An Epic Political Rematch Taking Shape in El Paso

Voters in El Paso's House District 76 might soon see Round Two of a rough political battle between Democrats Norma Chávez and Naomi Gonzalez — whose first match more than two years ago came with plenty of personal attacks. 

Chávez, who served in the Legislature from 1997 until she was unseated by Gonzalez in 2010, has said she plans next month to formally announce her campaign to get her job back. Though she will fight in the Democratic primary against the same opponent who bested her, Chavez said she's going to do things differently this time around, though she declined to elaborate.

Likely to join the fray this time around is Cesar Blanco, a Navy veteran and chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine.

El Paso County Democratic Chairman Glenn Maya said he hopes that the candidates will focus on the needs of the voters instead of the candidates' personal lives.

“The last election became very vocal,” he said. “Is it going to continue? I don’t know if they’ve learned their lessons.”

Chávez is known for her outspoken, aggressive nature when it comes to sparring with her opponents, and for speaking her mind on behalf of her middle-class border district. 

In 2010, though, Chávez's long record of serving El Paso's poor, including championing clean air laws and gambling rights for the Tigua Indians, was trumped by the criticism heaped on her in the campaign. She was lambasted for fighting with other local lawmakers and allowing lobbyists to pay for her college graduation party. And Chávez was widely criticized after she called Gonzalez a "lesbian gay woman" at a public event and subsequently said her opponent should embrace her identity. Despite her apologies, Chávez lost the race. 

Chávez declined to answer questions about her past tactics and elections. She said she and her team are working out the details of her campaign and an early-October announcement.

In a text message, Chávez said she was humbled to have been asked by so many to serve again. “Sitting on the sidelines these past two-and-a-half years has awarded me the opportunity to review all we accomplished,” she said. “Mistakes serve when you learn from them.”

Gonzalez has had her own troubles. After being elected, she was named freshman of the year by the Mexican American Legislative Caucus and the Legislative Study Group, and she avoided opposition in 2012. But in March, during the 83rd legislative session, she was charged with drunken driving in Austin after she reportedly hit another vehicle, which in turn hit a cyclist.

Gonzalez seemed to be preparing for another tough go-round.

“With Norma, you expect the unexpected,” she said. “I just expect that in all likelihood, it will be negative and not pleasant. So that’s all I can say about that.”

Gonzalez said her record should speak for itself. The sophomore is the vice chairwoman of the House Human Services Committee. She includes on her legislative highlight list legislation that designated the Texas Tech University Health Science Center in El Paso as a stand-alone university; working with Republican leaders to create El Paso’s first center for autism outreach and resources; and measures that help regulate how foster children are prescribed psychotropic medications.

“The fact that I am from the district, that doesn’t mean politics as usual," Gonzalez said. "That means I am someone that knows the area, that has grown up in the area, that knows the needs of the community.”

Citing her attorney’s advice, Gonzalez said she won’t speak at length about the pending criminal charges.

“I have addressed to the constituents what did take place, and all I can say is that I am not asking for any special treatment,” she said. “It’s about learning from the mistakes we make and moving forward from them.”

The other likely contender in the race is a newcomer to El Paso politics. Blanco, a six-year veteran of the Navy, said he is 90 percent sure he’ll join the race. He has chosen a campaign treasurer and said he is leaning more toward running with each week.

Blanco, whose résumé includes serving as chief of staff to U.S. Reps. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Houston, and Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, and as a field representative for former Congressman Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, said he offers a fresh perspective for the district.

“I’ve got a skill set that I have learned outside, in Washington, that I think would be of use and folks have told me it would be of use in El Paso,” he said. 

Without mentioning names, he said El Paso leaders get too bogged down with their personal ambitions.

“I think the voters will decide that,” he said. “There is infighting, and it’s clear to them it’s time for a change.”

HD-76 includes part of the Fort Bliss Army base, El Paso County’s east and central areas, and a significant portion of the lower valley. About 47,800 of the district’s 160,250 residents — just over 3o percent — have incomes below the poverty line, compared with the state average of 17 percent, according to U.S. census data.

Maya said he is ready for a hard-fought match in HD-76 and that he hopes the candidates, however many decide to run, keep it clean.

“As long as it’s issues-based, I am all for it,” he said. “That’s what the political game is all about, and personal issues shouldn’t come in to it.”

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