Tensions Rising, Accusations Flying in CD-16 Race

El PASO — Patience is being tested on the border as the May 29 primary is set to determine whether this city is ready to replace a long-standing moderate Democratic congressman with a younger and more progressive wing of the party.

On a recent Monday afternoon in a campaign office for U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, the wheels of an established political machine were in full motion. Reyes sat in the modest building systematically listing what he says are the highlights of his 16-year career in Washington, touting his experience as the reason voters here should re-elect him in Congressional District 16.

Often, before Reyes finished making one point, a staffer would jot down statistics for the reporter. An email arrived seconds later with additional information.

“We take this race very seriously, especially this time with the anti-incumbency effort around the country,” said Reyes, a former U.S. Border Patrol sector chief.

A day before, Reyes’ opponent, former El Paso City Council member Beto O’Rourke, sat at Lucy’s, a west-side diner, picking at his machaca con huevo, the restaurant’s signature dish. He paused to shake hands with patrons who wished him luck.

In this blue-collar border town, O’Rourke has his work cut out for him, especially after Reyes recently landed the endorsements of President Obama and former President Bill Clinton.

But O’Rourke says the big-name "atta boys" are just another indication that Reyes feels threatened.

“The No. 1 job for the people currently in Congress is to stay in Congress,” he said. “My question, and the question for El Paso, is, where were these connections when we needed him to move this community’s agenda forward?”

It’s a common salvo that O’Rourke has hurled at Reyes, and supports a point the 39-year-old business owner is regularly looking to make: Reyes’ old-school ways and cronyism enabled the corruption that has swept through the border city.

“He’s absolutely tied to corruption,” O’Rourke said. “I haven’t said he is corrupt himself, but I think he is very tied to it, and I think he is part of the problem.”

Reyes counters that O’Rourke is naïve and willing to say anything to get elected.

“I tell people on my walks here every Saturday, 'It’s a bad day when you see Beto O’Rourke walking up your sidewalk to talk to you,'” Reyes said.

Reyes and O’Rourke are considered the front-runners in the five-candidate primary. Others vying for the seat are retired Army Maj. Jerome Tilghman, Ben “Buddy” Mendoza and Paul Johnson Jr.

Republicans Barbara Carrasco and Corey Dean Roen, and Libertarian Junart Sodoy are also vying for Reyes' seat.

The more personal attacks between the front-runners have to do with what the two allege are their opponents’ characters. Reyes said it would be unfortunate to send someone to Washington who would embarrass El Paso. Both Reyes and O'Rourke have also fought against ties to cronyism and special interests. El Paso is currently embroiled in several public corruption scandals, from the cheating allegations at its public schools to the indictments of former county judges Dolores Briones and Anthony Cobos, and the recent arrest of Willie Gandara Jr., a county commissioner who allegedly worked for the Juárez Cartel.

O’Rourke called Gandara Reyes’ “attack dog” and surrogate in the press. Gandara had called O’Rourke cowardly for his willingness to debate the legalization of marijuana.

Reyes said the relationship with Gandara did not extend beyond professional courtesies.

“We worked with him on issues we thought we very important, such as bringing water into the colonias, services like electricity and roads, those kinds of issues,” he said. “The Gandaras are a very well-known family and that was my extent of my relationship with him. He was a fellow colleague, no more and no less than [others], even Beto.”

Reyes questioned O’Rourke’s personal ties, including his father-in-law William Sanders’ connections to a Super PAC, Campaign for Primary Accountability, created to oust incumbents. Reyes’ campaign staff circulated a USA Today story citing Sanders’ association with Super PAC donors Campr II Partners.

O’Rourke denies any connection.

“I have not received a dime from them, and I won’t accept a dime from them,” he said. “I have been fortunate that I have raised about $400,000. Almost every single penny came from El Paso.”

Reyes has been under fire after a report from watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington questioned Reyes and his family's use of about $600,000 in campaign funds.

Reyes said his leadership position required the use of the funds.

“During this period of time when this money is cited is when I was the only chairman from Texas of a full committee,” he said. “As part of my role as a full chairman, I traveled around the country to recruit candidates with the Democratic leadership and to attend fundraisers.”

There are myriad other issues at play in this race, however, including veterans’ affairs, trade, cartel violence and drug policy.

O’Rourke said Reyes has done nothing to address wait times at El Paso’s international bridges, which he said will eventually cripple the economy. He said that according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, El Paso would lose 11,500 jobs over the next five years, $600 million in wages and $300 million in tax revenue if the issue isn't dealt with.

“If we don’t figure this out economically, El Paso is in for a shock,” he said. O’Rourke said the City Council, in a desperate move to improve traffic flow, offered to raise bridge fees and give the additional money to the federal government to pay for more U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents.

Reyes shrugged off those accusations, and said he was the only border lawmaker to file legislation to address wait times. He said he was responsible for procuring almost 80 agents for the El Paso sector under a recent ports bill — more than any other trade district.

Reyes said another bill of his would appropriate $1 billion and 1,000 more inspectors each year for the next five years for port improvement.

But O’Rourke said that even with a Democratic Congress, Reyes had been unsuccessful in passing legislation.

Reyes hammers O’Rourke for co-authoring a City Council resolution in 2009 calling for Congress to consider ending the prohibition on marijuana. He also co-authored a book with council member, Susie Byrd, called Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the U.S. and Mexico.

While O’Rourke believes that marijuana should be taxed and regulated, he said his campaign is not centered on that issue, and he doesn’t plan to carry that torch in Congress. His motivation in calling for a change in drug policy was the daily death toll from the drug war in Ciudad Juárez, just across the border.

“It’s not enough just to complain about the more than 10,000 dead in Juárez, the 50,000 dead in Mexico and the fact that we imprison more people in the U.S. than any country on the face of the planet,” he said. “And despite all that, today the easiest place to buy marijuana is in a middle school.”

He doesn’t think ending the marijuana prohibition would end the violence, but it would remove a major source of capital, which he said ranges from $8 billion to $10 billion annually, from the cartels.

Reyes said O’Rourke is naïve to think the move would dilute a cartel’s power. And he said that pot use eventually leads to harder drugs.

“I don’t believe for a second that this is not an individual that isn’t looking for a forum to push that agenda,” Reyes said.

O’Rourke has criticized Reyes for his continued support of the Mérida Initiative, the $1.4 billion aid package to Mexico and Central America aimed to help those governments fight organized crime. That policy, he said, has failed.

Reyes, who chaired the House Intelligence Committee for four years, said he knows better.

“We have never had an opportunity like this to help Mexico come out of their system. And we’re working with them and giving them real-time intelligence, we’re working with them and vetting the military and federal police,” he said.

Runoff Scenarios?

Tilghman, Mendoza and Johnson aren’t backing out of the race. Though they are competing, they argue that more money does not make a better candidate.

“One of the things that this campaign and this community suffers from is underreporting,” said Tilghman, a 30-year Army veteran. “The public is left with the impression that those are the only guys in the race.”

Tilghman, a schoolteacher who said he taught himself Spanish for the benefit of his students' parents, spends the bulk of his campaign time highlighting that political connections of the front-runners he says have enabled the corruption.

“You can’t swing a dead cat in this county without hitting someone who’s been indicted, related to someone who has been indicted or is under investigation,” he said.

Mendoza, who ran for the seat as an independent in 2008, said he is hearing from voters who are upset with the two front-runners, leading him to believe turnout will be low. Despite having only a few hundred dollars, he believes he still has a chance because of what he said is his independence.

Johnson, who served in the Army for 20 years, said the packed field could push the race in to a runoff. He said both Reyes and O’Rourke have neglected the city.

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.