Two well-known names in El Paso politics – a departing state representative and a first-term incumbent – are vying to represent District 6 on City Council. With a political up-and-comer and what may be a ghost candidate also on the ballot, the four-way race could head to a runoff.
To hold onto the seat she won in a January 2020 runoff election, city Rep. Claudia Lizette Rodriguez must fend off veteran politician and Texas House Rep. Art Fierro, along with marketing professional Cristian Botello and former chiropractor Benjamin Jimmy Leyva.
In at least one respect, Rodriguez holds a substantial lead over her two main opponents. Raising $35,760 in political contributions since May, she has garnered more than three times Fierro and Botello’s donations combined – money that comes from a slightly broader donor base than either of the two contenders.
Rodriguez’s notable contributions come from El Paso businessmen Woody Hunt, Paul Foster, Ted Houghton, Rick Francis and Stanley Jobe, each of whom donated between $1,000 to $5,000 to her campaign; political names like Dee and Adair Margo and Steve Ortega, who donated $1,000 and $2,500; and Houstonian J.P. Bryan, a preservationist and the main financial backer of her first run for office, who has sent in two donations of $2,500 each, according to Rodriguez’s last two campaign finance reports. Those filings were riddled with omissions, in what could be a violation of campaign finance laws.
Hunt also backed Botello’s campaign with a $500 donation. Botello has raised $4,660.
Fierro’s largest contributions come from business owners Elma Carreto and Rogelio Lopez, who donated $1,500 and $1,000, respectively. Though he pulled in $7,100 in monetary donations, he has also loaned his campaign $10,000.
Leyva did not submit campaign finance reports.
The three candidates who spoke with El Paso Matters for this story pointed to similar issues facing their district – such as rising property taxes and a high need for street repairs – but diverged on their proposed solutions. All three have longstanding ties with the area they want to represent. Fierro and Botello also offered similar critiques of Rodriguez’s record on City Council, charging that she has not been transparent or responsive to her constituents – claims Rodriguez denies.
Whoever wins the four-way race for District 6 will become one of nine City Council members tasked with making budget, tax and policy decisions for El Paso city government. The position is nonpartisan, with a four-year term that receives a yearly salary of $51,600.
With a population of 88,540, District 6 covers a small part of the Lower Valley as well the area just west of Loop 375 stretching from Montana Avenue to Interstate 10. Its boundaries were redrawn in late April.
Early voting begins on Monday, Oct. 24. Election Day is Nov. 8.
Claudia Lizette Rodriguez
Rodriguez, 37, is running for her first full term as city representative. She won a special election and runoff in January 2020 to replace Claudia Ordaz, who was leaving City Council to run for state representative. Rodriguez beat her opponent, Debbie Torres, by 75 votes.
She has touted her architecture degree from Texas Tech University, her role as mother to four school-aged children in a blended family, and her work with her family’s businesses as background she brings to council.
In an El Paso Times interview just before the special election, Rodriguez celebrated that her husband, her parents and grandparents are migrants who started a number of businesses in El Paso. At the time, she said she would “definitely” appoint someone else to manage these businesses if elected to city representative.
Rodriguez transferred her partial ownership of MR Transportation to her father in May 2022, according to El Paso County records, but later described herself as a co-owner of the trucking company on financial disclosure forms filed with the El Paso City Clerk in July.
In an Oct. 12 phone interview with El Paso Matters, Rodriguez said she is still very involved in the business. “I take care of all of the logistics, dispatching, brokering, doing all of those things. I still do that on top of being a city rep, on top of being a full-time mom, on top of volunteering, on top of campaigning,” she said. “Honestly, only a female can multitask to this degree because it is challenging. But I’m able to do it and I haven’t dropped the ball on any of it.”
Asked to describe her main accomplishments on City Council, Rodriguez noted that she took office just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“A lot of the things that I set out to do were kind of placed on hold because everything was just COVID, COVID, COVID,” she said. “It wasn’t until recently that I think I’ve had the opportunity to actually go back into the community and be able to just really address everyday concerns that I wasn’t able to before.”
If re-elected, Rodriguez said she would focus on “the basics” for her district, such as street repairs and “having safe and beautiful neighborhoods on the Eastside.” She pointed to ongoing construction along a two-mile stretch of Saul Kleinfeld Drive, along with plans to replace chain link fences that surround El Paso Water ponding areas with rock walls, as examples of upcoming improvement projects in District 6.
Rodriguez casts herself as a fiscal conservative.
“I am the only candidate or incumbent for that matter that has consistently voted against certificates of obligation … that has consistently advocated for less regulations, for letting the businesses thrive even during COVID,” she said, adding that under her tenure, “we have not incurred any new debt; and we did not raise that tax rate.” Her campaign mailer goes further, claiming: “Claudia has never voted to raise your taxes!”
Critics say this is misleading. In August 2021, Rodriguez voted in favor of an action to “ratify the property tax rate increase” for the city’s 2021-2022 fiscal year budget.
Recently, she has doubled down on her fiscally conservative stance by criticizing city spending on a welcome center and busing program to transport migrants out of state amid increased border crossings. Though the city hopes to be reimbursed for the estimated $8 million it’s spent so far by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, it has not yet received full reimbursement.
“We are taking a huge risk at the cost of taxpayers,” she said during an Oct. 11 City Council meeting. “What we’re doing is very admirable, but somebody else should be paying for this; it should not be the taxpayers here in El Paso.”
