Rep. Norma Chavez Fights for Her Political Life

Norma Chavez is a fighter. She fought for new clean air laws before she was a legislator. She knocked out three opponents to win a seat in the Texas House. She’s battled time and again — unsuccessfully — to bring tribal gaming to El Paso. Now, after a bruising year in the press, she's is in the fight of her career, trying to hang on to the legislative seat she has occupied since 1997.  

Chavez’s public fights with her fellow Democratic El Paso lawmakers made headlines statewide last year. And her young Latina opponent, lawyer Naomi Gonzalez, says it’s time to stop the embarrassing imbroglios and bring some unity to the historically fractured delegation. “I sort of felt she just wasn’t playing by the rules overall,” Gonzalez says. “She had taken the role of fighter a little too far.” But Chavez, a tough campaigner with a solid base of voters, says the fighting she does is for her constituents, and she's working hard to stay in the ring.

Chavez, Gonzalez and a third Democratic candidate, Tony San Roman, a former El Paso Community College board member, are competing to represent House District 76 in central El Paso, where nearly one-third of the residents live in poverty. A recent El Paso Times poll showed that Chavez, who has long been considered unbeatable, could be forced into a runoff. According to the poll, about 41 percent of Democratic voters would choose Chavez, about 30 percent would pick Gonzalez, 8 percent would vote for San Roman, and more than 20 percent were undecided.  

Gonzalez says El Pasoans are tired of the incumbent’s antics in Austin. Last year, during the legislative session, Chavez was a main character in fights among the six-member delegation. The group fought over measures that would have relieved El Paso County and local school districts from paying city stormwater fees. They filed four nearly identical bills, which almost died as the legislators bickered over who should get credit for the money-saving measures. Then there was a session-long ruckus over a bill to allow the county to create an ethics commission with teeth to go after local offenders. The proposal came amid an FBI investigation into public corruption in which several El Paso public officials admitted to taking bribes. Chavez was the loudest opponent of the ethics bill, saying it would lead to political witch hunts. She worked to hold up the measure at every juncture, demanding dozens of changes. It passed in the final days of the legislative session, even as Chavez continued to criticize it.

Part of her problem with the ethics bill was that its author was state Rep. Marisa Marquez. Chavez helped Marquez defeat veteran El Paso lawmaker Paul Moreno in the 2008 Democratic primary, but shortly after the election, when Chavez felt Marquez wasn't displaying the appropriate level of appreciation and deference, the duo began feuding. Their rocky relationship bled into the legislative session and devolved into schoolyard sniping. In the spring of 2009, Chavez sent Marquez a text message uninviting her ex-protégé to her college graduation celebration. Chavez, who is 49, wrote to Marquez, "U R not my friend."

Each of the fights made headlines in the El Paso Times. The text message incident, along with the revelation that lobbyists paid $3,500 for Chavez’s college graduation bash, made headlines statewide. It was enough to earn Chavez a dishonorable mention from Texas Monthly in its post-session review of legislators.

Now the stories are resurfacing in mailers and commercials from Gonzalez’s campaign. One Spanish-language commercial shows a picture of Chavez holding a champagne glass in the air and urges voters to tell her, “The party is over.” Another quotes an El Paso Times editorial that called Chavez “embarrassing.” Gonzalez, who ran unsuccessfully in 2008 for the El Paso City Council, says she started considering a run for the House after seeing headline after headline about Chavez. And though Gonzalez has been friends with Chavez's nemesis Marquez since the two were 14, Marquez says she is not involved in Gonzalez’s campaign. “People wanted accountable government; they wanted change,” Gonzalez says. “They felt the things they were reading about … did a disservice to the community.”

Gonzalez, a 31-year-old native El Pasoan, grew up an only child with her grandmother and her single mom, who worked odd jobs and at times had to accept public assistance to support the small family. Gonzalez says watching her mom struggle to put herself through technical school and get a better paying job taught her the value of education. “That was really my motivating force,” she says. After graduating from Jefferson High School, Gonzalez attended Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio and then went on to law school at Saint Mary’s University.

She returned to El Paso in 2004 to live with and help support her grandmother and her mother, who is now disabled. Gonzalez worked at local law firms until taking a job in 2007 with the El Paso County Attorney’s office. She is on leave from that work now so she can devote time to the race, which even she acknowledges is a tough one to win. But she’s hoping to capitalize on voters’ concern over Chavez’s behavior. At a public forum hosted by El Paso Mental Health and Mental Retardation last week, Gonzalez took the stage alone in a simple gray suit and purple blouse. The only HD-76 candidate in attendance, she told the handful of voters in the room her story and asked for their support. “Unlike the incumbent,” she told the audience, “I plan on building coalitions.”

