El Paso is the only major Texas city that does not have a strong two-party system in place. The Democratic Party still controls most of the local races here. Why is that? San Antonio used to be a one-party city like El Paso but that changed in the 1990’s. The Bexar County Republican Party started running candidates in most of the local races. And, lo and behold, some of candidates started beating their Democrat opponents. Admittedly, in some races it was more a vote against an unpopular Democrat candidate than a vote for the Republican opponent. But, nevertheless, the Republicans started getting their feet in the door. One such race in San Antonio was the District Attorney race in 1990. San Antonio had never had a Republican District Attorney before. The District Attorney who held the office that year was Fred Rodriguez, a former Asst. District Attorney and a former Asst. U.S. Attorney. He found himself challenged by a Republican attorney named Steven Hilbig who had a similar background to that of Rodriguez. Rodriguez would probably have beaten Hilbig had he not become embroiled in a political scandal. It seems his office had a zealous Assistant D.A. named Therese Huntzinger. She had drafted an indictment against a local attorney named Jack Pytel (who, incidentally was just indicted by the Feds for bribing two San Antonio City Council members) for alleged jury tampering in a criminal case.
Rodriguez, who was an ally of Pytel, found out and ordered her not to take the indictment to the Grand Jury. She did so anyway and Rodriguez fired her for insubordination. The grand jury returned a true bill indicting Pytel, but it was later dismissed. Huntzinger filed a Whistleblower lawsuit against Fred Rodriguez and the D.A.’s Office and eventually won. Rodriguez’s opponent Hilbig used that incident in his campaign ads and portrayed Rodriguez as a corrupt official. Even so, Hilbig himself was surprised when he beat the incumbent Rodriguez to become Bexar County’s first Republican District Attorney. Other county offices and judgeships, which had previously been occupied by only Democrats, started to see Republicans winning races against incumbent Democrats. Now Bexar County has a strong two-party system where either party has a chance to win a local office or judgeship.
In El Paso County, unless your last name is Haggerty (as in Pat or Dan), Republicans haven’t been very successful in defeating Democrats. In fact, you seldom see Republicans even running against the Democrats. If a local judge (and right now, except for one Republican appointee, all the judgeships are held by Democrats) does get an opponent, it is someone from the same party. Most of the races are decided in the Democrat Primary. And, unless the incumbent judge makes some kind of political blunder, he/she will usually win the Primary election. Then the general election in November just becomes a formality for the judge to be re-elected.
In 1998 and 2000, a Republican candidate named Kathleen Cardone, who had been appointed twice by then Governor George Bush to vacant El Paso County benches, ran for election to the benches and was twice defeated by Democrats although she was believed by those in the legal communtity to be the better qualified candidate. After seeing Judge Cardone be defeated twice, it was difficult for the Republican Party to recruit anyone to run for a local judgeship, or for that matter, any office at all. It is widely believed that if the Republicans had run someone against County Judge Dolores Briones, after all the criticism she has received this year, she might have been defeated in the general election.
If you look at the judges running for re-election on this year’s El Paso County ballot, you will find that none of them have an opponent except for Chief Justice Richard Barajas of the Eighth District Court of Appeals. Former Democrat Judge Peter Peca switched to the Republican Party to run against Barajas. It is important for judges and other local candidates to have opposition because it keeps them honest. If they have no opposition year after year, it is easy for them to become complacent and to think that they can do almost anything and get away with it. Some of you may remember that in the late 1980’s El Paso had a county court at law judge who was indicted. He was the judge responsible for Probate matters. When someone died without any known heirs, it was his practice to assign attorney friends of his to try to locate heirs. If no heirs could be located, then the attorney would be granted a big portion of the deceased’s estate (in violation of state statutes) as his/her fee. There was also an arrangement with a local funeral home owner that the deceased would be given a burial. The funeral home owner would then bill the county above the customary rate. Supposedly, the judge was getting a kickback from both the attorneys and the funeral home owner. The judge worked out a deal with prosecutors and was allowed to resign his bench rather than face trial. Apparently, the scheme had been going on for ten years. The judge, who had been on the bench for more than ten years, had never faced an opponent during that time.
My advice to the Republican Party is recruit candidates year round to run for every county position. You may lose in the beginning, but eventually some of the candidates will be successful. You will never get ahead if you don’t field any candidates. We all win when we have a strong two-party system.