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The chiefs of staff for two sitting city representatives – along with a political newcomer and a past council candidate – are vying to represent District 8 on City Council where the incumbent is not seeking reelection.
City Rep. Cissy Lizarraga opted not to run for a second term. She was elected to fill an unexpired term left open by former city Rep. Cortney Niland, who resigned in 2017. Lizarraga was reelected in 2018 for her first full term.
Kathleen Staudt, organizer for the Community First Coalition that hosted a candidate forum Sunday, said it’s healthy when a variety of candidates run for office.
“We have a write-in candidate for District 8 and it’s hard for write-in candidates to run, but it’s good,” Staudt said.
District 8 largely covers Downtown and portions of the Westside after district boundaries were redrawn earlier this year. Eight city representatives and the mayor make up the City Council that sets tax rates, adopts budgets and makes policy decisions impacting the city’s governance. City representative salaries are $51,600 a year. This is a nonpartisan position.
Campaign finance reports show Bettina Olivares, the chief of staff for city Rep. Cassandra Hernandez, leads the race in campaign contributions with about $11,000 raised in the last reporting period. Her report shows she also loaned herself $6,000 in addition to what she raised. Some of her notable contributions include $2,500 from attorney and former city Rep. Steve Ortega, $2,000 from Transtelco CEO Miguel Fernandez and $1,000 each from developer Lane Gaddy, E.C. Houghton the CEO of Houghton Financial Partners and WestStar bank CEO Rick Francis.
Blogger Richard Wright has raised about $7,000 and loaned his campaign $3,000. His notable donations include $1,000 from former state Sen. José Rodríguez and several smaller donations, including $500 from local artist Hal Marcus, $250 from former mayoral candidate David Saucedo, $300 from Crazy Cat Cycling owner Rob Barrio – and down to $20 from musician Jim Ward of the band Sparta.
Chris Canales, a professional soccer referee who also serves as Lizarraga’s chief of staff, has raised about $3,000 for his campaign. His notable donors include a $1,000 contribution from William Mooney, who’s listed with a San Francisco address, and $500 from local entrepreneurs Paul and Suzanne Dipp.
Cruz Morales, a write-in candidate who works as a forklift operator, has not yet filed a campaign finance report. He said he has not been actively raising money for his campaign, but has received about $300 in donations. Morales said his campaign manager will file the campaign finance form. Not reporting donations is a possible violation of Texas Election Law, unless the candidate doesn’t intend to raise and spend more than $940 and files a declaration of intent under a modified reporting schedule stating as much.
El Paso Matters interviewed the candidates and asked them why they are running for office and to explain their visions for the future of Downtown, including how they see key projects such as the troubled Multipurpose Cultural and Performing Arts Center and the proposed deck park unfolding. Responses are in alphabetical order by last name.
Early voting begins Monday and the election is Nov. 8.
Canales, a political newcomer, said he is running for office because he cares about El Paso and wants to have a say in what impacts the city.
“At times, I’ve been frustrated working there and then at the end of the day not having a say in the final decisions that are made,” said Canales, who has worked for Lizarraga since she took office in 2017. “So I want to be able to be the one who’s making those decisions.”
Canales, 30, said the experience will help him navigate the role if he is elected. Asked what will differentiate him from Lizarraga – who for most of her tenure rarely granted media interviews without asking for questions in advance or issuing written statements – Canales said he would take the opposite approach.
“I’m always open to give my rationale for any decision and give my opinion about things,” he said. “I’m not shy about that kind of thing and I think, too, on the other side, is with constituents as well. I’m very open to explaining stuff all the time.”
He said when it comes to Downtown, every city needs to have a strong core that provides cultural, educational opportunities and amenities.
His view on the Downtown arena, which has long been delayed by litigation, is that the city needs to execute a project. But he doesn’t feel it needs to be an arena and doesn’t necessarily need to be at the planned location.
El Paso voters in 2012 overwhelmingly approved a $180 million bond issue to build a multipurpose event center, which the city later proposed to build in the Duranguito neighborhood in Union Plaza in Downtown.
“We need to find something now – it’s 10 years later – that fits the context of right now,” he said. “If the city is able to find some other location that’s suitable, and they put in a good faith effort to do that, then I would be okay with a change of location.”
The city is conducting a feasibility study related to what the project would currently cost and, in part, determining which of the existing buildings within the planned site the city sought/is seeking to demolish may be viable for use.
Canales said the city should make every effort to incorporate the buildings into the design.
“There’s definitely a big part of the community that sees value in those (buildings),” he said. “There’s practicalities that come into it, but I think where possible, they should try to preserve as much as they can and incorporate them into the design.”
Another developing project in the district is a deck park that is being studied as part of the proposed Texas Department of Transportation expansion of the sunken portion of the freeway through Downtown El Paso.
