By: Norma Chávez
During the last census, El Paso lost population. As a result, we lost representation at the state level. We now have 4 state representatives as House District 76 is in the greater Houston area.
Recently State Representative Lina Ortega announced her retirement. This creates an open seat for House District 77. I have met and continue to meet with various community leaders and former and current elected officials about returning to Austin to help and work for El Paso with our state delegation. I will decide soon and will make a formal announcement to seek the Democratic Party nomination for House District 77.
I would like to provide some facts and information to help put into perspective my political career. The article posted by El Paso News on August 12, 2023, does not provide a complete narrative of my tenure in the Texas legislature nor does it reflect my community-based leadership.
I am blessed to be a caregiver for my 90-year-old parents. I am their only child. I am a dog Mom and dog Godmother. I am a small businesswoman; a communications, political, and short-term rental consultant, and an Airbnb Superhost. I have worked to elect candidates at the state, county, city, and judicial levels. I do not seek recognition or anything in return for helping these leaders to serve in public office. I work with and support candidates I believe have the values to serve as leaders of our community honorably.
Prior to serving in the legislature, I worked as a citizen advocate for clean air public policy pertaining to the auto emissions program in non-attainment areas of the state and nation. The issue was complex. It was a liberal clean air issue as well as a conservative business issue for businesses participating in the auto emissions industry. Our family business, NCN Texaco gas station, participated in the Texas Safety and Emissions sticker program.
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In 1990, the Federal Clean Air Act Amendments included a change in public policy requiring auto emission testing to be conducted in centralized facilities. This meant that you could no longer go to your neighborhood Mom & Pop sticker station or auto dealership. Conveniently, only one corporation had the capacity and expertise to provide centralized emission testing in non-attainment air quality cities across the nation.
This federal public policy rule required public hearings and comment. I organized hundreds of small businessmen and women in El Paso, going door-to-door, to educate, organize, and fight against the public policy that would allow a single for-profit corporation to take over auto emission testing. I testified at the EPA public hearing in Washington D.C., representing our organization, Community Based Business Organization (CBBO). After the public comment period, the EPA rule proposal was reversed, and we won the issue at the federal level.
The for-profit corporation, having lost at the federal level, sought a new strategy; to pass legislation through state legislatures. Thus, the Texas Clean Air Act, as introduced, was basically a state version of the federal rule proposal.
As a non-paid citizen advocate and organizer, I had to work with both Democrats and Republicans to pass a commonsense approach to reducing auto emissions that would provide real clean air solutions that impacted non-attainment air quality in cities like El Paso. I had to argue that our air quality was not like the bigger cities of Dallas or Houston as we shared an air shed with Juárez, Mexico.
Working with Senator John Whitmire, a Democrat from Houston, and State Representative Jim Horn, a Republican from Denton, and after House and Senate hearings, the Texas Clean Air Act passed. This victory allowed the independent safety and emission testing small businesses to continue operating. Polar political opposite legislators worked together for clean air solutions.
I am taking time to explain this issue because the issue changed my life course. It was and is the issue that took me to the Texas legislature. I had learned to work on an issue with both Democrats and Republicans for good public policy. It needs to happen more often, and I can utilize this political skill once again for El Paso as we are currently a Republican red-meat state. People are tired of the bitter partisanship.
I have never served at the City or County level of government. I went from a citizen advocate winning an issue at the federal and state level to the Texas legislature. My leadership was/is community-based.
Prior to serving in the legislature and during the time I was organizing small businesses in the auto emission industry, I served 2 years with the United Farm Workers of America after Cesar Chavez’s unexpected death. I was a Texas public action organizer in El Paso and helped organize various national and Texas UFW union campaigns and events.
I also worked on controversial local issues.
During the early 1990s, political strife was brewing at the city-funded El Paso Museum of Art when the then-board president called artist Carmen Lomas Garza’s exhibit “an embarrassment to the community”.
