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The Runoffs: HD-76

Naomi Gonzalez calls state Rep. Norma Chavez, D-El Paso, a GOP darling, a drinker and a public embarrassment. Chavez calls Gonzalez homosexual, naive and a Republican. The bashing and brawling in this heavily Democratic district is truly something to behold — and there's still more than a week until runoff day.

Naomi Gonzalez (left), Norma Chavez (right)

Not much fazes Naomi Gonzalez — she always expected a rough race against longtime incumbent state Rep. Norma Chavez, D-El Paso. So she didn't react when Chavez called her a lesbian during a recent public forum. And she shrugs off some of the more “colorful” comments she hears campaigning at voters’ homes. “I knew it was going to be negative,” she says.

Gonzalez was a little amazed, though, when on the night of the primary election last month, the early vote showed her leading Chavez in the Democratic contest for House District 76. She held onto that lead to finish nearly 2 percentage points ahead of a legislator many called unbeatable. “We weren’t entirely surprised, but we were pleasantly surprised,” Gonzalez says.

Now she and Chavez are in a brawl of a runoff election fight, and for the first time since she was elected in 1996, Chavez is truly feeling threatened. That may explain why, as the mercury in the thermometer has risen over the months of the campaign, the candidates' fevered bashing of one another has, too. Chavez has called Gonzalez not only homosexual but naive; mostly, though, she calls her a Republican. Gonzalez has done her part to return the compliment: She’s called Chavez a GOP darling, a drinker and a public embarrassment to El Paso.

Gonzalez allowed a Texas Tribune reporter to tag along as she knocked on voters’ doors last week, asking for their support on April 13. Chavez declined to be interviewed — her consultant, Chuck McDonald, said Chavez needs to focus on bigger priorities in the waning days of the race and doesn’t need “any more negative stuff” written about her. “I don’t want to rock the boat any right now,” McDonald said. But the Tribune caught up with Chavez and some of her supporters at a campaign fundraiser.

"Working with others and not against"

When Gonzalez started blockwalking at the start of the primary campaign, it was a blustery 20 degrees, and El Pasoans were getting into the Christmas spirit. Walking from house to house on Wednesday, she was in short-sleeves and sunglasses on a bright, warm spring day in neighborhoods where voters were preparing for Easter.

The lawyer, who’s on leave from the El Paso County Attorney’s Office, parked her black BMW, grabbed some campaign fliers and got ready to walk to the first voter’s house of the day. She glanced over her sunglasses at a map on a clipboard (Gonzalez admitted she’s “navigationally challenged”) to determine which direction she needed to go, then pushed the aviators up on the bridge of her nose (“They make me look like T.J. Hooker,” she said) and walked down a street in one of the district's more affluent neighborhoods.

She knocked on the door at the first house — a ranch-style home with a typical desert yard decorated in rock, brick and cement designs. No one answered, but as she prepared to walk away, an older man in a bright-blue polo shirt came out of the garage, holding a watering hose in his hands. Gonzalez introduced herself and handed the man a campaign flier. He looked down at the flier, and said, “Oh yeah, I’m voting for her."

“Well, that’s me,” Gonzalez said.

The man shook her hand and looked at her a little quizzically. “I wouldn’t vote for Norma if she was the only one running,” he said.

Gonzalez thanked him and walked down the street, glancing again at her clipboard. She realized the man at the door wasn’t whom she meant to visit, “but we touched a voter anyway,” she said. “We’re not where I thought we were.” She recalibrated and headed in the right direction.

The next voter was the one she wanted to talk to in the first place: retired police officer Clint Porter. When he answered the door, he smiled. “Don’t waste your literature. I already voted for you, and I’m going to vote for you again,” he told Gonzalez as she held out a flier. “I can’t stand that bully.”

During more than four months on the campaign trail, Gonzalez said, those responses were not unusual. And at nearly all the houses she visited in about three hours of blockwalking, the voters told her they planned to support her in the runoff. The 31-year-old St. Mary’s University School of Law graduate said she’s confident heading into the first week of early voting, but she’s not counting on another victory just because she came out a few votes ahead last time. “It’s a new ballgame, so we’re working just as hard as we can,” she said.

