AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Two little-known Texas Democrats battling for the right to face formidable Republican Gov. Greg Abbott worked Friday in their lone debate before a primary runoff to prove they support softer immigration policies — despite past records on the issue that worry some in their party.
Former Dallas County Sherriff Lupe Valdez was the state’s first Hispanic, openly gay sheriff and grew up picking green beans as the farm worker daughter of immigrants. But she has drawn criticism from Hispanic activists for her handling of immigrants held in Dallas jails during her time in office from 2005 until last year.
Valdez’s opponent, Houston businessman Andrew White, says he’s in the process of divesting himself from his own border security firm because it sells technology designed to help find people hiding in vehicles. White argues that helped save lives by preventing people from suffocating while being smuggled across the border, but critics say he’s gotten rich by exploiting immigrants.
Texas Hispanics tend to favor Democrats and the candidates took a question that was asked both in English and Spanish while squaring off at an Episcopal church. Valdez answered in Spanish, then translated her own answer. White answered in English, then had his answer translated.
But the pair attacked each other on immigration.
“Proven executives have tough decisions and there are no perfect solutions,” Valdez said of turning over immigrants in her county’s jail to federal authorities. She said she was forced to make “imperfect choices.”
White, meanwhile, said of his company, “Our technology, I’m proud to say, saves lives on the border.”
Both candidates condemned President Donald Trump’s support for a border wall and Texas’ anti-“sanctuary cities” law, which empowers police to inquire about peoples’ immigration status during routine interactions like traffic stops and calls for possible removal of office and jail time for sheriffs and police chiefs who fail to comply. The Trump administration has called the measure a model for the nation. Abbott also was happy to send National Guard troops to the border on Trump’s orders.
Valdez beat White during Texas’ March primary but fell short of 50 percent among nine candidates, forcing a May 22 runoff. She has the backing of the Democratic establishment and remains favored despite past high-profile gaffes, like not being able to remember that Texas state lawmakers approved spending about $800 million to secure its border with Mexico.
Valdez looked prepared Friday, declaring early, “Please don’t tell me this Latina cannot lead” and drawing applause from the crowd of hundreds on wooden pews. When asked about major newspapers endorsing White and questioning Valdez’s sharpness on the issues, she replied, “Maybe the problem is I don’t talk newspaper language. I talk people language.”
White personally opposes abortion and has run a centrist campaign, hoping to attract both Democrats and Republicans disillusioned by Abbott’s efforts to move Texas farther to the right.
That prompted Valdez to declare, “Andrew, you implied that women who have had abortions don’t respect life” and add when White tried to answer, “You ought to apologize to women.”
White replied, “My personal opinions are my personal opinions. And, as governor, I’d trust women to make their own health care decisions.”
White is a political novice but his father, Mark, was Texas governor from 1983 to 1987, when the now solidly red state was still controlled by Democrats. Texas hasn’t elected a Democrat governor since 1990, and the party hasn’t won any statewide office since four years after that — the nation’s longest political losing streak.
Both candidates have struggled to raise money and generate excitement, outshined by U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who is giving up his El Paso congressional seat for a high-energy bid to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.
The Democratic gubernatorial runoff winner isn’t expected to seriously challenge Abbott, who amassed an impressive war chest worth $43-plus million to start the year. He captured his first term in 2014 by clobbering state Sen. Wendy Davis by 20 points despite her campaign attracting national attention — and racking up its own monster fundraising — after she led a 2013 filibuster in the Texas Senate against sweeping abortion restrictions.
“Yes, this is an uphill battle,” Valdez acknowledged. “But we’re getting close to the top of that hill.”