A Candidate’s Perspective: An Interview with Candace Valenzuela

by | May 18, 2021 | 2020 Elections, Politics

The following is a transcript of the Tex Mix podcast with host Jessica Montoya Coggins and Candace Valenzuela, a mother, educator, and a former congressional candidate from TX-24. Candace gives us some insight about what it’s like campaigning as a progressive, and the challenges that surfaced from running in 2020. She also highlights the role of early investment, and what Texans can do now as we prepare for 2022. Candace also wants you involved in your municipal elections! You can listen to the Tex Mix podcast on Apple, Spotify, Google, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Jessica: Hello and welcome to the Tex Mix brought to you by the Texas Signal. My name is Jessica Montoya Coggins, and today I am honored to be joined by a guest I have been wanting to talk to for a very, very, very long time. So it is my pleasure to welcome Candice Valenzuela to the Tex Mix.

Candace: Jessica, again, it’s, it’s an honor to be here. I love the content you all have at the Texas Signal, and I look forward to getting to those questions.

Jessica: Great! Candace wears many hats. She is a mother, she’s an educator, she’s an activist. She was the first Latina and the first African-American woman elected to the Carrollton Farmers Branch school board. We’ll probably get a little bit more into that. She was also the democratic nominee for the 24th congressional district. But Candace, could you tell us a little bit about your background because I know it is a really, really unique story and made you get interested in going into public service?

Candace: Public service has been in my family, I want to say for, over a century now. My great-grandfather came here from Durango Mexico and he fought in World War I. Both my grandfathers fought in World War II and my mom and dad met in the military at Fort Bliss near El Paso, Texas. My mom used to fix planes and my dad used to jump out of them. And so the entire time, ever since I can remember, I was tied to what was happening in my community and my neighborhood and my family. When I was very young, I think it was one or two, my mom was stationed in Korea. When I was in elementary school, my father went to the Gulf war.

Candace: And so it was kind of natural for our family to always really talk about politics and the direction of things. And, you know, even as we had a very healthy patriotism, we also knew a lot about the workings of our U.S. government and felt a lot of ownership for things that went well and things that didn’t go so well. And on top of all of that, I talked a lot about my story as I was running for Congress. I was homeless at a very young age. My brother was still in diapers. I was about three or four and we, you know, my, my parents split and we ended up leaving a bad situation with another relative. And we ended up bouncing around from place to place. I was living in a trailer park.

Candace: I lived in a homeless shelter and at our worst point, I lived in a kiddie pool outside of a gas station in El Paso. And just thinking about some of the worst things that happened, some of the best things that happened, happened because of progressive public policy. You know, we got housing through HUD. Food stamps helped to keep us fed and, and public education became a home for me. It became the route to not just social mobility, but stability for me and my family. And I feel very strongly about protecting those institutions and making sure that all of those institutions, I just mentioned, including the United States military are equitable, protecting all of us, and taking care of all of us as a country. And it’s strange because I never thought of myself as running for office, but it feels very natural to talk about all of this as I’ve been doing my whole life.

Jessica: That’s so interesting about your family and the military service. My grandfather also fought in World War II and the GI bill was really his ticket. He grew up, he was the son of a coal miner, and through that, he was able to have a very middle-class life in Albuquerque as an engineer. When you were deciding to run for the 24th. And so this was a district, it was vacated by Kenny Marsh and it was a long time Republican member of Congress. What went into your decision making of like, ‘Oh, should I be doing this?’

Candace: Well, the initial prompting certainly was not mine. Let me tell you so the very first time somebody even whispered it to me, I was, something like eight and a half months pregnant. So end of 2018, I was super proud of myself because we’d passed a $350 million bond for Carrollton Farmers Branch school district. That meant equity for kids in terms of facilities. That meant updating infrastructure that hadn’t been updated in nearly two decades because the recession had stopped schools from really updating things. And the kids at the poorest end of the spectrum suffered the most. So I was just thrilled with what I was doing on the school board. And you know, this late stage in pregnancy, I was trying to get out some of, get out with my friends as much as I could while I could, because I knew that in those early stages of life, I already had a three and a half year old son.

Candace: I wouldn’t be able to go out at all. And I’m out with my friends. Some of whom had worked on campaigns, including Beto O’Rourke’s, and we were talking about the 2018 election. And someone had said, you know, it’s great that the 24th almost flipped. And I said, yeah, that’s, that is great. And they said, you know, the way that the district looks now, it would really be flipped by a strong woman of color. And I’m sitting there eating. And I said, that’s amazing. I can’t wait to find her. And I can’t wait to find her. Can’t wait to meet her. That’s going to be great. And, and everyone stopped eating and they were just looking at me and I told them they were crazy. I told them that they were absolutely out of their minds. In a couple of months, or in less than a month, really, I was going to have a newborn baby, a three and a half year old.

