In the stretch of rural West Texas represented in state House District 75, poverty runs high and some dwellings still lack running water. But the Democratic candidates for the open seat are spending the bulk of the campaign hitting each other on who is too liberal or conservative for the district.
Business executive Hector Enriquez, a former Socorro school district board president, is running against Mary Gonzalez, a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas at Austin, and Tony San Roman, a local business owner. Incumbent Inocente “Chente” Quintanilla, D-Tornillo, is not seeking re-election, running instead for an open El Paso County Commissioners Court seat. The Democratic primary will determine the next HD-75 representative, as there are no other candidates running for the seat.
Enriquez, 49, calls Gonzalez, 28, a candidate planted by Annie’s List whose priorities don’t represent those of the district.
He questions the contributions she has received as a red flag indicating that she will be beholden to liberal groups anchored in Austin. Their mission, he said, is to elect an openly gay woman to the Legislature.
More than $25,000 of the $56,725 in fundraising that Gonzalez reported on her April 30 finance report came from Annie’s List, a group that describes itself as a coalition of professionals “dedicated to changing the face of power in Texas politics (thereby combating the assault on issues of most importance to women and their families) by recruiting, training and supporting women candidates across the state.”
“I think it’s real obvious that she was recruited and sent home to target HD-75,” Enriquez said recently during a break from one of his daily block-walking outings.
Gonzalez, however, denies that she was recruited and says that she is running to give back to a community that raised her and taught her to take care of one another, “about loving each other, about really being community-based and trying to give up yourself to serve your community.”
She says she has been away from home to further her education. She earned a bachelor’s degree from UT-Austin, and a master’s degree from St. Edward's University before pursuing a doctorate in curriculum and instruction-cultural studies in education at UT-Austin. She is the president of Kappa Delta Chi Sorority, a group focused on the Latina community. She was also a staffer for former state Rep. Paul Moreno, D-El Paso and current member Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo.
And Gonzalez stands by the Annie’s List donations, saying the organization is one of a kind.
“I am not going to be apologetic. Annie’s List is an organization that brings together 23,000 women to help other women,” she said. “I think it’s wonderful thing that there are organizations like Annie’s List that are willing to help people like me run. I am not personally well off.”
Roman, who did not return phone calls for this story, is considered a long-shot in the race. He had raised $3,650, according to his April 30 campaign finance filing. He spent about $2,100 of that and has about $92 on hand.
Some of Enriquez’s donations to other candidates have also been a campaign issue. Annie’s List recently posted online that he made three donations totaling $300 that Enriquez made to Texans for Rick Perry in 2004.
The donations were innocently made during a Hispanic Chamber of Commerce event in El Paso, he said.
“I am a businessperson," he said. "The Hispanic Chamber is nonpartisan, and they had him there to the extent that he can benefit El Paso. I wrote a check, so be it."
But that answer didn’t satisfy Gonzalez. She said that though eight years have passed, the donations should give Democrats pause about Enriquez, a business development executive with T&T Staff Management.
“There are still some basic ideologies of Rick Perry, and you can’t contribute and make it sound like you don’t know you are contributing to a candidate,” she said.
Annie’s List also criticizes Enriquez for accepting the endorsement of the Texas Association of Business, which predominantly supports conservatives, though the group also endorsed state Reps. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, and Tracy King, D-Batesville.
Enriquez said Gonzalez hasn’t been on the front lines regarding issues in HD-75, such as infrastructure in the colonias.
“If she was so interested in the needs of the colonias [in HD-75] where has she been the last 11 years?" he said. "She’s been in Austin, and that was a deliberate choice on her part."
Gonzalez points to her education and various leadership positions as the reason she has lived outside of the district for so long. “I am in Austin or in Houston or in Dallas a lot of the times for the sorority, which is my job. And I am finishing my Ph.D. and visiting with my dissertation committee [in Austin].”
Before she officially announced her candidacy, the two met in Austin, and Enriquez said he told her then her sexuality would not be an issue. Gonzalez said, however, that it was her choice to address the issue and that she owed it to voters to be honest.
“I am chair of board of directors for an LGBT organization; my Ph.D. program talks about sexuality," she said. "If anyone truly wanted to know, they would find out. When my district has already been dealing with so much lack of transparency and lack of honesty, I said here’s a symbolic gesture to say, ‘I am going to be honest, I am going to be transparent.’”
As the May 29 primary approaches, however, personal issues have risen in the race. A recent tweet addressing Gonzalez’s openness about her sexuality by former state Rep. Norma Chavez, who had questioned the sexuality of her challenger and eventual winner Naomi Gonzalez two years ago, was posted on a local political blog, The Lion Star Blog. The blog criticized Enriquez for retweeting the post, but Enriquez said he retweeted it not as a smear job but instead to prove what he alleges is her openness about her sexuality when it’s politically advantageous.
“Mary has been selectively open to different groups. … It almost appears she is trying to get the best of both worlds,” he said. “I think you’re talking about a different situation. There is a strong objective and a strong push, a mission, that HD-75 has been targeted as easy pickings to elect the first openly gay state rep female.”
Gonzalez denies such accusations. “I have been open and honest about who I am,” she said.
Addressing criticism by some Democrats that he is too conservative, Enriquez cites his voting history as consistently Democratic to the extent that the Texas Democratic Party’s Voter Activation Network classifies him as a “Hard Democrat” on its partisan index, compared with Gonzalez’s “soft Democrat” label.
Gonzalez brushed off the criticism and said her age and her studies probably factored into the rating.
“He’s older than me, so he’s voted longer than me,” she said. “When I was living in Austin, I didn’t vote as much because I was an undergrad, and when you’re an undergrad you don’t think about these things.”
For the reporting cycle that began Jan. 1 and ended in April, Gonzalez reported about $56,725 in contributions and expenditures of $27,500, compared with Enriquez’s $8,925 raised and $19,930 spent.