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Afro-Latina candidate Candace Valenzuela wants to continue John Lewis' legacy in Congress

"I am hoping to honor his legacy by pushing for a 21st century Voting Rights Act. I'm trying to have a lot of very critical conversations about race and representation in Texas."
Image: Candace Valenzuela
The Mexican American and Afro-Latin candidate, Candace Valenzuela, won the second round in Texas last week, and will contest the seat for the 24th district in the House of Representatives against the Republican, Beth Van Duyne, next November.Courtesy Candace Valenzuela campaign

Candace Valenzuela wants to make history as the first Afro-Latina in Congress, and hopes her victory in November can help continue the fight for social justice waged by the late Rep. John Lewis.

Valenzuela, 37, won the Democratic primary runoff last Tuesday for Texas' 24th congressional district and is now facing her Republican rival, Beth Van Duyne, in November's elections.

In an extensive telephone interview with Noticias Telemundo, Valenzuela addressed a wide range of topics, including Lewis's legacy as a titan of civil rights.

Valenzuela described the late Black congressman as an American hero.

“He made sure that his struggles came to benefit his entire community and Americans and democracy in general," said Valenzuela. "I am hoping to honor his legacy by pushing for a 21st century Voting Rights Act. I'm trying to have a lot of very critical conversations about race and representation in Texas," said Valenzuela, the daughter of a Mexican American mother and a Black father, "and I hope that my candidacy and my governance reflects that in a great way as well."

Last June, Lewis supported Valenzuela, calling her,"exactly the type of leader we need in Washington."

The fight for the seat

The seat Valenzuela aims to win has been under Republican control since 2004, and the area spans parts of Dallas, Tarrant and Denton counties. Van Duyne has the backing of President Donald Trump and the Republican party.

Valenzuela, a mother of two young children and an educator, said she hopes that her story of personal struggle against poverty and homelessness will resonate with those families who, in the midst of the pandemic, "are suffering" with high unemployment rates, financial insecurity and a challenge to their economic and social mobility.

Valenzuela touts her family's military career; her great-grandfather, who emigrated from Durango, Mexico fought in World War I, her grandparents also went to war and her parents served in the military.

Democrats hope their support of Valenzuela can turn the district blue and help keep the House of Representatives under Democrats' control.

Van Duyne was Irving, Texas' first female mayor and for a brief time served as a regional administrator for the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Texas under the Trump Administration.

On her Facebook page, Van Duyne has accused Valenzuela of wanting to impose a "socialist agenda that destroys jobs."

According to Van Duyne, voters should not be "fooled" by Valenzuela, because she has received support from "many extremist officials and organizations" who, in her opinion, seek to dismantle the security system, stifle fundamental rights and impose "socialist medicine" and a tax increase.

These accusations, says Valenzuela, are part of the "Republican script" of personal attacks, insisting her goal insisted is to "help families."

Valenzuela won a tough race in 2017 for the Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District board seat in Carrollton, a city that faced lawsuits over an ordinance making English the official language.

Countering Trump and campaigning in pandemic times

Valenzuela blasted Trump's threat to deploy federal agents to more Democratic cities that have seen protests and his portrayal of Democrats, and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, as soft on crime.

Referring to a recent Trump political ad, Valenzuela said, "He's putting up pictures of Biden and fires and things, [like] this is going to be Biden's America, when it's literally pictures of his America."

Instead, she said, what people are seeing is "how embarrassing it is to be the most prosperous country on the planet" and have disproportionately high COVID-19 numbers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced her campaign to expand their digital efforts to fundraise and reach voters.

Valenzuela recognizes she needs to win the support of not only African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans—who make up over half her district's population—but also of other voters, including centrist and independent voters in the suburbs.

Image: Candace Valenzuela
Valenzuela, shortly after voting on July 14.Courtesy Candace Valenzuela

"Everybody is suffering from this pandemic. The vast majority of us are taking some financial hit, if we haven't lost our jobs," said Valenzuela.

Still, she's met people who have recently lost their jobs who have told her, "I know you're going to be working for me, here's $5."

"We have an incredible grassroots movement and we're going to continue to communicate my message," she said, "trying to make sure that families succeed, trying to put food on the table, a roof over your head and get the healthcare and the education you need."

Valenzuela's campaign estimates she will need up to four million dollars as they work to win voters before November. Between last April and June, her campaign raised $470,000, considered a record for her district, and since last week, she has raised an additional $130,000 from more than 18,000 donors.

Valenzuela has rejected corporate PAC money. "Particularly in Texas 24, we've got some incredible industries that I'm going to be having some amazing conversations with," she said, "but I don't want those conversations to be informed by large influxes of cash."

According to an internal survey by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on the eve of the primary runoff, Valenzuela was leading Republican rival Van Duyne by six points, suggesting it could be a close race in November. Some political analysts are describing the race as a toss-up.

Though Trump won among District 24 voters in 2016, then-Democratic Senate candidate Beto O'Rourke won the district in 2018—boosting the hope of Valenzuela's campaign.

A previous version of this story was first published in Noticias Telemundo.

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