U.S. Customs Service and the Department of Homeland Security before retiring in 2004.
While working for the federal government, Valdez discovered her sexuality.
“Even in my dreams, I was never the princess. I was the one helping the princess,” she said. “When I became aware of my sexuality, the struggle was with God. I came out late because I was too busy trying to get out of where I was. I didn’t want to end up in the barrio.”
Valdez said she realizes she was accepted by God.
“Think of the poor children every day who hear that it’s not OK,” she said.
Valdez says the harsh stand Abbott took in pushing proposals to restrict the bathrooms used by transgender residents sends a terrible message to Texans.
She also blasted Abbott for pushing the state’s sanctuary cities law that she says discriminates against Hispanic residents.
“That’s what energizes me, the fact that we need to make some changes,” she said.
New sheriff in town
After her work with the government, Valdez looked to campaign for elected office.
In 2004, she decided to run for Dallas County sheriff. At the time, no Democrat held major countywide office, and Valdez was unknown in Dallas County.
Garcia, the county commissioner, remembers when Valdez told her she was running for sheriff. She assumed she would try for a lower elected post.
“She’s very passionate when she wants something,” Garcia said. “She goes hard at it.”
Valdez won the Democratic primary in a runoff against Jim Foster and went on to beat Republican Danny Chandler in a close contest.
“Everybody counted me out,” she said. “That’s just that they don’t know me. Let me give you a chance to know me, and that’s what I have to do for this race.”
She was re-elected easily in 2008, 2012 and 2016.
“She’s funny and she’s short, but never underestimate Lupe Valdez,” Garcia said. “She’s a fighter. She knows how to get people to work with her.”
Kirk McPike, now the chief of staff for Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., managed Valdez’s second campaign for sheriff.
“She won over most of her detractors and outlasted the rest,” McPike said of Valdez’s tenure as sheriff.
Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price has praised her effort to bring the county jail into compliance with federal guidelines.
But Valdez says her greatest contribution was smashing intolerance in the department.
“It was a mean department,” she said. “It was not uncommon to beat up minorities. It was a culture of ‘I’m the cop. You shut up.’ That was the type of culture I came into.”
There are detractors. Sgt. Chris Dyer, president of the Dallas County Sheriff ’s Association and a 31-year veteran of the department, said Valdez was not a good leader.
“We all felt she was clueless as sheriff and she will carry that on everywhere she goes,” Dyer said. “I don’t think she’s qualified to be governor.”
Can she really win?
Since Valdez announced her campaign in December, she’s had some early missteps.
With the March 6 primary looming, she has yet to hire a campaign manager. She runs her campaign out of her north Oak Cliff home, where workers share space with her three rescue dogs and her partner, Lindsay Brown.
Kiefer Odell, fresh out of the University of Texas, has been with Valdez from the beginning, serving as communications director and doing whatever the campaign needs.
Texas Ethics Commission reports show she’s raised $100,000 for the campaign, though she said recently that total had passed $125,000 since the last reporting period. They have little by way of campaign materials, though the bumper stickers came in recently.
Valdez lost major endorsements from media companies and a gay and lesbian group in Houston because she sometimes appears to struggle with the issues. recommended White in a stinging blow from her hometown voice.
But McPike says Valdez will gain momentum as the campaign progresses, the same way she did in her first race for sheriff.
“She’s put herself out there in ways most of us have not,” he said. “Running for governor of Texas is a bigger lift than running for president of France. ... In the long run, Lupe will figure it out. That’s what she does.”
Abbott has over $40 million in his campaign fund and seems unbeatable. But right now, Valdez has to worry about making a May runoff.
She disagrees that Abbott and White have a better grasp of the issues.
“They are better at pulling BS,” Valdez said. “They are better at putting out a bunch of stuff that don’t make sense. I’m not good at that, but we’re working at it. I don’t want to do BS, I want to do reality.”
She bristles at the thought that she’s destined for certain defeat.
“Would I be running if I think I couldn’t win?” she said. “I had a pretty nice job. ... Do you honestly think I would give up all of that if I didn’t think I could win? There’s a new energy in Texas. I’m going to go out and find that.”
Cal Jillson, an SMU political scientist, said Valdez is navigating political life outside of her uniform, which shaped her political persona.
“That was the bubble in which she could be her calm, quiet self,” Jillson said. “Running for governor is an entirely different deal.”
Earlier this month, Valdez and Odell got in her campaign truck and made campaign stops in Houston, Austin, Lubbock and Midland before ending up in Brownsville.
Her black truck has three stickers, one that says Lupe for Governor, another with the words Lupe for Sheriff and a third that boldly states “Don’t mess with Texas women.”
What excited Valdez most about the trip was the company she was with, newly appointed campaign worker Cooper Miller.
“We just hired a driver,” she said. “He starts at 6 a.m. tomorrow. Let’s see how long he’ll last.”