“It’s quite a leap,” Candace Valenzuela admits to me, laughing, while discussing her candidacy in one of the country’s most highly watched House races. The 36-year-old is talking on the phone from her makeshift study, a bathroom in her North Dallas home that is the only spot where she can find privacy. She tells me about how far she’s come since her childhood, when she spent nights sleeping in an empty kiddie pool outside a Texaco gas station after her family became homeless. She explains that what helped them get things together were food stamps, federal subsidized housing, and public schools. “These opportunities that allowed me to go from being homeless as a kid to become the first in my family to go to college,” she says in a soft voice, “should be available to everyone.”
Valenzuela, a Democrat, is running to represent the Dallas–Fort Worth suburbs of Texas’s Twenty-fourth Congressional District, which Democrats have identified as one of their best opportunities nationwide to flip a district from Republican control. A former board member for the Carrollton–Farmers Branch Independent School District, Valenzuela is an unlikely candidate for such a high-profile race. Just three years ago, she was a college preparation consultant, and she remained a relative political unknown when she announced her candidacy for the Democratic primary in 2019. But she quickly racked up endorsements from national liberal groups and leaders, including Emily’s List—a political action committee focused on electing Democratic women—and the late representative John Lewis and Senator Elizabeth Warren. She also won the support of the congressional Hispanic, Black, and Progressive caucuses. In March, Valenzuela placed second, beating out Jan McDowell, who had been the Democratic nominee in the district the two prior cycles, to qualify for a runoff. McDowell subsequently endorsed her, and in July, Valenzuela upset her rival in the runoff, a candidate with more name recognition, former Democratic nominee for state agriculture commissioner Kim Olson.
Though the district was designed to be a GOP stronghold when state Republicans redrew the congressional map in 2003, recent demographic changes and anti-Trump shifts have made it freshly competitive. After Republican Kenny Marchant won by seventeen points in 2016, his margin shrank to less than three points in 2018, and he announced he would not seek reelection. Nonpartisan organizations including Real Clear Politics, Five Thirty Eight, and the Cook Political Report rate the district as a toss-up. The Republican candidate in the Twenty-fourth, former Irving mayor Beth Van Duyne, has tried to frame Valenzuela’s liberal politics as out of line with those of her district, which rejected McDowell’s liberal positions two years ago. But in the primary, Valenzuela, was careful to stress representation as her central pitch rather than any specific left policy. While McDowell anointed herself the “most progressive” candidate and ran on raising capital gains taxes, and Olson ran as an outsider, Valenzuela highlighted her work with Republicans on the school board and her background.
The Cook Political Report rates the Twenty-fourth as nine points more Republican than the country at large. The theory of Valenzuela’s campaign, however, is that her life mirrors the experiences of many of her prospective constituents. The district is 24 percent Hispanic, 13 percent Black, and 15 percent Asian. Valenzuela’s made her childhood poverty and racial identity central to her pitch. If she wins, she’ll be the first Afro-Latina in Congress, a distinction she’s identified as both an honor and as a reflection of inadequate representation of minority communities in government.
Valenzuela connects her policy prescriptions to pieces of her life. Her campaign’s central issues include investing in education and low-and-middle-income housing, creating a public health-care option—but not Medicare for all—and lowering the price of prescriptions drugs. She explains to voters that she was hungry, and reliant on school lunches; that after experiencing homelessness, she lived in government-subsidized housing; that she had to work several low-wage jobs while attending college to pay for physical therapy and medication for chronic pain from a car crash. So far the pitch has worked.“I know the urgency of these families’ struggles,” she says, “because I’ve lived them.”
Valenzuela’s most powerful tool is her life story. Her campaign highlights her childhood experiences, but the searing details are more difficult to excavate. “This story is not entirely mine,’’ she tells me in an hour-long phone call in September. “It is also my mother’s. I am recounting things that are very painful in my life.”
When Valenzuela was born, in 1984, the hospital in El Paso wouldn’t permit her mother to write her father’s name on hospital forms because they were not married, and he was serving at an Army post in Germany. Her mother, Maria “Mary” Guadalupe Valenzuela, a Mexican American, then gave Candace her surname.
After Candace’s birth, Mary returned to Fort Hood, in Killeen, where she was stationed as an Army sergeant. She married Candace’s father when he was home on leave, but they divorced within two years, after having a second child. Shortly thereafter, Mary left the Army, and soon couldn’t meet house payments. A mortgage company took possession of the family’s home. For a short time, Candace returned to El Paso to live with her grandparents, but life with Mary’s mother quickly proved a disaster. “There was a lot of tension, and there was a lot of yelling and screaming,” Candace recalls.
One day Mary’s mother called her a “terrible daughter,” grabbed all of her and her children’s belongings, including the small kiddie pool, threw everything in her car, and dropped them off at a Texaco station. For a few nights, Candace, who was three, and her baby brother slept in the kiddie pool while Mary slept on the bare ground beside them. During the day, Mary took Candace and her brother to McDonald’s so they’d have a place to play.
After they landed at a homeless shelter, Mary’s father found her and her children and took them to his sister’s house. Over the next few years, Candace and Mary moved to a trailer park, and then again back in with Mary’s parents. Those itinerant years inform Valenzuela’s politics. “There were days, honestly, when school lunch was the only thing I was going to eat that day that wasn’t oatmeal,” she says, adding that seeing families struggle “hurts me personally.’’