The City Council on Oct. 11 heard a presentation from city staff on possible grant opportunities for the project that will be largely dependent on whether TxDOT moves forward with the expansion project.
Canales said he is not convinced that the expansion project is necessary, but is not opposed to the deck park if the bridges in Downtown El Paso get replaced.
“I like the concept of the deck park,” he said. “I think it connects uptown and Downtown nicely. Those are communities that have been separated by a freeway for decades.”
Morales, also a political newcomer, said he decided to run for office because he wants to help the underserved areas of the district – which stretches south to Segundo Barrio and parts of South Central El Paso – and bring humanity back to city politics.
“I want to serve the people, not special interests and big companies,” he said.
His vision of Downtown entails reviving the area with more locally-owned small businesses.
“It’s a mess now, everything is closed,” he said.
Morales, 52, has led the El Barrio Sports Club in the Chamizal neighborhood in Central El Paso for about 20 years and has lived about a mile away from Downtown.
He said the key is to get younger entrepreneurs to set up shops rather than focusing on larger businesses. He said the Downtown area has suffered from the COVID-19 pandemic with multiple business closures.
“You have to really look to young people to get excited about opening small businesses,” he said.
Morales said he opposes the Downtown arena and thinks the Duranguito neighborhood needs to be revitalized as a draw for tourism with small shops or small locally-owned businesses.
He also said those who are involved in the lawsuits, fighting the project, should be willing to financially invest in the area.
“It’s one thing to save an area and then just let it go to waste. If anything they should save it and then put money into it,” he said.
Morales also said he is opposed to the deck park and the focus should go toward revitalizing the neighboring areas.
“Just let El Paso be El Paso, it’s a large city with a small feel,” he said, adding more revitalization needs to occur from the bridges that enter Juárez through Downtown to restore walkability and the economy.
Olivares, 35, said she decided to run for office because she wants to be a part of the change she wishes to see in the community.
“I have taken many steps to get to this point by dedicating my career to public service. I understand how government, especially local government and policy directly impacts our everyday lives,” she said about her experience working with Hernandez. “I’m keenly aware of what it takes to be an active and available representative.”
Asked what distinguishes her from Hernandez, Olivares said while they share similar views, they also disagree on others.
“I would hope that we have different opinions, because it’s that diversity that makes for better choices,” she said. “Although she’s very supportive of me and I’m very supportive of her, I think that there are differences in personality.”
Growing up, Olivares would go Downtown to shop for items like supplies for her quinceañera, she said. It was normal to see closed businesses in the area, but has recently seen a shift in that dynamic and more activity, she added, saying she now sees more people of all ages at San Jacinto Plaza or dining out Downtown.
“I think that that’s such a wonderful personification of what I would like to see Downtown continue to be – available to everybody, being open, and being a safe space for people to enjoy,” she said.
She said she wants to see Downtown as an area that is business friendly, economically friendly, but also culturally representative of the community.
Olivares said she supports the Downtown arena and the deck park, but needs more information. She said she doesn’t think the city anticipated the litigation around the arena would continue for so long and it has put the city in a precarious financial situation.
“I think it really needs to come down to what we can afford, what residents want to see and if the other side in the litigation can come forward with something that they would be happy with,” she said.
Olivares said she also wants to see what will occur at the state level with the possible freeway expansion and whether it moves forward before evaluating what the city can do with that space.
A history and culture tour guide, Wright runs the El Chuqueño blog. He previously ran for District 8 in 2018 unsuccessfully.
“Last time, there were a couple of candidates that I thought could do the job, but neither of them got elected,” he said.“So I decided this time – I had to do it – it had to be me.”
Wright said the two candidates he thought would have been suitable ran in the same election in 2018. Those candidates were Greg Baine, a retired Army colonel and Dylan Corbett, founding executive director of the Hope Border Institute. Neither candidate made it to the runoff where Lizarraga won her reelection bid.
Wright said this time around, he has been more active and more enthusiastic about the campaign and feels he has a good chance of being elected.
When asked about his vision for Downtown, Wright said the city first needs to get its “financial house” in order.
“The first thing I would do would be to cut all the frivolous spending,” he said. “I don’t want to spend any more money on stuff that’s not going to help the average person. Right now we have a situation where the working class is paying for the lifestyles of the leisure class and I don’t think that’s fair.”
The city has about $155 million left of the bond funding for the arena.
Wright said the city could avoid selling those bonds and wait until it can afford to move forward with it.
He said the area would be better served through more heritage tourism, art spaces and museums, among other options.
“We have had a lot of really good strong artists come from El Paso and we haven’t done a lot to cultivate that,” he said. “I think we could cultivate that. So maybe we use that space for art development (or) rehearsal space.”
As far as the buildings within the arena site, Wright said there are several that could be preserved.
“I’m sure there’s a solution there and I’m sure there’s a low cost solution – I’m sure we don’t need to spend $180 million,” Wright said.