ALTON, Texas – The winner of the Democratic Party primary runoff election for Congressional District 15 has explained how her momentum kept growing throughout the campaign.
Michelle Vallejo was not expected to win. The small business owner had never run for elected office before and was not expected to garner much support beyond the grassroots supporters of LUPE Votes, the group that initially recruited her to run.
Vallejo barely made it to the runoff, just squeaking past businessman John Villarreal Rigney to secure second place. She trailed the favorite and frontrunner, Edinburg attorney Ruben Ramirez, by nine points in a six-candidate primary.
Ramirez had the support of the current congressman for District 15, U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez. A local businessman told the Rio Grande Guardian that Gonzalez called him to extol the virtues of Ramirez. The businessman, who asked that he remain nameless, said Gonzalez described Vallejo as a far left liberal who was unelectable. The businessman said that when he pushed back against this description of Vallejo, pointing out that she had the endorsement of mainstream Democrats like El Paso Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, the two agreed to disagree.
For his part, Ramirez said during the primary that he had the behind-the-scenes support of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He said an operative from the DCCC had come down to the Rio Grande Valley to vet all the primary candidates and that the DCCC determined that only he, Ramirez, could be beat the Republican candidate, Monica De La Cruz.
So how did Vallejo morph from being a grassroots candidate that few voters had heard of to being someone supported by the mainstream Democratic leadership in the Valley? Establishment figures such as Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez, Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra, Hidalgo County District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez, and Edinburg Mayor Ramiro Garza.
The Rio Grande Guardian interviewed Vallejo about this before the runoff election result was confirmed. We first asked how important was the support of the Tejano Democrats.
“It was pivotal, quite frankly, in order to get to the table to talk to elected officials who hadn’t recognized me or did not know about my work in the community. Earning the trust and support of the Tejano Democrats really helped propel me forward. Especially, once we got into the runoff race,” Vallejo said.
Vallejo pointed out that Tejano Democrats supported Vallejo in the primary.
“This was a time when there many people on the ballot. There were six people in this race for District 15. And people had already made their commitment to one candidate or another. With the Texan Democrats, they were one of the first groups I got on the phone with, as soon as I had filed, on Dec. 13. They invited me over for coffee. We got to talk about the issues and we hit it off. I shared my story about coming from Alton, Texas, coming from a big family of immigrants, coming from working at the pulga and growing there and caring for my community and my family and doing it as a collective. And that was really beautiful and I think that is how we really clicked.”
So, Vallejo’s life story appealed to the Tejano Democrats. But so did validation from LUPE Votes, Vallejo said.
“The strength that LUPE Votes brought to the game by nominating me and endorsing me and supporting me as I filed was crucial. I was able to file, launch my campaign, build a team and gather momentum. I think it was particularly the support of (La Unión del Pueblo leader) Juanita Valdez-Cox. Juanita was able to get some people to the table and allowed for them to have open ears and to hear me out.”
After securing the support of Valdez-Cox and the Tejano Democrats, Vallejo said she and her team had to get to work.
“We had to prove ourselves. We had to reassure people that while I am a very proud progressive Democrat I am also a pro-business Democrat. That means I am here to work with everyone across the table. I am here to cut through the noise and get to the priorities that will push the needle forward for South Texas.”
One of the first elected officials Vallejo called was state Rep. Armando ‘Mando’ Martinez of Weslaco. “The pieces just started to fall into place once I met with Armando. He was someone I would call for advice. He has been so helpful.”
The Rio Grande Guardian also asked about the support of the former congressman for CD 15, Rubén Hinojosa.
“That was so special to me. That was facilitated after I got to the runoff. I sat down with primary candidate Eliza Alvarado and it was with her blessing that I was able to come to the table to meet with Laura Hinojosa, our county clerk,” Vallejo said.
“Laura has had such great energy and been such a great supporter, pushing me along and giving me every bit of advice I have asked for. It is really special and with their blessing and help I was able to sit down with former Congressman Hinojosa and talk about what we see for the district.”
Asked what they see for the district, Vallejo said: “We have a beautiful vision and that is for everyone in South Texas to have an opportunity to live the life that they desire. To be able to have an opportunity to lift themselves up no matter what their circumstances are. Once he was able to hear me out he felt very strongly that I was the right representative to carry this torch and it is an honor to have received that endorsement.”
The Rio Grande Guardian also asked about the support Vallejo has received from Rodriguez, the Hidalgo County DA.
“Having the DA, Ricky Rod, as part of my team has been pivotal, to build the momentum that I have been able to build up in the runoff. Having his trust and his sage advice has been so important to me,” Vallejo said, adding that she was grateful to Rodriguez for emceeing her runoff election night party.
It is all very good getting key local endorsements, but do those local leaders help with the campaign, Vallejo was asked.
“They do,” she responded. “I have been very clear I need everyone’s help. I need everyone’s support to get the word out, for people to know who I am and to organize events and meet-ups, so I can get in front of people and share the message and answer any questions that folks in our community have.”
Vallejo was also asked about the support of U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio.
“I could feel that was a new stepping stone, to have earned Rep. Castro’s endorsement and to be working with him already. It just showed that there are people in Congress already who are excited to be working with me – such as Rep. Veronica Escobar and Rep. Sylvia Garcia – and who know that we have work to do together. Having statewide support is great, but we are always going to prioritize our support at home and the people we know and recognize locally.”
The interview with Vallejo was conducted before all the runoff election votes were tallied. She said she was already looking forward to the general election.
“I cannot wait to get to the general election because I truly feel like my lane is more natural when I am connecting with everyone across the board and able to have a message that is inclusive. I am really excited to get to that point. I look forward to that, the second we get into the general election. I want to talk to everyone. I want to hear opinions. I am particularly interested in hearing where our opinions might differ and where people might have different perspectives. I think that is how we are going to get stronger. I think that is how we are going to win this race.”
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows Tejano Democrats organizer Selina Hayes with Michelle Vallejo at the candidate’s primary runoff election result watch party.
Here are two videos from Vallejo’s primary runoff election result watch party:
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