EL PASO — In a modest office in east central El Paso, former state Rep. Norma Chávez spoke recently of her spiritual journey and weekly prayer group, and how she is 30 pounds lighter after adopting a healthier lifestyle. It is all part of a new perspective on life that she hopes will usher her back into the state Legislature after four years away from Austin.
Chávez, a Democrat, represented El Paso for 14 years, earning a reputation as a brawling, divisive figure who was a champion for the poor, the downtrodden, laborers and Native Americans. She will face César Blanco, a Navy veteran and former Democratic congressional staffer, in a May 27 runoff.
In 2010, Chávez lost her seat to Naomi Gonzalez, then a newcomer to state politics, after a bitter campaign in which Chávez lobbed personal attacks at Gonzalez. Political observers blamed Chávez’s rough tactics for her defeat.
This year, however, Gonzalez came in third behind Blanco and Chávez in the primary election. That race followed Gonzalez’s 2013 arrest in a drunken-driving case.
Chávez said it was not Gonzalez’s legal troubles that prompted her to run again, but rather four years of reflection.
“I feel as if I would have gone to my grave never knowing,” she said of being elected again. “I told my parents I’ll never know unless I do this.”
But Chávez acknowledges that she is the underdog. Though she made it to the next round, she faces a candidate with a clean slate. Though he has no legislative experience in Austin, Blanco, 38, has worked for several members of Congress, including three who have represented parts of El Paso.
Blanco won the March primary, receiving about 3,750 votes, or 44 percent of the ballots cast, shy of the 50 percent needed to advance to the November general election. Chávez received 29 percent.
From Blanco’s perspective, that means that it’s his race to lose.
“The fact that I received 44 percent of the vote against two incumbents demonstrates that people want change in this district,” he said. “People are frustrated. They want a person who is going to represent the district well, focus on the job.”
Chávez, well versed in political spin, said she sees it another way.
“Fifty-seven percent of the people didn’t vote for him, so he should be concerned,” she said.
But local political analysts suggest that voters who previously cast ballots for Gonzalez are more likely to favor Blanco in the runoff.
They describe Chávez as a polarizing figure who, during her 2010 campaign against Gonzalez, called her opponent a “lesbian gay woman” and accused her of not being truthful about her sexual orientation.
Chávez also made headlines in 2009 after she sent text messages to a Democratic colleague from El Paso, state Rep. Marisa Márquez, threatening to have her thrown out of Chávez’s college graduation celebration. The messages, which later became public, included one that read, “U R not my friend.”
Chávez is quick to note that Blanco is a relative newcomer to El Paso, after living and working for years in Washington. She is equally quick to point the finger at Gonzalez for making the claim against Blanco first.
“I believe that Rep. Gonzalez pointed out that he voted for the first time last year in El Paso,” she said.
Blanco said that was inaccurate. He has voted in El Paso County, he said, but in the district his father lives in.
Chávez is largely playing this campaign clean — what she calls the “newer” version of herself. Instead of resorting to an onslaught of verbal attacks on Blanco, she is promoting her own strengths and achievements, specifically her previous House committee assignments, which included a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, the lower chamber’s biennial budget-writing body. She also boasts of being appointed by two Republican House speakers to the influential Calendars Committee, which determines when and if proposed legislation will reach the floor for a vote.
“It’s negotiating. I have institutional experience, and that’s extremely important,” she said. She added that, if re-elected, she would be among the 25 legislators with the most seniority, according to House rules.
Richard D. Pineda, the associate director of the Sam Donaldson Center for Communication Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso, said that while those credentials add to an impressive résumé, voters are not likely to pay them much mind.
“I think when it comes to certain legislative skill sets, that’s very much inside baseball,” Pineda said. “The second you get voted out of office, in my mind, it’s like a legislative experiential reset. People didn’t like you for all these good accomplishments, so what’s your affirmative argument down the road?”
Blanco said his years working for members of Congress make up for his lack of experience at the state level.
“She’s got 14 years of experience in a part-time Legislature,” he said. “I have close to 10 years experience in a full-time Legislature.”
He also has the support of four members of the El Paso County legislative delegation, including state Rep. Mary González, D-Clint. González said her endorsement of Blanco was based on how he presented himself.
“Norma has always been a very nice person to me,” González said. “But who do I think will be more respected and effective? It’s César.”
Chávez brushed off the endorsements, saying that was just the way the political game was played.
But whether her self-described renewal is enough to propel her back to into the House is still an open question.
“I think our delegation has already decided who they want to work with,” Blanco said.
Disclosure: The University of Texas at El Paso is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.