Candace: And I was very happy with what I was doing on the school board. Uh, so I did not think that it was a great time. And I went home and I told my husband, this crazy thing happened to be at lunch. And he said, yes, you should do this. And I looked at him and I said, do you remember the school board race? Do you remember how much more nighttime childcare you had to do when I was running for office? How difficult it’s been now, you’re signing up for this with a newborn and a three-year-old. And he said, well, you know what? You’ve been talking about. The ways that policies from up top have been bearing down on the school district. I think this is something that you’ve been meant to do. We’ll figure it out. And I still told him he was crazy. And there were a few times I, you know, I was again, very pregnant.

Candace: I waddled myself over to a couple of elected officials and I literally was waddling. And I said, you know, have you been thinking about 24? And the couple of times I talked to folks, they said, you know, I thought you were just meeting to tell me you were going to do it. You’d be great. And I thanked them. I didn’t tell them that they were crazy the way that I’d told my, my husband and my friends, but I went home and I mulled over. I was lucky enough to safely deliver my second son. And as I was in the very early stages of his life, I was also watching as a field for 24 was developing. And I wasn’t really seeing folks that understood deeply, the problems that I was seeing with my families and the school district.

Candace: I don’t feel like they understood the issues that my teachers were facing as they were trying to be educators. And sometimes part-time parents and sometimes social workers on top of all of the things that they had to do at home. And it’s not enough for me to just put on the banner of being a Democrat. It’s not enough for me to even put on the banner of being progressive. There needs to be purpose behind it. There needs to be representation behind it. And so with a four month old and a three and a half year old, I ended up announcing for Congress not long thereafter.

Jessica: Right. And so obviously the 2020 election was unprecedented in many ways. And I know you also had the obstacle of having a runoff as well. But then COVID-19. How did that sort of change the dynamics of how the race was going? And what was your takeaway of like, you know, what was this campaign even like?

Candace: It was a crazy transition. I’ve got to say. I feel as though I am just blessed. I am lucky that I had one, the family structure I had at home. My husband, even though he was working full time, still worked around my schedule with campaigning. We had to really juggle some things to make that work, but we did it even though there were many nights, he was working until two o’clock in the morning. But the other really critical component is that I had so many digital natives on my campaign that also had the fundamentals of, of campaigning in their, in their blood, in their work lives. And so we needed to think really quickly about how to make a hybrid of those two things, how to create, meet and greets that you’re still manually calling people and asking them to come in and inviting them over to you.

Candace: But at the same time, you’re not going to be filling rooms anymore. You’re going to be filling zoom rooms. How do we create that sort of engagement, where we are making voter contact but not putting people in danger and all of the folks on my team, again, al gen Z and millennials, they got to work to make that happen. Suddenly they became Instagram experts and production managers when we were trying to put together zoom events. And we found there were some amazing gifts with that. For instance, when you’re talking about high school students that are organizing their friends or their family members, 16 year olds don’t typically have a space to host, but we had high school students that were hosting meet and greets for me with voters. We actually had one high school student and he actually brought us in 60 votes by himself during the primary runoff. He was not old enough to vote at the time and still brought in that many votes with a series of meet and greets in his own outreach. So in that environment, even though it was rough, it was isolating in a lot of ways. You saw a lot of younger people be able to come into their own and take ownership of the campaign. And they think that contributed a lot to the success.

Jessica: Ah, that’s, that’s awesome. We have a couple of interns on our Texas Signal team and they are like the TikTok experts. So it’s just one of those things where like I’m in my thirties and I’m like I can’t, this is y’alls domain here. But for you campaign I feel you ran as an unabashed progressive, even though I think a lot of the things that you’re talking about are extremely common sense. How does that dynamic sort of play out as well? Cause I know there’s always been, I think, a kind of a focus on the media to try and make it centrism versus progressivism in terms of what the future of the democratic party is.

Candace: I think so much of what is progressive is common sense and so much of what we think our infrastructure should be, so much of what we think of the American promise being it comes out of progressive movements. And as we’re seeing, for instance, the Biden administration talking about student loan forgiveness, even though it may not necessarily be all the way over to what the progressive agenda has been talking; the ways in which we are supporting childcare and education in ways I think we could only dream of 10, even 5 years ago. These movements are popular with the American people because it’s all about a return on investment. Folks work very hard. But as they are moving along, in time now, they’re seeing a smaller and smaller return on investment even though you’re putting full-time, double the work.

