The Lion's Den: Prison gang politics and other notes
by Jaime Abeytia
Posted on June 16, 2009
One of the reasons that El Paso's political world is so interesting is the fact that it is so dynamic and in a constant state of change. Maybe it's small town tribalism, but for some reason elected officials and wanna-bes are always jockeying for position.
It's a lot like a prison gang. There is one person at the top and many people will feign a certain degree of loyalty until the first chance they get to make a play for themselves. It's political Darwinism at its best. The strong survive, but the rest are waiting around and fund-raising until the next opportunity presents itself.
Since elected officials and aspiring elected officials are always jockeying for position, you'll hear rumors about just about everyone in town if you listen long enough. But some rumors stick around and like they say, there's a little truth in most rumors.
There are several factions in El Paso politics that I've laid out before, but there is really only one pecking order in town. It starts at the top, the highest elected official in El Paso, U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes. El Paso technically has two congressman, but the other district is just a sliver that is gerrymandered all the way from San Antonio. After the Congressman is state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, followed by the rest of the legislative delegation. Then there is the County Judge and Commissioner's Court, with the Mayor and Council at the bottom of the food chain, though it can be argued that the Mayor and Council have the largest affect on the lives of El Pasoans.
The last election cycle showed the solidification of bases. With very few exceptions, El Paso elected officials all live in pretty safe districts. The only ones that are uncertain are the County Judge, state Rep. Joe Moody, and city Reps Rachel Quintana and Ann Lilly. Everyone else is pretty safe at this point.
So without a major threat to pay attention to over their shoulder, many El Paso elected officials are looking to see where they can go next. One office, Reyes', is the key to several El Pasoans moving up.
If the Congressman should make the decision to retire in the next couple of years, several interesting things could happen. Shapleigh would make a run for the job, as would state Rep. Norma Chavez. Though she's taken a little heat lately [link], Chavez is an effective campaigner and knows how to turn out the base. Shapleigh's never taken on someone like Chavez before and she'd make him fight on her terms. The question is whether Chavez will be able to overcome some bad press and overcome Shapleigh's popularity in places outside the valley.
But if the Congressman decides to stick around for a while, that is when things could get interesting. Shapleigh may have a future opponent in Mayor John Cook who is coming off of a huge margin of victory in the last election and has made no secret of his interest in a job in Austin. Chavez may see a strategic advantage in seeing to Anglo males campaign against one another and may throw her hat in the ring for the Senate job.
But if she doesn't, it wouldn't surprise me to see city Rep. Eddie Holguin take a stab at the job, which would mean jumping over Chavez. Under normal circumstances a move like that might make a mid-sized mushroom cloud appear over the valley. However, Chavez is shrewd enough to know when she has the chance to off one of her chief rivals and get someone from her stable into the job.
Despite not being able to do much to help out his good friend, former city Rep. Melina Castro, in her fight to save her job, Holguin is a very popular city representative and would do very strongly in the valley. Strong enough to make him a contender in a county-wide race, even though supporters of his rivals think otherwise. Wishful thinking because the valley is heavily Democratic and Chavez has a good reputation and support base within the party.
It's also possible that Cook may one day decide to take on Reyes. If you recall there was a bit of a tiff back when Cook first ran for Mayor because the Congressman didn't come out and support Cook right away. They've worked together very closely over the last few years, but history shows us that in this town, political rivalries run very deep.
Several interesting questions arise with potential promotions, like who fills their seat when they are gone? Would city Rep. Beto O'Rourke make a run for mayor or even Congress? Who would fill Holguin's seat if he won in the Senate? What would happen to Shapleigh if he lost? What kind of uncomfortable position would Moody be in if the Mayor, who is family, were locked in a race with his mentors and colleagues Shapleigh and Chavez. How involved could Moody even be when he lives in a vulnerable district?
And the biggest question of all, where do the regular money bag donors throw their money in these elections?
Castro Skips Last Meeting
Word on the street (which turned out to be right) was that the out-going Castro would not attend her last meeting as city representative for the Northeast. Sources tell me her office has been almost completely empty with minimal staff for the last week. According to the city agenda she was to be given an award for her service by the Mayor [link].
Speaking of Elections & Money ...
There is something that we should all be paying more attention to, especially because we haven't before and it's come back to haunt us. I'm talking about the judicial races. I know many of you aren't going to believe this no matter what anyone says, but one of the unfortunate unintended consequences of straight-ticket voting is the fact that people don't always consider the impact of that vote down the ballot. Sure, some people study the ballot carefully and come to an informed decision that voting straight-ticket is the right thing for them. But those people are few and far between. I've observed the inner workings of campaigns in the last election and I know for a fact that many campaigns were banking on big help from the straight-ticket voting block in El Paso County.
Who was one of the biggest benefactors? Judge Manny Barraza, who is now facing allegations of public corruption. That allegation arose just days after his swearing in and underscores the importance of examining the judicial candidates thoroughly before casting a ballot.
Personally, I think having the judges elected and not appointed is just asking for trouble. Anytime there is an election, money thrown around lends itself to scrutiny. In fact the Supreme Court recently ruled that judges must now recuse themselves from cases involving campaign donors, which is scary because that meant that judges haven't been required to recuse themselves up until now. Most people who run for office are basically good people, but let's not ignore a far-reaching public corruption scandal that has been hanging over this community like a black cloud for over two years now.
Judicial candidates in the elections that are about a year away are already gearing up. Several incumbents have already hosted, or have events scheduled, for fund-raising activities. This may be an effort to ward off any would-be challengers. That's very important in an election that is not likely to draw a big turn-out.
A small turn-out gives the challenger the advantage because their supporters will be more likely to turn-out than the incumbent.
There's nothing wrong with having fund-raisers, in fact it's a necessity. But it will be interesting to see who goes and contributes to the various candidates. Keep your eye on this one and I'll report back on any interesting developments.
Remember, there is no corruption in the county courthouse, Judge Manny Barraza said so!
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