Community First: A Conversation with Candace Valenzuela
Candace Valenzuela is a Democratic candidate making a run for a seat in the U.S. House to represent Texas’ 24th Congressional District, where she faces an uphill battle to defeat Republican Beth Van Duyne. However, in taking a progressive stance on issues that put the needs of children and families in her community first, Valenzuela hopes that the momentum of her coalition of supporters will win her community over in her upcoming July 14 primary runoff and in November.
The Politic: In your campaign, you’ve been talking a lot about how your own experiences with homelessness and poverty shaped your views on policy. Considering how millions of Texans are currently experiencing similar circumstances of poverty, food insecurity, homelessness, and lack of insurance— especially into this pandemic—how do you think your issue priorities are landing with people ahead of the July runoff?
Valenzuela: You know, these are the things that I have been talking about for a while. I hate that we were ill prepared for a global pandemic. It exacerbates the conditions that existed before but to be honest I’ve been talking about paid sick leave before this became a thing. I’ve been talking about making sure that everybody gets covered in terms of having health care. I’ve been talking about homelessness, food insecurity, and all of those things that we need to have in a thriving economy for everyone—those folks at the top of America are able to cash in on so much because of the dramatic income disparity that exists between them and everyone else, and that existed before the pandemic and is only getting worse because of it.
We’re still running full throttle, talking about public health and public security and having access to food and in this environment, having access to the kind of care that would prevent greater spread of COVID-19.
COVID-19 has obviously impacted the ways you can reach out to contact people in the community, right? Like you can’t just go door to door anymore. How has the campaign adjusted to reaching out to voters while also acting as a resource to support them?
Well, there are a couple of ways we’re adjusting. For one, we’ve totally stopped having in-person engagement for the safety of the public. That was a quick decision. Today, for instance, I’ve been calling voters when normally I would be block-walking and canvassing.
I spend most of my days calling voters, engaging with them and asking them how we’re doing, how they’re doing. We try to push out resources in our social media and in our emails, or when I talk to voters. Personally, I try to direct them to resources as I hear that they need them, but we’re also having town halls to speak more generally about resources. Those town halls feature local elected officials, resources, as well as general conversations about what the community is supposed to do moving forward from this pandemic. It also helps folks attach a name and a face to someone that they need to reach out to if they do run into trouble with all of this.
We had our first town hall with a school board trustee from one part of the district and a city councilman in another part of it so we could get different perspectives. We talked about where to get food, where to get housing, where to get basic supplies. So we have been able to channel all of our campaign into these new communications and outreach efforts. We’re having some amazing interaction over Zoom, Google Hangouts, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media platforms especially.
It seems like you’re just the person to talk to then—among your experience as a public servant, you served on your local school board where you made decisions on behalf of families and students in your district. As a Congresswoman, how will you work to continue prioritizing families and serving families in need?
I think it’s just something that becomes a natural priority considering the role I occupied and the experiences I’ve had. While I was on the school board I pushed for things to make the district more accessible to families because accessibility was one of the things that I struggled the most with as a young student. However, there are also some challenges that I had to learn to adapt to. One that I didn’t consider when I started running was just difficulty reaching new generations of parents—engagement looks so different for Gen X and millennial and Gen Z parents. We have maybe a couple of Gen Z parents, but mostly Gen X and millennial parents. And the people on the board didn’t quite understand that, so I was pushing for more social media engagement, more digital engagement in general, because we needed to make sure that the resources in the district were available to more folks.
But as a practical matter, a lot of students in my district were what we call “at risk”—at or below the poverty line and reliant on services like reduced lunch and fee waivers to pay for school services. While I was on board, we decided that instead of reduced lunch, we ought to just make it all free, and at the same time got rid of the bottom to pay grades for the food service staff so that their pay went up by 10 percent. It didn’t require dramatic increases in spending or big changes that stretched our budgets—all it took was some creative thinking outside the box.