Candace: But you’re not seeing full time, double time returns by any stretch of the imagination. And so much of my fight for $15 an hour minimum wage, for instance, or my fight for healthcare, or my fight for clean air and clean water. It comes from the fact that I’ve had to work three jobs. And that was just the minimum I had to do because I had a chronic back pain condition from being in a car accident. And if I didn’t work all of those jobs, I would be in so much pain. I wouldn’t be able to move, but if I did work all of those jobs, of course, I had no room to do anything else with my time or my life. And, you know, I was lucky enough to get to a point where I was able to narrow that down to a couple of the jobs and then to one job, but that’s not a common story for someone who comes from a background, like my two parents who weren’t college educated, black and Latina. I know how weird it is, how rare it is for me to be in a position that I’m in. And that’s why it’s. So, um, it, it weighs so heavily on me to be able to, to give back as fast as I can, because I understand how urgent it’s been and that urgency, I don’t think should be considered progressive, but we’ve been, we’ve fallen so far backward in valuing people in this country that that’s where we are.

Jessica: Right? Something like a $15 minimum wage is considered radical when, when you go to like other developed countries all over the world and they look at America, like, what are you talking about? So right now we, in the state of Texas, the legislature is in session. I think the way many people might be looking at that right now, there’s a string of words. They might use some of which we try to keep it PG 13 on this podcast. So we probably won’t say, but you know, for folks who feel discouraged right now that they’re looking at the anti-choice bills, they’re looking at the anti-trans bills or looking at the voter suppression bills, they’re even seeing some bills that would impact civics education for public schools. You know, the, the students that were working on your campaign, if they had at one point received credit, they might no longer be able to do that in a public school. For someone who is just looking around saying, ‘I am in Texas, this feels awful. I don’t want to do this anymore.’ What would your advice be to them to say, ‘no, come on, keep going. You know, we can change our elected officials around here.’

Candace: It is very easy to get discouraged in an environment like this. And I, I completely and totally understand the inclination, but there are some slivers of hope here. The fact that people are upset about the Texas ledge is actually incredible to me. I don’t want people to feel upset, but the fact that people are aware they’re paying attention. Uh, this isn’t stuff that’s just passed. That’s just passing the dark of night, um, is really encouraging for civic engagement. And when we have more engagement, when we have more eyeballs on what they’re doing, it will affect their behavior, even though it doesn’t seem to be right now. Part of what folks should be doing is they should continue to apply pressure to their state legislators, continue to apply pressure to their state senators. Try to make sure that they’re aware that you’re a constituent, that you’re active, that you’re engaged, that you’re voting and that you want them to prioritize you, as opposed to some, out of the way donor, who’s going to drop half a hundred K on their race.

Candace: They are ultimately accountable to the voter, but beyond that, and this is something that I I’ve worked tirelessly on as well: We have to invest locally. I worked really hard to help folks in school board races and city council races. I’m really encouraged by seeing the Denton city council, for instance, flipped to a more progressive, more representative body. It’s those wins like that that don’t seem like they’re very significant, but when we’re faced with gerrymandering coming up in September of this year, it’s a lot harder for state governments to control cities. It’s a lot harder for them to control school boards and they’re trying everything they can, but if you overwhelm them with the numbers and local politics, that means getting folks registered to vote. That means getting folks out to vote when you’re talking about that initial municipal election, and then June when you’re talking election runoffs, and right now we’re between that period.

Candace: And we’re looking at a lot of progressive candidates for municipal office. And that was unheard of just a couple of years ago. A couple of years ago you would see a runoff between a Republican and a crazier Republican. And now you’re seeing people turn out and pay attention and, put more folks in office that represent their needs and their cities. But it all comes together in creating a better state and federal office when you build from the ground up. And so focus on that, focus on your local offices, focus on voter registration, and try not to get too bogged down by the theater of these terrible, I can’t say that word, these terrible folks in Austin right now that don’t care about us.

Jessica: Yeah. If you had told me one day I would know the name of the elections chair of the Texas legislature, I’m not sure I would have ever believed that. As we do have these municipal elections, and as we think ahead towards 2022, what are some of the lessons that you’ve taken away from 2020, both in your race and sort of around the state? And what do you hope to see from the state party or some of the national organizations? I know you had support from Emily’s List, from Latino Victory, a million organizations that were extremely supportive. What, what do you hope that they can bring into Texas?