This commenced an art revolution period at the museum which resulted in much-needed change as the critically acclaimed national exhibit “Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation” came to our Museum of Art. I was asked by the museum director to assist with outreach and organized the “Low Rider and Gente Parade” which served as the biggest El Paso Museum of Art opening in the history of the museum (2,300 plus people came through the door on day 1). As the museum diversified exhibits, I was asked and organized the first and only “Charro Parade” at the museum, celebrating the art of the Charro complete with horsemen Charros and “Escaramuzas – Charras” and their regalia marching their horses on Montana (where the public museum used to be located) to open the exhibit.
Concurrently, I continued my political and legislative efforts at the state level. It took 3 legislative sessions (6 years) to pass the Texas Clean Air Act.
All these experiences served as an important foundation for solidifying my values: faith, family, and community. They also rooted me in the city I love where I was born and raised.
These experiences also taught me how to play bi-partisan hardball. It wasn’t always easy. But because of these experiences, I was never afraid to cross the aisle to work with Republicans when needed. I wasn’t always successful, but I made the effort. I was never afraid to push forward for El Paso. El Paso’s needs always came first.
When I was elected, I became the first Mexican American woman to serve in the Texas Legislature from El Paso. I am the first woman from El Paso to Chair a standing committee in the Texas House of Representatives, the first Mexican American woman from El Paso to serve on the powerful Appropriations and Calendars Committee (Vice Chair), Higher Education Committee, Financial Institutions Committee, Defense and Veteran Affairs Committee, Human Services Committee (Vice Chair) and I am the first state legislator in both the House and Senate to obtain a State Official (SO) Plate for a motorcycle.
During my 14 years serving in the Texas legislature, I was human. I was young. I erred. I learned from my errors. I was written about regularly because I was moving the pendulum too fast. I had to bootstrap my way through, working with an all-male delegation that didn’t always play nice. I learned to survive and deliver for El Paso.
I utilized my life experiences, leadership training, and political gut instinct to help pass important legislation for El Paso, raise issues, stand with the people on state and local issues, and help kill a few bad bills.
I also fell a few times as a legislator. But it is not how you fall; it is how you get up.
As a newly elected member of the Texas House of Representatives, I was familiar with the legislative process from the perspective of “we the people”. And like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” as a freshman member of the Texas House, I learned quickly that politics on the inside of the incredible political institution was a whole new and complex world.
The following are some of the important legislative accomplishments to help provide a deeper political and legislative narrative of my 14-year tenure as a state legislator.
In my freshman session, I learned the process of law-making: how to introduce and pass a bill through the committee process, get a bill through the House and Senate chambers, and finally get a bill to the Governor’s desk where your bill(s) will be signed or vetoed.
In my first term during the 75th Legislative session, the most important legislative action I accomplished was adding an amendment to the highly debated home equity lending bill. My amendment prohibited lenders from redlining. As a freshman legislator, I amended the Texas Constitution simply because my amendment was included in the final bill and passed into law once approved by the voters of Texas as it was a constitutional amendment.
As a sophomore legislator in the 76th Legislative session, I was the first legislator to pass a bill creating a state felony for human trafficking known as the “Coyote Bill”. I also worked with Senator Carlos Truan to pass the “Cesar Chavez Texas Holiday,” a state-optional holiday bill, and a United Farm Workers of America and Cesar Chavez family victory. Si Se Puede!
As a junior legislator in the 77th Legislative session, I once again utilized the amendment process to pass an important bill for El Paso. My incredible staff as well as the brilliant staff of the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas (CLEAT) helped me to pass the 20-year retirement bill for El Paso County employees (all employees, not just county law enforcement officers). Once my bill passed, County Commissioners were permitted to pass and add (and they did) the 20-year retirement as an option for El Paso County employees.
It was what we called the Hail Mary bill. The El Paso Sheriff Officer’s Association (EPSOA) brought the bill to my office. Unfortunately, upon introducing the bill in committee, it was sent to a “subcommittee” where basically, bills are sent to die. However, we found a bill that was germane which allowed my entire bill to be added as an amendment to a bill heading to the governor’s office requiring 100 votes on the House Floor. We got the votes, and it became law!
