In Texas, city council elections are nonpartisan, with neither a ‘D’ nor an ‘R’ appearing on the ballot beside a candidate’s name. In the runoff for District 6 in El Paso, however, the race has become increasingly partisan – in what both candidates describe as an “unfortunate” development caused by their opponent.
Two-term state representative Art Fierro is trying to unseat City Council member Claudia Lizette Rodriguez in the runoff race for District 6, which spans part of the Lower Valley and the area just west of Loop 375. Early voting for the runoff election ends on Tuesday, Dec. 13; voting day is Saturday, Dec. 17.
In a rare but not unprecedented move, the El Paso County Democratic Party voted to endorse Fierro on Nov. 15, after what was initially a four-way race progressed to a runoff. It has not issued endorsements in the two other municipal runoff races for District 1 and District 8.
“The El Paso County Democratic Party has traditionally refrained from weighing in on non-partisan municipal races,” the organization has said in multiple press releases. “However, in egregious cases, especially in this case when a candidate works against our community’s values, we have taken the extraordinary step of alerting the public.”
The local party cited Rodriguez’s City Council voting record, her appearances on right-wing political talk shows and her alleged campaign finance violations as issues.
“I know I’m getting blamed for making it partisan,” Rodriguez told El Paso Matters. “But I’m not the one that’s getting endorsed by any political party. The only one that’s been endorsed by a political party is my opponent,” she added, claiming that Fierro had “corrupted the process.”
In heavily Democratic El Paso, turning the City Council race into a partisan fight would appear to favor Fierro.
In early voting, which ended Tuesday, almost 54% of District 6 runoff voters had also cast ballots in the March Democratic primary, while only 18% had cast ballots in the Republican primary, according to an El Paso Matters analysis of county voting records. The remaining runoff early voters didn’t vote in either primary.
In recent weeks, state and local Democrats have thrown their support behind Fierro, a Democrat who describes himself as a fiscal conservative and a social liberal.
A Nov. 30 “Kickoff Rally” and fundraiser for Fierro drew Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa. In a speech to the crowd of 50 gathered at the Eastside Morra Mia restaurant, Hinojosa said: “It’s critical that we have someone like Art (Fierro) on the City Council, making sure that the crazy agenda doesn’t become the agenda of the city.”
“When I have to (reach out to) the city on immigration, on human rights, on the women’s commissions. … I cannot afford having individuals with values that are not representative of this community,” El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said in another speech that night.
And in the event’s final speech, Fierro said Rodriguez had “turned this into a partisan race. And I have a theory on that. I believe she’s turned it into a partisan race because she doesn’t have a platform of substance.”
Before the El Paso County Democratic Party came out in favor of Fierro, it came out against Rodriguez. On Oct. 22, it issued a “voter alert” urging constituents not to vote for Rodriguez in the Nov. 8 midterm election. It cited her alleged campaign finance violations as part of what “compelled” the local Democratic Party to “warn the public” about Rodriguez.
Rodriguez said she is now “in compliance” with state campaign finance laws; this Sunday, she also pointed to a late campaign finance filing by Fierro, who did not submit a report until later that evening. Candidates in the runoff elections are supposed to file a final campaign finance report with the El Paso City Clerk’s Office eight days before election day – what would have been Friday, Dec. 9.
In an interview, Fierro said he had attempted to call the City Clerk on Friday, learned in a voicemail recording that the office was closed on Fridays, and said he’d assumed he could file the next business day. “I’m not convinced, first and foremost, that it was late,” he said.
The county Democratic Party statements have also seized on Rodriguez’s voting record as evidence of her partisanship – including her votes in previous Republican primaries, as well as two of her City Council votes this year.
One of the votes was against a resolution that would have asked police to make investigations into abortion-related crimes their lowest priority following the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade; another was Rodriguez’s vote against the establishment of the city’s Women’s Rights Commission.
“I don’t believe in necessarily spending money on boards and commissions,” she said of her vote against the Women’s Rights Commission. “Maybe like two or three council (sessions) ago, there was another recommendation for another board or commission – something about planning, or I’m not sure – but I voted against the creation of that one as well.”
Rodriguez has not yet appointed someone to represent District 6 on the Women’s Rights Commission; all other city representatives and the mayor have done so. Rodriguez said she has submitted two nominations that did not go through. “I have offered it to multiple people, but nobody wants to serve on that board,” she said, adding that constituents could contact her if they were interested in serving on the commission.
The county Democratic Party also cited Rodriguez’s appearances on Fox political talk shows – “a network that pushes xenophilia, misinformation, and conspiracy theories,” it said in its statement. In mid-October, Rodriguez appeared on “Fox & Friends” and “Jesse Waters Prime Time” to critique city spending on services to Venezuelan migrants. She also disputed Mayor Oscar Leeser’s claim that the White House hadn’t pressured him to hold off on declaring a local emergency in response to a rise in border crossings.
(The mayor was shown in a Sept. 27 City Council meeting saying that the White House had “asked” him not to declare a local emergency.)
In a text message, Rodriguez said she had engaged with “all the local news outlets” on the issue, in addition to the Fox opinion shows; she also responded to CNN journalists’ inquiries and gave a short interview to one of the network’s reporters, she said.
In an interview with El Paso Matters, Fierro said “it’s unfortunate that we’ve gotten to this point.”
“As much as I appreciate the support, and I appreciate the Chairman (Hinojosa) coming down and spending his time and his money to be here to help us, it really is a door that should not have been opened,” Fierro said.
The race “really should be about taxes; it really should be about the lack of services, about the city manager,” he noted. “There’s 100 things it should be about. It shouldn’t be about partisanship.”
On taxes, Rodriguez has come under fire for issuing campaign mailers and other materials that say she has never voted to increase El Pasoans’ taxes – a claim undercut by her vote in favor of the city’s 2021 budget and tax rate, which resulted in property tax increases.
Fierro said he has voted to increase El Pasoans’ taxes during his tenure as trustee and chair of the El Paso Community College board of regents. Fierro described these votes as a good investment in community college students and workforce development, but said he would not vote to increase taxes if elected to City Council.
“The difference at the college is there’s concrete proof of the positive effect that happened with those dollars,” he said. In contrast, “the city, the city budget – the constituents, the taxpayers – we’re overtaxed.”
Fierro has drawn criticism from some of his fellow Texas House Democrats who left Austin during the special legislative session to break quorum so that the Republican-controlled House could not pass restrictions to voting rights. After a month away, Fierro and two other El Paso representatives were some of the earliest Democrats to return to Texas.
State Rep. Jasmine Crockett, D-Dallas, said in a tweet, “I’ve said this before… it’s a Team Sport… now we see who plays what positions on the Team…”
Fierro has said he returned on Aug. 9, 2021, because the state Democrats had achieved their goals.
Texas made its municipal elections nonpartisan following the 1900 hurricane that decimated the city of Galveston, said Calvin Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, in an interview with the Dallas Morning News. Nonpartisanship was thought to help local leaders efficiently collaborate, he said.
While many other states host nonpartisan local elections, experts say their benefits are mixed. The absence of a political party affiliation may confuse voters who rely on such labels to inform their votes; some studies have shown that nonpartisan elections magnify already strong odds for candidates with name recognition – such as incumbents, the wealthy and celebrities.
8:45 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 13: This story was updated to include an analysis of March primary election participation by early voters in the District 6 runoff.