Lupe Valdez, the Democratic nominee for governor, swung away at Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in their first and only debate Friday evening, while Abbott largely ignored her and defended his first term.
Valdez, the former Dallas County sheriff, hammered Abbott in response to nearly every question, accusing him of focusing on the wrong issues in his first term. Abbott often responded to the criticism obliquely and rarely mentioned his opponent.
There were nonetheless tense moments, such as when Valdez criticized Abbott for not calling a special session after Hurricane Harvey last year to tap the state’s savings account, known as the Rainy Day Fund.
“He calls a special session for bathrooms but does not call a special session when people are dying,” Valdez said, alluding to the "bathroom bill" that was among Abbott's agenda items for a special session last summer. “The Rainy Day Fund is the biggest savings account in the United States. Governor, it rained!”
Abbott explained in response that the governor “has the authority to spend state money without having to call a special session to tap the Rainy Day Fund." That money, he said, will be repaid from the fund when the legislature meets for its next session in 2019.
Abbott made news on several fronts, starting with providing his clearest position yet on the historically inaccurate Confederate plaque at the Capitol that has drawn calls for removal by many Democrats and some Republicans. He said it was installed by a vote of the Legislature and thus lawmakers have a responsibility to take it down.
“Should they take it down because of a factual inaccuracy?” Abbott said. “Absolutely.”
Valdez was more forceful about removing the plaque, saying, “We just need to take care of it and get it done.”
Abbott also made clear that he will not be prioritizing a “bathroom bill” next session similar to the one that drew a business backlash last year, saying it is “not on my agenda” for 2019. However, he declined to say whether he would sign such a proposal if it made it to his desk, saying he “won’t sign hypothetical bills.”
Finally, Abbott expressed openness to reducing the penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana — 2 ounces or less — from a class B misdemeanor to a class C misdemeanor. “We agree on something,” Valdez subsequently declared.
Other moments showed stark differences between the two, particularly when it came to guns. Abbott reaffirmed his support for letting teachers be armed in the aftermath of the deadly shooting earlier this year at Santa Fe High School. Valdez, meanwhile, insisted “teachers should be teaching, not being armed and in defense.”
The two also split on red flag laws, which would allow courts to order the seizure or surrender of guns from people who are deemed an imminent threat by a judge. Abbott raised due process concerns about such legislation, while Valdez said she supports it and accused Abbott of having “confusion between gun ownership and gun violence.”
Valdez continued to confront Abbott when it came to immigration, particularly over the 2001 Texas DREAM Act, which gives in-state tuition to some undocumented immigrants. Valdez said she believes in a path to citizenship for young people brought to the country illegally as children — “and therefore we need to prepare them to be here and be educated.” Abbott called the law flawed and in need of fixing, claiming it has no way to ensure that recipients are working toward legal status while receiving tuition.
Valdez then charged Abbott with “blaming the students for a broken immigration system.” Given an opportunity to respond, the governor again declined to mix it up with her while emphasizing “our job first is to make sure we educate Texas students.”
Abbott did directly acknowledge Valdez at least once — after she expressed support for expanding Medicaid in Texas.
“She wants to make a deal with a federal government that’s $21 trillion in debt,” Abbott said. “She’s willing to write a blank check to the federal government that I will not write.”
“Lying again, lying again,” Valdez said as moderators moved on to the next question.
Abbott and Valdez do not have another debate planned between now and Election Day, when Libertarian Mark Tippetts is also on the ballot. Tippetts was not included in Friday's debate and held a news conference before it to voice his objections.
The hourlong event was was hosted by the Nexstar Media Group and held at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library.
Like U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and his Democratic challenger, U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke of El Paso, Abbott and Valdez had a back and forth over debates. Abbott made the first move in July, announcing he had accepted an invitation to the Nexstar debate. About a week later, Valdez said she was planning to participate in a separate debate that had been planned for Oct. 8 in Houston. But Abbott held firm on the Nexstar debate, and Valdez agreed to it last month while claiming victory in getting Telemundo on board as one of the sponsors.