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Anatomy of a Meltdown

A consummate campaign organizer who fought first and compromised later — if ever — Norma Chávez time and again won over voters in her central El Paso district, who first sent her to the Texas House in 1996. But over the past two years, her fighting turned to bullying, and the devolution cost Chávez her job.

Norma Chavez

Norma Chávez never claimed to care much about whether fellow politicians liked her. A consummate campaign organizer who fought first and compromised later — if ever — she time again won over voters in her central El Paso district, who first sent her to the Texas House in 1996.

But over the past two years, her fighting turned to bullying, her aggressiveness to dysfunction, and she lost touch with the constituents who had championed her brash style, according to campaign advisers and political analysts. Ultimately, the devolution culminated in public meltdowns that cost Chávez her job in Tuesday’s runoff in House District 76.

Chávez lost to 31-year-old El Paso lawyer Naomi Gonzalez by 360 votes after a spectacle of a campaign that some compared to a lucha libre wrestling match. At its climax, Chávez called out her opponent publicly as a lesbian — which brought swift condemnation from El Paso politicians and, ultimately, voters. A day after her defeat, two people who worked closely with her, speaking on condition of anonymity, gave accounts of how the 49-year-old legislator slowly self-destructed.

The descent of her legislative career, they say, started long before this campaign and gained momentum despite the best efforts of her advisers, whose interventions were sometimes treated as treason.

Chávez did not return repeated calls for comment on this story.

Before the meltdown

When she was elected 14 years ago, beating out three other candidates, Chávez became the first Latina legislator from El Paso. Before taking public office, she had marched with César Chávez (they are not related) and his United Farm Workers, organized grassroots advocacy for clean-air regulations and fought in Washington, D.C., against proposals to dump low-level radioactive waste in far West Texas. “Especially as a woman working in a man’s world, I had to learn to bare-knuckle box with the best of them,” Chávez recently wrote in a letter to voters about her experiences in the 1980s and early 1990s.

As a legislator and retail politician, she earned a reputation as a hard worker and an unbeatable organizer. She passed dozens of bills in the House, increasing financing for job training, providing more money to seniors in nursing homes and creating needed courts in El Paso County, and she nearly passed one that would have allowed the poverty-stricken Tigua tribe in El Paso to reopen its casino. On the campaign front, in 2006, she trounced her Democratic primary opponent, Martha “Marty” Reyes, a local school board trustee and the sister-in-law of U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso.

But along the way, Chávez increasingly alienated the El Paso delegation and others, in sometimes lowbrow — and often painfully public — rhetorical brawls. The El Paso Times reported in 2001 on a fight between Chávez and state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, that produced a “mushroom cloud of profanity” on the House floor: The F-word was reportedly invoked some 20 times. State Rep. Chente Quintanilla, D-El Paso, says he clashed with Chávez practically from the moment he stepped foot on the House floor in 2003. He said the animosity escalated in the 2009 legislative session. “She was trying to divide us as a delegation," he recalls, "always saying, ‘Are you with me or against me?’"

Those who were against her had reason to fear her. Tapping her considerable political skills and campaign cash, Chávez helped Marisa Marquez topple state Rep. Paul Moreno, D-El Paso, a 40-year House member, in the 2008 Democratic primary. Chávez and Moreno had fought over her support of then-House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland. Moreno called Chávez a sellout. She called him a dinosaur. Yet almost immediately after Marquez's victory, Chávez started feuding with Marquez, too. Chávez has said she felt Marquez slighted her, not paying her the respect she deserved for helping orchestrate the win.

Her ire carried over to anyone she perceived to be allied with Marquez. “If you were with Marisa [Marquez], it was always a battle,” Quintanilla says.

Chávez’s anger at Marquez colored her entire session, one adviser says. Nearly every day, she said something negative about Marquez. She asked lobbyists who came by the office whether they had lunch with Marquez. Chávez couldn’t concentrate on her own legislative agenda because she was busy trying to sabotage Marquez’s work, the adviser says. The feud became public when the El Paso Times first reported on Chávez’s opposition to a bill Marquez filed to create an ethics commission in El Paso County. The county was reeling from FBI allegations that elected officials there were taking bribes. Despite warnings from her staff, Chávez erected one barrier after another to stop the bill. It eventually passed anyway. Chávez begrudgingly signed on to the bill, but only with pressure from others in the El Paso delegation — and still calling it a “witch-hunt bill.”

There was the front-page story that exposed a text message the 49-year-old legislator sent to Marquez uninviting her to a party celebrating Chávez’s college graduation. Chávez wrote Marquez: “U R not my friend.” Not long after the session, another story revealed that Chávez had accepted more than $3,500 from lobbyists to pay for the fete honoring her bachelor’s degree in government from the University of Texas.

