From the podium in Tampa, the biggest names in the Republican party will make their pitches as they compete for some consequential offices: the presidency and vice presidency, key Senate and House seats, governorships — and, of course, the lieutenant governorship of Delaware, the office Sher Valenzuela is running for.
If you’re wondering why an unknown lieutenant-gubernatorial candidate who has never before run for office will speak for ten minutes between party superstars such as Nevada governor Brian Sandoval and Texas Senate candidate Ted Cruz, you can satisfy your curiosity tonight. A cynic might suggest that the GOP is scrambling to spotlight any female candidate with a Latin-sounding surname. (Valenzuela, who is not Hispanic, took her husband’s name.)
But in front of the convention-goers and a national television audience, Valenzuela will showcase a genuine reason for her appeal: her family’s success story, a triumph over long odds. It touches on the most pressing concerns of many Americans — jobs and economic opportunity, health care, and education.
The early chapters of Valenzuela’s life story are common enough. The daughter of a union tool-and-die maker and former drill sergeant, she gradually rose from her modest upbringing to a comfortable life and a job in communications at IBM.
But her family’s life took a dramatic turn 15 years ago, when her son Simon was diagnosed with autism, a once-obscure condition that has grown increasingly visible in recent decades. Figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that one in every 88 children in the U.S. lives with autism. Valenzuela and her husband, Eli, realized that even though they had health insurance through their jobs, their son would require care, treatment, and special training that their plans wouldn’t cover.
“I’ll never forget that, because that moment just felt like a closed door with a lock on it,” Valenzuela recalls. “They told us not to expect our son to ever write or communicate effectively. They said he would never be able to function effectively. It was a moment where the world turns black and you have to find a way to turn the light on. He was not expected to succeed at all.”
The crisis turned into a catalyst for the couple. For many years the Valenzuelas had dreamed of owning their own business but never actually started it.
“On our first date, we both shared with each other our dreams to have our own businesses,” Valenzuela recalls. “I wanted to write books, and Eli had taken a mail-order course on upholstery, and he wanted to have his own shop. He had a little sketch in his pocket of what he thought his shop would look like, and he shared that with me. But we put that on our back burner when we got married, started having a family, became products of the workaday world. I’m not sure we would have had the courage to do it without Simon.”
With a $5,000 loan from Sher’s mother and a sewing machine in their garage, the Valenzuelas started First State Manufacturing.
That was 15 years ago. First State Manufacturing is now a multimillion-dollar business with nearly 70 employees, manufacturing seat cushions and covers, armrests and headrests, engine covers, aircraft-ground-service covers, insulation blankets, upholstery, and various textile products. Their clients include Lockheed Martin and Naval Air Systems Command as well as restaurant and hotel chains. The Delaware office of the U.S. Small Business Administration has named the Valenzuelas, along with their partner, Ashley Wolfe, Small Business Persons of the Year.