Sheriff Who?

Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez was a revolutionary candidate--as a leader, not so much

Branam continued, "I am sure that I do not have an adequate understanding of the political undercurrents that influence this situation, but I morally feel obligated to expose and demand correction for inhumane practices in the jail."

In March 2004, Bowles' bumpy reign as sheriff came to an end when his long-term deputy Danny Chandler defeated him in the Republican primary. The next day, Bowles was indicted on charges that he misused $100,000 in campaign donations. The indictment was later thrown out, but by then the damage to Bowles' reputation was done.

A 29-year veteran of the department, Chandler was expected to triumph easily over his unknown Democratic opponent. A senior agent with the Department of Homeland Security who also worked for the U.S. Customs Service, Valdez had trouble winning over her own family.

Silva and Lynch-Fullen pose with Lynch  for a family 
picture.
Silva and Lynch-Fullen pose with Lynch for a family picture.

"When she told me she wanted to run, I told her she was dreaming," says her brother Ramiro Valdez, who recounts this story lovingly as a testament to his sister's resolve. "You don't have any name recognition; you don't have any support; you don't have any money."

Although seemingly opposites, Valdez and Chandler engaged in a relatively civil campaign, with Chandler contrasting his tenure at the department with Valdez's lack of management or supervisory experience in her 25-year career in federal law enforcement. At first glance, Valdez's background gave no indication that she could run a sheriff's office in a major urban county. But Valdez effectively stressed that only an outsider could come in and reform the troubled jail. It didn't hurt that she knew how to press the flesh.

"Lupe Valdez was the hardest-working campaigner I could have imagined," says Randy Mayeux, a political consultant who served on her campaign staff. "She had a remarkable circle of loyal volunteers around her--people who loved her and looked up to her. We had staff who worked really long hours, and she would match anybody."

As the election hit the final turn, the lame duck Bowles continued to snipe at Chandler while generating an additional bout of bad publicity for the office after allegedly demoting employees who supported Chandler during the primary. Critics called for the sheriff to step down. Against that backdrop of vicious party infighting, a health crisis at the jail and an imploding Republican incumbent, Valdez eked out a narrow victory.

"It was the right time and place," says political consultant Plata. "The county was sick of the scandals with the Sheriff's Department and how the county was handling it."

You likely won't hear of Valdez granting lucrative contracts to friends or demoting dissenters. The members of the Dallas County Commissioners Court, who had become so disenchanted with Bowles that they cut his paltry budget, like Valdez. In many ways, she is the antithesis of her predecessor. And yet no one can say how the jail, which is her biggest responsibility, has changed under her watch. Meet the new boss, not quite as different as you might think from the old boss.

"The level of complaints and problems has gone on at the same rate," says Lawrence Priddy, an attorney with Advocacy Inc., a nonprofit that helps the mentally ill and is assisting in the Mims lawsuit against the county. "And that certainly reflects on the sheriff's office. It's a complex relationship between the medical provider and the sheriff's office, but ultimately the sheriff is responsible."

In March, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards flunked the Dallas County jail system for the third year in a row and the second straight under Valdez, even after she secured $5 million in additional funding from the county. The state agency wrote up the jail for overcrowding and not having enough staff--two recurring deficiencies that reflect on how poorly the county has historically funded the jail. This can't be blamed on Valdez. Inspectors also reported that inmates still are not receiving medical care on a timely basis, which points to the facility's medical provider. But the state cited the jail for other frustrating violations including problems with the smoke detection system and for bailiffs walking into courtroom holding cells with their weapons. That's against state regulations.

"How come state investigators and the Department of Justice can walk through the jail and instantly spot deficiencies and violations and not the sheriff?" asks one county employee.

Former criminal Judge Dan Wyde says that regardless of what you think about Bowles, the jail passed state inspections regularly until the last year of his watch. Under Valdez, the jail system has failed both times. "Has she proven she could run a jail over the last 18 months?" Wyde asks.


Raised in a family of migrant farm workers, Valdez couldn't have predicted she'd one day have a more than $90 million budget, 1,700 officers and as many as 8,000 inmates under her custody and control. But her mother, Tere, risked losing her family to help her daughter find a better life. For years, Tere, husband Plinio and the couple's children would leave San Antonio in March and work the fields of farms in Michigan and Minnesota. Often living out of a tent, the Valdez family would pick green beans, apples, berries, beets and turnips. Each year the children would have to drop out of school and quickly fell behind their classmates.
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