Meet the Texas candidate hoping to become the 1st Afro Latina woman in Congress

Democrat Candace Valenzuela is running for a U.S. House seat to flip her red district in Texas blue — and will make history in Congress if she pulls it off.
Candace Valenzuela
Candace Valenzuela is aiming to turn her Texas district blue for the first time in 15 years. TODAY illustration / Courtesy Candace Valenzuela
/ Source: TODAY

Candace Valenzuela is still in disbelief that she is the focal point of a multimillion-dollar campaign to elect her to Congress. And just that, to her, feels like a victory.

“I'm grateful for the people who are working alongside me,” Valenzuela told TODAY. “I see this as a community effort because there are no heroes in 2020. We all have to work together.”

In the history of the United States, 12,348 individuals have served as representatives or senators in Congress. Of those, only 366 have been women.

Valenzuela, the Democratic candidate running to represent Texas' 24th Congressional District in the U.S. House, is hoping to add her name to that roster as the first Afro Latina woman in Congress — while also flipping a GOP stronghold.

Winning this district, which is nestled between Dallas and Fort Worth, would mark the first time a Democrat has held the seat since 2005. Republican incumbent Kenny Marchant, who has served since that year, announced in August 2019 he would not seek reelection.

Now, after defeating Democrat Kim Olson, who has 25 years of service as an Air Force pilot, in the July primary runoff, Valenzuela faces Republican opponent Beth Van Duyne.

Van Duyne is a former mayor of Irving, Texas, and served in the Trump administration as regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. She boasts solid political experience and has the support of the president, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and other notable politicians.

As for Valenzuela, her political résumé may be limited — she was at-large representative of Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District board and defeated the 18-year incumbent — but she believes her life experiences have positioned her to personally identify with the issues.

“There are no heroes in 2020. We all have to work together.”

Candace Valenzuela

And like her opponent, she also has high-profile names in her corner too. The impressive list of endorsements rooting for the district to turn blue include former President Barack Obama, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris.

“Candace will be ready to lead on day one,” Harris' endorsement reads. “She knows both the struggles and hopes of working and middle class families and will be a strong advocate for progressive change in Texas.”

No boots, no bootstraps

At 36, Valenzuela has lived experiences of homelessness and knowing what it is to not always have four walls. It’s part of the underdog image her campaign has been cultivated upon.

Valenzuela remembers fleeing under the El Paso night when she was 3 years old alongside her mother and diapered younger brother. Her mother and father, both military veterans, had relationship problems and the trio went to stay with relatives. When the situation there became tenuous with threats of domestic abuse, Valenzuela recalls sleeping outside of a gas station in her kiddie pool taken from her old house.

She described her mother as someone who liked to have “all her ducks in a row,” but things beyond their control led to financial troubles. Valenzuela said she does not view this experience as a “moral failure” on the part of her mother. To Valenzuela, it is reminiscent of the struggles presently facing hundreds of thousands of Americans.

“We need folks who are representing so many more homeless people, so many more hungry people to understand that it wasn't a moral failing, that a global pandemic hit, and our federal government didn't respond adequately to the challenge,” she said.

It was not long before her family ended up in a homeless shelter and gained assistance through HUD and the food stamps program.

Valenzuela believes these experiences equip her with a unique perspective on legislation regarding low-income housing and food assistance. She said the system is “not broken” but that there needs to be reform.

“When people are not being paid enough to eat, when they're not paid for the work that they do, then their merit is for naught,” Valenzuela said. “Their hard work doesn't work. And that's the essence of the American dream. There's no bootstrap story without boots. And so many Americans haven't had boots in this economy.”

Finding her calling

The public school system “became a home,” Valenzuela said, and a place for social mobility, with teachers offering a guiding hand. Valenzuela excelled in high school, rising to the top of her class and earning a full scholarship to Claremont McKenna College in California.

In college, she didn’t know if she wanted to make political documentaries or policies to unite fractured communities.

“I was hoping to have an effect on policy, (but) I did not particularly want to have to do it by shaking hands and raising money,” she explained. “It's funny, because I went to a college that was famous for its government program. And if you ask any of the folks that knew me back then, none of them would have pegged me as person who'd be running for Congress in 2020.”

As the first in her family to graduate from college, Valenzuela wanted to help students who may have also faced homelessness or other hardships. But she was held back from fully dedicating herself because she needed to focus on paying her medical bills. She developed chronic back pain after a car accident her junior year of high school and it forced her to take on three jobs in her early 20s to pay for pain management specialists and therapies.

Those areas of work that she landed in, however, were relative to her calling. She spent three hours daily carting between her jobs as a special needs student instructor, an ACT/SAT tutor and a worker in a girls' group home.

“There's no bootstrap story without boots. And so many Americans haven't had boots in this economy.”

Candace Valenzuela

All of Valenzuela’s roles were alongside kids, allowing her an inside glimpse into the education system. That experience became invaluable, especially when she moved on to work with other board members of the Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District who didn't always identify with the working class.

“They don't understand the urgency of struggling to put food on the table, or keep a roof over their heads or what folks are doing right now in order to pay for insulin, for child care,” she said. “And I'm working incredibly hard to be a voice for those folks.”

Valenzuela has since married and said she and her husband are able to support and provide for their children. Their family is on his health insurance.

“I got to be honest with you, I married my husband who is working for a corporation and I had survivor's guilt. Because I said, I'm finally not having to cover this with two jobs, but what about everybody else?”

Carrying the baton

History will be made if Valenzuela secures this seat in the House. Though being the first Afro Latina woman in Congress would be a huge step toward diversifying its members, she also feels it’s overdue.

“I’m incredibly grateful that I will have the opportunity to set an example for many little girls who may not have had that example,” she said. “But I'm also somewhat disappointed that it's taken this long to get here. And those two things together means that it's a responsibility … to build a pipeline (for) young people of color to have a voice in politics.”

Valenzuela’s campaign made significant strides on that front, as she and her staff run what they call a “teaching campaign” with about 60 college-aged fellows.

“We are training our next generation of campaign workers, our next generation of candidates by showing them how to organize, talking to them about how campaign finance works,” she said.

One campaign fellow, Chase Fitzpatrick, told TODAY by email that he knows “the rippling waves from this campaign will continue to drive positive change” no matter the outcome of the race.

Valenzuela feels that, too. She said she’s looking forward to “carrying the baton and passing it forward as we keep advancing our country.”

“Regardless of what happens in this election,” Valenzuela said, “we've built out more democratic infrastructure in my area. … No matter what I do, I've already won by helping to empower these young folks to make this world a better place.”