On an overcast Saturday morning at Victoria Park in Irving, a couple dozen volunteers sit at picnic tables, packing Ziploc bags with gloves, face masks and hand sanitizer.
They plan to hand out 5,000 of these safety kits to people who are not eligible to vote by mail, so fear of the coronavirus doesn’t deter voters from turning out.
Jerri Yoss is cofounder of the group Dems Care Vote Safe, which organized the event along with Kim Olson, a candidate in the Democratic runoff for Texas’ 24th Congressional District.
“We have to show them that we care, and to me, these kits are showing that we care enough about you,” Yoss said. “We care about your voice and your vote and your safety, so please come up and exercise your right.”
Dems Care Vote Safe has endorsed Olson, a retired Air Force colonel and a top fundraiser who finished first in the March primary.
“I have a proven track record of leading, especially in environments that are kind of crisis filled,” Olson said. “We have the perfect storm of economic, health and social unrest crisis right now, which I think takes leaders who have a steady hand and understand the big picture … and how things are going to have to happen in order to have systemic change in our country.”
In the Democratic runoff, Olson faces Candace Valenzuela, who has served on the school board for the Carrollton-Farmers Branch district and earned a number of high-profile endorsements.
“I’m rooted in the community,” Valenzuela said. “That’s a key difference between me and my opponent right now. I’m working to lift up the families here. I’m working to support the teachers in my school district who have been responsible for some of the most important work in this suburban, majority person of color community.”
After years of Republican leadership, Texas’ 24th Congressional District has emerged as a key battleground in the 2020 election. The district runs from Fort Worth to Dallas, spanning smaller cities and northern suburbs. Last year, incumbent Republican Kenny Marchant announced he would not seek reelection. Marchant won reelection in 2018 by a shrinking margin. Now, North Texas Democrats see an opportunity to flip this historically red district. The winner of this runoff will face former Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne in November, a Republican who has earned an endorsement from President Donald Trump.
Since the primary, the runoff campaign has taken a contentious turn. Matt Liebman is president of the Voter Protection Project, a national political action committee that has endorsed Valenzuela. The group has spent more than $130,000 on a direct mailer campaign attacking Kim Olson’s record as then-head of human resources for the Dallas Independent School District, calling it “a complete disaster.”
“I think the records are really clear and I think voters should know the contrast between these two candidates and what they stand for,” Liebman said.
Olson’s campaign calls the mailers “patently false.”
The candidates have also clashed over their responses to ongoing protests against police brutality.
Communities across the nation are confronting systemic racism after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, killed George Floyd, a Black man, after kneeling on his neck for almost nine minutes. Floyd’s death on May 25 spurred massive protests, including many in North Texas.
Kim Olson, who is white, has faced bipartisan criticism for comments about looting that some considered flippant. Candace Valenzuela, who is Black and Latina, said Olson “missed the mark” and should have instead amplified the voices of Black people.
A later statement from Olson’s campaign said her words were taken out of context and called for rebuilding “from the ground up a color-blind public safety institution across America.” That language was criticized by Valenzuela and the Congressional Black Caucus. Olson later clarified her thoughts on police brutality.
“Justice is supposed to be blind to your socioeconomic status, the color of your skin, and we know today that that is absolutely not true, that … African Americans are killed in the street at a higher proportionality rate,” Olson said. “If the choice of words offend people, then that we do not want to do, and that’s one of the things we can work on.”
Candace Valenzuela says she understands the urgency of addressing systemic racism, something she’s experienced firsthand.
“A good representative body actually represents the people, and in Congress, we’re not seeing that with gender. We’re not seeing that with color. We’re not seeing that with disability. We’re not seeing that with sexuality,” Valenzuela said. “All of these different experiences individually are not the biggest thing in choosing an elected official, but they’re a part of the fabric of the American experience.”