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.
Most important, perhaps, is that Simon is now beginning his first year at the University of Delaware. “To overcome those things in the way he has, we’re very proud of that,” Valenzuela says.
Besides narrating a personal story of triumph that touches on some of the electorate’s most pressing concerns, Valenzuela is likely to offer an indictment of the 2009 stimulus law.
“When you’re talking about regulations, fiscal management, gross mismanagement in some cases — those are the kinds of things that compelled me to step into this arena,” she says. “You see it in many states, and you definitely see it happening at the federal level. We’re concerned about the economy and the management of overall systems that are going to create an environment for growth or an environment that stops it.”
On the campaign trail in July, she pointed to the example of Fisker Automotive, Inc., an American automaker that received $528 million in Energy Department loan guarantees. Fisker was slated to recommission an old GM plant in Delaware to manufacture its electric cars, the Karma and the Nina. Those plans have seen repeated delays as the company has encountered setback after setback — a model breaking down during a Consumer Reports road test, a recall of 2,400 sedans, disappointing fuel-efficiency grades, and delays in the production of the station-wagon version of the Karma. Vice President Biden announced the reopening of the GM plant back in 2009, touting it as an administration success story; as of April, Fisker employed only “a small maintenance team” at the site.
“This is the way that business is not created,” Valenzuela said at the July rally. “Whether or not Fisker was coming to Delaware, the verdict has been delivered: It didn’t deliver jobs. The reason I’m running is that misappropriated funds from the federal government, in the form of stimulus, have been delivered to states across this country, including Delaware, but they have not landed and created economic development. They have not created jobs.”
She pointed out that her opponent, Delaware lieutenant governor Matt Denn, is in charge of the state’s management of the stimulus funds for weatherization programs.
“It never ended up in the hands of the people it needed to get to,” Valenzuela said of the stimulus funds. “Small business creates the jobs of our country. It epitomizes the American dream. We don’t have to bribe big business to come to any state to create jobs.”
So, will Valenzuela emerge victorious in a state that has been tough for Republicans in recent cycles?
“She has an uphill battle, with the Democrat machine firmly entrenched behind her rival, and the registration difference between Democrats and Republicans,” admits John Sigler, chairman of the Delaware GOP. “But Sher brings a new dynamic to the table. She’s one of our ‘real people’ candidates: real people who have created real jobs, real solutions, for our economy and our state.”
The party chairman notes that the Democrats’ registration advantage will be tested by the voters’ sense that the state has veered off track dramatically.
“While the economy is undoubtedly Issue One, Delaware for years and years was always considered to be one of the one or two most business-friendly states in the country, but recent surveys and polls have it down somewhere around 43 — that is a very real issue,” Sigler says. “[Governor] Jack Markell’s leadership and Democratic majorities in the state legislature have been anything but good for businesses. . . . While the Delaware unemployment rate is better than the national average, it’s still not good, worse than it should be.”
And now Valenzuela will have the advantage of a brief moment in the national political spotlight.
“When I got the call [to speak at the convention], I was amazed,” she says. “It still amazes me. You don’t wake up expecting that kind of call on any day. It was a ‘whoa!’ moment.”
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.