(From left) Andrew White, Cedric Davis, Sr., Jeffrey Payne, Joe Mumbach, Lupe Valdez, and Tom Wakely participate in the Democratic Primary Debate for Texas Governor at the San Antonio Public Library.
(From left) Gubernatorial candidates Andrew White, Cedric Davis Sr., Jeffrey Payne, Joe Mumbach, Lupe Valdez, and Tom Wakely participate in a debate at the Central Library. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Democratic voters will have nine candidates to choose from for governor on the March 6 primary ballot. Six of them attended a debate Tuesday in San Antonio, where about 100 people listened to the candidates agree on most issues ranging from LGBTQIA rights to universal health care.

They diverged, however, on how to go about unseating incumbent Republican Gov. Greg Abbott: capture the centrist vote – and maybe even some Republicans – or press harder on progressive, Democratic values.

With several high-profile endorsements from major newspapers and organizations, including the Houston GLBT Political Caucus earlier this month, Andrew White, 45, is in the centrist camp and gaining momentum. He is the son of former Texas Gov. Mark White, a Democrat who served from 1983-1987.

Describing himself as a “common-sense Democrat,” White said that he rejects the extremism coming out of the governor’s office and the White House that focuses on “fringe voters. … Abbott governs exactly like Trump.”

Lupe Valdez, 70, who previously served as Dallas County Sheriff and is the only one among the candidates who has held an elected office, is the nation’s first openly gay female Hispanic sheriff and was expected to pull in the GLBT caucus endorsement. Nonetheless, Valdez touted her experience running the sheriff’s department, a job she held from 2005 until last year when she stepped down to run for governor.

“Don’t tell me [a] Latina can’t handle working with people and having big budgets,” Valdez said. 

Though Texas was considered a blue state for decades, there hasn’t been a Democratic governor of Texas since Ann Richards, who served from 1991-1995 after defeating White’s father in the primary to win the Democratic nomination in 1990.

Despite the Democrats’ drought and Abbott’s sizable campaign war chest, the candidates refused to dismiss their party’s chances of winning a statewide office this election cycle. Candidates were polite and largely supportive of each other during Tuesday’s debate, which felt more like a forum.

“We do not have a blue wave about to hit Texas,” said 50-year-old Dallas businessman Jeffrey Payne of what he’s seen while on his mission to visit all of the state’s 254 counties during his campaign. “We have a blue tsunami about to hit Texas.”

The winner of the primary election will then vie for the seat that has been held by Republicans since 1995. The gubernatorial election is Tuesday, Nov. 6.

Abbot faces two largely unknown challengers on the Republican ticket: Larry “Secede” Kilgore and Barbara Krueger. Krueger has not filed any campaign finance reports with the Texas Ethics Commission. Kilgore has about $1,500 in the bank, compared to Abbot’s more than $43 million.

“Money isn’t everything … it’s some of it,” said former Balch Springs Mayor and teacher Cedric Davis Sr., adding that the extremism of Trump will inspire more people to vote Democrat this year.

Houston electronics technician Joe Mumbach and San Antonio activist Tom Wakely also attended the debate hosted by the Bexar County Democratic Party.

When the candidates were asked to raise their hands if they were “pro-choice,” Mumbach hesitated to raise his, explaining later that he’d like to instead see a “new pro-life” movement take hold – one that focused on life after birth that both Democrats and Republicans could agree on.

Wakely took criticism of Abbott the furthest, calling the governor a “neo-fascist.”

The race between Valdez and White has gotten the most media attention so far, given that her hometown newspaper gave its endorsement to White.

After a candidate forum with the Dallas Morning News editorial board, the paper wrote: “We were disappointed by [Valdez’s] gross unfamiliarity with state issues, however, particularly an almost incoherent attempt to discuss state financing.”

Both White and Valdez listed their endorsements Tuesday night. Endorsing Valdez are several Stonewall Democrat chapters, including the San Antonio chapter, Planned Parenthood of South Texas, and the Texas AFL-CIO.

“I’m endorsed by the community,” she said.

White has out-raised his opponents and has $168,500 in the bank, according to the most recent campaign finance reports, while Valdez has $83,876.

Candidates Adrian Ocegueda, a principle in a Dallas private equity firm; Austin businessman James Jolly Clark; and Grady Yarbrough, a retired San Antonio public school teacher, did not attend the debate Tuesday. Demetria Smith was removed from the Democratic primary ballot because the check she wrote for her filing fee bounced, according to media reports.

If none of the candidates attracts more than 50 percent of the primary vote, then a runoff election will be held on May 22 for the top two candidates.

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. Contact her at iris@sareport.org