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34-year-old school board member enters race against Texas Rep. Marchant

Democrat Candace Valenzuela, a 34-year-old Carrollton-Farmers Branch school board member, is launching a campaign Monday against Texas GOP Rep. Kenny Marchant, one of the party’s top targets in 2020.

She will face an uphill battle for her party’s nomination in Texas’ 24th district, where several high-profile Democrats are eyeing the race. The suburban north Texas seat has long been a conservative stronghold, but the region’s rapidly changing demographics have recently made it more competitive.

Valenzuela, whose mother is Mexican-American and father is African-American, hopes to capitalize on that in her bid against Marchant, a seven-term congressman who narrowly beat a poorly funded opponent in 2018.

“We have a lot of folks moving into this area to live and go to work, this district isn’t the same as it was five-ten years ago,” Valenzuela said.

Valenzuela won her first and only election by defeating an 18-year incumbent on the school board of trustees in 2017, saying she wanted to add diversity to a panel did not match the student population.

“It was more than half Hispanic, and yet there had only been one Latino board,” Valenzuela said of the school board race. “As I went to the forums a lot of people were nice, but you know they weren’t, like, ‘thank you so much for running, it’s so great that you care about our kids, good luck next year.’”

Valenzuela brings a unique background to the campaign. She grew up in El Paso, where she was homeless at age three.

After her mother left the military, the family lost their home and bounced between staying with grandparents, a Mormon family that took them in and a homeless shelter. Valenzuela recalls sleeping in a bed made out of a kiddy pool outside of a convenience store for several days while they had no place to stay.

“Growing up I dealt with homelessness, with food insecurity, with trouble paying for bills,” said Valenzuela. She credited public school education, food stamps and housing assistance for helping her achieve a full-ride scholarship to Claremont McKenna College in California.

“I’m running for Congress because the opportunities there were there for me to succeed don’t seem like they’re there any more, or they’re under threat,” she added.

Operatives at the Democrats’ House campaign arm and EMILY’s List, a group that backs women who support abortion rights, say they’re still talking to a number of other more well-known candidates who are also considering the race.

But they pointed out that candidates with a similar profile to Valenzuela’s were successful in 2018. Most notably, 29-year-old Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unseated a member of Democratic leadership for her New York seat, while Reps. Abby Finkenauer, 30, and Lauren Underwood, 32, won hard-fought races in Iowa and Illinois, respectively.

Both parties believe the growing Latino, African-American and Asian populations in Marchant’s district, which President Donald Trump carried in 2016, could make it one of the most competitive House races in the country. After flipping two seats in Texas last year, Democrats are planning to target a total of six GOP-held districts in 2020.

Valenzuela’s already lined up a high-profile roster of veteran political operatives, which she rolled out in an interview with the Star-Telegram last week.

Chicago-based AL Media, which counts former President Barack Obama among its clients, will craft her ads. Mission Control Inc. will be in charge of her mail advertising, Run the World will oversee digital campaign work and Jill Normington will serve as her pollster.

“I couldn’t say that it isn’t daunting, but it was daunting before and I was able to work in the community and defeat a long-time incumbent,” Valenzuela said of her school board race, which was decided by less than 14,000 voters.

Other candidates gearing up for the Democratic primary in the 24th district include Kim Olson, who ran unsuccessfully for state Agriculture Commissioner last year, Jan McDowell, the Democratic nominee against Marchant in 2016 and 2018, and Will Fisher, an attorney who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination in Texas’ 26th district last cycle.

“Marchant is well in-tune with the district, building an aggressive campaign structure and will be ready for anything the socialist Democrats throw at him,” said Bob Salera, spokesman for House Republicans’ campaign arm. “The socialist Democrats’ top candidates are far-left two-time losers who have demonstrated they can’t win.”

Andrea Drusch is the Washington Correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She is a Corinth, Texas, native and graduate of the Bob Schieffer School of Journalism at Texas Christian University. She returns home frequently to visit family, get her fix of Fuzzy’s Tacos and cheer on the Horned Frogs.