Open House race in El Paso County features crowded field of Democratic political veterans

Reliably blue Texas House District 77 won’t have a Republican challenger on the ballot in November. Here’s everything you need to know about the four Democrats running in the primary.

By Julián Aguilar, The Texas NewsroomFebruary 14, 2024 1:07 pm,

From The Texas Newsroom:

El Paso politics is rarely boring, and the race for an open Texas House seat isn’t likely to disappoint.

The contest includes a former savvy, but polarizing, lawmaker; a city council veteran who is bucking the “outsider” label; a former county commissioner whose ex-wife is part of the current delegation, and a former candidate who last ran for office a quarter-century ago.

Democrat Lina Ortega decided to retire last year, leaving reliably blue House District 77 up for grabs. Ortega was first elected to the seat in 2016, and things have changed for the county’s Democrats since then. During redistricting after the 2020 census, the delegation lost a seat. HD 77 is now one of four districts that encompass El Paso County.

Now, four candidates are vying for the open seat, and will face off in the March 5 Democratic primary. They are:

– Alexsandra Annello, a former El Paso city representative first elected in 2017

– Vince Perez, a former two-term El Paso County commissioner who was also communications director to former El Paso Congressman Silvestre Reyes

– Norma Chávez, who represented El Paso in the Texas House for seven terms until she lost her seat in 2010

– Homer Reza, an insurance broker who ran unsuccessfully for the Texas House in 2000.

On most issues, there’s little daylight separating the candidates. In interviews with The Texas Newsroom, each said they likely would have voted with the Democratic caucus on controversial issues recently passed by the Texas Legislature’s GOP majority. Instead, the candidates say the differences between them come down to experience, demeanor and style.

Norma Chávez, former state representative

Since announcing her candidacy, Chávez has touted her experience in the Texas House, although she last served during the 81st Texas Legislature in 2009. The chamber consisted of 74 Democrats and 76 Republicans that session, the closest Democrats came to taking back the House since losing the majority in 2002. The fractiousness between the two parties since then has only grown, along with the GOP’s ability to pass more hardline issues that weren’t as common when Chávez last served.

But Chávez insists some things in Austin don’t change. That includes hustle, making deals, and knowing the players to get things done.

“I believe that my seniority plays a major role for El Paso. I’ll go in as an eighth term member, which impacts committees that I can serve on, but also, political influence,” she said. “A freshman doesn’t know the game, the hard ball. They just don’t, I do. I played it.”

Chávez’s resume includes stints on powerful committees, including the defense and veterans’ affairs committee, the budget-writing appropriations committee and the committee on calendars, which sets the House agenda.

If she wins her party’s primary, she said she’d pick up where she left off.

“No one else has passed 140 bills, amendments, appropriation riders,” she said.

Though Chávez’s history isn’t just peppered with plush committee assignments and legislative accomplishments. She lost reelection in 2010 after being accused of attacking Naomi Gonzalez — her opponent and eventual winner in the race — over her sexual orientation. Chávez later apologized but not before about a dozen El Paso Democrats openly criticized her for trying to politicize the issue.

Chávez also openly sparred with fellow El Paso Democrat Marisa Marquez during the 2009 legislative session and was accused of trying to divide the delegation, reported the Texas Tribune at the time.

For Chávez’s opponents, that’s low-hanging fruit on the campaign trail.

“I’ve spoken with folks in Austin and people are really concerned about the prospect of having Norma Chávez back in Austin because of her history of working with others there,” Perez said. He also said Chávez’s is making too much of her prior experience.

“She might be able to get some committee assignments,” he said, or pick a better office. “Other than that, I think she’s overblowing what the seniority is going to do.”

Annello said that she has a positive relationship with Chávez. The two served on a local school district oversight committee and Chávez’s parents were Annello’s longtime constituents. But she said Chávez’s seniority can only go so far.

“I think if you have someone saying, ‘I’m going to come in there, with more seniority and do whatever I want’ over the work of those people — and over the systems that have been put in place over the last decade — it’s a little concerning, right? That seniority matters if you’re willing to work with people,” she said.

Alexsandra Annello, former El Paso city representative

For her part, Annello said she wouldn’t have challenged retiring Rep. Lina Ortega if she’d decided to seek reelection. She said Ortega is more progressive than people recognize. Annello said her work on the El Paso City Council mirrors Ortega’s efforts, calling it “a response to the state.”

“You’ve seen the policies we passed: decriminalizing women’s health care on the local level, protecting our queer community members, protecting our immigrant communities against laws like SB 4,” she said.

Annello was born in Boston and came to Texas in 2006 after a stint in Washington, D.C. Although she graduated from the University of Texas at El Paso and served on the city council, she acknowledges some still peg her as an outsider.

Perez said that he appreciates people from outside the city coming to El Paso and eventually calling it home. But he said voters tend to relate more to candidates who were also raised here.

“When you’ve been here for less than a decade, voters are going to remember that, and they’re going to see through that,” he said.

Annello said she used to being called out and now brushes it off.

“I don’t think that there is anybody who can say that I did not fight harder for El Pasoans than anybody else on city council, she said. “I might not be from here, but I’ve always fought for this community, and I love this community.”

Vince Perez, former El Paso County commissioner

Perez served two terms on the Commissioners Court until he lost reelection in 2020. He said being an outnumbered Democrat in the Texas House won’t be an easy task, especially in the current political climate.

