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A Sea Change for El Paso? Some Have Their Doubts

Do the primary victories of an openly gay woman and a candidate who advocates for a new discussion on marijuana laws signal that voters in El Paso are becoming more progressive?

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Ahead of the state’s May 29 primary, Beto O’Rourke, a Democratic candidate in Congressional District 16, wanted to talk about something other than decriminalizing marijuana.

And Mary Gonzalez, a Democrat running for the Texas House District 75 seat, wanted to focus on education and the budget rather than on her sexuality.

But those issues lingered at the forefront of El Paso politics this spring — after all O’Rourke was co-author of a resolution while on the El Paso City Council urging the end to the prohibition of marijuana, and  Gonzalez is an advocate for the gay and lesbian community — and were low-hanging fruit for their primary opponents. The issues would serve as a test, observers said, to see if voters in the traditionally moderate, Roman Catholic and pro-military swath of Texas would stand behind progressive candidates.

O’Rourke and Gonzalez both won their primaries, with O’Rourke ousting U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes and Gonzalez defeating Hector Enriquez, a former school board president, in the race to represent El Paso County’s east side. But the candidates said their victories came despite the issues and did not signal a significant ideological change for El Paso.

“I think really at our core we are a very progressive, very tolerant, very open-minded community,” said O’Rourke, 39. “So I am hesitant to say there is some significant sea change taking place here.”

O’Rourke cited the fact that El Paso was the first city in the former Confederacy to desegregate public places and was the first major American city to elect a Hispanic mayor (Raymond Telles in 1957). In 1966, Texas Western University, now the University of Texas at El Paso, was the first team to win a national college basketball championship with an all-black starting lineup.

Richard D. Pineda, an associate director of the Sam Donaldson Center for Communication Studies at UTEP, said that recent history is checkered with moments that suggested El Paso is moderate, if not conservative.

“The best description is accidental progressivism,” he said of the historical references. “In the same breath, if someone says, ‘Look at ’66,’ you still have a city that says, ‘We don’t want same- sex benefits for city employees, even though it’s only 10 of them.’ ” He said El Paso’s progressive history has been aided by the city’s relative isolation from the rest of Texas. It is 600 miles from Austin and in a different time zone.

“It has been able to cut its own path,” Pineda said. Like O’Rourke, Gonzalez, 28, said the election was not indicative of a change for El Paso but said some see it that way because the city is mischaracterized.

“I think that a lot of times, El Paso gets mislabeled for being conservative,” she said, adding that the local elections are only keeping up with a larger shift.

“You see people becoming more open-minded to LGBT issues, more open-minded to women’s health issues,” she said.

“In Latino communities, women are highly regarded as leaders of households, leaders of churches, as leaders in the community, and so I don’t think it’s abnormal to have leaders in politics.”

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2012 elections