By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Valdez's timing was perfect, says attorney Susan Hays who was then-chair of the Dallas County Democratic Party. "She embodied the outsider at a time when the department really, really needed it."
In addition to the chaos surrounding the Bowles administration, Valdez's campaign continued to gain momentum after The Dallas Morning News endorsed her over Chandler. The editorial board wrote that both candidates were "so well qualified and ready to lead that the voters can't go wrong," but they ultimately gave the nod to Valdez, because she would bring "fresh blood, fresh instincts and fresh ideas."
Valdez made history on November 2, 2004, when she narrowly beat Chandler, receiving 51 percent of the votes cast. Reflecting back on her big day, Valdez still isn't sure which barrier she broke was the most significant. "That depends on which group you talk to. They all say they got me elected."
But whether it meant more to be a Democrat, a lesbian, a Hispanic or a woman, Valdez says those labels were the last things on her mind. She was more concerned with turning around the sheriff's department.
Hays, who also served on Valdez's transition team, says the problems in the sheriff's department were worse than anticipated. She describes the culture in the department at the time as "horrible" and the morale as "terrible." Some officers seemed willing to assist Valdez only if there was something in it for them, says Hays. When no special treatment was offered, they turned against her. Others simply wouldn't take orders from a woman. Hays recalls being told by one administrative staffer: "They don't even get to the part that she's gay; they can't get over the fact that she's a woman."
Hays says some of Valdez's close aides suggested doing a major staff overhaul because of the resistance to working for her, a tactic Hays disagreed with at the time. "But, in retrospect, I think that was a big mistake because they were out to get her."
While battling for respect, Valdez faced her first failed jail inspection only two months into her administration. Again, overcrowding, staff shortages and health care woes highlighted the concerns of state inspectors, along with problems with fire safety and cleanliness. Only a month later, a Dallas Observer column ("Fatal Phone Tree," April 21, 2005) exposed major problems with the jail's phone system, as only two employees were charged with handling more than 700 daily calls from people trying to locate inmates. Some inmates were lost in the system for days.
In November 2005, the U.S. Department of Justice notified the county commissioners that it intended to launch an investigation into jail conditions as a result of the failed inspections and the federal civil rights lawsuit filed against the county for its alleged inhumane treatment of three prisoners. Although their injuries—the death of two mentally ill inmates and the grave illness of another—occurred prior to her tenure, it didn't help that Valdez was the public face of the department when commissioners hired Dr. Michael Puisis, an outside consultant, to review conditions at the jail. He would later describe a system so rife with neglect that inmates were regularly denied basic care. The $5 million in jail improvements that commissioners would throw at the problem did little to change the opinion of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards when the jail failed another inspection on March 10, 2006.
Valdez didn't help herself by maintaining poor relations with local media outlets, which accused her of refusing to honor their interview and open records requests. Small wonder that when Valdez flunked her state law enforcement licensing test, receiving a score of 66 and needing 70 to pass, the media had a field day. Only last week, Cannaday tried to exploit the issue in a campaign brochure that linked the jail's failed inspections to Valdez's failed test.
In December 2006, the Justice Department released its investigative findings, which highlighted a disturbing pattern of negligence and unprofessional conduct on the part of health care providers and jail staff. The report found that the jail had violated the constitutional rights of inmates and contributed to the deaths of at least 11 people. The Justice Department also described parts of the jail facility as filthy and sanitation practices as "grossly inadequate," citing leaky toilets and sinks, clogged drains and fly larvae in the bathrooms. In September 2007, the department filed a lawsuit against the county and Valdez, which resulted in a four-year agreement giving the feds oversight of the jail with regular biannual inspections.
In January of this year, state inspectors made a surprise visit and the jail failed its fifth inspection in as many years. The state, however, noted that progress had finally been made regarding overcrowding, understaffing, health care and sanitation.
Since Valdez first took over the jail in January 2005, she maintains that she's been cleaning up the mess Bowles left behind after 20 years of neglect. Price, her most ardent supporter on the commissioners court, couldn't agree more. "Shit, it was always that way."
But Cannaday maintains that blaming Bowles is just a wholesale excuse by Valdez to absolve her of any responsibility; he also accuses her of taking a single-issue approach to fixing the jail as opposed to focusing on the big picture.