Ask most El Pasoans to explain their hometown’s place in the vast Lone Star state, and they will undoubtedly quip that it’s closer to Los Angeles than Houston.
It's not actually true — Houston is 50 miles closer — but it explains a lot about why this border city’s political landscape feels like foreign territory in red Texas.
El Paso is one of the few Democratic outposts in a state where the GOP has had a decade-long stronghold on state and local politics. While geography — the city is in a different time zone than the rest of Texas — is the primary factor in the partisan anomaly that is El Paso, political observers and experts say it is also the history, the demographic makeup and the border economics that make El Paso so different.
“We’ve always had that tendency to be on a little bit different beat than the rest of the state,” said state district Judge Bill Moody, a political historian and El Paso native.
The city’s unusual politics took center stage with the surprise announcement this fall that longtime Democratic state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh will not run for another term in 2010. The news has sparked a shuffling of the political deck that will certainly result in some rough-and-tumble local races for the Texas Senate and House.
While the shakeup surely will bring some new faces to the El Paso delegation, experts agreed the all-Democrat liberal-leaning makeup of the group will likely remain unchanged.
“I just don’t think the infrastructure has ever been built here for a two-party system,” said Republican El Paso businessman Dee Margo.
The border city has long been a liberal bastion, even rebelling against conservative Democrats who dominated the South, said Moody, a Democrat making his third attempt to win statewide election to the Texas Supreme Court.
“It had a stronger Republican tinge to it when Republicans were like a zero in the rest of Texas,” Moody said.
That liberal bent stems from trade routes that primarily ran south to north from Mexico to San Francisco. The routes transported not just products but people, many from the Midwest and East coast — and their values, Moody said.
El Paso never considered itself part of the Deep South, steeped in the experiences of slavery and the civil rights movement that consumed other parts of East Texas.
“We’re more tied to New Mexico, and even probably more in tune with California,” he said.
As party values began to realign in the late 1960s, and conservative southern Democrats joined Republicans ranks, most El Pasoans, Moody said, stuck with the party.
El Paso’s majority-minority population, among the poorest in the state, further cemented Democratic dominance, said University of Texas at El Paso political science professor Greg Rocha.
More than 80 percent of El Pasoans are Hispanic, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Three-quarters speak a language other than English at home.
Nearly 25 percent of El Paso families earn an annual income below the federal poverty level, compared to 12.8 percent of all Texas families.
“This is a population that needs help from the government in terms of social assistance. Particularly for low- and middle- income people, help from the government is necessary and thought to be good,” Rocha said.
El Paso politics are largely influenced by the civil rights work of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Movement, he said.
Local politicians, such as Shapleigh, have built their careers by demanding an equal portion of state funding for the city’s ignored and underserved population.
Republicans’ message of small government and low taxes, Rocha said, doesn’t resonate with the majority in the border city, Rocha said. The party’s recent anti-immigration rhetoric and push for strict border security policies haven't helped either.
“The issue of immigration is so family-bound and so personal here that, even though I think there is quite a bit of concern about what’s going on in Mexico, people aren’t demonized,” Rocha said.
The GOP has had sporadic successes in El Paso.
When U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, won the 1993 special election that sent her to Washington, she got 53 percent of the vote in El Paso County over Democrat Bob Krueger.
In 1998, then-Gov. George W. Bush, racked up 50.1 percent of the vote in El Paso County during his gubernatorial re-election campaign. He poured resources into Spanish-language ads and even attended a high-profile debate in El Paso against Democratic challenger Garry Mauro.
Those glimmers of hope, though, quickly dissipated.
In 2006, when GOP businessman Margo ran for the Texas Senate, he raised more than $775,000 and still lost the countywide race with about 40 percent of the vote.
He lost again in 2008 in a high-profile, expensive Texas House race against Democrat Joe Moody.
Austin-based GOP political consultant Kevin Shuvalov managed Margo’s campaigns. He said the Democratic Party has become institutionalized in El Paso.
“It’s not based on an issue set, but everybody’s father, grandfather and great grandfather has been a Democrat, and they’re a Democrat,” he said.
Republicans have made inroads with concerted efforts like Bush and Hutchison in the 1990s. But Shuvalov said neither the state nor the local party has made consistent efforts to build a GOP infrastructure in El Paso.
The state party, he said, doesn’t really need El Paso to win statewide races. The GOP can hem up the votes it needs in the Interstate 35 corridor, where the population and wealth are centered.
And in El Paso, the task of converting myriad died-in-the-wool Democrats seems so daunting few locals have stepped up to the challenge.
County Commissioner Dan Haggerty, brother of former state Rep. Pat Haggerty, and Justice of the Peace Bruce King are the only Republican elected officials in El Paso.
So, the resources to run a successful GOP campaign remain scarce, and the Democratic institution perpetuates itself.
“There are a lot of good leaders in El Paso, but I’m not sure anyone has grabbed the mantle to say, ‘I want to build the Republican Party,’” Shuvalov said.
Margo said he is optimistic that eventually the GOP will make headway. The expansion of Fort Bliss Army base with more than 30,000 new troops, he said, will bring new political energy to the city.
Even Margo conceded, though, that partisan changes in El Paso are not imminent.
The campaign frenzy sparked by Shapleigh’s surprise exit from the state Senate this fall will mean some exciting and intense races.
Those fights will likely be among Democrats.
And like most internecine struggles, the battles are sure to be brutal.