“You’re getting these right-wing Republicans and these left-wing Democrats that don’t really have an interest in governing,” he said. “When we talk about border security or all these other issues … they just like talking about the problem. They’re not really serious about solving them.”

And the HD 77 primary isn’t the first time Perez has faced off with a former member of the Texas House. His first commissioner term came after he defeated former five-term state Rep. Inocente Chente Quintanilla.

Perez is also in a unique situation in that, if successful, he’d share space in the delegation with Rep. Claudia Ordaz, his former spouse. Perez said the pair remain friends and that working together wouldn’t be an issue.

“I wouldn’t be able to get the support that I have here in El Paso or in Austin if this would really be problematic,” he said.

Though Annello and Perez don’t have a voting record in Austin, they do locally. And that’s not lost on Chávez.

“My opponents both increased taxes, one at the county, one at the city,” she said. Her campaign has also circulated text messages slamming Perez for voting to increase his pay while on the court.

Homer Reza, insurance broker

As the campaign plays out, Reza is embracing his role as a relative newcomer. He lost his race in the 2000 primary to former longtime El Paso representative Paul Moreno, who served in Austin for four decades. Reza lived in Houston after he graduated from the University of Texas at El Paso and raised his family there. But he said he’s always considered himself an El Pasoan.

“El Paso has always been my home; it’s where my heart is and the community I want to serve,” his website states.

Reza said he’s stayed out of politics for so long because there was too much corruption in local politics when he first ran for office.

He saw his next chance when Ortega announced her retirement.

“I never liked to run against incumbents unless I think I have a good chance of winning,” he said.  “The time came now, where before there was an open seat. And I said if ever I’m going to run again, this is a time.”

In terms of seniority, he said what he lacks politically he makes up for with his experience in the private sector and that El Paso voters might want some fresh blood in Austin.

“I have 22 years of experience in there. So, I have seniority and the understanding needs and preferences and bringing solutions to [the private sector],” he said. “They have the experience on the political, section because that’s all they’ve done.”

While all four of HD 77’s Democratic candidates will face off in the March 5 party primary, the winner probably won’t be declared that day. Texas election law specifies a candidate must earn more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff. Given the relative name ID on the ballot, the race will probably be decided in the May 28 primary runoff election.

Working across the aisle?

Of note: There won’t be a Republican challenger on the heavily blue district’s November ballot. That means whoever wins the House District 77 Democratic primary will be heading to Austin for the 2025 legislative session.

And that’s when real work begins.

Barring a seismic shift at the polls in November, Democrats will remain the minority party in Austin next year — and, likely, for several sessions to follow. But unlike the Texas Senate, the Texas House has a reputation of being more favorable to the minority party. That’s largely due to the speaker historically appointing Democrats to powerful committees as members or chairs. Current House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, kept with that tradition during Texas’ last legislative session, despite calls by some Republicans to keep Democrats out.

As speaker, Phelan has also championed legislation that Democrats largely oppose. Some of those recent GOP highlights include passing state-based immigration legislation, approving a near-total ban on abortions, eliminating transgender Texans from collegiate sports and restricting the availability of some books from public school libraries.

Though HD 77’s Democratic candidates oppose the wedge issues favored by Republicans — including Phelan — Alexsandra Annello believes Phelan’s appointments have been beneficial to El Paso.

“I think that his ability to work across the aisle against all that criticism has proven beneficial to this community,” Annello said, pointing to State Rep. Mary Gonzalez of El Paso County. “Mary Gonzalez is the vice chair of appropriations. That’s huge for this community.”
Annello added she — or whoever eventually wins the seat — would be forced to work with a Republican leader, whomever it may be.

“There’s going to be a Republican in that seat until the numbers flip. If you have a Republican who’s willing to work with our community specifically, that is a win for El Paso. And I would support that,” she said.

Norma Chávez said she doesn’t consider herself a “far-left Democrat” and that working across the aisle is essential. She was one of the “Craddick Ds ” — a small group of Democrats who supported former Republican Speaker Tom Craddick — during the 2007 speaker’s race.

“Supporting the right speaker is advantageous. I’m going to have to vote for a Republican speaker, period,” said Chávez. “From that point, it’s like, what is the best … opportunity for El Paso? I will cut my deals for El Paso first.”

Vince Perez said Phelan doesn’t rule the chamber with the same iron-fist tactics Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick uses in the Senate, citing criticism the Republican speaker has faced from within his own party for working with Democrats. When choosing the next speaker, Perez said he’d confer with other Democrats in the Texas House.

“They have worked with Speaker Phelan on a variety of issues, and they know ultimately what’s in the best interest of all parties,” he said. “Legislating is a team sport. And ultimately, we got to put it in perspective, what’s the best interest for El Paso.”

Phelan’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment when asked if he’d continue to appoint Democrats to powerful committees or as chairs and vice-chairs if he is again elected speaker next session.

As a newcomer, Homer Reza said he’d also look to his Democratic colleagues.

“I’m a rookie, okay? I’m not a political person,” he said. “In my, experience … as a businessman, I always thought that in order for me to bring a solution or come up with an opinion, I need to find out your needs. I need to find out exactly where you’re coming from. So, I would work with my delegation.”

Early voting for Texas’ primary election begins on Tuesday, Feb. 20 and runs through Friday, March 1. Election Day is Tuesday, March 5.

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