The 2024 election season began Saturday, the first day candidates could officially file to run in the March primaries.
And while a number of federal and state races will be on the ballot – from U.S. president to state representatives – the two high-profile local races are for the seats of El Paso County sheriff and district attorney.
So far, five candidates, including four Democrats, have announced that they are running to replace Sheriff Richard Wiles, who is retiring and not seeking reelection after 16 years in office.
In the race for district attorney, three Democrats and one Republican have announced for the position, which was thrust into the spotlight last year when the previous DA abruptly resigned, leaving the office in a state of paralysis.
“What people don’t realize is that it is going to take a decades-long rebuild to get the District Attorney’s Office back to where it was,” El Paso defense attorney Leonard Morales said.
Yvonne Rosales, who was elected as the DA in 2020, resigned two years into her term before a trial to remove her from office was to be held. During her tenure, the El Paso County public defender got thousands of criminal cases dismissed without a trial or hearing because the DA’s Office failed to move the cases through the judicial system in the time allowed by law. Rosales was also criticized for dismantling the domestic violence unit and mishandling various criminal cases.
Morales, who ran for DA four years ago, said voters in 2020 did not understand just how powerful and important that position is. He hopes voters do better this time.
“Obviously, the new DA has to have a good legal mind because they have to make decisions that affect a lot of people,” he said. “But just as important, the person has to have a background in administration, preparing budgets. They must know the bureaucratic side of the operation, the day-to-day operations of an office.”
The District Attorney’s Office, which covers El Paso, Hudspeth and Culberson counties, has 175 employees and an operating budget of $21.7 million. The DA serves a four-year term and is paid $198,000, calculated under state statute.
El Paso attorney Justin Underwood said he hopes voters will take the time to examine the track record of all the DA candidates by looking at their entire careers.
“I think the experience of the candidates matters the most,” Underwood said. “Who has tried the most cases? Who has handled the most diverse collection of legal matters? Who has leadership experience in running/managing a successful office or entity?”
Among those who have announced they are running for district attorney are Republican incumbent Bill Hicks, who was appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott to replace Rosales. He doesn’t yet have a Republican primary opponent.
So far, three Democrats have said they will run for DA.
They include James Montoya, a former assistant district attorney who lost to Rosales in the 2020 Democratic runoff; Nancy Casas, an assistant El Paso county attorney who previously worked in the District Attorney’s Office; and Alma Trejo, who retired as judge for the El Paso County Criminal Court No. 1 and previously worked in the DA’s office.
Since no Republican has ever been elected DA in El Paso County, El Paso County Democratic Party Chairman Michael Apodaca said it’s important that voters in the Democratic primary vet the candidates.
“We have three great candidates. The primary is when we get to make sure we put the right candidate on the November ballot,” Apodaca said.
In the race for El Paso County sheriff, four Democrats and one Republican have announced. The sheriff is paid $190,000 a year, serves a four-year term and oversees a $147 million budget.
The Democrats who have publicly announced are Ryan Urrutia, a commander with the sheriff’s office; Oscar Ugarte, a county constable; Bobby Flores, who retired from the Sheriff’s Office after 33 years; and Raul Mendiola, a former El Paso police officer.
Republican Minerva Torres Shelton, a retired FBI agent, has said she plans to run in the Republican primary.
Here are some of the other key races in the Democratic primary:
- Texas House District 77: Incumbent Lina Ortega is not seeking reelection. Three former elected officials have declared an intent to run: former El Paso County Commissioner Vince Perez, city Rep. Alexsandra Annello and former state Rep. Norma Chavez.
- El Paso County Commissioner Precinct 1: Incumbent Carlos Leon is retiring and not seeking reelection. Jackie Butler, who is Leon’s senior policy advisor, has said she will run for office.
- 65th District Court: Judge Yahara Gutierrez is retiring. Defense lawyer Omar Carmona and Assistant County Attorney Selina Saenz have said they will run.
The March primary ballot will also include various other judicial races, as well as justices of the peace, county commissioner District 3, all of the county constables, the county attorney and the tax assessor-collector.
Anyone seeking to run in the primary has until Dec. 11 to file. Early voting will run from Feb. 20 to March 1. The last day to apply for a mail-in ballot is Feb. 23. The primary election in Texas will be on March 5.