EL PASO — It seemed more like a planning breakfast for a UTEP Miners pep rally than a campaign meeting on a recent Saturday morning in an affluent El Paso neighborhood. But the two dozen young volunteers here had serious business: shoring up support for 23-year-old Aaron Barraza, an El Paso native seeking to unseat incumbent Marisa Marquez, 33, in the redrawn House District 77.
Instructions were directed at first-time block walkers on what to say and how to handle questions; schedules were confirmed and precinct maps were handed out to outline where volunteers should canvass. “Try not to speak for me. In fact, don’t speak for me" if someone asks about specific positions, Barraza explained.
Barraza says his experience, as a business owner and staffer for former state Rep. Juan Garcia, D-Corpus Christi, is enough to propel him to victory. Marquez, who was first elected in 2008, points to her experience in office and says she has delivered results for her constituents.
HD-77 was transformed after redistricting, losing a portion of central El Paso but gaining a larger swath of the west and northeast sides of the border city.
Initially considered a minor threat, Barraza, a graduate of El Paso's Cathedral High School and the University of Texas at Austin, has picked up endorsements from key law enforcement unions in the area, including the El Paso Municipal Police Officers' Association, the El Paso County Sheriff’s Officers Association and the National Border Patrol Council Local 1929. He also has the support of the El Paso Young Democrats, Paso Del Norte Tejano Democrats, El Paso Stonewall Young Democrats and the Mexican American Bar Association.
It has led some in the El Paso political community to question why Marquez, who defeated veteran Democratic lawmaker Paul Moreno in 2008 en route to office, has been unable to win the groups' support. Marquez isn’t perturbed, however, and says she bested Moreno without any endorsements from these key groups.
“I can play very well with others,” Barraza said, indicating Marquez’s personality is her Achilles' heel.
“That is what sticks in people’s minds when they think of El Paso,” Barraza said. "They think of the drama."
But Marquez said that controversy isn’t an issue anymore, and that she is part of a very functional El Paso delegation that has come together and brought results.
“It’s not anything that we engage in in this office,” she said of petty fights. “We have too much work.”
Marquez said criticism comes with the territory and that is what a challenger does.
“He can promise anything,” she said of Barraza. “When I [first] ran I said it was never personal, we needed someone that was present, that was engaged, and we have committed ourselves to that.”
And while Barraza has a strong resume he can promote — he is an owner of an Austin-based dry-cleaning business called Texas Fold ‘Em, whose clients he says includes Dell and members of the Legislature — he also has his own blemish: He has never cast a ballot in his life.
“The fact that he hasn’t voted, yeah, it’s concerning,” Marquez said. “He leverages so many attacks on my record and on my position, my candidacy and my voting, but he’s never participated in that process, so I find that kind of odd.”
Barraza said that missing out on the voting process was a mistake and that he’s using his experience to teach others.
“I left El Paso when I was 17 years old to start school,” he said. “I became immersed in school and work, and eventually I started a small business. I use that mistake to encourage others to not do the same thing.”
Marquez cites Barraza’s absence at the polls in questioning his law enforcement endorsements, saying it must be something “personal.”
“That would be a great question for them because No. 1, I was never interviewed. No. 2, I had voted for all their issues,” she said. “How can you endorse someone that’s never voted, someone that’s never engaged in the process?”
El Paso County Sheriff’s Deputy Louie Silva, vice president of the El Paso Sheriff’s Officers Association, says Marquez has given them the cold shoulder.
“We made attempts to go to Austin to try and pass a couple of bills. She pretty much looked at us and didn’t take down any information,” he said. “It’s not like she was there for us. If something was to happen where he doesn’t win, we’re still going to go approach her, and we know we’re still going to get the cold shoulder.”
She sees it differently and says she did meet with the group, and supported their bills in committee. She also has the endorsements of El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles, and the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, whose affiliated local chapters include the groups that endorsed Barraza. CLEAT public affairs officer Charlie Wilkinson said it is very rare that the local affiliations endorse another candidate, but they are free to do so if they choose.
Marquez has also garnered the support of County Judge Veronica Escobar and state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso. Add to that the Greater El Paso Association of Realtors, the Texas State Association of Firefighters, the Westside Democrats and others, and she says she is in fine shape.
She said she’s using the primary race as an opportunity to tout what she has done in four years. (She was unopposed in 2010.) Her committee assignments, which include County Affairs and Corrections, aren’t “sexy” like Education or Appropriations. But her efforts on them, she said, benefit the entire district.
She cites some of her accomplishments as passing legislation that addressed inmate rehabilitation and substance abuse, which she says ultimately affects the budget.
Her campaign literature also touts House Bill 2833, which gave counties more authority over building codes outside city limits. The bill helped slow the growth of the shantytowns in border communities known as colonias.
“What’s important and what I want to come out is that the needs of the district are being met,” she said.
Barraza and Marquez share some views, including opposition to the state's voter ID law, abortion sonogram law and sanctuary cities legislation. But Barraza is critical of donations Marquez has received from Texans for Lawsuit Reform, which he calls a GOP special-interest group that has given her more than $80,000. Marquez addresses that criticism by explaining that the group supports other Democratic candidates and adds that her fundraising has diversified since then.
Through this year, Barraza raised about $35,600, spent about $25,000 and has about $8,800 on hand, compared with Marquez’s $80,000 raised, $51,400 spent and $44,000 remaining. About $14,000 of Marquez's contributions came from the TLR in in-kind contributions.