Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct number of residents who live in District 5 under the redrawn boundaries.
Two political newcomers with few campaign contributions are trying to unseat a well-financed incumbent council member to represent District 5 in far East El Paso – one of the fastest growing areas in the city.
More than 80,000 residents live in this newer developed pocket of El Paso just east of Loop 375, whose boundaries were redrawn earlier this year as part of the redistricting process that seeks to equitably distribute population in each representative’s district.
As developers clear the way for hundreds of new houses and businesses, the candidates said District 5 needs better infrastructure to keep up with the boom and lower property taxes so residents can afford to live there.
Early voting for the Nov. 8 election begins Oct. 24.
Incumbent city Rep. Isabel Salcido, 37, took office in 2019 and is seeking a second term. She’s received more than $57,000 in donations from mid-July to the end of September – far outraising her challengers who have just over $800 in their campaign coffers combined.
Salcido grew up in Northeast El Paso and in her early 20s, purchased her first home in District 5, where she still lives. Salcido cited her business background as a strength. She obtained a real estate license and graduated from the University of Texas at El Paso in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
She soon began investing in the food and beverage industry, opening two sports bars – Spirit of 66 on the Westside and the Eastside’s BarFly, which was renamed Johnny Cash Beer Garden following a controversial shooting outside the bar. Salcido said she sold Johnny Cash in 2020 and closed Spirit of 66 early in the pandemic.
She also owns a snack and beverage distribution company called Freshmo, for which she received just more than $44,000 in Paycheck Protection Program loans during the pandemic.
Salcido said a major development in District 5 during her tenure was the completion of the Eastside Master Plan that looked at growth patterns on the Eastside and how they impact demand for parks, police and fire stations and other infrastructure. The plan was key in structuring the city’s $413 million public safety bond approved by voters in November 2019. The bond included a $39 million Eastside Regional Police Command Center that broke ground earlier this year at Pebble Hills Boulevard and Tim Foster Street.
Richard Genera, 30, grew up in different parts of El Paso before moving to the Far Eastside as a teenager and graduating from El Dorado High School. Genera dropped out of college to support his widowed mom, but later went to school part time. He graduated with bachelor’s in multidisciplinary studies from the University of Texas at El Paso in 2021. Genera, a Wells Fargo bank teller, said he’d like to go into teaching some day.
He became interested in local politics when campaigning for journalist Aaron Montes, who unsuccessfully ran for District 7 representative in 2020. Genera began following City Council meetings, and in 2021, started a political podcast called “El Paso Beat.”
“Before Aaron’s campaign, I wasn’t paying attention to local politics either,” Genera said, adding that he wants to make local politics transparent to the everyday resident. “I was just trying to keep a roof over my head and pay tuition. I thought, ‘Well if I was trying to teach my neighbor like they were my student, how do I do it?’”
Genera has raised just over $800, including carryover from a past reporting period.
Felix Muñoz, 56, moved around growing up before graduating from Bowie High School, where he met his wife. He joined the Army and toured overseas before returning to Fort Bliss then joining the U.S. Department of Justice. He worked in law enforcement for the next 27 years, taking on managerial duties and overseeing the transportation of inmates.
Muñoz retired in 2016 and is now a freelance photographer and takes care of a granddaughter. He and his wife purchased a home on the far Eastside in 2018.
According to his campaign financial records, Muñoz hasn’t raised any money but has spent more than $2,000 out of his own pocket. Muñoz said he wanted to fund his campaign entirely on his own.
Watching his son get priced out of the house he was in the process of buying spurred him to run for office, Muñoz said.
Property taxes and budget
Muñoz said his son gave a downpayment and paid for upgrades on a new home in El Paso. But before the signing date in 2021, property taxes jumped and would have increased his son’s monthly payments. His son could no longer afford to purchase his house and lost the money on home improvements.
El Paso homeowners have experienced a sharp climb in property tax bills over the past decade and saw their property valuations soar the past two years. From 2021 to 2022, property valuations for single-family and multi-family homes increased the most compared to commercial properties.
“That isn’t right,” Muñoz said, adding that he would have voted against the property tax rate set earlier this year. The approved rate was lower than originally proposed, but still translated to a tax increase.
After approving the tax rate, Salcido co-signed a column that appeared in the El Paso Times that misleadingly stated the reduction would be “providing a saving for all residents.”
A few weeks later, Salcido drew criticism when she and District 6 incumbent city Rep. Claudia Rodriguez, who is also seeking reelection, changed their stance and voted against the city’s budget and tax rate saying they wanted to reduce the tax rate even further.
Salcido told El Paso Matters that she changed her mind after listening to public input and hearing people share their struggles to pay for gas and utilities.
She has voted to approve the budget and keep the same tax rate every year since she was elected. When asked if the public had not voiced concerns about financial issues in those years, Salcido said priorities change. Previously, El Pasoans were hard hit by the Walmart shooting and the pandemic and her constituents were more focused on people dying, she said.
“We’ve gone through a lot as a community,” Salcido said. “We’re talking about loss. Do you think they were sharing with me about utilities? They were mourning.”
If re-elected, Salcido said she would like City Council to sit down with other taxing entities such as the county as well as state-funded organizations to see if any services are being duplicated and could be downsized.
Genera said he would like to have seen more effort to trim the budget prior to the August vote.
“We don’t have a robust tourist source of income for sales tax revenue, so we’ve been leaning on property taxes to kind of fill those gaps.” Genera said. “As the expenditure line and revenue line gap widens, the current council, I feel, is just going to keep leaning on property taxes and that’s not sustainable.”
Residential property taxes in El Paso have historically made up the majority of the tax base, according to an El Paso Matters analysis. In other Texas counties, residential properties account for 40% of less of the total taxable property value.
