Two largely unknown first-time candidates vying to represent El Paso City Council District 8 face a challenging runoff as they work to introduce themselves to the voters at a time when few El Pasoans are hitting the polls.

As of Wednesday, only about 2% of registered voters had cast ballots in the district that covers neighborhoods near the University of Texas at El Paso, and a portion of the Westside and Downtown.

Both candidates, Chris Canales and Bettina Olivares, work as chiefs of staff for city representatives but are otherwise relatively unknown outside of City Hall.

Canales and Olivares would both take a pay cut if elected. Canales said he now earns about $63,000 per year; while Olivares said she earns about $54,000. City representatives are currently paid about $51,600 annually.

Canales, 30, has worked for District 8 city Rep. Cissy Lizarraga, who did not seek reelection, since she took office in 2017. He previously worked with an environmental consulting firm in New York City, where he also served as a fellow with a coalition of nonprofits working for education reform. 

A native El Pasoan who grew up on the Westside and graduated from Franklin High School, Canales considers himself a lifelong learner even after graduating from Columbia University. His campaign has focused on finding a way to fund city streets maintenance and repair, clean and sustainable energy and getting any future debt issuances approved by voters.

Canales, the oldest of two children, admits he’s a bit of a nerd.

“I try to learn something new in math or science every day – it’s kind of a goal of mine – whether that’s through YouTube or some online course or something,” he said, adding he recently took the time to learn about the formation of waves in ocean storms.

He said he and his family were very active and spent a lot of time outdoors, including hiking and camping. He also played soccer growing up, which has left a lasting impact on him: He’s a professional soccer referee.

He and his wife have two rescue dogs they adopted not long after returning to El Paso from New York, where he attended Columbia University. He said they would have gotten a dog sooner, but didn’t have the space in the apartment they shared in New York.

“We didn’t feel like it was the right decision (at the time),” he said.

But now they take their rescue dogs hiking regularly and also volunteer on Sundays for the Rescue Runners El Paso program of volunteers who walk shelter dogs. He said he was worried he wouldn’t have time to volunteer with Rescue Runners because of the campaign, but was able to maintain the activity.

Canales has been running his campaign with mostly small donations. His last campaign finance report filed Oct. 31 shows he received about eight contributions typically ranging from $25 to $500. The largest contribution of $1,000 – which he said would be the highest amount he would accept – was given by Woody and Gayle Hunt. 

The next campaign filing – the 8th day before the runoff – is due Friday.

Olivares brought in about 22 contributions totaling about $10,700 during the campaign finance reporting period that ended Oct. 31. The majority of her large donations came from local developers including $2,500 from local developer Stanley Jobe; $2,500 from Woody Hunt; $1,000 from Deborah Kastrin, vice president of Kasco Ventures Inc., a local real-estate development firm; and $1,250 from former city Rep. Steve Ortega.

She works for District 3 city Rep. Cassandra Hernandez, whose seat is not up for election until 2024. She also worked for city Rep. Alexsandra Annello. In Austin, she worked as a staff assistant and scheduler for Austin Congressman Lloyd Doggett and as a scheduler and legislative assistant for Sen. Carol Alvarado.

Olivares has campaigned on prioritizing street funding, advocating for economic growth and being accessible to constituents.

She said working for an elected official means she does not have a lot of free time, but one of her hobbies is crafting and upcycling.

“I’m not sure how successful I am or what my success rate is – I think I make more of a mess than actually completing tasks, but it’s nice to just step away, not think about things and be creative,” she said.

Olivares, 35, was also born and raised in El Paso and is a Jefferson High School graduate.

She is the youngest of three and was raised in a family of blue-collar workers. Her father, Isidro “Chilo” Olivares, was an Army veteran and U.S. Postal Service worker while her mother, Christina Olivares, managed the registrar’s office at El Paso Community College before she retired.

Her mother has been her biggest supporter on the campaign trail, she said.

“I’m lucky to have that support,” Olivares said. “She’s been my number one fan, my number one cheerleader.”

Being closer to her mother after her father died when she was in her mid to late 20s was one of the main drivers that led her back to El Paso after moving away to college. She left to attend the University of Texas at Austin at age 18.

She said moving to Austin shortly after graduating from Jefferson was a bit of a shock.

“I hadn’t really been to many places outside of El Paso,” she said.

But Olivares was able to adjust and ultimately majored in government. She then worked in public service in Austin after graduating before her return. She said she wanted to bring her experience to El Paso.

Olivares lives with her partner Anias Jaquez. 

“He’s experiencing El Paso one day at a time,” she said. “It’s been kind of a whirlwind for him…but I don’t think there’s a better way to learn about the city than from having to deal with block walking and things like that.”

Early voting continues through Tuesday ahead of Election Day on Saturday, Dec. 17.

Elida S. Perez is a senior reporter for El Paso Matters. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities...