By Jaime Abeytia
For the first time in many years, if ever, the two major local seats in El Paso's Mission Valley are taking center stage. In fact, if it wasn't for the race for the 16th Congressional District, the Mission Valley elections would be the only ones worth paying attention to in the El Paso area.
The race for State Representative for District 75 and the race for El Paso County Commissioner Precinct 3 both cover the Mission Valley area and feature crowded fields with a mix of familiar faces and political newbies.
House District 75 is currently represented by State Representative Innocente “Chente” Quintanilla, who is vacating his seat in order to run for El Paso County Commissioner in Precict 3. El Paso County Commissioner Court Precinct 3's current office-holder is Willie Gandara Jr, who is vacating his seat in order to run for House District 75.
There has been a long-time political feud between State Representative Quintanilla and County Commissioner Willie Gandara, Jr going back several years when Gardara took on Quintanilla for the State Representative seat prior to Gandara's election to the El Paso County Commissioner's Court. Early in the campaign season it appeared that Gandara and Quintanilla were going to do battle once again over a seat – this time Gandara's seat. But just prior to the first filing deadline back in December, Commissioner Gandara announced that he would be making a bid for the seat being vacated by Chente Quintanilla who had made his plans to vacate public knowledge much earlier in the election season.
Read about the candidates for HD-75 and El Paso County Commissioner Precinct 3 below the jump.Once it was common knowledge that Quintanilla wasn't going to seek re-election, several other candidates stepped forward. The first to step forward was a business development guy for a local El Paso-area staffing firm, Hector Enriquez. Enriquez was a school board member for Socorro Independent School District back in the 1990's for a short time and his father was an elected official at some point as well. The next to step forward was El Paso Community College Board of Trustee, Art Fierro. Fierro sits on the board with Gracie Quintanilla, who is the spouse of the out-going Chente Quintanilla. Fierro's spouse is El Paso County Commissioner for Precinct 1, Anna Perez. Perez is vacating her seat to run for a judicial post.
Right before the original filing deadline was the announcement of the last two candidates, Willie Gandara, Jr and Mary Gonzalez. Both announcements came with some level of controversy. Gandara's announcement came on the heels of blistering attack on his attendance record and questionable decisions as a County Commissioner by one of the candidates seeking the office of County Commissioner, Vince Perez. Perez is a former Press Secretary for Congressman Silvestre Reyes. Gandara's father, Willie Gandara, Sr. is the former Mayor of Socorro and is facing an indictment on charges related to public corruption. He was recalled shortly after the indictment.
Mary Gonzalez entered the race just before the filing deadline and the controversy surrounding Gonzalez was that she is an Austinite that moved back to El Paso to run for an open seat. Gonzalez, 28 has lived in Austin for the past 10 years pursuing higher education and is about 6 classes short of a PhD.
But Gonzalez has been the fiercest campaigner of the field of candidates. Her first political event was a meeting of Democrats on the complete opposite side of town from where she is running. She knew no one in the room. After some awkward first few steps, she quickly hit her stride and has really improved her profile within the Democratic Party in a very short period of time. With no children or other job to attend to, she has hit the ground running and is really the only candidate that has had a sustained and strategic voter-identification and block-walking plan. That might be because she is the only candidate that could afford to. She surprised the entire field by raising more money than all of her opponents, thanks in large part to a significant $20k contribution from the Austin-based Annie's List. They have supplied her with consultants and field personnel.
She's progressed so much in a short time it now appears that the race is hers to lose, despite the fact that a woman has never been elected to that seat before.
Hector Enriquez, the first candidate in the race, hasn't fared so well. He started by seeking the support of Austin-based lobbies like the Texans for Lawsuit Reform (TLR) and others but nothing ever panned out. Enriquez then pitched a story to a local television station criticizing Gonzalez for receiving out-of-town money from Austin. Days later, Enriquez then hired an Austin-based team of consultants.
Art Fierro was an early front-runner because he had a base of support within the district, he had the ability to raise money, has successfully managed campaigns, and he works at a printing firm, so signs, mailers, and push-cards would've been an easy thing to manage for his campaign. He's also very well liked by people, which goes a long way in a race like HD 75. But since Fierro's campaign announcement in December, he really hasn't had a meaningful campaign activity. There has been such a lack of activity from his campaign that there has been growing talk about whether or not he was going to stay in the race or drop out. When contacted about the talk of dropping out, it was clear that Fierro's concerned about the redistricting process and how it would impact his candidacy. Fierro has always lived in Quintanilla's district, but would have to move a few miles in to the district if the current maps stand. “I am monitoring the redistricting process and once the process is finalized by the San Antonio Courts, I will evaluate my options at that time,” Fierro stated.
