Suzette Valladares calls herself a “constitutional conservative.” However, it was neither Ronald Reagan nor any other Republican stalwart who sparked her initial interest in politics. Instead, it was Al Gore.
Valladares, who announced this week that she will challenge Rep. Katie Hill (D-Agua Dulce) in 2020, has never forgotten the day when a counselor at her middle school in Sylmar took her and a group of other students to see Gore speak at a rally in Los Angeles in 1999.
His message resonated with her — though not in the way one might expect. As a Latina of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent, Valladares said she was inculcated from a young age into a system of values that included hard work, personal responsibility and academic success. Limited government, then, seemed like the logical outgrowth of these values.
Gore, the former vice president and climate change advocate, was talking about something much different.
“He was speaking about what government needed to do for the people, and government’s role and responsibility — and that contradicted everything I was raised on,” she said. “So I was like, ‘OK, if he’s a Democrat, and that’s what Democrats believe, that’s not what I want.’”
Knowing she wasn’t a Democrat, Valladares went home and began to research information on the Republican Party. As soon as she turned 18, she registered with the GOP. Two decades later, she announced her candidacy for that very same party in the House of Representatives.
Valladares was born in Sylmar to a working-class family. After graduating from Sylmar High School, she enrolled at College of the Canyons, where she earned her associate degree in political science while working at Six Flags Magic Mountain. Valladares continued her education at California State University, Northridge, where she graduated in 2011 with a degree in the same field.
In addition to studying political science, Valladares also gained her first election cycle of practical experience during the 2008 presidential election.
“I really started to get involved more so in the community in the district in 2008, when I started volunteering on the McCain-Palin campaign at the Republican headquarters in Santa Clarita,” she said.
McCain was ultimately unsuccessful, but Valladares quickly found herself employed by another conservative luminary — one with a deep connection to Santa Clarita.
“Shortly after that, I was picked up by Congressman Buck McKeon,” she said. “I was originally his staff assistant, then eventually started overseeing operations at both offices and in Palmdale and Valencia.”
Former Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon represented the 25th Congressional District from 1993 to 2015, having previously served on the Santa Clarita City Council and the William S. Hart Unified School District Governing Board. She worked for McKeon for three years, during which she utilized the congressman’s support to begin to make her own mark on the district.
“I started the Republican National Hispanic Assembly in North LA with a group of conservative Latinos from Santa Clarita and all over the district,” she recalled. That same year, she helped establish the SCV Latino Chamber of Commerce.
“The Antelope Valley had a really booming — and they still do — Hispanic Chamber of Commerce,” she said. “In Santa Clarita, it was something that they really wanted to see happen and obviously with the support of the congressman that happened.”
Her efforts in founding these two organizations were enough to earn her recognition as one of the 2010 class of Santa Clarita Valley 40 Under 40, an award bestowed upon 40 members of the local community under 40 years of age by Santa Clarita Junior Chamber International and The Magazine of Santa Clarita.
At the culmination of these successes, Valladares experienced a change in her family life that altered the trajectory of her political preferences and positions.
“Simultaneously while I was working for (McKeon), I had a niece who was diagnosed as severely developmentally delayed, she was nonverbal and on the autism spectrum,” Valladares said. “So she was very fortunate at two-and-a-half to have been diagnosed, especially for minority children who tend to get diagnosed later, she received phenomenal early intervention services and literally it felt like overnight her life and the quality of her life really excelled and changed.”
From then on, Valladares became an advocate for early childhood intervention and left McKeon’s office to take a position with Los Angeles Universal Preschool, where she handled public affairs and community engagement.
In 2014, Valladares saw an ideal opportunity to integrate her passion for childhood services with her lifelong reverence for politics. Former Assemblyman Steve Fox, a Democrat in the historically red 36th Assembly District who won his office by less than 150 votes, was vulnerable — and Valladares knew it. She and a slew of Republican contenders entered the race for a chance to represent the district, which encompasses large swaths of the Antelope Valley and some sections of the Santa Clarita Valley.
Running under her maiden name, Suzette Martinez, Valladares finished fourth in the crowded field, earning 9.2 percent of the vote.
“To raise awareness about autism and early intervention services, I wanted to take the opportunity to run for state assembly,” she said. “I don’t even know how many campaigns I’ve worked on, I’ve worked on campaigns across California, Louisiana, Nevada, but you know what, it’s so different when you’re the candidate. I didn’t win, but it brought about some great opportunities and kind of a dream job.”
Valladares spent the next year working at the Republican National Committee, where she was appointed Director of Hispanic Initiatives for California. She was tasked with facilitating and mobilizing the party’s initiatives in the state’s Latino communities, as well as staffing and managing four congressional campaigns.
“It was really a dream job — I got to engage with Latinos, it was political, it was the RNC, I had multiple races, bringing together Latino republican leaders — it was really a great opportunity,” she said. “California is not always considered a competitive state for RNC funding, so they eliminated the postitinn and I found myself looking for a job.”