I also passed legislation that clarified the helmet law allowing motorcyclists over 21 to have the right to not wear a helmet if they have taken the Motorcycle Awareness class and have insurance. I passed legislation that created the Texas Tech Diabetes Research Center in El Paso and passed an appropriation rider establishing funding for the Center for Law and Border Studies at UTEP as a foundation step for a law school.
I passed legislation creating County Courts of Law in El Paso County, County Criminal Court #1 and County Criminal Court #2; passed legislation designating a portion of Loop 375 as “Cesar Chavez Border Highway”; and passed legislation establishing a telemedicine pilot program for rural border areas located not more than 150 miles from the Texas/Mexico Border.
In support of the elderly, I passed a bill at the request of Silver Hair Legislators that established a committee to study the need for geriatric education as a requisite for medical school graduation.
I also passed a House Resolution declaring El Paso as the International Gateway City of the Americas. My junior legislative session was exciting and effective.
As a four-term legislator in the 78th Legislature, my legislative accomplishments include the expansion of the Texas Transportation Commission as House Sponsor from 3 members to 5 members and securing the first commissioner from El Paso. I passed legislation that allowed for concurrent approval from state and federal governments to expedite funding for the construction of a bridge in El Paso at Tornillo. At the request of the El Paso legal and judicial community, I passed legislation for the Council of Judges to improve court proceedings.
In response to constituents in El Paso, I passed legislation modifying procedures for customs brokers by streamlining the process and passed legislation that provided expanded payment options for ambulance services at nursing healthcare facilities.
In the 79th Texas legislative session, I passed legislation increasing the Texas Workforce Commission’s Skills Development Fund from $25 to $40 million by creating a formula utilizing 1/10 of 1% of the Unemployment Insurance (UI) Fund. I passed legislation requiring local workforce boards to incorporate financial literacy into workforce training programs and passed a study bill to determine the causes of the state’s residential foreclosure rates.
I also passed legislation for the Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo, transferring the “La Loma del Espejo” to the tribe (a tract of land important to them), and passed legislation allowing a local government to contract with a federally recognized Indian Tribe under 25 U.S.C. Section 479a-1 (includes the Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo). In addition, I amended the Transportation Code to allow the Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo to purchase a tract of the Ysleta Grant adjacent to their Tigua Reservation.
I also passed legislation protecting recording artists and proceeds from claims.
In the 80th Texas legislative session, serving on the Appropriations Committee I was the lead El Paso legislator to secure the $48 million needed to open the Texas Tech Medical School and in committee removed a contingency measure that released an additional $18 million for the medical school. As a committee member, I introduced and secured a $9 million appropriation rider needed to restore solvency to the Fire Fighter’s Pension Fund and secured $1 million needed in debt service to issue $12 million in bonds for the Economically Distressed Areas Program (EDAP) for Colonias.
Helping the El Paso legal and judicial community, I passed legislation creating Judicial District Courts #1 and #2, El Paso County Criminal Courts of Law #3 and #4, and the 448th Judicial District Court.
In support of deputy sheriffs, I passed legislation that includes them in the coverage of a civil service system and protects deputies in that system from suspension because of an election or replacement of a Sheriff of that County.
I also passed legislation to allow local governments the option of exempting taxation of goods-in-transit and passed legislation to restore the personal needs allowance to $60 a month from $45 a month for eligible elderly residents of nursing facilities.
Working with the late great legendary “Supreme” Mary Wilson of the original “Supremes”, I passed legislation presented by Mary to protect original performing bands such as the “Supremes” from imposter bands requiring an original member of the band to be in the band before they can name themselves after an original band.
In support of ensuring that farmworker housing facilities are inspected routinely to ensure they are maintained and do not fall into poor and unsanitary conditions, I passed legislation transferring the responsibility of licensing and inspecting these facilities to the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs.