Candace: Early investment. 11th hour investment is not going to work here. We need to start working on developing democratic infrastructure. We need to start working on messaging around issues that are important to us. I think one thing that I’ve rung the alarm on is, is a choice for women. You’ve got Republicans that are working around the clock all year long talking about how terrible abortion is, and you’re not really seeing that sort of pushback on the left. So that by the time we get to an election and we talk about pro-choice women, folks have already had months and months and months of that year, hearing about pro-choice women not caring about children, not caring about families. And so that lack of early stage investment, in talking about what we stand for, how it creates healthier and happier families, how we are investing in the lives and livelihoods that people, until we can do that, we’re gonna keep seeing those same results.

Candace: We’re going to keep having a lot of those near misses. And of course, I’m really looking forward to going back to knocking on doors. It was not something I was able to do throughout 2020 after March. And it is the Democrats superpower to connect with people, to talk about policies, absent any other built up infrastructure. And I’m really excited that we seem to learn quickly and figured out how to knock safely for Georgia. I saw a lot of folks knocking safely for our municipal elections, and we’re going to be out of this pandemic soon. So I hope that we go back to that emphasis on, on person to person contact because that’s, that’s our only path forward.

Jessica: Yeah. I was actually able to talk with someone canvassing staying at my grandfather’s house. And it was like, it was like very nice just to, I had to tell them like, I’m sorry, I don’t live in this district, but thank you for this engagement. My grandfather will vote for the person. For someone who’s listening, who is maybe thinking, you know, I want to run for office, but Oh, I don’t think I have the background for this. You know, I may be just a barista. I might be just a substitute teacher. What would you say to that person? And let them know that yes, yes, you absolutely can run for office.

Candace: A better representative body represents the people. And that means that we can’t have a legislature or a school board or a city council that just has business people and attorneys, although business people and attorneys contribute a lot to our community. You need to have a diversity of jobs. You have to have a diversity of ages and ethnicities. And when you have that kind of representation, you have a stronger body. It’s not just more pleasant to look at, you get to have policies that are talked about with all of us in the room, as opposed to us in the room and them outside. I mean, one of the things that compelled me to run against an 18 year Republican backed incumbent, was this one school board meeting I was at, and he talked about the test scores, improving at this elementary school, after the apartments next door were bulldozed. And then talking about parents not being engaged anymore, the way that they used to be, because they didn’t care as much about their children. And again, as somebody who,

Jessica: This is a school board member talking about his, about the people he is supposed to be representing. Yes?

Candace: Yes. And you know, this was somebody who was very accomplished and very popular member with his church and had done a lot of good things. Had started some programs that are still up today. He’s passed on since a couple of years ago, but he’s got programs that are still up today that benefit children, but he’d become so out of touch with the way things were, that he was no longer serving them. So when you think about, ‘Oh goodness, I’m going to go up against this pillar of the community.’ Is that pillar of the community really representing the community? Or is it just somebody who’s done a lot? I think those are important distinctions to make when you’re thinking about running for office. And if the, the best that you can offer is, is your ability to listen and your ability to work hard. I think those are the most important prerequisites for running for most offices. But most of the time it’s just having a willingness to represent people and a willingness to be transparent with them.

Jessica: All right. That is very sage advice. And I know we touched on this, that we are still waiting for some of those redistricting results throughout, and we do have those two congressional seats. It depends where they are, but anything you’re thinking about in the future? Possibly?

Candace: I am still talking it over with my family. We are still thinking about what’s next. I haven’t taken running for Congress again off of the table just yet. Um, but right now, as we’re waiting for those redistricting numbers to come out, I am just working hard to develop the community. I’m the Texas chair for an organization called Vote Mama, which is an organization devoted to getting moms of young children, of school age children, into office at absolutely every level.

Jessica: All right. Awesome. That was a very diplomatic answer. So again, my thanks to Candace Valenzuela. Thank you so much for listening to the Tex Mix podcast. You can follow us @TexMixPodcast on Twitter, follow us on Texas Signal. We’re on all the channels. Don’t worry, none of the 30 year olds are on TikTok. But again, thank you so much. That was so wonderful to talk with you, Candace

Candace: Great talking to you, Jessica. Thank you.

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A longtime writer and journalist, Jessica was thrilled to join the Texas Signal where she could utilize her unique perspective on politics and culture. As the Features and Opinion Editor, she is responsible for coordinating editorials and segments from diverse authors. She is also the host of the podcast the Tex Mix, as well as the co-host for the weekly SignalCast. Jessica attended Harvard College, is a onetime fitness blogger, and has now transitioned to recreational runner (for which her joints are thankful).

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