EL PASO — A primary challenge isn’t anything new for state Rep. Mary González. The Democrat from Clint beat out two others for an open seat in 2012, then four years later fended off a former, longtime state representative vying for the position.
But this year she’s facing a challenger who’s received the largest campaign donation in a Democratic primary to date this cycle. MarySue Femath, a newcomer to politics, received $100,000 in October from the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo Native of El Paso, commonly known as the Tiguas.
The tribe has been a fixture at the Capitol in past sessions, lobbying for the expansion of Texas gaming on Native American lands. Femath said she supports the tribe’s efforts, but its main casino, Speaking Rock in south El Paso county's lower valley, isn’t in the district she hopes to represent. Instead, Femath said she thinks the Tigua leadership is more interested this year in simply having one of their own at the state Capitol.
“I was very humbled to have their support. It made me feel that they are supporting someone of their own, and I think that’s the most important issue [for them],” she said Tuesday from her campaign office on the reservation. “This candidacy is very unique — I would be the first Native American elected to the Texas Legislature.”
González said Wednesday she wasn’t worried about Femath's financial backing. She said she’s running on her record and her seniority, which have afforded her appointments to the House Public Education and Appropriations committees and allowed her to serve as vice chairwoman of the Agriculture and Livestock committee.
Femath, a counselor at the Tiguas tribal education center, said she decided to run for the state House because she feels González has squandered opportunities over five years in office to improve House District 75, a largely rural pocket of El Paso County where impoverished areas of the state, known as colonias, still exist. No Republicans filed to run for the seat.
She’s hit González on issues such as lack of infrastructure and struggling schools and has used last year’s severe flooding as an example of how the area is underserved.
“I know it’s not a cheap fix, it’s not an overnight fix. Floods have been happening for decades,” she said. “But there hasn’t been an effort to to say [last session], ‘We need this amount of money.’”
González said the comments are what’s to be expected from a political novice who doesn’t understand the way things work in Austin, especially at the state Capitol, where the Republicans who control the Legislature don’t like to spend money.
“I don’t think she knows how much effort I do put into it, considering she’s never really been involved in the process,” González said. “We’ve had multiple meetings that I’ve organized with county and municipal water districts, all levels of government officials, to come up with a strategic plan.”
González added that she passed a bill in the House last year to reauthorize the Economically Distressed Areas Program, or EDAP, which funds water and wastewater projects in economically challenged areas.
“It died in the Senate, but no one even thought that [passing the House] was going to happen,” she said. “Nobody told me that could happen, and it had two Republican co-authors. “
Since August, González's campaign has raised $129,967, compared to the $113,321 Femath has raised since she entered the race in the fall, nearly 90 percent of it from the Tiguas, according to reports filed with the Texas Ethics Commission.
González said her campaign hasn’t done any polling in the district. She said it wouldn't have made a difference in how she ran her campaign, regardless of how much money Femath has raised.
“I already knew what I wanted to talk about: My work on Appropriations. I knew that I wanted to talk about my work in education,” she said. “It wasn’t going to change my campaign because I knew I wasn’t going to go negative.”
But Femath said she’s not running a negative campaign, just an honest one.
“No one really likes to hear what they are being ineffective on,” she said. “I am the challenger, so I am challenging her. These are issues that people need to know.”
Should she unseat González, Femath said she would be able to serve as an example for the Tiguas and other marginalized groups.
“We have this little world inside this bigger world, living on the reservation and being a Native American,” she said. “And sometimes we don’t think we can pursue higher titles or higher opportunities for our own.”
González said she supports diversity in the Texas Legislature but said her primary concern is about who the best candidate is.
"I think at the end of the day, identity politics can only go so far. The best person should represent the district," she said. "I’ve worked really hard the last five years for my district."
Femath's success would also mean the El Paso delegation would take a hit in overall seniority. González has served longer than her colleagues Cesár Blanco and Lina Ortega, who are unopposed in their Democratic primaries for their third and second terms, respectively. And she’s just one two-year term shy of the city’s West side representative, Joe Moody, who is also unopposed in his primary but faces a Republican challenger.
That’s something González said should resonate with voters, especially when House lawmakers are going to elect a new Texas House Speaker next year for the first time since 2009.
“I think Democrats will have a seat at the table, and I am going to know a lot of the players,” she said. “And I have Republican friends, so I do get to be part of the conversation."
"And I am still the vice chair of [the Mexican American Legislative Caucus]. That’s huge, and it’s also a bipartisan caucus.”