Keys to the Jail

There's only one thing tougher than running for Dallas County sheriff—getting people to care

At an October 7 debate at Preston Hollow Elementary School, the candidates appeared slightly more comfortable. Cannaday pointed angrily several times and audibly sighed before answering some questions—a mannerism that didn't work well for Al Gore either when he debated George W. Bush in 2000. Valdez consulted her notes regularly, preferring to read scripted answers instead of speaking directly to the audience.

Perhaps their poor debate performances won't matter much, because if conventional political wisdom holds, it's the top of the ticket that dictates the bottom. And with a collapsing economy and an unpopular war in Iraq, says Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, the Democrats are rallying strongly behind presidential candidate Barack Obama. Dallas County demographics now favor the Democrats, so the winner of the sheriff's race might just be the beneficiary of high voter turnout. "What appears to be happening is that the sheriff's race hasn't caught independent fire," Jillson says.

But you wouldn't know it from their fund-raising efforts, as the candidates have collected approximately $1 million between them. And convincing them that their tireless campaigning won't make a difference seems pointless.

Even though she's an incumbent and a Democrat, Sheriff Valdez leaves nothing to chance as she campaigns on foot along Ellsworth Avenue in North Dallas.
Sam Merten
Even though she's an incumbent and a Democrat, Sheriff Valdez leaves nothing to chance as she campaigns on foot along Ellsworth Avenue in North Dallas.
Despite four failed state jail inspections during her administration, Valdez says she has solved overcrowding and understaffing in the jail, along with improving health care and sanitation.
Brandon Thibodeaux
Despite four failed state jail inspections during her administration, Valdez says she has solved overcrowding and understaffing in the jail, along with improving health care and sanitation.

Just ask Valdez, who is putting forth the kind of effort that yielded her national headlines in 2004 when she narrowly defeated Republican Danny Chandler to become the first woman, the first lesbian and the first Hispanic to be elected sheriff in Dallas County. She also was the first Democrat in the county to become sheriff in 30 years.

"I think I was the only one that knew I was going to win because I knew how hard I was working," she says.

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It's 10:30 on a Saturday morning in mid-September, and Valdez is at it again, helping with the ground game at her modest campaign headquarters in a largely Hispanic neighborhood in Oak Cliff. This time, instead of working to beat the odds, she's working to save her job.

On the second floor of an aging medical building, Valdez sits in a folding chair, personally signing campaign flyers with a Sharpie. She wears a red, sleeveless, skin-tight shirt with a collar as she prepares for a day of grassroots campaigning. Her name is stitched on the front of her shirt in yellow letters, with a sheriff's badge sewn on the opposite side.

Her black cargo pants are worn, with a hole near her knee. Valdez's running shoes will come in handy as she targets potential voters on foot in Precinct 1229, just east of Highland Park. The flyers she's signing will be put on doors of people who aren't home.

Valdez grabs a bottled water from a rusted refrigerator. Despite raising nearly $400,000 for her campaign, it's apparent that very little of that money has been spent on anything more than providing an operable headquarters. But that's plenty for Valdez, who says she grew up "so poor I didn't even know it."

The youngest of eight children, Valdez shared one bedroom with her siblings while picking crops in San Antonio as a migrant worker. "I just thought that was normal," she says. "I didn't think anybody was any different."

After graduating high school, Valdez moved to Oklahoma and earned her bachelor's degree at Bethany Nazarene College, now called Southern Nazarene University. She later became a youth minister in Phoenix before landing in Kansas City, where she got a job as a jailer with the Jackson County Department of Corrections and also enlisted with the U.S. Army National Guard and Army Reserve.

Valdez had no intentions of returning to Texas, a place she says contained "lots of bias and prejudice against the Latino," but she came back in 1978 to be close to her aging parents.

She held three government jobs before spending nearly 15 years as a special agent for the U.S. Customs Service, earning her master's degree in criminology and criminal justice at the University of Texas at Arlington in 2000. She joined the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as a senior agent in 2002.

After nearly 30 years in law enforcement, Valdez saw retirement around the corner, though she wanted to remain in public service. She says the sheriff's office caught her eye because it fit her background and there was turmoil in the department that needed to be resolved.

Like other candidates, she smelled blood in the water. Then-Sheriff Jim Bowles, who had been running the department since 1985, had a damaged relationship with county commissioners, which culminated with their disagreement regarding Bowles' award of a jail commissary contract—the same one that led to an investigation of the sheriff.

Five special grand jury indictments were returned against Bowles, which resulted in his landslide defeat in the March 2004 Republican primary to Danny Chandler, who had spent 29 years in the sheriff's department.

The Democratic primary was much closer, with Jim Foster, who would later be elected county judge in 2006, forcing a runoff against Valdez. But she destroyed Foster in the runoff, garnering 73 percent of the vote.

In April, all five indictments against Bowles were dismissed, but he had already been bounced in the primary, and the department was tainted by allegations of impropriety. That month, the jail also failed its first inspection in 21 years. Overcrowding, understaffing and health care deficiencies were the most notable violations cited by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, which performs annual jail inspections.

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