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Texas Elections 2018

Analysis: Lupe Valdez is a longtime cop. Why didn’t she lead the school safety conversation?

After a mass shooting, state officials and candidates were drawn into a public discussion of what to do next. The Democratic candidate for governor, someone with actual law enforcement experience, has had a more muted response.

Democratic candidate for governor Lupe Valdez during a Jolt the Vote event in Austin on April 29, 2018.

Texas Elections 2018

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz defeated Democratic challenger Beto O'Rourke in the race for U.S. Senate. View full 2018 Texas election results or subscribe to The Brief for the latest election news.

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How is it that the quietest voice in Texas politics during the last two weeks belongs to a candidate with a career in law enforcement and the military?

Lupe Valdez, the former Dallas County sheriff and the Democratic nominee for governor, was slow to bring her experience to the debate over how to respond to the mass shooting two weeks ago at Santa Fe High School. She promised to make some proposals “in the coming days,” and did that this morning, in a newspaper op-ed article.

The loudest political voice? That would be her November opponent, Gov. Greg Abbott, who declared that thoughts and prayers wouldn’t be enough in the wake of the Santa Fe High School shootings. He hosted three days of conversations with dozens of people with a range of viewpoints and then turned out a 40-page set of proposals, ranging from making it easier to arm teachers to implementing mental health screening in schools, that he hopes will stave off future mass shootings in the state.

The loudest voice in law enforcement? That would be Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, who wrote about his anguish on Facebook on the day of the shooting. “This isn’t a time for prayers, and study and inaction, it’s a time for prayers, action and the asking of God’s forgiveness for our inaction (especially the elected officials that ran to the cameras today, acted in a solemn manner, called for prayers, and will once again do absolutely nothing),” he wrote.

“To me, it’s not about gun control,” he told Texas Monthly in a podcast less than a week later. “It’s about maintaining access and having steps to give access to firearms to law-abiding people of sound mind. ... We need a universal background check throughout the nation that is one system with real teeth with significant consequences.”

Acevedo’s not a candidate, although some of his admirers in Houston and in Austin, where he used to be the head cop, have periodically prodded him to run.

The shooting took place on the Friday before last month’s Democratic primary runoff for governor. Valdez’s initial reaction was vague: “We will act to make change. There is no other option.”

She said in a January interview with The Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith that she would support increased background checks on gun purchases and a ban on high-capacity magazines. She said she supports concealed carry of handguns and opposes both campus carry and open carry. In an interview last weekend with the Tribune’s Patrick Svitek, she said Abbott’s roundtables were too constrained and should have included more conversation about new gun regulations. She repeated her support of background checks but stopped short of joining fellow Democrats who’ve called for bans of assault weapons.

She said in a news release after the governor’s presentation that “it is astounding how few of Governor Abbott's proposals directly address gun violence and how he ignored some of the most critical steps we must take,” but also said some of his recommendations on mental health “are essential and should have been enacted years ago.”

She still has time to talk about it — she started with her opinion piece in the Houston Chronicle — but her hesitation left her answering Abbott’s proposals instead of leading the way. That said, Abbott left major changes to gun laws off of his list — even those that have wide public acceptance in Texas.

The state’s Democrats have made a habit of saying that Texas is “not a red state — it’s a non-voting state.” Part of that is straight-up whistling in the graveyard; in a remarkable losing streak, Democrats haven’t won a statewide race in 28 years. It’s certainly true, however, that a lot of Texans don’t vote: The most recent evidence came in the March primaries, when 83 percent of registered voters stayed home.

That makes relatively small numbers of voters relatively powerful. And judging from the way elected officials have reacted to talk about gun laws in Texas, those relatively small groups of voters aren’t representative of the state. According to a October 2017 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, most Texas voters think gun laws should be stricter. As you might expect, there was strong partisan disagreement. While 86 percent of Democrats said they would toughen current gun laws, 51 percent of Republicans would leave those laws as they are. Black voters (74 percent) and Hispanic voters (61 percent) would prefer stricter laws; 43 percent of white voters agreed with them.

A Quinnipiac Poll unveiled this week found 93 percent of Texas voters support required background checks for all gun buyers, 64 percent supportive of requiring guns to be stored in locked places and 64 percent favoring holding parents legally responsible when their children commit crimes with their parents’ guns.

Politicians have to move carefully in situations like this, but they do have to move — to lead, to show how they think the public should respond in the face of mass killings. But this time, in a situation where the challenger is the one with law enforcement experience, it has been the incumbent leading the way.

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