“It’s just been one image maintenance crisis after another,” says University of Texas at El Paso communications professor Richard Piñeda.

Advice as betrayal

Those close to Chávez told her not to let Marquez get under her skin, one adviser says. They cautioned her against having the graduation party. They even told Chávez that it was maybe time to consider sitting out an election cycle. Chávez dismissed the advice as a personal betrayal, the adviser says. Instead, Chávez announced publicly she was going to run for the Texas Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, only to abandon that plan when internal campaign polls showed she couldn’t win, the adviser says.

By the time the House campaign rolled around late in 2009 — and it became evident Gonzalez would have the funds to mount a serious challenge — an already erratic and unpredictable legislator had become a dysfunctional candidate, the advisers said.

Gonzalez used the El Paso Times headlines in a barrage of attack ads on television and in campaign mailers. The Chávez campaign responded with allegations that Gonzalez was a Republican in Democrat’s clothing, because most of her campaign money came from Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a group that supports limits on damages in medical malpractice cases and frequently supports GOP candidates.

As the March 2 Democratic primary drew closer, and polls showed she was vulnerable, Chávez became more volatile, picking a fight with a local reporter during a live radio show on Election Day. Sources close to the campaign say that even her staff wasn’t spared from her ire. She would scream and yell one minute, break into wailing sobs later and then coo compliments at their work.

Chávez was down after the primary but not out. Gonzalez bested her by 136 votes, but it wasn’t enough to win the nomination, and the two headed to the runoff. The pressure on Chávez increased. While one adviser says she seemed to accept advice to tone down the anger, she'd forget in high-pressure situations, seeming to pick the exact wrong thing to do.

The campaign worked hard to focus Chávez on personal communication with her supporters. She avoided mainstream media. She sent a letter to her voters telling them she would transform herself from “fighter-of-the-people” to “experienced stateswoman.”

"It's a cautionary tale of politics"

Two weeks before the runoff, campaign advisers were cautiously optimistic about the outlook for Chávez. Then, on the Sunday before early voting began, those hopes imploded, again, on the front page of the El Paso Times. This time it was a story about Chávez gay-baiting Gonzalez during a public forum. Campaign advisers had told her repeatedly not to bring up the subject. The incident came during a highly charged forum where supporters of both candidates booed, yelled, hissed and heckled. A man in the audience, dressed in leather biker gear, asked Gonzalez about a particular piece of legislation. When Gonzalez admitted she was unfamiliar with it, the crowd booed loudly. Gonzalez said she assumed by the way he was dressed that the measure had something to do with motorcycle laws. Chávez accused her of stereotyping and then called her out as a lesbian. “I have not attacked her for being a lesbian, gay woman,” she said, pointing a finger at Gonzalez and seeming to laud herself for previous restraint that — in the very same sentence — gave way to angry name-calling.

It wasn’t so much the attack but her explanation of it that caused campaign staffers’ heads to shake — and some to quit in frustration. Chávez, a motorcycle enthusiast, justified the comment by saying that she had embraced the motorcycle community and that therefore Gonzalez should embrace the gay community, somehow equating the choice to ride motorcycles and wear leather to a person's sexual orientation. And she told the Times that Gonzalez’s sexual orientation was relevant because it could affect her vote on gay marriage, which has been banned in Texas for almost five years. Chávez has publicly opposed gay marriage but has said she does not want to prohibit civil unions.

Chávez's campaign advisers had decided that while Hispanic voters in El Paso aren’t likely to approve of homosexuality, they might regard attacking Gonzalez’s sexual orientation as demeaning and distasteful. The day after the story appeared in the Times, other El Paso elected officials lambasted Chávez, who apologized for the comment. But it was too late.

“We were well on the way to victory before the gay-baiting occurred,” said Jeff Crosby, an Austin consultant who helped the Chávez campaign. “Our strategy was working until Norma took us off message.”

UT-El Paso's Piñeda says Chávez’s gay-baiting played into the Gonzalez campaign’s strategy to paint her as a badly behaved bully who was unaccountable to voters. “Norma fell into that trap by doing exactly what she did, by both engaging in the outing and then also avoiding trying to talk to anybody,” he said.

In the end, Chávez advisers and Piñeda agreed, she was undone by her own insecurities and the fighting that had landed her in the powerful position she has held for 14 years. “It’s a cautionary tale of politics,” Piñeda said. “The success and strength of politicians is strengthened by relationships they have — and it can be undermined by the relationships they have.”

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