“I didn’t realize it was going to cause such a wave,” she says in a phone interview from her office in Texas.
“All I wanted to do is change the department and bring honor to our shields,” she says.
“I got woken up at 2 a.m. the week after I was elected from someone in Spain and I’m like, ‘What is the big deal?’ And they say, ‘You’re Hispanic, a female, a Democrat, a lesbian. You just don’t understand — and you’re in Bush’s backyard,’” she recalls.
The media attention was shocking and the “media fuss” from both sides — progressives and social conservatives — was a lot to deal with.
“People hated my guts,” she says. “At that time, it was a big thing. Now it’s not anymore. The first couple years, any media reports about me said I was ‘Lupe Valdez, the lesbian sheriff.’ That stopped about five years ago and I hope there will come a day when we don’t have to brag about things like this.”
Valdez is one of three honorary grand marshals at Atlanta Pride this year, an unexpected but thrilling honor, she says.
“I’ve been named grand marshal for ours [in Texas] but they know me there. It’s quite an honor somebody in Atlanta knows who I am,” she says.
Valdez does have Atlanta connections, actually. She is featured in Atlanta filmmaker Cindy Abel’s documentary, “Breaking Through,” a film which profiles several openly LGBT elected officials from around the nation.
It was tough at first, being the new sheriff who was so different than the “good ol’ boy network” that she said was running the department.
“It was rough. I got death threats, emails notes. I wish I had kept some of them but I threw them away. I didn’t even want to see them,” she says.
“But after you prove yourself the naysayers and their voices are not heard as loud. They’re still there, but nobody listens to them anymore,” she says.
When Valdez took over in 2004, the department was in poor shape — the jail was failing state and federal inspections, there was poor morale and accusations of corruption that ran deep.
“There was so much work to do. We turned this department totally around,” she says. “It used to be a good ol’ boys, stab-you-in-the-back place and there was abuse of inmates.”
Valdez installed cameras in the deputies’ cars and in the jail and the problems dissipated, she said.
“You only have to make an example of a few,” she says. “And once you prove yourself, and you show you are saving the taxpayers money — then they say it’s OK, she’s doing a good job.”
Valdez oversees a department with 2,500 employees and a jail that houses 6,500 inmates. It’s a job she could “literally do 24/7,” she says.
“We’re a little city, and this is including sewer, death, birth, education — we have to deal with all of that in jail. People joke and say I’m the mayor of a little city and that’s basically what it is,” she says.