The decision to run for Congress wasn’t an easy one. As an early 30s mom with a wonderful husband, a baby on the way, and a school board office I treasured, my biggest concerns beyond my growing family and killer pregnancy acid reflux was ensuring I did right by the 26,000 children and their families in my school district in North DFW.
We were doing amazing things in my district: adding STEM and fine arts academies to our elementary schools, adjusting the rates of pay so that our food service workers and janitorial staff would get paid enough to live in our neighborhoods, and making sure our teachers were being paid competitively, too. The problem was and is that if parents can’t make ends meet because wages at the bottom and middle have been stagnant for nearly two decades, then I wouldn’t be able to keep my kids in my classrooms, much less in their neighborhoods. Homelessness and hunger were a norm for many kids in some of the poorest parts of my district even before COVID-19 was uttered here. As someone who’d experienced childhood homelessness, I knew it was time to give back to the life I’d been blessed with.
So I ran. I ran hard. With my 3-year-old 4-month-old boys, my husband, my friends, family, and my community I faced the inequities I saw head-on. After a grueling 6-way primary, a protracted runoff due to COVID-19, and a general election with one of the most Trumpian Congressional candidates in the country, I came up short by 1% of the vote.
I don’t think it was December before folks started talking about me running again. I was focused on my gratitude tour: I thanked friends, family, donors, volunteers, and my interns for all they’d invested in me and the district. It was loving and cathartic. As time went by, the asks became louder and more frequent: “When are you announcing? Should you announce now or right now?” The thing I tried to articulate to folks, the thing that gave me the most pause, was redistricting.
Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution talks about the Census and reapportionment. Basically, every 10 years, we count people. We have to then make sure that all those people fit as evenly as possible into 435 Congressional districts. As people tend to move around, lines have to be redrawn to meet them where they are, at least, on paper. When you add the dynamics of partisanship and communities, the lines are living breathing organisms that can either support a community in its growth or completely silence a community and hinder its ability to survive, much less thrive.
Texas is famous for its redistricting. Anyone who’s ever heard the name “Tom DeLay” will associate it with his precipitating the sustained comeback of the Republican party. A U.S. Congressman. In the early 2000s, he aggressively raised money to flip the Texas state House, then used the clout he gained to push through an aggressive map to rid the state of White Democrats in Congress (those who had weaker Voting Rights Act protections). This push was largely successful, and he took out the last Democrat in my district, Martin Frost. Martin was a representative in Texas 24 for two decades, but after that early millennial redistricting session, his house was no longer in the district. He lost, and we received Kenny Marchant, state representative and party loyalist who drew the district to his tastes (in the subsequent redistricting he famously fought to get his granddaughter’s school in HIS district, not Pete Sessions!). Kenny remained in his tailor-made seat for nearly two decades, but Texas had changed and his district was a reflection of that change. Not long after I announced, Kenny stepped down and intensity turned to 11 for me from August of 2019 to November of 2020.
Knowing my history, I could not picture a Republican legislature that would let my district stay as diverse as it was. People would tell me “well, there’s nowhere left for them to draw,” but since leaving kindergarten, many folks suffer from a lack of imagination. My first grader could tell you that a crayon can draw a snake as well as it can draw a square. Our maps have the haphazard look of the rendering of a small child, but they were made with laser-like precision, splitting streets and precincts.
Trump won Texas, carrying 52% of voters to President Biden’s 46%. Trump will have won 66% of the new districts and Biden 34%. This is more egregious if you realize the states changing composition: we welcomed 4 million new Texans 95% of whom were Black, Hispanic or Asian and Pacific Islander, but no new majority Black or Hispanic districts were made, and up and down the ballot you see packing and cracking to dilute the numbers going into the halls of power.
In my district specifically, or at least the district I’d run for in 2020, a lot changed in the preliminary maps. Texas 24 was a Biden +5 district, but the newest iteration is a Trump +12. The Voting Age population went from being 54% person of color to 35% person of color. To add injury to injury (it’s all trauma, folks), the state GOP took a scalpel to my neighborhood. The 190,000 people in my 70% Latino school district made up 23% of Texas 24 as of 2020. Now just a small fraction of that remains, and the district is now represented by 3 different members. My house and neighborhood were drawn into a district with a Democratic incumbent, and although it’s not legally required that we live in the district we run in, my only interest was in representing my community. Now my community no longer exists as a voting block at the federal level. It’s just scraps.