After she left the RNC, Valladares pivoted back toward her other passion: childhood services and intervention. She served as the Executive Director of the Southern California chapter of Autism Speaks, a nonprofit organization that raises funds for autism research and outreach, until 2018.
Valladares’ experience in the non-profit sector is merely one of the several apolitical parallels between her and 2020 electoral opponent. Like Valladares, Hill worked as the executive director a non-profit organization, is an alumna of both College of the Canyons and California State University, Northridge and lives in the Agua Dulce-Acton region of the district.
The similarities end there. A stark partition exists between their benign similarities and their policy positions.
“I think that the first major contrast between Katie Hill and myself is that I am not a lockstep Republican, I have conservative values, I do believe that there is a conservative solution to most issues,” Valladares said. “I consider myself a moderate conservative, but I will always choose my values and the Constitution over party. I will always choose my district and my constituents over my party.”
She charged that Hill has not kept her commitment to represent the totality of her district.
“We are an extremely diverse district and I think that’s what voters thought that they were getting when they elected Katie Hill, but she is a lockstep, partisan Democrat,” Valladares said. “So, in the end, the contrast and the difference between what I would do differently is vote district over party.”
Valladares argued that Hill’s dedication to partisanship is evident in her participation in the numerous investigations into President Donald Trump initiated by the House Oversight Committee, of which she is Vice Chair.
“A lot of freshmen, including Katie Hill, went to Congress with the intention of passing legislation and working for their districts and they have said that the next congressional session was not supposed to be about investigations and congressional hearings, it was about actually passing their legislative agenda,” Valladares said. “I think that was the promise of the campaign and the promise they need to stick to, they should be more focused on passing legislation for the American people than on investigations that churn up nothing.”
Valladares does not, however, consider herself a complete advocate for the president. While she agrees with many of his policies, Valladares often finds herself in disagreement with his tactics and personality.
For example, Valladares does not believe that the Trump should have declared an emergency at the southern border. Since her campaign priorities include immigration, healthcare and small businesses, Valladares believes that Congress should be the branch to deal with border security and that immigration policy should not be fixed by executive fiat, whether that stems from Trump or former President Barack Obama.
Similar to some refrains spoken by Hill, Valladares’ campaign website articulates an immigration policy “that starts with protecting and securing our southern border.” Unlike her Democratic opponent, Valladares does not believe that withholding funding for the president’s proposed border wall is the solution. She attributed Hill’s call for increased security and funding at the border to political posturing.
“My family was impacted by the government shutdown, it was wrong. But (the Democrats) tried to push that there was only one path to reopening the government, and that just wasn’t the truth,
“I would have voted to fund the southern border adequately,” Valladares said, confirming that if she were presently in Congress, she would have supported Trump’s $5.7 billion request. “(Hill) says one thing, and she does another. We don’t need somebody who says one thing and does another, we need someone who commits to their promises.”
Valladares aims to differentiate herself from Hill on healthcare as well. Having spent much of last year caring for her terminally ill mother, Valladares believes that her first hand experience with the healthcare system — both as a caretaker and an non-profit executive — well dispose her to working on health policy. If elected, the potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which Trump said earlier this week would be a priority if he is re-elected for a second term, will likely dominate the healthcare discourse.
“The decision has already been made, it has been repealed,” Valladares said. The ACA remains the law of the land, however, although the individual mandate was repealed on January 1. “The question is whether there’s anything to replace it with and the bigger question is to look at what what Democrats are proposing. I look at the VA, I look at Medicare, I know that that is not a good solution.”
Valladares said she unequivocally opposes both a single-payer health care system and Medicare for All.
“Those systems that Democrats are proposing will do exactly the opposite for the families that they intend it to matter the most,” Valladares said. “Access would be decreased, you’d be waiting months for an appointment, the cost would not go down, the quality would go down. So has anyone found the perfect solution? Absolutely not. But what I know, definitely the solution is not single-payer or universal healthcare. It’s about a competitive market.”
Valladares added that a more detailed outline of her healthcare platform will be added to her website in the coming months.
It’s been 20 years since the day Valladares first heard Gore speak and realized that the values on which she was raised would, in her mind, prevent her from joining the Democratic Party. Two decades of interest in Republican politics later, compounded with stints at the RNC, congressional offices and the nonprofit sector, and Valladares has announced her intent to run, hoping to become the 25th Congressional District’s first Latina representative.
The road to Capitol Hill won’t be easy. Valladares will face a well-funded, experienced opponent in Hill and a Republican primary field that is sure to grow. Already, three Republicans have filed to challenge Hill, and the incumbent Democratic representative has reported raising over half a million dollars during her first fundraising quarter.
Valladares remains confident.
“I feel like I’ve been a lifelong resident of the 25th District,” she said as her one year-old daughter babbled and colored pictures behind her. Valladares laughed and noted that she hoped the markers were washable. “I am a constitutional conservative and I will always choose the Constitution and this district over party.”