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An Accidental State Board of Education Candidate?

El Paso Democrat Martha Dominguez's apparent absence from the campaign trail has prompted her SBOE opponent to call her a "ghost" — and has sparked criticism from members of her own party. But that may not stop her from winning the race.

State Board of Education member Charlie Garza, R-El Paso, faces a general election challenge from Democrat Martha Dominguez.

Democrat Martha Dominguez is running for the State Board of Education. There’s some evidence to prove it.

A filing with the Texas Democratic Party shows she declared her candidacy March 6, and a finance report indicates she has spent $45.27 on her campaign, just 27 cents more than she has received in contributions. In the May primary, she bested two opponents who outspent her by $3,000 and $4,000, making her the Democratic nominee to represent a vast district that spans the West Texas border from El Paso to south of Laredo.

But she has yet to put up a candidate website and has no other visible online presence. And her apparent absence from the campaign trail — which has also prompted her opponent, El Paso Republican Charlie Garza, to call her a "ghost" — has troubled members of her own party. 

“I am shocked and embarrassed at the lack of activity by our Democratic nominee,” said Jaime Abeytia, a liberal activist and political blogger in El Paso. “There has been little to zero campaigning effort on her part, which also reflects the same effort she made during the primary.”

Dominguez won the Democratic primary despite the fact that she tried to withdraw from the race in late April, an effort that failed because she sent in the paperwork too late — and to the incorrect office — according to a spokesman in the secretary of state's office. Though she did not respond to an interview request for this story, in June she told The Texas Tribune that she had decided to end her candidacy because of "personal issues" that had since been resolved, and that she fully intended to run against incumbent Garza in November.

“The Texas voters have elected me, and I intend to win,” she said at the time.

Garza, an assistant principal in El Paso’s Clint Independent School District and a former naval submarine officer, has held the seat for two years and sides with its wing of social conservatives on issues like evolution, climate change and sex education. During Garza's recent unsuccessful effort to get Gov. Rick Perry to name him the state's education commissioner, state Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, circulated an email urging conservatives in the state to call the governor’s office on Garza's behalf.

Despite her low-profile candidacy, odds favor Dominguez over her opponent. The district is a blue one — Garza got his spot in 2010's Republican landslide by narrowly defeating longtime Democratic incumbent Rene Nunez amid accusations that Nunez had accepted gifts from a firm doing business before the board — and straight-ticket voting may be enough to carry Dominguez to victory in the down-ballot race.

“There’s a very high degree of likelihood that she'll win despite the fact [that] she didn't campaign,” Abeytia said. “This was an opportunity to win back a seat, but we will do so only because of redistricting, not because of the efforts of our nominee.”

Bill Brannon, the executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, said that though he wished Dominguez, an employee in the Ysleta Independent School District human resources department, had more time to campaign, he did not have any questions about her “commitment to the kids.”

“People can only campaign within their livelihood,” said Brannon, who noted that Dominguez has a full-time job in the school district.

The 15-person SBOE typically convenes about six times a year. Members, whose duties include setting the state’s curriculum standards, approving charter school contracts and managing the $26 billion Permanent School Fund, are not paid.

Danny Anchondo, a former El Paso Democratic Party chairman who is active in local politics, said that he has communicated regularly with Dominguez and has given her some direction on her campaign. He said she was “highly qualified” to hold the position and that he was confident in her chances to return the seat to the party.

Garza is aware his party affiliation may be a disadvantage in the district but said he has worked hard to spread the word about his record and introduce himself to voters. He said he worries what a win for Dominguez — which would not do much to affect the power balance between conservatives and moderates on the board — would mean for the district’s representation.

“Given what she's done already, there's nothing that would suggest that she would do anything to support kids,” he said. “To say that this is disheartening would be an understatement. It's almost as if I'm going against a ghost. The worst part about it is I don’t even believe in ghosts.”

On Sept. 29, Garza may have the opportunity to face the challenger he said he has never met. A spokeswoman from the Association of Texas Professional Educators confirmed Tuesday that Dominguez has agreed to appear at the teacher advocacy group’s El Paso region meeting, which will put the two candidates in the same room together for the first time.

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