El Paso’s Democratic Party has been divided against itself for years, but nowhere is the gulf wider than the bitter race between Congressman Silvestre Reyes and challenger Beto O’Rourke.
Democratic Party old-timers and six Democratic organizations in El Paso have fallen in behind Reyes, the 16-year incumbent, a 67-year-old Vietnam veteran and former El Paso Border Patrol chief. O’Rourke’s supporters are harder to classify but seem to be a younger, ragtag crowd of unaffiliated liberals, cross-over Republicans, independents and moderates looking for a change.
With the election less than two weeks off, polls indicate that the Reyes-O’Rourke race is too close to call and that the other two contenders, Jerome Tilghman and Ben Mendoza, are miles behind.
But if the frontrunners are that close, a small percentage of votes going to Tilghman and Mendoza could force a runoff.
Early voting ends Friday, and the Democratic and Republican primaries are May 29.
O’Rourke, a 39-year-old business owner who spent six eventful years on El Paso City Council, is anything but a traditional Democrat. And that is at the heart of his problems with the local party.
Predictably, Reyes isn’t complaining.
“We’re Democrats; we’re used to these kinds of issues,” Reyes said of the division in the party. “I don’t particularly see it as any big problem.”
If there is a problem, he said, it is O’Rourke’s Republican leanings.
But O’Rourke said he has spent months knocking on doors, some 16,000 of them so far, and what he has heard from people is that they are tired of a Congress that can’t act because its members are so dug in behind party lines.
“Whether you’re talking to a lifelong Democrat, an independent or someone who has voted in both primaries, they really don’t care so much about your Democrat bona fides,” he said. “In fact, they see the level of partisanship right now in the Congress as one of the key factors holding us back as a country.”
The upstart Democrats who are acutely aware of their estrangement from the local party include El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar, as well as O’Rourke’s allies when he served on City Council: city Reps. Susie Byrd and Steve Ortega.
O’Rourke, Byrd and Ortega ran for the nonpartisan City Council seats and were elected in 2005. Together, they set a progressive agenda that changed City Hall inside and altered the face of El Paso.
They identify with the Democratic Party, but they haven’t joined it – a fact that former state Rep. Norma Chavez, now a radio talk show host, has mentioned more than a few times.
“If I were going to label the faction, I would say they definitely fall into the DINOs, Democrats In Name Only, because none of them, from Ortega to Susie Byrd to the county judge, are really party friendly,” Chavez said.
A staunch Reyes supporter, Chavez said the Democratic Party has become deeply factionalized in recent years and is at a low point in participation and organization.
“The old guard is partially to blame because there has been no mentorship or pulling up of the young Democrats,” she said.
As for why the Democratic Party organization has never embraced them, Chavez said O’Rourke, Escobar and their political friends and allies have refused to join the club.
“They actually come across as snobs who are too good for the Democratic Party,” she said.
Ortega said he’s always voted Democrat but hasn’t participated in party functions.
“The local Democratic Party has never really appealed to me,” he said.
Asked why, he said the party hasn’t been an example he can look up to, largely because of its silence on the important community issues of the day: public corruption, drug violence in Juárez and health benefits for domestic partners.
Escobar, who served one term as county commissioner before being elected county judge in 2010, said she thought things would improve when she won the highest local office in the county.
“But I’m more on the outs now than I used to be, probably because of my support for Beto,” she said.
If O’Rourke ousts Reyes, it would be the first defeat of an incumbent congressman in the 16th District since Richard C. White beat Odessa Republican Ed Foreman in 1964.
But would the party fall in line?
“I can’t imagine things changing if Beto wins,” Escobar said matter of factly. “The party insiders, the group that runs the party, will unify to support anyone who is not us.”
Quetta Fierro, who chaired the local party from 2000 to 2002, said letting bygones be bygones would be the smart thing to do, but it would probably take a lot of arm-twisting.
“So many ugly things have been said and done,” Fierro said. “It’s difficult to put them aside. But in order to survive, I think we’re going to have to, and then go forward.”
The leading candidate for Democratic Party chairman, Glenn “Butch” Maya, has the leadership’s backing and is working on Reyes’ campaign. He’s running against a former chair, Rick Melendrez.
Danny Anchondo, the current chairman, has held the party post for eight years. He disagrees with Fierro and scoffs at the hand wringing over divisions in the party.
“There’s only one Democratic Party, and there’s always been factions,” he said. “This is not new.”
And it should be no surprise that all the party organizations – the Eastside, Westside, Northeast, Tejano and Mexican-American Democrats, among others – have endorsed the incumbent.
“Reyes has been involved in the party for a long time,” Anchondo said. “If you’re asking if he’s entrenched, he is.
“Every time we need something, we go to Congressman Reyes. That’s part of the process.”
In 1982, when White, a conservative Democrat, chose not to run again after 18 years in office and state Rep. Ron Coleman, a liberal, was running, there was turmoil in the party.
“When Coleman was elected, everybody came together, and you can have the same thing now,” Anchondo said.
E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.