Nation’s only lesbian Latina sheriff fends off anti-gay attacks, pledges to put aside differences and ‘do the right thing’
Earlier this year, Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez’s critics tried to make a big deal out of the fact that her campaign was getting a lot of financial support from LGBT donors out of state.
Jonathan Neerman, chairman of the Dallas County Republican Party, told The Dallas Morning News in October that Valdez — the nation’s only lesbian Latina sheriff — was receiving contributions "because of her sexuality and not because of her competence."
"What interest do they have in a local sheriff’s race?" Neerman asked.
On Tuesday, Nov. 4, however, it was the LGBT community within Dallas County that appeared to give Valdez a big boost as she cruised to re-election over Republican challenger Lowell Cannaday.
In a race many expected to be close, Valdez trounced the former Irving police chief by more than 65,000 votes, according to unofficial results from the Dallas County elections office. Valdez captured 388,327 votes to Cannaday’s 322,808, or 55 percent to 45 percent.
In what Stonewall Democrats of Dallas has identified as the county’s eight most heavily LGBT precincts, Valdez enjoyed a margin of 66 percent to 34 percent, or 7,185 votes to 3,734.
On Wednesday, Valdez said the victory wouldn’t have been possible without the LGBT community, which in addition to money and votes contributed countless volunteer hours.
But Valdez cautioned that other groups also had a big hand in her re-election, including Hispanics, African-Americans and women.
"I think it’s best told by a Republican woman who came over and said, ‘The reason I voted for you was because in spite of the fact that everyone was attacking you and throwing dirt and doing all kinds of things, you just stayed steady doing the right thing and doing the job,’" said the 61-year-old Valdez, also the only female sheriff in Texas. "If the gay and lesbian community sees me as a role model, that’s just an honor for me. It’s not something that I would do differently. It’s just an honor. … We as gays and lesbians need to continue to work together with outside groups to do what is best for all of us."
Through his campaign staff, Cannaday has repeatedly declined requests for an interview from Dallas Voice.
Valdez called the attacks against her — which included several examples of gay-baiting — "painful" and "hurtful." But she pledged during her second term to try to work with even with those who were responsible for them.
"We can’t use our sexuality as an excuse for not doing the right thing," Valdez said. "What we have to do is to say to folks, ‘Look, we’re not going to do what was done to us, we’re smarter than that.’ We can’t continue the same process."
Like other Democrats in Dallas County, Valdez appeared to benefit from strong support locally for President-elect Barack Obama. Obama captured 57 percent of the vote in Dallas County, with nearly 300,000 of 739,000 voters casting straight Democratic tickets.
But on Wednesday Valdez dismissed the suggestion that she didn’t earn her victory.
"They’re going to come up with all kinds of things," she said. "The truth is, I won. Sure, we may have ridden on his coattails, but there was a lot of stuff that we added to it."
Four years ago, Valdez became the first Democrat to occupy the county’s top law enforcement post since the mid-1970s, edging out Republican Danny Chandler by 51 percent to 49 percent. And since then her administration has become symbolic of the Democratic resurgence in Dallas County that continued Tuesday.
The local GOP made recapturing the sheriff’s seat its top priority in 2008, and Cannaday outraised and outspent the incumbent.
Valdez has been accused of mismanagement and blamed for repeated failed inspections of the jail system she oversees. But she maintains she’s made progress toward fixing the problems she inherited from previous administrations.
"The Dallas County voter is smart enough to know that you can’t just wink your eyes and make something happen," Valdez said. "It has to be done steadily and correctly and it has to be done, rather than quickly, we need to take our time and do it right."
Dallas County Democratic Party Chairwoman Darlene Ewing, who called the race for Valdez shortly after early voting numbers put her ahead by 70,000 votes, later predicted that Republicans won’t win a countywide race anytime in the near future.
"They’ve got a lot of rebuilding to do," Ewing said. "People want a change. They’re ready for something different. It’s not a fluke. It’s hard work and good candidates."
Jesse Garcia, president of Stonewall Democrats of Dallas, called Valdez’s re-election "monumental." Garcia said the sheriff’s victory meant as much to him personally as Obama’s. While Dallas County now has three openly gay countywide elected officials, Valdez was the first to come up for re-election.
"It just validates so many of us in the LGBT community," Garcia said. "If she would have lost her race, it would have been really, really devastating."
This fall, the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund named Valdez one of its top 10 endorsed candidates nationwide. The Washington, D.C.-based Victory Fund, the nation’s largest LGBT political action committee, backed more than 100 openly gay candidates this year.
Denis Dison, a spokesman for the Victory Fund, said Thursday that the Victory Fund contributed more than $50,000 to Valdez’s campaign, including in-kind support.
"I think it’s heartening for people who are working in our field and trying to get openly LGBT elected, to see that both the party and the voters rallied around her, and did not fall for some of the gay-baiting that we saw in this race, and unfortunately I think we saw it too often in The Dallas Morning News above all," Dison said. "It’s always sort of an affirmation of the ability for voters to look beyond things like sexual orientation or gender or ethnicity and vote for the person they want representing them in that office, so we are thrilled, to say the least."
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 7, 2008.