This story is the fifth installment of “Could She Flip It?,” a series from The Lily about the women running in 2020 who could flip House and Senate seats long held by the opposing party.

Candace Valenzuela’s congressional campaign began like any other: She got on the phone with members of her staff to tell her life story.

Valenzuela had been expecting a thorough grilling, peppered with prying questions. These “bio calls” exist to get skeletons out of the closet, identifying any potential vulnerabilities before they can be spotted by the opposition.

Instead, she said, her campaign team listened. Valenzuela described fleeing domestic abuse with her mom. She told them how she lived in a kiddie pool outside of a gas station, barely getting by for years before receiving a full-ride scholarship to college.

There were a lot of long pauses, she said. By the end, several people were crying.

Finally, she said, one team member spoke up.

That kiddie pool thing, Valenzuela remembers him saying, “Are you cool sharing that?”

Valenzuela’s personal story quickly became central to her campaign to represent Texas’s 24th Congressional District in the Dallas suburbs. The team developed an ad that followed Valenzuela from a house to a gas station to a shelter. Valenzuela honed her message to voters accordingly: This is what happened to me, she said, and this is why I can represent you.

Candace Valenzuela is the Democratic candidate for Texas's 24th Congressional District. (Allison V. Smith for The Washington Post)
Candace Valenzuela is the Democratic candidate for Texas's 24th Congressional District. (Allison V. Smith for The Washington Post)

Vying for a seat that’s been held by a Republican for the last 15 years, Valenzuela has been knocked for her lack of experience, entering local politics three years ago when she joined the school board. With polls showing a close race, Valenzuela is banking on voters valuing her life experiences over her résumé. Her campaign will test the power of a personal story — and a candidate who is not afraid to tell it.

Valenzuela is a 36-year-old mother of two, who has spent most of her career in education, tutoring kids for the SAT admissions test. She is always taking on a personal project — reading the collected works of William Shakespeare, learning Korean — “just for funsies,” her husband, Andy Baldwin, said. When political consultants urge her to straighten her thick, curly hair, she’ll ask if they would like to come over and help.

“I’m like, I have a 1-year-old and a 4-year-old — and it’s a global pandemic.”

If Valenzuela wins, she would be the first Black Latina ever elected to Congress. While the 24th District has never elected a person of color — or a woman — it is an area that is quickly diversifying, with large Asian American and Latino populations. It is now a majority-minority district. Running against Beth Van Duyne, a White woman and a close ally of President Trump who served in the administration’s Department of Housing and Urban Development, Valenzuela is hoping her story will connect with voters unaccustomed to seeing themselves in their leaders.

Coming out of the bio call, Valenzuela was “shocked,” Baldwin said. She never thought her experiences were particularly remarkable, he said. When Valenzuela reminded her team that many people across the country face similar challenges, she said, they had a simple response:

How many of those people run for Congress?

Valenzuela decided early on that she would be the first in her family to go to college. She joined Academic Decathlon, Quiz Bowl and any other extracurricular activity she could fit into her schedule at her high school in El Paso. Once she got to college, at Claremont McKenna, she would write her goals on whiteboards that she would keep next to her bed, said longtime friend Casey Pick, and treat her New Year’s resolutions like ongoing “progress reports,” regularly checking in to see how she was doing.

At a school where most students were paying full tuition — coming from families where college was the norm — Valenzuela often felt like an “alien,” she said, wondering, “Are these people for real?”

Her classmates would offhandedly mention the elaborate summer vacations they would take with their families.

The summer before Valenzuela went to college, her mom didn’t have enough money to cover electricity, she said. She took cold showers for months.

“I would go to the dining hall and get all this fruit and take it to my dorm room,” Valenzuela said. The fruit would go bad, she said, but she couldn’t stop herself from taking more. “My brain was not accustomed to the idea that food would always be there.”

In college, she rarely told people much about her situation at home, said Pick. Those were stories that had to be “earned,” she said.

“When you're in that kind of privileged space, you take care of who you tell your story to,” said Pick, who also experienced homelessness before college. In large groups, the two would often silently connect with a look or a nod.

If someone had told her that she would one day put these experiences in a political ad, Valenzuela said, “I would have told them that they were out of their minds.”

As government majors, Pick said, they were taught how to cultivate a professional, political persona. They learned about sound bites and stump speeches, creating a polished public image.

“It would not have been about raising your vulnerabilities,” Pick said.

When a friend first raised the idea of Valenzuela running for office in 2018, it took a few moments for the suggestion to register, Valenzuela said. She had never thought about herself as a candidate, she said. In her government classes, she was more interested in political theory than campaigns.

Candace Valenzuela shows gratitude to voters during an outdoor event at Los Vaqueros restaurant in Fort Worth, Tex., on Oct. 18. (Allison V. Smith for The Washington Post)
Candace Valenzuela shows gratitude to voters during an outdoor event at Los Vaqueros restaurant in Fort Worth, Tex., on Oct. 18. (Allison V. Smith for The Washington Post)

It wasn’t easy to get the campaign off the ground. When Valenzuela announced her candidacy, she had a 4-month-old baby. Money was a problem, too. Living in a middle-class neighborhood in Dallas, her network did not include a long list of donors who could quickly throw in the maximum donation.

“It’s tougher to raise money as a woman, a person of color, and as a person from a poor, working-class background,” said Geoff Simpson, Valenzuela’s campaign manager. “And Candace is all those things.”

In the early days of the primary, Valenzuela struggled to gain momentum, Simpson said, trailing more well-connected White candidates “who looked like someone the establishment would support.” That changed, he said, when more people started to hear her story. National media began covering her campaign, and she won important endorsements from the National Hispanic Caucus and Emily’s List, a political action committee that supports female candidates who back abortion rights.

“Her personal story really set her apart,” Simpson said.

All this sharing doesn’t come naturally, Valenzuela said. Particularly at the beginning of the campaign, she said, her staffers had to coach her on telling her story with a straight face: Whenever she is uncomfortable, her impulse is to laugh.

No story is off limits if sharing it could help someone, Valenzuela said. Some are easier to tell than others. Talking about gun control — and the importance of red-flag laws, which allow firearms to be temporarily confiscated from a person deemed a threat to themselves or others — she will sometimes bring up a close friend from high school, who was shot and killed by her father at age 16. Her friend’s mother had a restraining order against him, she said, “and he really shouldn’t have had a gun.”

“That’s one I don’t share a lot,” she said “But I do share it.”

The hardest part of sharing an intensely personal memory, Valenzuela said, is realizing that you’re not always going to get it back from the world in the same way you tell it. People will twist what you say, she said, and take what they want from the story, leaving the rest.

Candace Valenzuela, at right, waits with other candidates to speak during the outdoor event for Democrats at Los Vaqueros in Fort Worth, Tex. (Allison V. Smith for The Washington Post)
Candace Valenzuela, at right, waits with other candidates to speak during the outdoor event for Democrats at Los Vaqueros in Fort Worth, Tex. (Allison V. Smith for The Washington Post)

Some of the candidates in the primary seemed to question parts of her story, Valenzuela said, responding with offhand comments like, “I’ve never heard you talk about that before.” On social media, people will often accuse her of exaggerating her experiences. Someone said she was “too polished to have been homeless,” Valenzuela remembers. Another said she couldn’t have been homeless because her parents were veterans.

“It’s just so strange,” Valenzuela said.

She is used to being questioned when other people might be taken at their word.

“Just being a woman of color is a very political act,” she said. “Being who I am is provocative.”

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