EL PASO — Beto O’Rourke remembers vividly the moment that prompted him to run for Congress.
It was 2009, and the City Council had just approved a resolution he sponsored calling on Congress to consider debating the legalization of marijuana as a way to quell the horrific drug violence raging just across the Rio Grande from El Paso City Hall in Juárez. O’Rourke got a call from U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso. “He said, ‘You’re making my life really hard right now,’” O’Rourke recalled. “That was the impetus.”
Two years later, the stage is set for an epic political battle between two El Paso political powerhouses: O’Rourke, a young former councilman in the city’s so-called “progressive” camp, and Reyes, an established incumbent touting his seniority and accomplishments. El Paso political experts say the unfolding Democratic primary campaign in Congressional District 16 will set a tone for the city’s future, signaling whether people here are ready for something new or whether they'll buck the national anti-incumbent trend and stick with a Democrat who has represented them for 15 years in Washington. “Generationally, I think this is a really important election in terms of the politics,” said Richard Piñeda, a communications professor at the University of Texas at El Paso.
For Reyes, the challenge from O’Rourke is the first serious competition he has had since he was first elected to Congress in 1996. A former U.S. Border Patrol sector chief who grew up with nine brothers and sisters on a farm just outside of El Paso, Reyes, 66, said running wasn’t really his idea in the first place — a group of local business leaders recruited him. But he’s glad he did, and he’s not ready to leave his post in Washington.
Casting the race as a contest between a workaday, grounded El Pasoan and a privileged idealist, Reyes said he has a track record of laboring hard to get results for his hometown. “Everything that I have I’ve had to work very hard for,” Reyes said. “He is tremendously much more wealthy than I am.”
Reyes, who served as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee from 2006 to 2010, said his proudest accomplishments have been efforts to expand the Fort Bliss Army Base and to improve border security.
When he first got to Washington, Reyes said Fort Bliss was in jeopardy as Congress began to consider closing and realigning military bases. There were concerns about water availability and local ability to support the installation. Reyes said he and other local leaders worked to reassure lawmakers that El Paso could support the base. And when the Base Realignment and Closure Commission issued its final report in 2005, Fort Bliss gained more troops than any other base — an investment worth more than $6 billion per year to the local economy.
Since then, the Army has moved even more resources to El Paso, including a new aviation brigade, bringing well-paying technology jobs. The base expansion, Reyes said, insulated the city from the worst effects of the economic recession. “It’s made a huge impact on the future of this community,” he said, tucking into a plate of nachos piled high with jalapeños that he shared with staffers at a Mexican restaurant on the city’s far west side.
With his border law enforcement background and his own experience growing up in El Paso, Reyes said, he also worked to educate leaders in Washington about the unique problems of the U.S.-Mexico border. He said he led efforts to bring another 250 Customs and Border Protection officers to the region.
But Reyes said the attempts of O’Rourke and the El Paso City Council to change the focus of the conversation about Mexico’s drug war have not been helpful. Their discussion of legalizing marijuana, he said, seemed “silly” to other members of Congress. “They’re wasting energy on that kind of topic,” he said.
Not only is legalization politically improbable, Reyes said, it’s also naïve to think it would solve the problems in Mexico. A more appropriate solution, he said, is investment in programs that reduce the demand for drugs. “These are criminal enterprise organizations that aren’t going to go away and find a legal way to make living,” he said.
O'Rourke sees it differently: “Maybe he’s right. But then what?" he asked. "Clearly, what we’re doing today is not working for Juarez or El Paso.”
During his six years on the City Council, O’Rourke, 40, aligned himself with a group of young, progressive Democrats who took controversial stands, including spearheading an aggressive plan to redevelop the city’s downtown and implement new smart-growth city development codes, forcing through a measure to provide health benefits to the domestic partners of city employees and encouraging Congress to discuss legalization.
“This is my life’s work, and my mission is to do what I can to help this region,” said O’Rourke, who has three young children. He painted the race as a clash between new ideas and old ones. While El Pasoans owe Reyes their respect for his years of public service, O'Rourke said, "we don't owe him this seat in Congress."
The son of a former El Paso County judge with deep political roots in the city, O’Rourke acknowledged that he grew up with greater advantages than many El Pasoans. But, he recalled, he took odd jobs to support himself while he attended Columbia University, he said, and he was rejected when he first sought a loan to start his technology consulting business in El Paso. During an interview at a small coffee shop in downtown El Paso that had become his unofficial office, he said his current campaign was operating out of his garage. “He’s certainly right that I had opportunities in life,” O’Rourke said. “I seized them and worked as hard as I know how to.”
During his tenure on the council, O’Rourke said, one of his proudest achievements was the overhaul of the city’s public bus system, Sun Metro. When he was first elected in 2005, he said, the system was in shambles. Buses broke down regularly, rarely ran on time and didn’t have air conditioning. Some couldn’t even collect fares from passengers.
O'Rourke led an effort to transform the system, hiring a new company to operate it and setting a new set of metrics for success. This year, he said, Sun Metro won national recognition for its performance.
“That’s an unequivocal success story from City Council in which I played a part,” he said.
His proposal to encourage Congress to debate legalizing marijuana, however, was not such a success. The idea, he said, stemmed from his sadness and frustration with the violence happening in Juárez. In 2008, the drug war there exploded, and it wasn’t just drug thugs killing drug thugs — the victims were children, grandmothers and young women.
The Merida Initiative and fence-building and other solutions being debated in Washington were doing nothing, O’Rourke said, to address a root cause of the drug war: an insatiable American appetite for those products. It was time, he said, to at least discuss whether legalizing marijuana might be a way to deal with demand and help stop the bloodshed. The rest of the City Council initially agreed, and they supported the resolution.
“There was a disconnect between the reality we were living in El Paso and what Reyes and the leadership in Washington were saying,” O’Rourke said. “It was profound and it was disturbing.”
After calls and letters from Reyes and others concerned about the move, though, Mayor John Cook vetoed the resolution.
That’s when O’Rourke said he decided it was time for him to run. “This isn’t working, and we need to do something different,” he remembered thinking. “I was disappointed at the lack leadership.”
As the two move into full-tilt campaign mode, Piñeda said, the race will be seen as a fight between El Paso’s old-guard Democrats and its newer, younger generation. And each of the candidates has distinct advantages.
While Reyes may suffer from the discontent with Congress, he benefits from the support of the national Democratic Party and the other trappings of incumbency, both financial and in his long public record, Piñeda said. And there are other intangible factors in his favor. “The loyalty question plays into it for a lot of older voters,” he said.
O’Rourke may have a more difficult time explaining some of his nuanced views on issues like legalization, but Piñeda said he has the advantages one might expect of a young, techno-savvy businessman. He’s active on Facebook and engaged in social media. He’s been working closely with community leaders as a member of the City Council. And if he isn’t seen locally as quite the staunch Democrat that Reyes is, he has the prospect of attract supporting from younger Republicans, Piñeda said. “He’s had a good set of local legislative victories,” he said.
What’s certain is that this congressional race is one that Texans will be watching. As former state Rep. Norma Chavez said, this one will be “the world war of politics in El Paso — a clash of the titans.”