McNeely: White, Valdez, in only debate, clash on abortion | Opinion

In the only debate between the Democratic runoff candidates to take on Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in November, Houston businessman Andrew White strongly endorsed improving Texas education and Lupe Valdez hammered White’s stance on abortion.

In his opening remarks Friday in Austin, White called for raising Texas’ education ranking well above its current 43rd among the states — and especially fully funding statewide full-day pre-kindergarten.

The debate moderator, The Dallas Morning News political writer Gromer Jeffers, raised the abortion question. He said the 2014 Democratic nominee for governor, former state Sen. Wendy Davis, said she doesn’t trust White on the issue.

White, 45, son of the late former Democratic Gov. Mark White, said while he personally opposes abortion for religious reasons he is pro-choice. He said all women should have the right to choose to abort a pregnancy and he would do everything he can to protect that right — including vetoing efforts to limit it.

“You know who trusts me on this issue?” White asked. “Cecile Richards, the former president of Planned Parenthood.”

Richards says “There is room in her movement for people with this perspective,” White said. “They’re people like (former Vice-President) Joe Biden and (the 2016 Democratic vice-presidential nominee, Virginia U.S. Sen.) Tim Kaine. … (M)y personal opinions are not what’s important in this election.”

Valdez insisted White’s “personal beliefs … (imply) that other people that don’t agree with you do not respect life. Andrew, you owe an apology to these women.”

“Let me say this,” White said. “I know there’s a theatrical aspect to what you just said. But what you just said had nothing to do with what I have been saying. So the reality is still the reality, right? My personal opinions are my personal opinions. And as governor I’d trust women to make their own heath care decisions.”

Valdez, 70, was asked about her cooperation as Dallas sheriff detaining immigrants for federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials. Her evasive response recently caused a group of younger Hispanics called Jolt Texas to endorse White over her.

Valdez said she had to go along with the federal requirements to avoid losing federal support for things like treatment programs for younger people. She also said she is the only candidate for governor “that has fought … against anti-immigration laws for years.”

White, asked about his membership in a church that opposes gay marriage, said, “I support very much the LGBT community — I understand their issues, I’m passionate about those issues and I’m willing to fight for those issues.”

He noted the Houston LGBT chapter had endorsed him over Valdez, who is lesbian.

Valdez, who outpolled White 43 to 27 percent in the March 6 primary against seven other candidates, has been appealing to Hispanics and liberals. White is more moderate, saying that to beat Abbott in Texas, the Democrats must attract dissatisfied Republican moderates.

“There’s a huge schism in the (Republican) party,” White said. “There is the Greg Abbott-Dan Patrick side of the party, the guys driving the crazy train with bathroom bills and all sorts of craziness. And there’s the Joe Straus side of the party. The old George Bush side of the party. And those guys, they don’t recognize their party anymore.”

“Frankly, this is our opportunity to take advantage of that fact,” White said. “Moderate Democrats are winning in red states all over the nation.”

Valdez questioned whether a moderate stance would work in Texas, rather than going all-out to fire up Democrats.

Jeffers noted that every major newspaper editorial board, including Valdez’s hometown Dallas Morning News, has endorsed White, questioning whether Valdez was “sharp” enough to oversee state government.

Valdez sarcastically complimented White on the endorsements, but said she is endorsed by several groups, including the Texas AFL-CIO and Planned Parenthood. She questioned whether the editorial boards understood her.

“It’s not that I’m not as sharp, because I am just as sharp,” Valdez said. “The problem may be that I don’t talk newspaper language. I talk people language.”

Valdez noted the diverse audience in the church where the debate was held.

“Take a good look around,” she said. “This is what Texas looks like. … This is the winning coalition. And this is the grassroots that is going to win in November. My name is Lupe Valdez and I humbly ask for your support. I am the candidate of the working Texan, and I will never, never, never stop working for you.”

Both White and Valdez told reporters after the debate they would support the winner against Abbott. Early voting for the May 22 runoff began Monday and continues through Friday.

— Dave McNeely, an Austin-based columnist covering Texas politics, appears Thursday.