Televised debates are one of the easiest and cheapest ways for Democrats to get our message out and to increase voters’ awareness of our candidates. In a state this large, this expensive to campaign in, and in which Democrats have not won statewide in 24 years, passing up publicity worth millions of dollars is politically negligent. And yet Lupe Valdez is doing exactly that by refusing to debate Andrew White.
Reporters have offered the conventional political explanation that she doesn’t want to risk her lead by making a mistake in a debate. But in its attempts to be even-handed by treating this as a normal political calculation, the press is avoiding saying what many Democrats are increasingly aware of: Lupe Valdez, despite her admirable years of service and compelling life story, simply lacks the minimal policy knowledge expected from a major party’s gubernatorial nominee and she has shown no signs of improving.
She’s not refusing to debate because she fears an “oops” moment; she’s refusing because for her the entire debate would be an “oops” moment.
Her campaign’s numerous problems, especially her anemic fundraising and delays in assembling a professional staff, have been reported on. Some of these may be corrected; some won’t. But over and over in these past four months what has become clear, and hasn’t been corrected, is her lack of substance as a candidate and an inability to explain her vision for the state beyond vague platitudes. This was the common theme in the endorsements her opponent received from the newspapers in the state’s three largest cities. They expressed concerns that she “stumbled over flooding questions” as well as her displaying far less “knowledge of the complexities of state governance.” The bluntest assessment came from The Dallas Morning News, a paper that has previously supported her, which said it was “disappointed by her gross unfamiliarity with state issues … particularly an almost incoherent attempt to discuss state financing.” This was echoed by the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, which endorsed White after Valdez did not convince them she “had the knowledge of the position of the office” to fight for the LGBTQ community.
She deflects concerns by admitting she’s not a “jack of all trades,” but a leader who has experience bringing both sides to the table. She then offers her most common solution to any of the problems facing our state: She’ll simply consult “experts” once she is elected. Over and over, this is her response, whether questioned about education, taxes, or gun control. But surely if it’s that simple, then why not identify who these experts are, ask them for their proposals now, and let us know what they say? But perhaps there’s no point in her doing that since, as she told Evan Smith, “Whatever I decide right now will probably be changed by the time I become governor.”
When she does venture beyond generalities and vague promises to consult “experts,” she frequently blunders and quickly walks back her answers. For example, she said she was open to tax increases, only to claim hours later that she’d rather lose a leg. Most surprising, given her law enforcement background, is her difficulty discussing so-called sanctuary cities and the border (issues Abbott will try to make central to the campaign if she’s nominated). In one interview, she claimed the last legislative session’s racist “show your papers” Senate Bill 4 wouldn’t change anything. Days later, given an opportunity to clarify, she first claimed her statement was “mistranscribed” (it wasn’t) and then proceeded to give a rambling answer that wasn’t significantly different. She even admitted confusion over whether Texas spent $8 million or $8 billion on border security.
My fear is not simply that if Democrats nominate Valdez, she will lose to Abbott in a landslide. It’s that Abbott and the GOP will use her lack of preparation to paint Texas Democrats as not ready to govern, then hammer at down-ballot Democrats who might have a chance to win seats that are open or held by vulnerable Republicans. No wonder Abbott’s tweets make it clear that he would prefer to run against Valdez.
But perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe Valdez has taken her early missteps seriously and has been studying up on policy since the primary. Since no Democrat can defeat Abbott if they aren’t willing to debate him, she should reassure us that she’s ready by agreeing to debate White. Not in a “candidate forum,” but a real debate in which reporters ask the candidates questions and then they respond to each other.
There is still plenty of time to set up one or more debates, and for Democrats, there is no downside. Whoever is the eventual nominee can introduce themselves, their values, and their policies to the millions of Texans outside of their home city. If it’s Valdez, it will allow her to put to rest the notion that she’s not prepared for the job.
But if she isn’t ready, then Democrats deserve to know now so they can make an informed choice when they vote in the runoff.