There are some things you’re just not supposed to talk about when you’re running for statewide office in Texas.
It’s dangerous to say you’re going to leave an undesirable thing “on the table.” Raising taxes, for the uninitiated, is one of those undesirable things.
And it’s going to stir a noisy part of the audience if you talk about their pet issue in any way that’s different from the way they talk about it themselves. Gun laws are an example.
Want to get business on your side, or at least keep business folks from joining the opposition? Ix-nay on raising the minimum wage.
So let’s talk about Lupe Valdez, the recently former Dallas County sheriff who’s seeking the Democratic Party nomination for governor of Texas. She has jumped into each of those cactus patches, with detours into other political brambles like capital punishment, because it isn’t foolproof in her view and because, as she put it, innocent people have probably been executed in Texas.
The important words here, for the moment, are “Democratic Party nomination.” It’s unlikely that anyone in the nine-candidate Democratic primary for governor is going to find much political traction fighting Valdez on gun laws, taxes, the death penalty or the minimum wage.
And yet, there was Valdez — the only candidate for governor with a professional career in the military and in law enforcement — talking to The Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith about gun laws. And taxes, the death penalty and minimum wages, to boot.
Valdez said she is in favor of the Second Amendment, and of the state’s concealed handgun carry laws. Her own gun is like part of her wardrobe, she said — something she puts on every morning. But she is opposed to open carry laws that allow people to carry unconcealed weapons, and to the state law that allows guns on public college and university campuses in Texas. Her deputies had to regularly qualify and re-qualify to carry weapons, to be judged on their fitness to carry, and she suggested that might be a good standard for others.
Keep the last race for governor in mind as you think about this one: Wendy Davis, to her later regret, supported open carry of handguns as the Democratic nominee against Republican Greg Abbott in 2014. All of this took place, coincidentally, on the same day the Texas State Rifle Association Political Action Committee endorsed Abbott for re-election.
Taxes are dangerous things to talk about, unless you have a set of hedge-clippers in your hand. Valdez didn’t say she will raise taxes, and she gave the politically proper Texas salute — no, no, no — when asked whether she’s open to talk about a personal income tax in Texas. But she said she wouldn’t rule out increases in other taxes “if necessary,” and suggested that “loopholes” and addressing “fraud” might be ways to squeeze more money out of property taxes.
Democrats are arguably less allergic to tax increases than Republicans, so long as they think the money is used for education or health care or programs they like, but this could be a topic of debate if Valdez is the nominee. “We keep the door open to a lot of stuff,” Valdez said. “Come on in.”
Valdez wants to raise the state’s minimum wage to $12-$15 per hour from the current $7.25 per hour, (a number pegged to the federal minimum wage). That’s popular with progressives, who’ll be voting in the March Democratic primaries. It’s less popular with Republicans who’ll be part of the general election herd: The Republican Party of Texas platform calls for repeal of minimum wage laws.
Valdez’s law enforcement credentials give her some room other liberals might not have on issues like the state’s anti-“sanctuary cities” law, which she opposes; on the $800 million for border security the state spends every year, which she would cut (and which prompted her to knock gunboats on the Mexican border as “boys and their toys”); and capital punishment. Like Andrew White, one of her Democratic opponents, she believes the state should get rid of the death penalty.
“We’re killing the wrong people,” she told Smith. “Some of those have been exonerated. We cannot continue being in a situation where we risk killing a person who is not guilty.”
Democrats are stuffed into a crowded and tough primary for governor. Valdez, elected four times in Dallas County, has the most political experience, but all of them are new to statewide politics. Time is short, with early voting underway on Feb. 20 and the election on March 6. Runoffs — a likelihood in this race, given the number of candidates — will be on May 22.
The Republicans, probably Abbott, although he has two Republican opponents, await the winner. And they’ll want to talk about taxes and capital punishment and minimum wages and guns, too — in a whole new light.
Ross Ramsey is executive editor and co-founder of The Texas Tribune.