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Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a statement from Lupe Valdez's campaign that was sent to the Tribune after the story's publication.
Democratic gubernatorial nominee Lupe Valdez, fresh off securing her party's nomination in a runoff a week ago, is wasting little time tying the Republican incumbent, Greg Abbott, to President Donald Trump.
"He's basically a puppet for the president," Valdez, the former Dallas County sheriff, said in an interview Sunday, arguing Abbott is "trying to find favor" with Trump, particularly on issues related to the border. "He’s just following in Trump’s footsteps, and we’re strongly gonna go against that."
Abbott, who is seeking a second term, has generally aligned himself with Trump on border policy, most recently heeding the president's call to send hundreds of new National Guard troops to the area. Trump has repeatedly expressed his support for Abbott's re-election bid, including last month during the National Rifle Association's annual meeting in Dallas.
Still, Abbott has sought some distance from Trump in his re-election bid, particularly in his efforts to grow the 44 percent of the Hispanic vote he won in 2014. Last year, Abbott said he was confident Hispanic voters in Texas would see him and Trump as "completely independent" and warned Democrats that any money spent connecting him to Trump would be "like setting that money on fire and incinerating it."
Like many Democrats, Valdez expressed deep skepticism that Abbott would get as large a share of the Hispanic vote in November, pointing to both Trump and arguably Abbott's biggest legislative achievement in office: the state's "sanctuary cities" ban, Senate Bill 4, which seeks to punish local officials who do not fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
"Look, he made some very good comments when he was running for office, but look what he did when he was in office," Valdez said when asked about Abbott's Hispanic outreach, citing SB 4. Democrats, she added, need to "get that message out and tell the folks that he talks a good game, but when it comes to action, he doesn't do it."
Valdez made the comments in an interview Sunday, five days after she captured her party's nod for governor in a closer-than-expected runoff against Andrew White, the son of late Gov. Mark White. Before she even took the stage to accept the nomination, Abbott's campaign released a video recounting how she said during the primary she would be open to raising taxes as governor but then backtracked on it the same day.
In the interview Sunday, Valdez did not rule out increasing taxes if elected.
"I don’t want to do anything that’ll hurt the working everyday Texan, and I’m certainly against" a state income tax, she said. Asked whether that meant she was specifically considering tax increases for wealthy Texans, she said she planned to review the tax code for loopholes and make sure everybody "pay their fair share."
(After this story was published Valdez spokesman Juan Dominguez elaborated on her positions on taxes, explaining in a statement that she is "against any regressive tax policies, which hurt working everyday Texans that includes introducing an income tax or increasing the sales tax.")
In addition to tying Abbott to Trump, Valdez was critical of the governor's response to the Santa Fe High School shooting, which happened four days before the runoff and left 10 people dead. Abbott convened three school safety roundtables last week at the Capitol, and he tweeted Friday night he will "soon announce many substantive details that can be implemented before the next school year begins."
"That's good, but that's not good enough," Valdez said of Abbott's roundtables, arguing the discussion should be much broader than school safety and include new gun regulations such as universal background checks.
Second Amendment rights have already flared up as an issue in the U.S. Senate race, where Republican incumbent Ted Cruz has pounced on Democratic challenger U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke's support for an assault weapons ban to paint him as a too liberal for gun-loving Texas. In the interview, Valdez stopped short of voicing support for the same ban but criticized assault weapons as "weapons of war" — "Who are you trying to go to war against?" she asked rhetorically — and said they do not have a place in "regular, everyday sports activities."
In the interview, Valdez did not express any concern about wooing Republicans in the general election, voicing confidence that the issues she is emphasizing — health care and public education, for example — "go across both parties." Even Republicans "who voted for Abbott are still having to struggle like many of the Democrats," Valdez added.
Valdez's campaign included a few high-profile setbacks in the primary, and she was followed for weeks by the question of whether she would debate White, which they ultimately did 11 days before the runoff. As for whether she is willing to spar with her November opponent, Valdez said she is game.
"Sure," she said. "I don’t have any problem with debates. I’ve said from the very beginning, I don’t have any problem with that. I’ll debate him anytime."