Gonzalez has focused much of her campaign on telling voters that Chavez’s abrasive style makes her unable to work with other lawmakers, particularly her colleagues in the El Paso delegation. In her most recent TV spot, Gonzalez said she wants to cut taxes and create jobs, and she added, “I know the best way to do this is by working with others and not against.”

She has also argued that Chavez is in the thrall of lobbyists — last year, for instance, they helped pay for her college graduation party. Yet Gonzalez has had to fend off repeated attacks over money she has received. The bulk of her campaign contributions, about 88 percent, have come from Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a group that supports limits on damages in medical malpractice lawsuits. TLR has typically supported Republicans but also gives money to Democrats, including Chavez, whose haul from TLR over the years totals nearly $20,000. Because so much of Gonzalez’s money has come from the tort reform group, Chavez has said her opponent is owned by them and has accused her of being a closet Republican, a major insult in this Democratic district. In a recent letter to her supporters, Chavez wrote, “These Republicans … are trying to buy House District 76, BUT IT’S NOT FOR SALE.”

Sherry Sylvester, a spokeswoman for TLR, said the group has put so much money into the race because it would like to see Chavez replaced by a reasonable, open-minded legislator. When TLR talked with Chavez last year about a measure to prevent workers from suing their employers, Sylvester said, she was combative, erratic and not knowledgeable. TLR knows Gonzalez is a liberal Democrat — "that's who she is," Sylvesters says. “TLR wants support on both sides of the aisle."

Gonzalez describes herself as a proud Democrat. She says claims to the contrary — and those accusations that she is a lesbian — are simply Chavez’s strategy to distract voters from her looking at her record.

"The loudest and most aggressive person in the room"

Since losing the primary election to Gonzalez by a slim 136 votes, Chavez has redoubled her efforts to stay on message and to reach out to her supporters. At a fundraiser this week at a Landry’s Seafood House in El Paso, she barred a Tribune reporter from the room while she was speaking to the audience and refused to grant an interview. “Right now, she just wants to talk to her people,” said campaign staffer Mark McDonald. “We’re trying to keep her focused. And she’s probably afraid of what you’re going to write.”

Chavez was plagued by bad press during the 2009 legislative session. Stories in the El Paso Times revealed her fights with other local lawmakers, including a text message to state Rep. Marisa Marquez, D-El Paso, that read, among other things, “U R not my friend,” and uninvited her from a party. Another story detailed how lobbyists paid thousands of dollars for Chavez’s college graduation party. Those headlines and others have been recycled in Gonzalez campaign attacks.

In a three-page mea culpa letter to her supporters on March 15, Chavez wrote that she regretted that her behavior and the way she interacts with others had become the focus of the campaign. “I am a human and, like most people, it is sometimes hard to see our own flaws,” Chavez wrote. As an activist before she became a legislator, she explained, she often had to be “the loudest and most aggressive person in the room to get the job done.” As a senior member of the delegation, she wrote, she could see now “it is okay to move from fighter-of-the-people and for me to assume the role of experienced stateswoman.”

She went on to say that TLR is targeting her because she voted against a measure to protect employers from worker lawsuits. “That is why this Republican group is willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Chavez wrote. She didn’t say, though, that the trial lawyers, who oppose tort reform, have contributed heavily to her campaign. About 40 percent of Chavez’s money in the race so far has come from trial lawyers, according to reports filed with the Texas Ethics Commission.

Sebastian Martinez, a Democratic precinct chairman, said after the fundraiser that Chavez has been the “greatest state legislator we’ve ever had.” He said he’s been disappointed with the nastiness of the campaign, which he said has been the dirtiest he has seen in more than two decades of involvement in El Paso politics.

Martinez said the discussion of Chavez’s personal behavior is irrelevant. “Every now and then I get a little moody,” he said. “That’s our nature.” Chavez has done a lot for the poverty-stricken district in central El Paso, he said, ticking off her support for the new Texas Tech University medical school, funding for improvements to the major thoroughfare in the area and the measures she filed to create new local courts. Martinez said he has known Chavez since she was involved with César Chávez and the Chicano movement. “I’ve admired her vibrant, fiery motivational skill,” he said.

As Election Day inches closer, both Chavez and Gonzalez know that the winner will be whoever can get the most supporters to the polls during early voting, which starts today. Their supporters say they expect their candidate to win, having fought long and hard during the four-month campaign. For the same reason, most predict that whoever emerges on April 13 won’t win by much.

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