In 2005, shortly after Lupe Valdez took office, photos shows her in a sea of men, most of them wearing cowboy hats.
At the time, she was the only elected female Sheriff in Texas. “I jokingly call this me and the hats,” she said Friday. “Now there’s five of us, and I always joke with the guys, we’re gaining on you now.”
With her heading the 2500-employee sheriff’s department and Faith Johnson in charge at the District Attorney’s office and Renee Hall coming down from Detroit to assume command of the Dallas Police Department, it gives a whole new definition to the idea of women’s work.
Valdez had some advice to Hall as she takes over the troubled department: “Be a patient and don’t listen to what everybody else wants to be done immediately. Pick your priorities.”
Valdez came into the office when Democrats swept county elections in 2005. She had a rocky start.
The jail was overcrowded and had repeatedly failed inspections. The jail only had about 700 jailers. Employees hadn’t seen raises in nine years.
“It was a mess,” she says.
These days, the jail routinely passes jail inspections and there are about 1,300 jailers. The pay, while still not enough, is much better now.
Beyond the job were the challenges of being the first female.
She started wearing a uniform on the job after several months because of the media reports about her clothing choices. “It was just ridiculous,” Valdez said. “You never saw them say the man was wearing this kind of suit with this kind of tie.”
Women in law enforcement are often held to a higher standard, she says. “We have to run faster, shoot better, talk better and not show as much emotion,” Valdez says.
Females bring a different approach. It’s that men are from Mars, women are from Venus thing.
“We're a little bit more patient in helping you understand,” she says. “One of the things that I think I've noticed men tell you what to do. Women explain what you need to do.”
She’s brought gender equality to her command staff, too. They are half men and half female.
Valdez is quite comfortable in that uniform now. Asked how long she planned to stick around, she says, “I don’t know. I’m in good health. I have a sense of humor. I’m still coming up with ideas, so we’ll just see.”
Valdez says she looks forward to the day when a woman being named chief is a non-story.
“It's not that she's African American or a female or how tall she is or what she's going to wear when she's going to come in, it’s her ability to do the job,” Valdez said. “It’s going to be a lot of work, and there’s going to be challenges, but I think she’s going to be great.”