After redistricting efforts in the fall moved part of Fort Bliss out of the El Paso-based 16th Congressional District, the Army’s second-largest base is playing a major role in the Democratic primary race between incumbent U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar and Deliris Montañez Berrios, a former soldier and Border Patrol agent.

The Republican-led Texas Legislature split Fort Bliss between two congressional districts when it redrew the state’s political maps this fall: the El Paso-based 16th District and the sprawling 23rd District, which stretches from San Antonio to the eastern parts of El Paso County.

Both congressional seats are up for reelection in 2022 and the March 1 Democratic primary races will determine which candidates will face Republican candidates in the November general election. Irene Armendariz-Jackson is unopposed for the Republican nomination in the 16th Congressional District. Incumbent Tony Gonzales is facing Alma Arredondo-Lynch and Alía Garcia in the 23rd Congressional District Republican primary.

Montañez Berrios is framing her challenge to the two-term congresswoman as an indictment of rampant abuses at Fort Bliss and within the Department of Homeland Security, which she says Escobar has not done enough to curtail. Sexual assaults of female servicemembers at Fort Bliss and other Texas military bases in recent years has placed a spotlight on oversight issues within the armed forces.

But Escobar said Montañez Berrios’ characterization of her action on these issues “couldn’t be further from reality.” She pointed to her efforts leading congressional oversight tours to El Paso Department of Homeland Security facilities, field hearings, and the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act as evidence of her active role in promoting accountability for issues of abuse and misconduct.

“I was instrumental in passing the (I am Vanessa Guillén Act) reforms that made it into the National Defense Authorization Act,” Escobar said. “Never in the history of the U.S. military have we had this kind of reform that protects victims of sexual assault and sexual harassment.”

The congressional redistricting plan the Texas Legislature approved Oct. 18. (Illustration courtesy Texas Legislative Council)

Montañez Berrios, who has spoken out about sexual violence in the military, emphasized her past efforts as a Border Patrol whistleblower, and criticized a lack of responsiveness from Escobar’s office when raising concerns in the past. While serving as a Border Patrol agent, Montañez Berrios raised awareness of oversight issues and lagging accountability within DHS agencies.

“The elected official that we (first) elected four years ago somehow changed her perspective and her agenda, and is not serving the people. Whenever I am a whistleblower for a congressperson, and I reach out to them personally, and I get an email back stating, ‘I need you to reach out to my staff’ — I didn’t elect the staff, I elected her,” she said.

As for Fort Bliss, Escobar is fighting to include the entire military base within her district. She filed a federal lawsuit against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in January, arguing that the redrawn Congressional District 16 boundaries were “intentionally discriminatory,” designed to dilute the Latino vote in District 23.

Early voting begins Feb. 14.

Escobar campaigns to continue path of compassionate policy-making

A former El Paso county commissioner and county judge, Escobar, 52, said her time in Congress has been guided by a desire to improve the lives of El Pasoans. She made history as the first woman elected to the seat in 2018, and she was one of the first two Latinas from Texas to serve in Congress.

Veronica Escobar

Escobar said that on a deep level, her personal experiences as a caregiver have formed her approach as a legislator – she explained how caring for her children, her father after he suffered a series of strokes, and her husband as he battled cancer shaped her understanding of wide-ranging issues that affect her constituents.

“My role as a caregiver … gives me the empathy and compassion that should be a requirement for policy making and legislating,” she said.

The struggle to find quality affordable child care for her two children decades earlier has been a “major motivator” guiding her work on behalf of working families and single parents, she said. Challenges with her father’s medical expenses became “a wake up call” about the nation’s health care system, Escobar said.

“I couldn’t believe we live in a country where families are left to fend for themselves that way,” she said. “And that really made a significant impact on me – that whole experience of caring for my father and trying to help my mother and trying to provide dignity for my father at the end of his life.”

Escobar won reelection in 2020 by a wide margin of 64.7% against Republican Irene Armendariz-Jackson, who is again running for the seat this year. Armendariz-Jackson is unopposed in the March Republican primary.

Economic development, affordable health care and the climate crisis are key issues facing the district that Escobar will focus on if reelected, she said.

