Candace Valenzuela defeated fellow Democrat Kim Olson in today’s runoff election in Texas’ 24th District. This November, she will face Beth Van Duyne, a former Trump administration official and former mayor of Irving, TX, in the general election, competing for a chance to replace retiring Republican Rep. Kenny Marchant.
Valenzuela, 36, a member of the local school board, hopes to become the first Afro-Latina elected to Congress in a newly competitive district in suburban Dallas-Fort Worth, where the political and demographic landscape is swiftly changing. “The biggest thing is that I’m rooted in my community,” Valenzuela told Refinery29 in a recent interview. “I’ve lived here for years. My husband and I work here. My son’s going to be attending the local elementary school.”
Olson, a retired Air Force colonel, finished first-place in the March primary. But since then, Valenzuela picked up speed in the polls, particularly since the nationwide protests for racial justice gave her an opportunity to speak about the challenges of growing up as a Black Latina.
In her launch video, Valenzuela describes growing up poor and being homeless as a child after her mother fled domestic abuse, at one point sleeping in a kiddie pool outside a gas station. “Kenny Marchant is listening to his donors, but back at home we’re not being heard,” she says.
“Candace immediately stood out not only because her story of resilience amid tremendous hardships is one that too many Americans can relate to today, but also because she was the only Latina running who was already representing part of the district,” California Rep. Tony Cárdenas, chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus political arm, said in a statement. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Congressional Black Caucus, and Asian American and Pacific Islander Congressional Caucus all endorsed Valenzuela, according to the Texas Tribune, making her the first 2020 candidate to earn the support of all three.
Ahead, we spoke with Valenzuela about how her life experience has influenced her policy ideas, why she believes she’s the best person for the job, and more.
How have your background and experience, particularly being homeless when you were younger, changed your socioeconomic perspective, and how do they influence the policies you support?
“I’ve learned that what it looks like to make your way back up after falling on hard times is pretty essential. Having access to housing through [the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development], having access to food stamps, having access to our public schools –– that was absolutely critical for me.
“The homelessness piece happened when I was really young. But my economic perspective was also refined by what I experienced after I got out of college. I crossed the T’s, I dotted the I’s, and in my very neat narrative presented in my launch video, they don’t talk about that part that happened between college — that full ride to Claremont McKenna — and the school board.
“What happened was that I graduated into the height of the recession. I had this $150,000 degree, but I didn’t have parents that were very well-connected. Both my mom and dad were enlisted military. I was having a really hard time finding a job that lined up with my experience, and I wasn’t alone. So, I ended up taking a job, and another, and another, because that was the only way I was going to be able to cover my health insurance, which was incredibly expensive. I had a pre-existing condition that made my health insurance even higher.
“From all this I learned about what the economy was doing for folks even if you did everything that they said you were supposed to do. Folks who didn’t necessarily have the opportunity to go to college. Does that say that they don’t deserve to have access to food, healthcare, and basics in order to survive? I think that’s really troubling.
“I don’t necessarily know that there’s enough awareness in our government that the goal post has shifted; the bar has been raised to an unacceptable point. And that’s definitely informed my policy as of late.”
How has your district changed in the past few years? What do you think could help a progressive candidate win in a borderline-red area like this?
“The demographics have been shifting pretty significantly. Texas-24, as of a few years ago, was a majority person-of-color district. Texas is trending in that direction as well. We also have a growing number of voters who are dissatisfied with the system of governance that’s been provided to them. I think that’s something that’s happening across the board, and that’s accelerated by COVID.
“We saw a lot of the results of this shift last cycle, when the candidate running for Congress was a Democrat, Jan McDowell. She worked hard, she got within three points. But Beto O’Rourke won this district running for Senate. And he won by getting out more people of color.
“And so, what we’re looking at is trying to pull up all of those folks that don’t necessarily know if they can relate to the folks down-ballot as well. Making sure that this isn’t just about defeating Donald Trump, but that it’s also about reimagining our system of governance so that it’s more responsive to people.”
With COVID cases and deaths recently spiking in Texas, what do you believe the government could have done differently to communicate vital public health information to people?
