Her daughter was killed in the Robb Elementary shooting. Now she's running for mayor of Uvalde

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Uvalde mayoral candidate Kimberly Mata-Rubio, left, and campaign manager Dr. Laura Barberena, canvass a neighborhood in support of Mata-Rubio's campaign, Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, in Uvalde, Texas. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)

UVALDE, Texas – On a sticky Texas morning, Kimberly Mata-Rubio is lacing up her running shoes ahead of two races she is running in Uvalde in tribute to her daughter Lexi, who was killed in the 2022 Robb Elementary School shooting.

First up is a charity run honoring Lexi's life. Then it's back to a tougher contest: Campaigning to become mayor of Uvalde, a town still divided after one of America's deadliest mass shootings and a botched police response that is still under investigation.

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“One thing I hear with all of my children, and it echoes my own belief, is that right now Lexi’s legacy is our priority and we just want to honor her with action,” Mata-Rubio said.

On Tuesday, Uvalde voters will pick a new mayor for the first time since the May 2022 attack that killed 19 students and two teachers. The election is a test of how the town chooses to move forward from a tragedy that some residents are ready to put in the past while others are still demanding answers.

Across the U.S. survivors of gun violence and families have run for office, with mixed results. In 2016, the father of a man killed in a Colorado movie theater shooting lost his first bid for state senate but won two years later. Democratic U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, the mother of a 17-year-old slain in a Florida gas station shooting, also won a seat for Congress in 2018.

For Mata-Rubio, who would become Uvalde's first female mayor, part of the challenge in her campaign is convincing the small town of 15,000 people to choose a new direction.

A year ago, Uvalde County voters rejected Democrat Beto O'Rourke in the governor's race and a father who ran as a write-in candidate for county commissioner after his 9-year-old daughter was also killed at the school. Months later, the Texas Legislature brushed off calls by Mata-Rubio and other Uvalde parents to raise the minimum purchase age for some firearms — which, they say, could have prevented the tragic shooting.

This time Mata-Rubio, 34, has put herself on the ballot in the open race against two other candidates, a former Uvalde mayor and a local teacher.

“Now more than ever it can’t just be a few people that are trying to look after the kids,” said Madelynn Mize, a Uvalde teacher who was still undecided on how she would vote. “We all have to do that.”

Running for mayor is the latest way Mata-Rubio has channeled her grief into action over the past year and a half. The shooting upended her previous life as a soft-spoken reporter at the Uvalde Leader-News who was content with small-town living alongside her six children and husband, a local sheriff's deputy.

After her daughter's death, though, Mata-Rubio became one of Uvalde's most outspoken proponents for tougher gun laws, including testifying before Congress. She also decried the slow response by hundreds of law enforcement officers, who waited outside Lexi's classroom for more than an hour before confronting the gunman.

Mata-Rubio said those experiences have inspired her to begin healing and change for her community from the ground up. Her campaign slogan is “Moving Forward, Together." A cornerstone of her platform is promising to give residents a seat at the table regardless of their background or income, she says. In the mostly Latino town, roughly 1 in 5 residents live in poverty, according to Census Bureau estimates.

On a recent weekend after the charity run —- called the Lexi Legacy 5K — Mata-Rubio kept on her running shoes and started knocking on doors. When one resident spotted her on the other side of the street, she crossed the sidewalk to meet Mata-Rubio.

“You’re so young,” Antonia Rios, 80, said.

Mata-Rubio greeted her with a smile and stopped to chat.

Outside another house, a yard sign for Cody Smith, a former Uvalde mayor and one of Mata-Rubio's opponents, was planted in the lawn. But seeing Rubio approach, the homeowner invited her to place a sign, too.

“Her candidacy may have a little bit more movement because she knows the people in that town and she understands the hurt that this event caused,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

Smith, the former Uvalde mayor who left office in 2012, declined an interview. On a local radio show recently, he advocated for helping residents regain their footing without directly mentioning the shooting. He spoke proudly of his son, a member of the Uvalde High School football team who was picked to wear No. 21 in remembrance of the number of victims.

“We are divided right now, you can sense it,” said Veronica Martinez, the other candidate in the race, who is an arts teacher at an elementary school. “Right now we just have those that were affected and those who want to move forward but don't know what it feels like to be affected.”

A day before the race, Mata-Rubio and her husband, Felix, stood in the town square next to a cross with Lexi's name. On what would have been her 12th birthday, the couple placed balloons around the memorial.

On race day, elements reminiscent of Lexi filled the early morning. A tent nearby served Lexi’s favorite Starbucks drink — a sweet concoction — as her family passed out yellow bracelets, her favorite color, and played her favorite music. Later, they huddled for a picture under a mural of Lexi.

“I am never stopping as her mom, as an advocate, but as running for mayor my main focus is bringing the community back together because we cannot move forward, we cannot see progress until we are on the same page,” Mata-Rubio said.

Kenneth Woods, a Uvalde resident for two decades, is eager for an office shake-up in the wake of the shooting.

“I think she is going to change a lot of things," Woods said of Rubio. “But it is going to take the people to back her up.”

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