My story is not an anomaly. Democratic candidates and elected officials at various levels have been drawn out of their districts and historically Black districts have been destroyed despite the growth we saw in that community. This is not even hiding the possibility of a lawsuit, and that may be the point. Following Trump’s presidency, we’re at a critical point on both sides of the aisle: for Democrats, we’re in a mad dash to get relief to Americans who’ve felt failed by our health care system, our education system, our economy, and our disaster relief efforts for years. For Republicans, it’s their chance to consolidate power and keep it indefinitely even when it subverts the will of the people.
They’re doing this with the nerdiest evil villains imaginable. Adam Foltz is considered the chief engineer of the Republican house takeover in Wisconsin in 2010. According to the Texas Tribune, Foltz was hired with state funds to the nonpartisan redistricting commission at the Capitol, but he answers to Republican legislators. He doesn’t say much, but you can see his work. Each district changed: some to protect incumbents of both parties and others just to make sure that communities can’t gather enough traction to overwhelm the Republican political machine that has dominated the state for nearly two decades.
There are practices in redistricting known as cracking and packing. Cracking means that a specific community is broken up into tiny splinters and thrown into different districts so that they lose their voting power. Packing happens when that specific community gets so geographically big that it makes all the districts it touches competitive, so they might be drawn into a single large district to ensure they only get one representative instead of many. Even in a state where your group (political, ethnic, etc.) is a minority of the overall population if districts are drawn to over-favor the majority, there’s a chilling effect on dialogue both between different parties and between politicians and their constituents.
So many folks were mystified by my opponent’s stances after eking out a win in my district, voting against the American Rescue Plan and the Violence Against Women Act, arguably some of the most popular legislation in the country. I of course knew the moment I lost that if we didn’t get fair redistricting as part of federal law, my opponent would be getting a custom-made district, one in which winning the GOP primary would be more important than acknowledging the entire electorate.
Congress was not my first foray into politics: I ran for school board and defeated an 18-year incumbent. Some of the more established folks (both on federally on my side and not) predicted gloom and doom for the district but came to find that my tenure was serious: I’d be putting forth policies that were consistent with my values, and those values mean prioritizing the families and employees of the district and representing them as well as I knew how.
Having a school district in your care is one of the most daunting tasks imaginable: Parents are emotional about the work that you do. The teachers that work for you might be the smartest, most empathetic people you’ll ever meet, and they answer to a person who answers to a person who answers to you. Everything came at me quickly, but my board members, some of whom wanted just about anyone else in that race, quickly took me under their care. They answered my phone calls, they took my coffee requests, and I saw something quite beautiful; we had a range of board member ages, and levels of experience. My perspective forced them to consider young parents, lower-income families, and families of color more carefully because I carried them into the room with me every time I made a decision. Their understanding of the nuances of the office gave me an idea of what growing into the role would look like even if I wanted to do it differently. All of it amounted to our passing policy to make the district better for the present and future of the community.
When I see lines drawn to silence communities, I don’t see a pathway forward for anyone other than those drawn into seats that are packed, or the farthest right Republicans. There are people who don’t agree 100% with me on every issue, but they show up to community events for free, roll up their sleeves, and say “how can I help?” There’s a breadth of service at the local level that may never make its way upward, especially if we’re talking about moderate Republicans. But as much as I cared for many of my colleagues from left to right, I’m not here for them. I’m here for the people of Texas who are struggling to make ends meet, even after they’ve put in 40+ hours a week. I’m here for those mothers who had to leave the workforce because COVID-19 disproportionately affected families with children. I’m here for the workers who used to be punchlines, stocking grocery shelves, or making our foods, that are now deified in conversation but still paid in punchline wages. I’m here for the kids who rarely get freshly cooked foods because even if they didn’t live in a food desert, their parents struggle to find time to fully engage in a home-cooked meal. I’m here for the seniors whose retirement benefits receive adjustments that are practically symbolic when it comes to adjusting for the cost of living.
This is one of the reasons that I value the work that Emerge Texas does. Emerge Texas recruits, trains, and supports women who want to staff campaigns or run for office. That last part is key there. There is no shortage of folks who want to encourage women to do the work to keep our country functioning for everyone, but when it comes to bringing folks together to give money, knock on doors, or hold your purse while you’re signing your campaign filing papers, the support tends to thin out. Especially when you’re talking about the less sexy-sounding jobs (but my favorite type) at say the school board, the town council, or the water district. Now as women, especially women of color, see themselves disproportionately affected by the pandemic, rising costs of child and elder care, poorly paying jobs, attacks on reproductive health, and natural disasters exacerbated by climate change, we need to make sure that, as Representative Ayanna Pressley says, that those who are closest to the pain are closest to the power.
Candace Valenzuela is a former Carrollton-Farmers Branch school board member and was the Democratic candidate in the 24th congressional district in 2020.