The undercurrent of the Democratic governor’s race turned into a bitter Facebook crossfire of identity politics and accusations over abortion stances this weekend between supporters of Houston businessman Andrew White and former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez. The tone got so hostile at one point that White’s mother—former Texas first lady Linda Gale White—felt compelled to come to her son’s defense.
The debate was triggered when former state representative Debra Danburg posted an art graphic of a party hat, confetti, and a ladder on a mustard yellow background to highlight the words “Please vote for ANDREW WHITE for Governor in the Democratic runoff.” During 22 years in the legislature, Danburg was the Democratic representative for Houston’s Montrose area. The Houston Press once likened her to Davy Crockett, defending “the gay denizens of Montrose,” a state lawmaker who expanded sexual rights, championed AIDS-prevention funding, and passed a bill making it easier for gay and lesbian couples to adopt children. It’s also notable that she passed the state law making spousal rape illegal. So it is not exactly like Danburg is from the Tory wing of the Democratic Party.
But starting Sunday afternoon and continuing into Monday, a Democratic-style debate ensued after Danburg posted her plea for White on Facebook. It was like she had exposed the deep schism on the party’s left—the fight to win a statewide office for the first time in almost a quarter century versus a demand that the party serve as the unbending defender of abortion rights and identity politics. There were numerous comparisons of White to the much more charismatic Beto O’Rourke, who is running for U.S. Senate against Republican incumbent Ted Cruz.
The debate began simply enough, with Kim Okanson asking, “Why not Lupe? (Honestly asking—not trying to stir any pots.)” Linda George Smith replied, “defeat Abbott,” referring to Republican governor Greg Abbott.
“I cannot imagine anyone motivated to the polls for White,” wrote Tom Combs. “Voting for him once they get there, sure. But excited…he’s not Beto…White, just not feeling it.”
Jim Sharp replied, “Beto will not win, Beto cannot win if he is on a ticket with someone who will drag him down. Vote for Andrew.”
White personally responded to Combs by writing, “Beto was a congressman for 6 yrs, has been campaigning for over a year, and is one of the most exciting Democratic politicians from Texas in a generation = and he lost 40% of the vote to 2 people that no one has ever heard of and who spent less than $10k…statewide politics is not only about a campaign or connecting with voters (those 2 things needs to happen). It’s about mass media.”
Dallas activist Trey McAtee wrote that White reminded him of centrist Democrats Chris Bell and Bill White, both of whom lost races for governor, and he noted that White’s father—the late Governor Mark White—lost his reelection bid in 1986. Houston Democrat Noah M. Horwitz wrote back, “Because nominating liberal identity politics folks works out great! Just ask Governor (Wendy) Davis.” McAtee popped the reply, “Identity politics? I’ll take a countywide Sheriff over a VC (venture capitalist) any day of the week and twice on Sunday.”
Things really started heating up when the activists began arguing over White’s positions on gay rights and abortion. White attends a Presbyterian church, and some LGBT activists complain the denomination opposes same-sex marriage. White has said he differs from his church on that issue. White publicly has said he supports a woman’s right to choose whether she has an abortion, although he is opposed to abortion in his personal life. Former Democratic Party finance chair and abortion rights activist Aimee Boone Cunningham has proclaimed the choice issue as the greatest reason to vote against White. Cunningham claims White told her he would sign an anti-abortion bill into law if abortion was used as a method of birth control.
Danburg noted that as a state lawmaker she had killed one piece of anti-abortion legislation after another and still supported White because she did not view him as a threat to women’s reproductive rights. “If you need to be more pro-choice than me to get the support of Aimee Cunningham, et al, you are too radical to win in Texas!!!” To which Cunningham wrote, “Debra Danburg sorry to hear you think I am lying. I am not.” As the heat intensified, White’s mother, Linda Gale, felt compelled to enter the fray.
“This is directed to Aimee but really to all on this stream and elsewhere. I am Andrew’s mother and I have never heard him say what Aimee is claiming he said,” wrote Linda Gale White. “The ‘birth control’ misconception has been spread far and wide. It is just wrong and other PP members have tried to correct this statement. I wish the two of you could have had a better discussion listening to each other and asking questions before jumping to conclusions…
“He happens to be a white male centrist Democrat who may not be what everyone is looking for, but in my opinion, if he is chosen as the Democratic candidate, he can and will energize the Democratic vote and also will energize those Republicans who are not satisfied with their options and that is how the Democrats win. We now have a candidate who can bring in votes from both parties and that is what the Primary showed we needed to win the general election…
“So the runoff boils down to this…do we want to win a battle or win the war. I want to win the war and Andrew is the only candidate in this runoff who has the possibility of winning the war.”
Candidate White also chimed in to tell Cunningham “I disagree with your characterization of our conversation” about whether he would sign anti-choice legislation. Cunningham fired back: “Andrew White just wondering (a) what you think you said, (b) why you think I’d lie about this, and (c) why you think a woman’s right to control her own body is NOT one of the important issues facing our state.”
McAtee weighed in again, “Mrs. White, Abbott isn’t scared of Lupe and Andrew just makes him laugh. Andrew is not going to peel off R votes… that doesn’t happen. That is a complete and total nonsense.” He went on to say Valdez has experience winning an election while White does not. “This isn’t about your son’s ethnicity or race. Period. He’s running thinking that there are a group of persuadables just waiting for him. THERE ISN’T.”
Ann L. MacNaughton described McAtee’s response as “insulting” and “an example of the circular firing squad that keeps delivering Abbott.”
Futher along, the argument turned to race and ethnicity in politics. Erik Manning wrote, “We ignore racial issues at our own peril. We have taken for granted that blacks and Latinos will automatically vote for Democrats without outreach. If we don’t start considering race and including minorities both in the discussion and at the table, we will never get ahead.”
MacNaughton wrote back, “I’m simply saying that I don’t think campaigning on ‘vote for me because of my race’ is a good campaign strategy.” Manning said that is not what he is suggesting. He is merely acknowledging that a candidate with a Hispanic surname performs better among Latino voters. “I will support the candidate that can have a bigger impact on Democratic turnout in November, and in my opinion, that candidate is Lupe Valdez. We must learn to bust out of our white urban bubble and take into account the viewpoints of other groups of people, not try to dictate how WE think they should feel/vote.”
Retired journalist Tim Fleck noted that in last week’s primaries the Republicans turned out 60 percent of the total vote and Democrats 40 percent. He wrote that Valdez might do a better job of helping down-ballot Democrats even if she loses at the top to Abbott. “Lupe would be more valuable at the top of the ballot energizing Latino voters than a son of a former governor that no one ever heard of till now.”
I printed out the entire exchange, and it took up 25 pages. And, as I wrote this article, people were still commenting. Far more people were engaged than I have quoted, and some of the quotes have been edited for brevity. It was notable throughout the exchange that while more than one person touted Valdez’s Latina heritage and her past election victories in Dallas County, not one person I saw described her as a good candidate. What the exchange made clear is that between now and the May 22 runoff, Texas Democrats will engage in a fight of victory and values.