I felt like I was able to do these things effectively because I have almost, in the center of my chest, that feeling of pressure from either when I was homeless and not knowing where we were going to stay or live, or from my 20s when I graduated from a top tier college but was working three jobs and still not being able to make ends meet. I understand where all these gaps are and I understand what families are going through—to me, that’s one of the most important qualities a candidate can have if she’s going to be representing a district with students and families going through similar circumstances.
It extends beyond just sympathy, it’s something that drives me and propels me to want to run for a position like this one. Running for Congress is not something for the faint of heart, I always thought that I’d never have the ego to run for Congress. But then I realized, while I don’t have that kind of self-interest, I do have the urgency of the families in my district, and that’s why I’m doing this; and at this point I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.
In your advancement towards the runoff, you stacked up a number of endorsements since March 3, including Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), several U.S. House members, some amazing congressional PACs, and most notably your former primary opponent, Jan McDowell, who finished third with 30.4 percent of the vote. What do you think is attracting these endorsements, and how do you think they’ll benefit you in July?
You know, when I started off this race all I really had to get my name out there and begin campaigning was my community ties as a school board member, a mom, and a longtime resident—but I didn’t have money. In fact, I didn’t have a lot of money at all. When you look at my opponent, she lives on a very expensive ranch outside of the district, she came in with a lot of cash from her friends, business relationships, as well as her own personal wealth too. By contrast, I was just starting at a place where I felt like I was piecing things together from the bottom up. Throughout the election, as I was getting out to the community, I was building momentum, getting the message out, and I think that we saw that momentum hit pretty hard toward the end leading into the primary. I actually out-raised my opponent for the pre-primary filing, and a lot of that was simply because more folks in the community liked me and probably felt that I spoke more to their interests than my opponent did.
Of course, we had that electability debate between my opponent and I in the same fashion that the presidential election was going through an electability debate between Sanders and Biden. It seemed as though, with our congressional race, people were saying that they liked me but I was too progressive. However, as we got closer to the primary that issue quickly faded away as we were building momentum behind a community presence. That momentum propelled us into the primary and has just been growing ever since, and that’s drawn in more donors, more endorsements, more opportunities to speak with people like you about the campaign and the work we’re doing.
When State Representative Julie Johnson, who’s been a rockstar for health care in the Texas legislature for education, for LGBTQ rights, gave me her endorsement I was just so honored. Her endorsement has been pretty pivotal too, because it shows the trust that other elected officials are willing to invest in me as a candidate. Now that I’ve got the backing of my community, the backing of lots of folks throughout the state, and even the backing of some really wonderful national-level folks, we’re ready to bring that coalition forward into July 14.
In November, as well, we’re going to need a gigantic coalition to go up against our Republican opponent. I’m sure you’ve done your research—she was the mayor of Irving, the first mayor in the country to endorse Trump. It’s critical that she is defeated, but we also don’t just want anyone to replace a bad force. We want somebody who is willing to work for the community and do better as a positive force, and that’s what I’m trying to do.
Assuming you advance to November, how do you plan on facing down your opponent? Your seat had previously gone to Republican Kenny Marchant, but since his retirement you’ll be facing Beth Van Duyne who won 31,600 votes for 64 percent in the Republican primary. What makes this race so competitive between a Democratic and Republican challenger?
Well, last cycle, the candidate running for Congress actually got within three points of winning, so we know that there is a potential for Democrats to outvote Republicans, or at least people who are more progressive than usual who may not necessarily call themselves Democrats.
Also this district has changed significantly since the last election cycle, particularly its demographics over the past two decades. Kenny Marchant has held the seat for almost two decades, but since he was elected, this has become a majority person of color district. It’s also younger now, with the medium age at about 36, and on top of that it’s a well-educated district. Young people, educated people, people of color who have been affronted by the Republican party under the current leadership, are more inclined, I think, to vote for somebody they think has their interests in mind. They’re tired of the insane commentary coming from the President, and they’re scared of the words coming from state Republicans like Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. That’s not what our district looks like. Even many of the Republicans I’ve talked to don’t feel like they’d be well represented by someone like Beth Van Duyne. Even if they don’t agree with everything I say, they at least know I care about them as humans, and I think that that matters for a lot.