Gonzalez says she will be assertive as a legislator and work hard to build relationships with El Paso lawmakers and others in the Capitol. “The time for fighting is over,” she says. “It’s about effective communication.” Gonzalez says that if she is elected, she will work for transportation funds to improve streets in the district and for state dollars to construct a third building at the Texas Tech University medical school. To get those things done, she says, requires cooperation. “It’s my thinking we are going to have to be a united delegation,” Gonzalez says.

Chavez has long defended her sometimes-combative approach to lawmaking, and Gonzalez isn't the first to attack her for it. When Ysleta Independent School District trustee Martha “Marty” Reyes — sister-in-law to U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso — challenged Chavez in 2006, she also attacked Chavez’s style. The argument didn’t get far with voters, and Chavez won with 70 percent of the Democratic primary vote.

Chavez embraces her reputation, telling voters in her district that the fight is for them and for their needs. In her own campaign commercial, Chavez focuses on what she’s done in the Legislature. “For more than 20 years I’ve been fighting for jobs and fair treatment for El Paso,” she says as dulcet tones play in the background. She talks about funding she secured for job training programs and about voting to restore dollars to the Children’s Health Insurance Program. “Let’s continue our fight,” she says, asking voters for their support.

At a public forum hosted by a local talk radio station last week, Chavez said her graduation should have been a time of reflection on the example she set for others by returning to college as an adult to complete her education. Chavez completed a bachelor’s degree in government, balancing attending classes at the University of Texas while working as a state legislator for El Paso. She blamed the media for detracting from that message by “taking liberty” to report that lobbyists helped pay for her party. If voters send her back to the House, Chavez says, she plans to file a measure that would create a scholarship for students like her, “so that they can get that degree and be an example for their kids and families.”

At the forum, she chided Gonzalez for taking thousands of dollars in donations from Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a group that supports limitations on damages in civil litigation and typically favors Republicans. Gonzalez accepted nearly $23,000 from the group, which accounts for 85 percent of her total campaign cash in the race. Chavez admits she also took money from the group — about $20,000 from 2006 to 2008 — but never to the extent Gonzalez has. “You can buy influence, and that’s what’s happening in this race,” Chavez told the audience.

Chavez's negative publicity might be catastrophic for other candidates. But University of Texas at El Paso political science professor Greg Rocha says Chavez remains a force to be reckoned with when it comes to campaigning in her district. “She’s nothing if not organized,” Rocha says. “She really knows how to win a race, and she’ll campaign really hard.”

That’s exactly what she did last week as she toured a group of senior centers, a stronghold of Chavez supporters who have voted for her for years. When Chavez walked into a senior center on Carolina Drive, more than 100 seniors looked up from their blue and green bingo cards to applaud her. She and her father, Norman Chavez, wearing a “Norma Rocks” T-shirt, worked the auditorium, doling out Valentine’s candies, campaign fans and campaign buttons. She had plenty of hugs for the seniors and spoke to them fluently in Spanish and English.

Alberto Hernandez, 77, says he has known Chavez more than 13 years. She helps the senior center a lot, he says, donating money for bingo games and giving everyone calendars with pictures from Austin. “She’s really trying to help El Paso,” he says. “That’s the most important thing.”

Gonzalez visited the senior center the day before Chavez did, and Hernandez says he was unimpressed. Gonzalez greeted the senior citizens with the Spanish term “ancianos,” he says, which means ancient. “Everybody was disgusted,” he says, shaking his head. “I know I’m old, but if you’re going to call me ‘you old man,’ that’s not correct.” Hernandez also pulled out the Gonzalez mailer that features Chavez with a champagne glass. “We didn’t like this,” he says. “Norma’s been here many years and we love her, so I don’t think that’s correct to talk bad.”

But Gonzalez’s message isn’t falling completely on deaf ears. Jim and Debra Kelly, local activists who fought to keep the Asarco copper smelter closed, say they are hoping Gonzalez will bring change to the district and to the El Paso delegation. The two supported Marquez, too, and they couldn’t understand what all the fighting was about during the 2009 legislative session. “El Paso has got to have a unified voice,” Jim Kelly says. “El Paso has got to get a larger share of tax dollars for our citizens, and I think Naomi can help do that.”

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