During the 81st Texas Legislature, my 7th and final term, as an appropriations committee member, I passed increased funding for the Skills Development Fund by $30 million, and increased funding for the Program of All Inclusive Care for Elderly (PACE), a program important to El Paso. In support of El Paso, I passed legislation allowing the El Paso Regional Development Corporation (REDCo) to use the Skills Development Fund.
In support of transparency and access to emerging technology, I passed legislation improving the accountability and transparency of the Emerging Technology Fund. I also passed legislation that establishes the use of additional job incentive programs by the Texas Workforce Commission using the skills development fund.
I passed legislation to protect the elderly and disabled community when they are a victim of a crime, by requiring a court to order an attorney representing the state to take a deposition of an elderly or disabled person who is the alleged victim of or witness to an offense no later than the 60th day after the state files an application to take the deposition. The law also establishes procedures and time frames for the deposition. (All legislation can be found at Texas Legislature Online at capitol.texas.gov).
The above are legislative highlights during my 14-year tenure in the Texas House of Representatives. In summation, during my tenure as a Texas state representative,
I authored 50 bills, sponsored 22 senate bills, and authored 75 amendments that were adopted and became law.
I was recognized for my organizing and leadership skills and participated in various leadership groups/organizations training before and after serving in elected office. This includes The Industrial Areas Foundation’s 2-week training in Los Angeles, California, and 2 two-year Urban and Education Leadership trainings; Texas United Farm Workers of America 2-year Grape Boycott public action organizer; Harvard University, Kennedy School of Government Leadership Studies; American Council of Young Political Leaders National Democratic Delegate to Japan, International Leadership Studies; Center for Public Policy Alternatives: Flemming Fellows Leadership Institute; National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Institute (NALEO) leadership workshops.
I served as an Obama for America Campaign volunteer and supporter. I supported his U.S. Senate race, formally endorsed him in February of 2007, filed then-Senator Obama’s candidacy papers for President of the United States with the Texas Democratic Party, participated in leadership calls, and canvassed in Nevada, New Jersey, Texas, and New Mexico for Senator Obama’s presidential campaign.
I served as an Obama Delegate to the 2008 Democratic National Convention (DNC). A lifelong Democrat, I have served as a DNC Delegate to Democratic National Conventions in 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012. I have served on various committees at national, state, and local DNC and Texas Democratic Party conventions and have Chaired various committees. I was the GOTV Field Coordinator for Democratic candidates David Bernsen for Land Commissioner and Tom Ramsey for Agriculture Commissioner. I also served as Chair of the Camino Real Mexican American Democrats.
I was recognized by various groups while serving in the Texas Legislature including being awarded the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas (CLEAT) “State Representative of the Year Award” and “Best of the House” Award; “Libby Linebarger Award” for improving Child Care; Texas Association of Mexican American Chambers of Commerce (TAMACC) Leadership and Humanitarian Award; Sierra Blanc Legal Defense Fund “Politician of the People Award”; State Bar of Texas “Tom Diamond Award of Excellence for the Advancement of Native American Affairs Award”; El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Leaders Award; Hispanic Business Advocate of the Year: TAMACC; Texas LULAC Humanitarian Leadership Award, and the Texas Motorcycle Rights Association “State Representative of the Year Award.”
I currently serve on the El Paso Independent School District Citizens Bond Advisory Committee (CBAC), am a Legacy Member of Korean War Veterans Association, Col. Joseph C. Rodriguez – Medal of Honor Chapter 249, Board Member of Mountain Star Federal Credit Union, hold an inactive Texas Board of Realtors salesman’s license, Texas motorcycle license and volunteer for various community-based groups and organizations.
I am grateful for my legislative journey, working with hundreds of members I served with in the Texas Legislature, leading the incredible staff and interns who worked for the people of El Paso, and for the opportunity to serve.
I hope this helps provide a more complete narrative of my tenure in the People’s House: the Texas House of Representatives. Thank you.
About the Author:
Norma Chávez was elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1997. She lost to Naomi Gonzalez in the runoff on April 13, 2010. Chávez is preparing to announce in the near future her intentions about running in 2024.
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