Lupe Valdez is a woman, a Hispanic, a Democrat and a lesbian -- and, come Jan. 1, she's entering the ranks of Texas good ol' boys. Valdez is becoming Sheriff Lupe.
Any one description -- female, Latina, Democrat and openly gay -- would have qualified Valdez's election as Dallas County sheriff for the local history books. But all four?
"Who would've ever imagined . . .?" editorialized the Dallas Morning News, which endorsed Valdez. Valdez, who faced three opponents in a March Democratic primary and then advanced to an April runoff, last week edged out Republican Danny Chandler, a 30-year veteran of the Sheriff's Department.
Valdez won 51 percent of the vote, overcoming the opposition of the unions that represent the 1,785 employees in the Sheriff's Department and an eleventh-hour alarm sounded by Chandler and the conservative Texas Eagle Forum about her acceptance of campaign contributions from the Washington-based Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund.
"It has not that much to do with me," Valdez, 57, a retired federal law enforcement officer, said as she sat in her modest campaign office in Dallas's largely Hispanic Oak Cliff neighborhood. The former migrant farm worker, who picked green beans and beets as a child and went on to a career in the military and federal government, and who recently earned a master's degree in criminology, lives in the neighborhood, with its multitude of bungalows, taquerias and Latino-owned auto body shops.
"It speaks very well of Dallas County, for them to be comfortable in looking at my credentials and feeling comfortable that I could do the job," she said. "What does female, what does Hispanic, what does any of this have to do with this? What is important is your experience, your ability and your willingness to do the job."
It speaks also of a political trend in one of Texas's largest urban counties: a growing Democratic and Latino electorate. In one of the most Republican states four years ago and this presidential election, President Bush's margin of victory was relatively small in Dallas County. In 2000 an unknown, underfinanced Democratic candidate for district judge lost by less than a percentage point, and in 2002 two female Hispanic Democratic candidates for district judge fell just short of winning. Then, last week, more than 600,000 voters turned out, electing Dallas County's first Hispanic district judge and its first Hispanic sheriff, both Democrats and both women.
"Dallas has been viewed as the beachhead, where we start turning the state back Democratic," said Susan Hays, chairwoman of the Dallas County Democratic Party.
Valdez's election, along with that of 40 openly gay or lesbian candidates nationwide, is also viewed as "huge," said an official of the Victory Fund. The political action committee was created in 1991 to work on increasing the number of openly gay public officials at all levels.
In an election in which 11 states passed proposals barring same-sex marriage, the candidates' wins prove that "when you have an openly gay candidate that people get to meet, get to share views with, voters are very open," said Robin Brand, vice president of campaigns and elections for the Victory Fund. "Lupe won because of her credentials. She has a background that made her very attractive, and she had a great message about bringing change to the sheriff's office."
Headed by the same sheriff for 20 years, the Dallas County Sheriff's Department was rocked recently by allegations of cronyism and corruption. Sheriff Jim Bowles, a Republican, was indicted earlier this year after an investigation into the county jail's commissary contract. The indictment was dismissed, and Bowles ran in the Republican primary to try to keep his job, but he lost to Chandler.
Valdez said she decided to run for sheriff to restore integrity and trust to the department. Prohibited from running for a partisan office while a federal employee, she took early retirement in January from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, where she worked as a criminal investigator and undercover officer in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division. She worked 23 of her 28 years in law enforcement as a federal agent for the General Services Administration, the Department of Agriculture and U.S. customs, before and after it was incorporated into Homeland Security.
"What have we come to when we can't say 'elected official' in the same sentence as 'interest of the people' or 'honesty' or 'trust'?" Valdez asked.
Referring to other recent scandals that affected local law enforcement agencies, she said: "In all areas you looked at in Dallas County, the badge was tainted. But I know that most of those people are good people who work hard. We can bring integrity back into the department and run it like it should be: to serve and protect the public."
Her Republican opponent, who worked in the Sheriff's Department for three decades, then left to take over Dallas County's office of security and emergency management, also campaigned on a platform promoting systemic change. The race was fairly cordial until five days before the election, when Chandler sent out a mass mailing criticizing Valdez's acceptance of a Victory Fund endorsement and money. He was joined by the Texas Eagle Forum, saying it would be inappropriate for a sheriff to advocate for Victory Fund platforms on issues such as same-sex marriage and federal gay and lesbian civil rights legislation.
Valdez responded by calling the attack a "desperate" move.
Now focused on assembling a transition team, Valdez is preparing to take over a department with a $90 million budget whose primary function is to run six county jails and supervise 7,000 inmates. She will be the only female sheriff of Texas's 254 when she is sworn in Jan. 1. Her role as an advocate in the future, she said, will be focused on "crime prevention and safety issues or inmate issues or better pay for the employees."