Escobar raised more than $500,000 for her reelection campaign in 2021, according to her most recent campaign finance report. Top donors included W. Silver Recycling CEO Lane W. Gaddy and his family, who gave $11,700 in combined contributions; El Paso real estate and business mogul Woody Hunt and his family, with $9,700 in combined contributions; and Laurene Powell Jobs, Emerson Collective founder and widow to Steve Jobs, who gave $5,800.

More than half of her campaign contributions came from political action committees. Top PAC donors included defense contractors, with a combined $23,500 from L3Harris Technologies, The Boeing Company, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. Escobar serves on the House Armed Services Committee. 

Escobar also received support from Native American PACs, with a combined $6,400 in contributions from the Chickasaw Nation and the Tigua Indian Reservation.

Underdog Montañez Berrios emphasizes law enforcement background in Congress bid 

Prior to running for Congress, Montañez Berrios, 51, served 29 years in the U.S. Army Reserves. She also worked as a Border Patrol agent in the El Paso sector from 2000 to 2020.

Deliris Montañez Berrios

As a candidate, she said she is “uniquely familiar” with the military and law enforcement and cites that as a reason she is running for office. She had debated running for office for several years, but after retiring from the Border Patrol in November 2020 she decided that the time had come.

“I have the education, I have the training, the experience and hands-on, boots on the ground (knowledge) of what’s really happening, especially on our borderline,” she said.

Federal Election Commission filing data shows that Montañez Berrios loaned her campaign $3,125, and lists no outside donors or PAC contributions from 2021.

“Do I consider myself the underdog? 100%” Montañez Berrios said, but said she believes it doesn’t require significant funding to unseat an incumbent like Escobar.

Montañez Berrios differs from Escobar and the Democratic Party platform in her stance on abortion, which she said should not be legal, aside from cases of rape. Escobar has been a vocal advocate for upholding the right to abortion. She introduced the Women’s Health Protection Act to Congress in fall 2021, alongside Congresswomen Judy Chu, D-Calif., Lois Frankel, D-Fla., and Ayanna Pressley, D-Maine, which upholds a federal right to abortion care.

Former Marine and former congressional staffer compete in District 23 primary

As of the 2020 census, roughly 11% of El Paso County is part of the massive 23rd Congressional District, which spans 29 counties and 800 miles.

Republicans have held this U.S. House seat since 2014. First elected in 2020, incumbent U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, is seeking a second term against two lightly funded opponents. He is from San Antonio.

Two Democrats are vying for a spot on the November general election ballot: former U.S. Marine and self-proclaimed “policy wonk” John Lira, who is based in San Antonio; and former congressional staffer Priscilla Golden, who is based in Alpine, Texas.

John Lira

Lira, 40, said he returned from a deployment to Iraq in 2005 with a deep interest in how policy decisions get made that send troops into combat and determine how veterans are treated when they return home. His driving interest in policy combined with a long-standing commitment to public service motivates his campaign, he said.

“Texas 23 is my hometown district, (and) it’s one of the most unique places in the country,” Lira said. “Of the issues that the country is facing, in a lot of ways those issues are magnified here in Texas-23, because it is a rural environment, because we do have 800 miles of Texas-Mexico border, because we are a low income district and region. I wanna meet those challenges head-on.”

Humane immigration and border policy along with infrastructural improvements are key issues affecting District 23, he said.

Golden did not respond to an interview request, and does not have a website with stated policy stances. She announced her intention to run for the seat in a Facebook post.

“Upon much reflection and growing concern about the current state of politics, I have made the decision to run for congress,” she said in the post, adding “TX-23 deserves someone who will challenge the status quo and deliver a loud and resounding message of change that is long overdue.”

The Emerson Collective and the Woody and Gayle Hunt Family Foundation are fiscal sponsors of El Paso Matters.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales was unopposed in the Republican primary for Texas’ 23rd Congressional District.

Cover photo: An instructor leads an all-terrain vehicle demonstration at Fort Bliss. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Steven Young)

René Kladzyk is a freelance reporter who also performs music as Ziemba. Follow her on Twitter @ziembavision.