Settled at her parents’ house, Mary held part-time jobs, working at her father’s plumbing supply business, at a furniture manufacturing shop, and delivering pizza. She applied for government-subsidized housing, was approved, and got an apartment in a building not far from her parents and close to a public school for Candace and her brother. Finally, they had their own home. “That’s when I started seeing more stability,” Candace says, holding back tears. “We still had problems, but it wasn’t the same.”
In 2002, Valenzuela left Texas for Claremont McKenna College in California on a full scholarship. To pay her way through school she worked in group homes with troubled teenagers, tutored SAT applicants, and taught ACT prep courses. After graduating she worked at a college counseling company, and met her husband, Andy Baldwin, online. In 2015 they returned home to Texas, where they had both taken jobs. While she looked for a good preschool for her son, Cleto, she learned about her new district, which was becoming more politically and ethnically diverse with an influx of immigrants and out-of-state transplants, many from California.
“When Trump was elected, I became more politically engaged,” she says, adding that she sensed others in her district might be moving away from conservative politics. At the same time, she saw what she describes as a lack of urgency to invest in working families, noting that her school district had not passed a major bond initiative in a generation. In 2017 she launched a bid for a seat on the Carrollton–Farmers Branch school board, and won one of three open seats in a low-turnout, off-year election. In her two years on the board, she marshaled support for a $350 million bond initiative to invest in schools, which was approved by voters with 65 percent support. Of those bonds, $16.4 million were allocated for technology upgrades, including investments in laptop computers and tablets that have become essential as children attend school remotely during the pandemic.
One day in November 2018, Valenzuela went out to lunch at Ssam, a Korean restaurant in Carrollton, with friends and Beto O’Rourke campaign staffers working on his race against Senator Ted Cruz. She was pregnant, feeling nausea and heartburn, but was celebrating passage of the $350 million bond. At some point, the conversation turned to the next election. “They were saying that in 2020, the district could be won by a woman of color,” Valenzuela recalls. The eyes around the table turned to her. “I said, ‘Are you crazy? You’re insane. I have a three-year-old and I’m eight-and-a-half months pregnant.’ They said, ‘Think about it.’”
When Valenzuela told her husband, he said her friends were right: she should run. She had also been feeling she needed a larger platform: on the school board she had noticed an increasing number of students leaving school because of a lack of affordable housing in the district. It reminded her of her childhood and how public education had been her salvation.
While opponents have hammered Valenzuela’s lack of experience, her profile resembles that of many Democratic newcomers who’ve been successful across the country. More black women have run for Congress this year than ever in U.S. history. Manny Garcia, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, said in a brief phone call that Valenzuela “has a diverse constituency” and that “her background and experience translate well into Congress.”
As the campaign enters its final days, Valenzuela’s race has become heated. An ardent supporter of Donald Trump, Beth Van Duyne belongs to the “conservative squad,” a group of four female congressional candidates running in direct opposition to the so-called squad of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and three other progressive women of color in Congress. A single mother of two and the first in her family to graduate from college, Van Duyne has campaigned on upholding Trump’s immigration policy and protecting health-care coverage for those with preexisting conditions—including her daughter—while opposing the Affordable Care Act.
Van Duyne has used her large campaign war chest—more than $2.8 million—to blast ads labeling Valenzuela as out of touch with her district. In a statement after Valenzuela’s victory in the Democratic runoff in July, Van Duyne said that “Candace has actively sought and received support from many extremist elected officials and organizations who believe in dismantling American security, fundamental rights, and crushing North Texas under socialized medicine and higher taxes on middle-class families.”
In mid-October, the Dallas Morning News endorsed Van Duyne, expressing reservations about her divisive rhetoric but stating she “shares our views on the free market, personal responsibility and many economic issues.” The editorial said Valenzuela was “passionate but inexperienced, and leans too progressive for our tastes.”
Constituents in the district certainly would have agreed with that assessment a decade ago when tea party Republican Kenny Marchant coasted to victories election after election, but anti-Trump shifts in the Texas suburbs have opened it to moderate progressives. Valenzuela has run on a platform closer to Biden’s than to her party’s left wing, and hasn’t stressed her stances on gun control and other “red meat” issues as much as did Beto O’Rourke, who carried the district by 3.5 points in his failed 2018 Senate bid. “She’s figured out how to balance the right amount of reform policies for her district,” says Valerie Martinez-Ebers, a professor of political science at the University of North Texas in Denton. Valenzuela still has a gap to make up to flip the seat, and will rely on appealing to the district’s growing minority community, while not turning off moderates and centrist Republicans.
“The district has shown that it is willing and capable of voting for a Democrat,” Carol Donovan, the Dallas County Democratic chair, told me. “The circumstances are such that anyone closely tied to Trump is not likely to be successful.”
The only independent polling in the race, by a group that favors term limits, found the race a toss-up. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, whose latest poll shows Valenzuela leading 48–41 against Van Duyne, and the House Majority PAC have set aside $4.4 million for media buys in Dallas races. Valenzuela has become a talented fund-raiser in her own right, bringing in more than $4 million as of mid-October.
When I ask Candace’s mother how she feels about her daughter running for Congress, she thinks a while and says, “Candy was always studious. She has always been a go-getter. She doesn’t seem to see obstacles. She’s been a doer since she was very little.”