On Election Day, Chapman doctoral student Betty Valencia slept in for the first time in six months. She woke up at 7:30 a.m. – which is late for her – and met with an Orange resident to talk about city planning over coffee.
After months of campaigning and weeks of waking up before dawn to work, study and canvass until the sun set on Election Day, it felt like life was moving in slow motion, she said.
“I would not have done anything differently,” she said. “The only thing I would have done is I would have started earlier … but we left everything on the field,” she said.
Valencia, who declared her candidacy for the Orange City Council in April after the council voted not to comply with sections of California’s sanctuary state bill, is not a typical Orange County politician.
As a first-time candidate, an immigrant and a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, she knew she faced different hurdles than her competition – the majority had previous political experience. Some also came from families that had lived in Orange for generations.
But just before the polls closed Nov. 6, Valencia wasn’t worried about the results. She was worried about her shoes, a pair she vowed to wear every day during her almost six-month campaign.
“It’s really hard to take them off, because I feel like we’re not done,” she said, gesturing to her bright red, worn-in Ecco sneakers. “What am I going to wear?”
The red stands in stark contrast to her businesslike black trench coat. Thirty minutes before the first round of counted votes were reported on election night, Valencia said that, if she won, she would keep the shoes in a box somewhere in her house as a reminder of her journey.
But Valencia didn’t win. On the morning of Nov. 7, she put the shoes back on. The work continues, she said.
After repeatedly refreshing the election results until midnight on Election Day, Valencia went to sleep. She awoke at 6:30 a.m. to find that she’d finished fifth out of eight candidates.
She wasn’t surprised that pro-business and anti-tax increase incumbent Kim Nichols earned the majority of the votes, or that similar candidate Chip Monaco, the runner-up for most votes, was also elected.
“I’m trying to wind down,” Valencia said. “I’m not happy that we didn’t obtain a seat, but I’m not surprised.”
Voters, Valencia feels, relied heavily on name recognition in the midterm elections. Despite the nonpartisan nature of city council elections, she also believes candidates who are endorsed by the Republican Party, like Monaco, have an edge in a historically Republican area like Orange County.
In the beginning, Valencia was nervous about gaining support from Orange residents. Some people were “negative” about her being an immigrant from Mexico, like a couple who once drove by in a golf cart and told her President Donald Trump was “coming for her,” Valencia said.
Still, this didn’t deter her. Happy to have gotten this far in the elections, she’s already planning for the next step.
“The question today is not ‘How do I get over this?’ it’s ‘What do we do next?’” Valencia said. “I had my moment to think about how disappointed I was, but I wasn’t last. All those votes were more than we thought we would get at the beginning.”
The past six months have helped her understand the political system, she said. She isn’t sure yet if she will run again in 2020, but she hopes to use her new knowledge to continue advocating for the platforms she ran on, like changing the “us versus them” attitude she believes some residents harbor toward the homeless population.
Valencia took an hour of time alone to collect her thoughts after her loss was clear – something she hasn’t been able to do often for the past several months – and then set out to return the election night party supplies she’d rented the day before.
“It feels so surreal, because I know I’m not the same person I was April 10,” she said.
In a way, Valencia is excited. Now, she can focus on her day job as a vice president of operations at American Financial Group, finish her doctoral dissertation in Chapman’s leadership studies program and finally, catch up on some reading. Her spirits started to lift, she said, after talking to residents and checking the results of other elections nationwide.
In many states, the 2018 midterm elections were marked by historic firsts. A record-breaking number of women were elected to the House, including Sharice Davids of Kansas and Deb Haaland of New Mexico, the first Native American women elected to congress, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, the first Muslim women elected. Jared Polis of Colorado is also the first openly gay man to have been elected governor.
“Not only did I look at my results, I went to look at the people I’ve met to see how they did, and most of them triumphed,” Valencia said. “It might not be my time right now, but maybe it’s theirs.”