El Paso Politicos Lining Up to Replace Shapleigh

El Paso state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh's surprise announcement that he won't seek another term in the Texas Senate in 2010 set off speculation about his plans for higher office — and a vigorous fight to replace him.

"While other public service may lie ahead, I will not run for the Texas Senate in 2010," Shapleigh said Friday. "During each day of the last decade, we have endeavored to do our very best for the people of our great community and state."

Shapleigh said he had been weighing the decision for several weeks, but the announcement came as a shock to his staff and to many in the political arena.

"I've done what I came to do," Shapleigh said.

Shapleigh would not say specifically what office he will seek, but he did rule out a challenge to El Paso Democratic U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes.

"My dreams have never been in Congress," he said.

Shapleigh said repeatedly that Texas needs change at the highest state levels, but he would not say whether he planned to run for statewide office. He didn't say no, either.

An announcement about his future plans, he said, would come in about three weeks after he has some time to relax.

Shapleigh's good friend El Paso County Attorney Jose Rodriguez was one of the few people not surprised by Friday's news.

Rodriguez said Shapleigh told him last week he planned not to seek re-election. During that conversation he said Shapleigh mentioned that he might consider a run for statewide office.

Shapleigh was elected to the Senate in 1996 and helped lead efforts to establish a four-year medical school in El Paso, the first on the U.S.-Mexico border. [Correction: The University of California San Diego School of Medicine opened in 1968. The school in El Paso is the first medical school on the Texas-Mexico border.]

He has been among the most liberal Democrats in the Texas Senate, a vocal critic of Republican leadership and a lonely proponent of establishing a state income tax. He has fought to fund services for low- and middle-income families and chastised conservatives for slashing the budgets for children's health insurance and other programs.

Shapleigh's departure leaves open a Senate seat that has rarely been vacated.

Only three people, all Democrats, have held the seat since 1973: Shapleigh, Peggy Rosson, who served from 1991 to 1997, and Tati Santiesteban, who held the seat from 1973 to 1991.

Potential successors — mostly Democrats — are already stacking up. It's a solidly Democratic seat; over the last two election cycles, the average statewide Democrat beat the average statewide Republican by 25.7 percentage points.

Rodriguez said he plans to announce an exploratory committee to run for the Senate soon.

"I am going to be trying to gain support both here locally and in Austin in the next 30 days or so," he said.

Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, said his phone was ringing off the hook following Shapleigh's announcement. Most of the callers — legislators, lobbyists, El Paso politicos — were encouraging him to run, he said.

"I must have gotten a dozen calls this morning offering to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars," Pickett said. "I really have to think about it."

But Pickett said he might have more power and be able to do more good for El Paso in his current position as chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

"I have as much power as the senator does," he said.

State Rep. Norma Chavez, D-El Paso, said, "you bet" she's going to consider a run for the Senate seat.

"I finished my seventh term. I'm an accomplished legislator who will obviously look seriously at the Senate race," Chavez said, adding that she was already planning to do a countywide poll in November to gauge her support.

Former Republican state Rep. Pat Haggerty, caught during a round of golf in Austin, said he would consider running, but he added that a Republican couldn't win that seat.

"If I ran, it wouldn’t be as a Republican," he said.

Other names circulating in the potential candidate list today include El Paso Mayor John Cook and Republican businessman Dee Margo, who challenged Shapleigh in 2006.

Margo, reached at a reunion in Nashville, Tenn., said he still hasn't made any decisions about running in 2010. He had previously said he wouldn't run against Shapleigh.

Asked whether today's news changed the equation, Margo said, "I doubt it, but I don't know."

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