“They needed to listen to the science, and they needed to communicate that people needed to shut down for real and to wear a mask. And what our state government did was they downplayed the necessity of shutting down. We made headlines across the country for all of the wrong reasons. Our Lt. Governor [Dan Patrick] said something tantamount to, ‘I’m totally okay if your grandmother dies.’ And that’s not okay.
“It’s not okay to make this argument that it’s peoples’ lives versus the economy. When really, the economy exists for peoples’ lives. And the economy exists because of peoples’ lives.
“Letting a huge number of folks die — because people would get compromised immune systems for one reason or another, people of a certain age –– is actually really economically stupid.”
It’s not okay to make this argument that it’s peoples’ lives versus the economy. When really, the economy exists for peoples’ lives. And the economy exists because of peoples’ lives.
Speaking of places recklessly reopening too soon, what do you think about Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ insistence that schools reopen in the fall, despite concerns of COVID-19 spread?
“I do think that the best type of instruction for children and for development happens to be the kind that is in person. However, we are dealing with unprecedented times. And when we’re talking about the ease of the spread of COVID-19, and the related illnesses that come along with it that are hurting children, I don’t think that Betsy DeVos is really taking into account what it means to keep our kids safe.
“I might take her seriously if she said, ‘We should really reopen schools, and we’re going to talk about giving them federal funding for super-small class sizes and plenty of PPE and doing what it takes to protect our teachers, our faculty, our staff, our babies, and our families from greater community spread.’ But she says, ‘Oh no, it’s an overreaction. We should just go back.'”
You have discussed experiencing inordinately harsh and criminalized punishment as a Black child. How has that influenced your work on shutting down the school-to-prison pipeline?
“One of the ways I’m seeking to actively combat the school-to-prison pipeline is to make sure that we are pushing for better early-childhood education. That we are not suspending children if they’re under a certain age. Those out-of-school suspensions typically cause a lot of problems for children that are already having a hard time at home.
“It’s also important to make sure that we hire teachers that are from the community and provide them with the training not just to teach our kids — but in my school district we did a lot of trauma-informed training, to make sure that the teachers understood where the kids are coming from.
“On the federal level, it’s making sure that we have the funding for free lunch, for our bilingual education, for our special needs education.
“And finally, encouraging restorative practices in our schools. Making sure that we discourage the arrest of a six-year-old, because that’s not the appropriate measure for dealing with small children. And that’s going to take a lot of thoughtful engagement with the community in order to better look at our policing, both in and out of our schools.”
What kind of impact has COVID had on your own family?
“My mother-in-law is in her 70s, and at first it was a little bit hard to let her know that this was something that was very specifically dangerous for her, because she is in better shape than the whole family. She was a teacher for four decades. She’s been a lifeline for us because my one-year-old had trouble with illness, and because we don’t want my four-year-old to go to daycare right now with the risk. My husband is still working full-time. Campaigning for Congress is a full-time job as well. And being able to balance those things has been critical.
“It’s unimaginably tough for people right now who have been able to put together their lives on the basis of having their extended family involved; aunts, uncles, grandparents. Those are things that are pretty critical to me not just as an American, but also as a Latina. I’m used to having that really close contact with extended family members.
“COVID has broken a lot of that down. I feel like the government has failed to really capture what it looks like to be a part of a community in which you are dependent on each other and supporting each other. And what happens when you lose that support or that ability to help.”
You’ve been endorsed by an impressive roster of Democrats: Rep. John Lewis, Julián Castro, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Kamala Harris, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, and more. Why do you believe your message has resonated nationally, and with Democrats across the spectrum?
“I have a unique perspective coming from where I come from. I have the quintessential American story. It’s the story of families who are fighting to put food on the table, fighting to keep a roof over their head, fighting hard for the American Dream, to see their kids succeed. And I think that that story is one that resonates with folks across the spectrum.
“It’s also one of those stories that’s becoming increasingly out of reach for many Americans. Even before we were dealing with the ravages of COVID-19, we were dealing with inequity in education, inequity in access to water and air, inequity in justice. And these were problems that I was seeking to solve, and problems that I’m still seeking to solve now.”
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