The closely watched race for Texas House District 79 is shaping up to be one of El Paso’s most expensive Democratic primaries.

Since the start of the year, incumbent state Rep. Art Fierro and challenger Claudia Ordaz Perez have brought in more than $130,000 in combined cash campaign contributions from donors. Fierro has held the East Side seat since 2019.

The candidates each issued dueling mailers ahead of Election Day Tuesday highlighting the contributions their opponent received from Republicans as they fight for a political future in a legislative delegation that lost a member.

Ordaz Perez’s current District 76 seat was drawn into Lina Ortega’s District 77 during fall’s redistricting. Rather than challenge Ortega, she moved to run against Fierro.

Because no Republican primary candidates are running for District 79, and no independent candidates have declared their intent to run, the winner of the March 1 Democratic primary will be unopposed in November’s general election.

Ordaz Perez raised $17,467 from Feb. 1-19, according to her Feb. 22 campaign finance report. She raised $42,023 for January.

Much of that support came from El Paso business leaders, some of whom donate to Republicans statewide, but Democrats at home. Her top donors include: Woody Hunt who gave $7,500; Tropicana Homes owner Bobby Bowling and Sierra Machinery CEO Maria Teran, who each gave $5,000; and concrete supplier Stanley Jobe, Southwest University President Benjamin Arriola and Guerra Investment Advisors President Ruben Guerra, who each contributed $2,500.

Dee Margo, who served as mayor for part of her time on El Paso City Council, gave $1,000. Margo is a former Republican state representative.

A mailer Fierro’s campaign sent out during the last week of early voting asks what Ordaz Perez has in common with former President Donald Trump, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. “Republican Special Interests,” the mailer answers.

Ordaz Perez said the business community’s support reflects her longstanding efforts to boost job growth and bring improved quality of life amenities to El Paso.

“Economic development was very important to me when I first started in public service on city council and it’s still very important to me today,” she said.

“People know my work ethic,” she added. “They know that I’m a hard worker when it comes to fighting for my community.”

Some of her donors this election cycle previously gave to Fierro, with Hunt donating $2,500 to him as recently as November 2020, according to previous finance reports.

Fierro questioned the sincerity of Ordaz Perez casting herself as both pro-business and progressive.

“This race turned into this half-truths race,” he said. “And what I mean by that is Claudia became a progressive, and that’s the money that she really was able to reach out and get. But then at the same time, she’s pro-business.”

Ordaz Perez garnered support from the progressive Texans for Better Democrats Coalition earlier this month. Ordaz Perez said Thursday she didn’t know how much money coalition members have spent on her campaign. Campaign finance reports for the groups weren’t available, but the Texas Working Families Party previously told the Texas Tribune the coalition anticipated spending up to $250,000 across the three primary candidates it is backing.

Watch our District 79 candidate forum.

Ordaz Perez fired back against Fierro’s mailer with one of her own that went out Friday, highlighting the $10,000 contribution he received from former Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s Texas Leads PAC — the largest individual contribution the GOP-friendly political action committee made this election cycle.

Carriage House Partners, an Austin lobbying firm founded by Bonnen’s former chief of staff, gave an additional $10,000.

Taken together, those two contributions made up more than a quarter of the $70,652 Fierro raised from Jan. 21-Feb. 19 — much of which came from political action committees. He only reported raising $132 during the first few weeks of January.

Asked about Texas Leads’ support, Fierro stressed that he was one of three Democratic state representatives the PAC supported this cycle (all of whom face primary opposition).

“I think they chose me because they know that, first of all, we have an open door,” Fierro said. “Second of all, I listen to concerns (from) constituents, to lobbyists, to ally groups to stakeholders — and then I vote my conscience.”

But Ordaz Perez accused Bonnen, and Republicans more generally, of “trying to influence this race. They are solely attacking me in particular because of my fight for voting rights,” she said, referencing her decision to remain in Washington, D.C., longer than some House Democrats (including Fierro) during the summer’s quorum break.

Democrats left the state to prevent a GOP election bill from passing, which the governor ultimately signed into law — and which has led to higher mail-in ballot rejection rates in El Paso.

Soon after announcing her run for District 79, Ordaz Perez garnered support from House Democrats who were among the final quorum break holdouts. She pulled in two additional contributions from House colleagues in January: $250 from state Rep. Ina Minjarez, D-San Antonio, and $200 from state Rep. Carl Sherman, D-Desoto.

Fierro has received considerable financial support from state Rep. Joe Moody, the most senior member of El Paso’s legislative delegation. Moody gave $2,500 on Nov. 1, the day Ordaz-Perez announced her campaign for District 79. Moody gave an additional $4,500 in-kind donation in February, but Fierro’s report does not detail what that entailed.

As Ordaz Perez and Fierro make their final pitches to voters, they both said the influence of outside dollars into their campaigns reflects the importance of this race.

“We’re now going to only have four seats in El Paso, so it’s going to be imperative that the representatives that are going to represent us not only are going to fight for our values … but are going to be effective for us,” Ordaz Perez said.

Fierro said voters who choose him will get “somebody who’s transparent, who’s honest and who’s had an office that’s been open here (in District 79) since I was elected to my first term.”

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014.