The city ended the migrant busing program on Thursday.
Rodriguez, who voted in Republican primaries in 2018 and 2020, has been highly critical of the federal government’s response to increased migration, saying it had “failed miserably” in an Oct. 12 press release. In the release, she urged the mayor to issue a disaster declaration that would let the city seek resources from the state government – in what could open the door to Operation Lonestar, a controversial program launched by Gov. Greg Abbott that directs Texas Department of Public Safety and National Guard resources to handle border security.
Rodriguez said she was comfortable with this possibility.
“I have a lot of respect for the men and women that serve in our military, and I refuse to vilify them,” she said. “They were good enough for us during Aug. 3; they were good enough for us during COVID; they’re good enough for us whenever we have a flood; and they’re good enough for this.”
Benjamin J. Leyva
Leyva, 38, is a former chiropractor whose license was revoked in 2014 by the Texas Board of Chiropractic Examiners. Since 2008, he has been arrested seven times in El Paso County, most recently in early September on allegations of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Released from jail on Oct. 4, he has not responded to El Paso Matters’ emails or phone calls. The city confirmed Leyva is still a candidate whose name will appear on the ballot but it’s unclear if he is actively running for the seat.
Botello, 25, is a relative newcomer to city politics, but he frames this as an advantage: “I just think that people, especially in District 6, want to see somebody new, somebody that hasn’t been involved in politics before and is really driven to try to make changes.”
Though a new name to some, Botello is no stranger to politics. While a student at the University of Texas at El Paso, he interned with U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, former state Sen. José Rodríguez and the Rio Grande Council of Governments. He also served two years as a senator and then president of UTEP’s Student Government Association.
As SGA president, Botello experienced his first brush with political controversy. In 2019, he drew criticism for his vote to recommend Wilson, a former U.S. congresswoman with an anti-LGBTQ voting record, as a finalist for the job, and for what some student groups described as a nontransparent selection process. It was criticism Botello said he attempted to address by hosting additional meetings and roundtable discussions with concerned student groups. Botello says he came away from that process feeling that “being transparent and open is fundamental to good governance.”
And he stands by his vote to recommend Wilson, who donated $200 to his campaign, saying she’d done a good job since becoming president.
Since April 2021, Botello has served on the city’s Public Service Board Selection Committee – a position he was nominated to by Rodriguez. Botello says he decided to run against her while working with his neighborhood association to successfully propose a trail expansion project for Ranchos Del Sol park.
“As I got more involved, I realized that there was more work to be done, when it comes to transparency, to reaching out, to gathering feedback, to responding to constituents, responding to even the press, and other community and business leaders,” he said. “I don’t believe that the city representative is doing the best job when it comes to being transparent and responsive. … I really do feel that I can do a better job of going out there and being in the community.”
Botello recently quit his job as marketing coordinator of the Medical Center of the Americas Foundation to campaign full time for the District 6 seat. He also helps his wife run an event planning business.
Botello said he would attempt to reduce the property tax burden by seeking to attract more companies to El Paso to contribute to the city’s tax coffers – which would also serve another goal of Botello’s: adding more jobs to keep young El Pasoans from leaving in search of better work, he said.
He’s not opposed to offering tax incentives to attract those companies, so long as they bring “high value” jobs from industries that align with El Paso’s higher education initiatives, he said, like the aerospace or biotech sectors.
Fierro, 60, is finishing his second term as a Texas state representative. He lost his bid for a third term in the March Democratic primary, when he was defeated by fellow state Rep. Claudia Ordaz. The two had battled it out after the Texas Legislature’s redistricting process removed her House seat, and the contest grew heated.
Fierro tried unsuccessfully to disqualify Ordaz from the race, saying she hadn’t lived in the redrawn district long enough.
Ordaz, meanwhile, accused Fierro of returning too early from Washington, D.C., during Texas Democrats’ 2021 bid to protect voting rights by breaking quorum and leaving the state. She alleged his early return was spurred by a deal struck with state Republicans to ensure that his seat was not removed during the redistricting carveout – a claim Fierro denied. He said he’d returned because he felt that the quorum break had achieved its goals.
Fierro said he decided to run for City Council at the urging of constituents who were dissatisfied with a rise in property taxes and what he describes as a lack of transparency and accountability among some city representatives – Rodriguez included.
“I want my constituents to hold me accountable and I commit to being transparent with them,” Fierro said.
To increase transparency, Fierro said he would make use of existing city facilities to set up a satellite office within District 6.
“We’re going to set something up on the Eastside, where we’re accessible to the constituents of District 6, where you don’t have to jump through hoops to visit your city representative like you do right now Downtown. … Because the incumbent isn’t available.”
He also wants to freeze property taxes for seniors and people with disabilities because these groups live on fixed incomes. Like Rodriguez, Fierro describes himself as a fiscal conservative; if elected, he said he’d look for ways to cut or rearrange the budget to prevent additional tax increases.
Before becoming a state representative, Fierro served for 13 years on the Board of Trustees for El Paso Community College, which he also attended as a student, along with UTEP. He said he’d bring his experience in higher education and workforce training to his role as city representative.
Fierro, who is married to El Paso District Court Judge Annabell Perez, also works as a consultant; one of his current clients is LIFE Ambulance Services. He said he would not continue his consulting work if elected.