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Comment on looting brings bipartisan heat to Kim Olson's congressional campaign

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Kim Olson, right, at a Texas Tribune Festival panel in 2019. Juan Figueroa for The Texas Tribune

A Democratic candidate in a heated runoff in one of Texas' battleground congressional districts is facing bipartisan criticism after she dismissed concerns about looting "if that's what it's going to take to fix our nation."

The candidate, Kim Olson, made the comments during a virtual campaign event Tuesday in response to a question about the movement to "defund the police" after the death of George Floyd. The black Minnesota man died late last month after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes, an incident that has set off massive protests and a national reckoning on race.

Olson, a retired Air Force colonel, began her response to the question by suggesting she was uncomfortable with the perception that "defund the police" means entirely breaking up police departments and instead talked about reallocating some of their funding to social programs — echoing a call of many who are using the rallying cry.

She then spoke more broadly about police reform, noting departments have become "really militarized" and offering as an aside that she saw "snipers on the roof" when she recently participated in a march in Dallas. Protests in Dallas have drawn thousands, and on several occasions police used tear gas and fired rubber bullets on protestors. Some businesses near protests had their windows broken or suffered other damage.

"What the hell you got snipers on the roof for in a peaceful march?" Olson said, according to video from the event. "Even if people loot, so what? Burn it to the ground, you know, if that’s what it’s gonna take to fix our nation. I know people don’t want me to say that, but I’m just saying, you know, what are you gonna do, shoot us as we protest? We really have fundamentally pivoted the militarization of our police force where it used to be to protect and serve."

Olson's comments first prompted condemnation from Republicans who said she was endorsing violence. But on Friday evening, Olson also received pushback from her runoff opponent, Candace Valenzuela, who is black and Latina. The former Carrollton-Farmers Branch school board member said in a statement that Olson "has missed the mark by actively encouraging the destruction of our community rather than amplifying the voices of Black people who are fighting for change with empathy and compassion."

Olson and Valenzuela are competing for 24th District, where Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell, is retiring. The seat is a national Democratic target, and the GOP nominee is the Beth Van Duyne, the former U.S. housing official and Irving mayor.

Prior to Valenzuela's response, Olson's campaign claimed she was being taken out of context.

"As a combat vet, Colonel Olson knows first hand the human heartbreak of violence," Olson campaign manager Rachel Perry said in a statement. "She knows we cannot use force to fix a systemic problem of undue violence and discrimination perpetrated by those who are sworn to protect and serve. We have to rebuild from the ground up a color-blind public safety institution across America."

The campaign's use of the term "color-blind" brought further criticism from Valenzuela and one of the groups supporting her, the Congressional Black Caucus.

"Olson’s team response calling for 'color-blindness' is tone deaf and silences members of the community she is seeking to represent," Niccara Campbell, the political director for the caucus PAC, said in a statement. "This is not solidarity or allyship. It is not even an attempt."

Olson's comments were first reported Wednesday by the Washington Examiner and highlighted the next morning by the National Republican Congressional Committee. NRCC spokesman Bob Salera told The Texas Tribune that Olson is "siding with the violent criminals who hijacked legitimate protest."

Van Duyne said in a statement that the Olson-Valenzuela runoff "has become a despicable race to the bottom for who can be the most extreme, most radical, and most destructive to our neighborhoods, state, and nation."

And on Friday morning, the GOP chairs in the three of the four biggest counties in North Texas — Dallas, Tarrant and Denton — all issued statements condemning Olson's comments.

Olson, the 2018 nominee for agriculture commissioner, entered the runoff against Valenzuela with at least a couple significant advantages. Olson was the top fundraiser in the primary and finished first with 41% of the vote to 30% for Valenzuela.

Valenzuela has since built some momentum with a series of high-profile endorsements — and the race has taken a contentious turn. Earlier this month, a pro-Valenzuela group began sending out a mail piece attacking Olson for her tenure at Dallas Independent School District. Olson's campaign has denounced the mailers as "mudslinging and misinforming voters."