CLINT, Texas – When Democratic state Rep. Mary González was asked recently about the man seeking her seat in the Texas House, her critique of him was short and direct.
“In five sessions, he was on the ‘Furniture’ list three times and a dishonorable mention once from Texas Monthly,” she said, referring to the magazine’s end-of-session rankings of state lawmakers. A “Furniture” designation is akin to being as “indistinguishable” as a member's desk in the Capitol, according to the publication.
It's the kind of attack you more often hear from a challenger, not the incumbent. González, a Democrat from Clint, was first elected to represent this far east El Paso County seat in 2012, the same year Inocente “Chente” Quintanilla, bowed out to run for county commissioner. He eventually lost that race, then sat out the 2014 elections. He's now one of several former lawmakers this year vying to come back to the Legislature, claiming their respective districts were in better shape before they left. Plus, Quintanilla notes, if re-elected, he would retain his 10 years of seniority in the House as if he never left, potentially leading to more valuable assignments on House committees.
“It seems like we have a lack of representation,” Quintanilla said. “You take experience and seniority back to the session where you can work with people. People know that I had the reputation of working with individuals to meet the needs of El Paso.”
González brushed off the criticism and said Quintanilla was put up to the task of running for his old seat by people who think she’s too progressive. When first elected in 2012, González was open about her pansexuality and has since fought against legislation many Democrats and progressives considered anti-gay. It is her challenger, she said, who is out of touch with voters in the district.
“He was a co-author of the sonogram bill and the marriage bill,” she said, referring, respectively, to a 2011 law requiring women to view a sonogram before receiving an abortion and a 2005 measure asking voters to amend the state's constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman. Both measures are unpopular among Democrats.
She also thinks Quintanilla's just restless and misses Austin.
“He enjoyed being part of the Austin life, and when he didn’t get elected as county commissioner, he got bored,” she said.
Quintanilla has solid financial support from the Texans for Education Reform, a political action committee that lobbies for measures that encourage the growth of online education and charter schools. Records show the group gave Quintanilla $45,000 of the $50,300 he raised from July to December 2015, all in in-kind contributions for “consulting and production.” It gave more than $52,000 of the $59,600 he raised in January.
But González isn’t struggling, either. She hauled in $83,000 in last year’s final six months and $24,100 in the first three weeks of January.
She said her challenger’s support from the education group is due to her seat on the Public Education Committee and her opposition to assigning grades to schools based on students' test scores. She said the practice could adversely affect poorer school districts like the ones she represents.
“They had multiple pieces of legislation I felt uncomfortable with,” she said.
González expressed confidence in her re-election and said Quintanilla's efforts on the campaign trail have been lackadaisical. She said it's a reflection of how hard he would work to serve the district if elected.
"If he was truly going to be different, then you would see a different type of campaign," she said. "Instead, it's the same old politics."
Quintanilla dismissed his opponent's jabs, saying he likely received those unfavorable recognitions from Texas Monthly because he was in Austin doing his work and analyzing bills without seeking the limelight.
“I was always in my seat performing the duties of a legislator, taking the appropriate votes. I don’t recall ever missing my committee meetings,” he said. “I don’t know what you have to do to not be selected [to the list]. You have to make sense [on the House floor]. You just can’t get up there and be laughed at.”
But besides having to unseat an incumbent, Quintanilla faces another hurdle that could pose a significant challenge in the weeks leading up to the March 1 primary. The El Paso Times reported last month that Quintanilla is under investigation by the Texas Attorney General’s office for alleged voter fraud in 2014. The publication reported the investigation stems from a complaint filed by a former justice of the peace who lost her seat in that election. The AG's office declined to release specific details about the allegations because the investigation is ongoing, but a report on the case revealed "it is alleged several individuals unlawfully assisted voters" and coerced others into voting for a particular candidate, according to the Times.
Quintanilla said Wednesday he couldn’t offer any specifics about the case.
“I really can’t comment too much about it because it’s still under investigation,” he said. “That’s politics. And it’s good fodder for [the media].”
Disclosure: Texans for Education Reform was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune in 2013. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.