Genera said he was bumped out of District 5 when the boundaries were redrawn earlier this year and moved about four months before he filed to run for office to remain eligible in the district.
But he was almost priced out of apartments on the far Eastside. Genera is among the one-third of El Pasoans who live in a rental property. An El Paso Matters analysis found that renters will likely be hit the hardest from property tax increases.
Development and revenue
Genera said one way to balance the property tax burden is to be more selective in awarding Chapter 380 agreements, which give developers incentives and tax breaks.
Twenty-eight Chapter 380 agreements have gone into effect in El Paso since 2019.
Salcido said these agreements are necessary because they attract companies that bring in jobs and invest back into the community.
Muñoz agreed that Chapter 380 agreements are needed as a business incentive.
He would like to see attractions, such as a major amusement park, built on the Eastside as a way to bring in additional taxes. Unlike water parks, which have limited use in the year, an amusement park could generate revenue year round, he said. A city audit shows that El Paso’s water parks are projected to have a deficit of more than $3 million by the end of the year.
Genera said he would also support the legalization of cannabis to bring El Paso more revenue, citing New Mexican cities as an example. Las Cruces leaders project that if cannabis sales stay strong, the industry could net the city $1 million in annual tax revenue. While that decision lies with the state, Genera said he would back legalization – which gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke has called for.
Police and public safety
All three candidates said they’re glad the new police command center is opening at Pebble Hills Boulevard and Tim Foster Street, but have other public safety concerns.
Muñoz said he supports higher pay for police officers and first responders, which could also attract more people to join or stay in the force. Police response times on the Eastside could improve with more personnel, he said.
Salcido and Genera said they also want to see better response times from El Paso police.
From September 2021 to February 2022, the average response time for Priority 1 calls in El Paso was 23 minutes and 48 seconds, according to a 2022 report from the city. Priority 1 calls include homicide, robberies and rape. The response time was six minutes longer than the previous year, with El Paso police citing staff shortages for slower response times.
Genera would like low-level cannabis possession to be decriminalized. A handful of Texas cities are voting this November to eliminate low-level marijuana charges.
Salcido said she would not support decriminalization of cannabis unless the district attorney agreed to not prosecute those cases. She voted in favor of El Paso’s cite-and-release program for low-level marijuana possession, which launched Sept. 1, 2020. The program aims to reduce the time police spend arresting and booking someone into jail for low-level marijuana possession, so officers can spend more time on patrol.
This summer, Salcido also voted against a proposal that would deprioritize police investigations into abortion cases. Abortion is illegal in Texas, but local government has the power to influence what police should prioritize. Austin and Denton City Councils voted this year to make abortion investigations a low priority for police. But Salcido said this was not a “pro-life, pro-choice” matter and that she voted against the measure to protect the city from potential lawsuits.
Genera and Muñoz said they would have voted in favor of deprioritizing abortion investigations. Genera added that if elected, he would request that this measure be brought back again.
Muñoz and Genera criticized Salcido’s spotty availability to both constituents and the media, saying if elected, they would make more time to meet with constituents and would be more responsive to calls and emails.
Both challengers participated in an Oct. 8 forum for District 5 and 6 candidates hosted by the Community First Coalition, a group that advocates for voter engagement and other social causes. Incumbents Salcido and Rodriguez were notably missing. The forum marked their absences with their names attached to empty chairs. Salcido declined to participate in the forum because she had “another commitment,” an event organizer told El Paso Matters. Salcido, who does not consistently respond to media inquiries, did not return a 2022 voter’s guide questionnaire that El Paso Matters sent to all candidates.
The candidate forum hosted by Community First Coalition is available to watch online.
Salcido refuted the criticism that her office does not respond to constituents, adding that she’s been excited about meeting with them face-to-face this year. After March 2020, the pandemic prevented many in-person meetings, she said.
Genera and Muñoz also questioned whether Salcido’s donors – many of them influential business owners who live on the West Side – could sway her decisions on council. Muñoz said he declined donations because he did not want donors to expect that he owed them.
Salcido said contributions do not guarantee anything but a conversation between her and the donor. She’s raised about $52,000 in monetary contributions so far, exceeding her previous campaign – which saw donations from billionaire Paul Foster and the Hunt family – by more than $22,000 already.
One of Salcido’s donors, Randall J. Bowling, runs Tropicana Homes, a builder for Campo del Sol, Foster’s residential community in Northeast El Paso. The development is being built on land Foster acquired through a 2018 land swap with the city. In 2019, City Council approved spending $18.6 million from its economic development impact fund on the undeveloped land in the Northeast to proceed with the swap.
Salcido also received a non-monetary contribution worth $5,250 from Smith Public Relations, the public affairs firm run by prominent lobbyist Mark A. Smith. He previously worked for Hunt Companies and Texans for Rick Perry, El Paso Times reported.
On Facebook, Salcido thanked supporters for attending a fundraiser earlier this year with Adair Margo, wife of former mayor Dee Margo and founder of the El Paso nonprofit Tom Lea Institute. The Margos, who donated $1,000 to her campaign, are strong supporters of the Downtown arena, which Salcido has supported and candidates Genera and Muñoz oppose.
In her filings, Salcido omitted the addresses of about a dozen of nearly 60 contributors, including several of the prominent donors such as the Margos, businessman Stanley P. Jobe and CEO of WestStar bank Rick Francis – a possible violation of Texas campaign finance law. Genera omitted the address for one $20 donor.
Salcido is endorsed by the El Paso Association of Firefighters. Genera is endorsed by nonprofit Texas Rising and El Paso Young Democrats.