Exactly. I think a strength of the Beto O’Rourke campaign back in 2018 as you mentioned was his ability to turn out young voters and young Latinx voters. Considering the changing demographics of your district, how is the campaign sort of taking up issues that matter to these groups?
We always talk about immigration policy and that doesn’t just matter to Latino voters, it matters to a lot of our immigrant populations—we have a significant Asian population in the district as well. But you know, at the end of the day Latinx issues are everyone’s issues. That’s not to diminish specific issues for Latinos, but good policy includes having a good education so that kids have equal opportunity; making sure that your zip code doesn’t determine the kind of air you breathe, the water you drink, or the textbooks you have is very important external to the issue of immigration.
In addition to that, we ought to be making sure that we bring jobs to this district and that those jobs are providing food and housing security. I talk a lot about green infrastructure not just being good for the environment, but because it brings the kinds of jobs that Texas wants and needs. Latino voters are looking for someone to ensure that they have a good future and that’s just like everyone else, and I believe having the ability to go out and talk with folks to talk about not just Democrat issues, but family issues, working family issues, is gonna be critical to flipping this seat and a lot of other seats in Texas.
Whenever you get into office, assuming you prevail in November, what would be your day one priority on the floor?
As of late, I’ve talked a lot about campaign finance reform, and I think that’s still a priority given this environment right now assuming we handle pandemic relief by the next election. Campaign finance reform underlies everything that we hope to accomplish, whether it’s having affordable health care for everybody, or whether it’s trying to make sure that we have, again, policies that address climate change and do it in a way that that’s climate justice oriented. Real solutions to these pressing issues come out of having people-powered campaigns and being able to choose how campaigns are funded and how candidates are funded. I would be pushing hard for campaign finance reform, and then for continued relief for working families.
There’s a growing interest in candidates being powered by people, not by PACs, and in response a number of progressive candidates have made a firm commitment not to take any money from corporate PACs. Has this trend influenced your approach to campaigning and raising funds?
I’m also not taking any corporate PAC money either. That is a big differentiator between me and the congressman who just retired as well as the person running right now. Most of his money came from corporate PACs. He barely lifted a finger and just did what they said and kept drawing a checkbook for his campaign and for his bank account. That’s part of the reason the government is so broken. When we have our elected officials answering to corporations, the corporations are always going to have the biggest priority during crises like these to receive bailouts, and in response they’re going to continue to fund the candidates that they want in office to serve their interests. If this continues, we’re not going to be able to get anywhere for families. The system has been broken for a while, and it’s gonna stay that way until we make a substantial change to bring democracy back to the people.
Is there anything that you would want to tell to someone reading this?
If you are struggling right now, I, and many, many people in this country are working very hard to make sure that you don’t struggle for any longer. It may seem bleak, and it may seem difficult. It is bleak. It is difficult. I’m not trying to undersell, I’m not trying to say that it isn’t. But there are many people that are working hard to fix this problem. If you are in a position where you’re not struggling as much, if you’re at home and you’re bored, there are a lot of great campaigns that could use your help. If you are capable of giving to the campaign that you believe is going to make a difference in this country, please give to them right now because they are struggling, many of them. If you’re in a position that maybe you don’t have a lot of money but you have the time to give to folks, please, please, please consider volunteering for their phone base and their digital engagement.
Finally, if you’re in a place where you’re healthy, and you’re able bodied, and again, you’re also comfortable and don’t have anybody who’s very vulnerable in your household, consider volunteering at a food bank. I know that’s not a safe endeavor, but if circumstances permit it, it could make a world of difference to someone who is vulnerable. So if you are younger, I’m not saying that there’s no risk involved with this but we do still need to help our communities see this crisis through. I’m confident that it will be through the good work of our communities that we’ll emerge from the other side of this.