Willie Gandara, Jr has also only had sporadic campaign activity since his announcement as well. He did hold a pachanga event on New Year's Day for his campaign. That is an event normally held by Chente Quintanilla and the fact that Gandara held his own pachanga event at the location normally held by Quintanilla caused a bit of a stir. Quintanilla still held his pachanga event and even upgraded facilities. Quintanilla's event had about three times the amount of attendees than that of the Gandara event. He sent some of his staff and family members to hang out in front of the location where Willie Gandara was holding his event to “make sure no one was confused.” Eventually Socorro Police were called to settle the situation and have the Quintanilla people removed from the property.
Quintanilla's event is normally highlighted by a bike give-away to kids in attendance. Attendees are given a ticket when they enter the facility, in this case a local night club, and it is for the door prize event. However this year in addition to bikes being given to children, the grand prize give-away was a plasma television. At one point in the event, one candidate in attendance didn't bring a bike to give-away but instead gave out $100 in cash. Chente Quintanilla also gave out cash as a prize.
Following recent rumors that Gandara would drop out of the race for HD 75, Gandara campaign signs started popping up all over the place within the district. The rumor first sprang up in a new article written by a local publication a couple of weeks ago. Despite the fact that they are running for two different offices, they appear to maintain their rivalry. The possible reason is the fact that they both have one close political operative in common, Dora Oaxaca. She is an assistant to Willie Gandara, Jr at Commissioner's Court and shortly after Gandara made it known he was going to pursue the HD 75 seat, Oaxaca threw her hat in the ring to run for Gandara's vacated seat. Oaxaca previously worked for Chente Quintanilla in Austin. In fact, she is the one who came up with Quintanilla's now-famous campaign tag line, “Chente Por La Gente”.
Oaxaca normally runs Willie Gandara's campaigns so she may be running both campaigns — hers and Gandara's — simultaneously. Oaxaca is known in the area primarily through her work with Gandara and Quintanilla. She will likely have a significant amount of campaign contributions come from the Gandara family and Willie Gandara Jr, her boss, introduced her at her campaign kick-off event. Oaxaca's campaign may suffer from close association to Gandara's especially given the fact that the election date is now tentatively scheduled for the end of May. Willie Gandara Sr. goes to court for the first time on the indictment in April, which is before the election. Oaxaca was questioned early in the campaign about being a full-time staffer at the Courthouse and running a campaign and she stated that she was going to use all of her vacation time and maintain her employment. Oaxaca has previously stated that she was going to be very vigilant about not campaigning on County time.
In her bid to replace her current boss, Oaxaca finds herself facing her former boss, Chente Quintanilla. Quintanilla actually had a negative cash-flow in the last campaign report, spending more than he took in. He may be learning that unlike state rep races where lobbyists line up to throw money at a candidate, fundraising for a local race is much more difficult, especially in an area that has a high level of poverty. Quintanilla recently started walking the district, but his campaign sings look almost identical to the one he had when he ran for state representative. Clearly Quintanilla is relying on name ID.
Another major candidate in the race for El Paso County Commissioner Precinct 3 is Vince Perez. Perez was Congressman Reyes' former Press Secretary and grabbed the attention of everyone when he ended up being the top money-raiser in the first release of campaign finance reports. Perez started the campaign in September with a press conference at the El Paso County Courthouse, criticizing Gandara's attendance record and questionable decisions. Gandara, and now Oaxaca's critique of Perez has been geared toward the fact that he's not very fluent in Spanish.
The other candidate in the race is Rudy Loya, who is a small businessman down in the area. His base of support has been in a small town, San Elizario, within the district. Loya's campaign hasn't appeared to really catch fire yet but it may be because of the fact that the other candidates are more well-known or are more well-funded than Loya.
The bottom line is that both the race for HD 75 and for El Paso County Commissioner Precinct 3 are not only in a similar area, but almost mirror one another. They both have a mixture of new faces and familiar ones. They both feature some controversial figures and they both of the capacity to turn in to mud-sling festivals that could become the stuff of legend.
The little town of San Elizario, Texas has seen shoot-outs since the days when Billy the Kid rode through the streets. Looks like the shoot-outs still live on…