The Prospector

Candidates fighting for congressional seat

By Henry Arrambide

Published: Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Updated: Friday, May 17, 2013


Special to The Prospector

With Beto O'Rourke taking on incumbent Silvestre Reyes, who has 16 years in office as El Paso's congressional representative, the local Democratic primary is becoming what some describe as a heated and exciting campaign.

"I am really fired up about this upcoming congressional primary because it's been a while since the last time we had a heated race in the 16th district," said Julio Diaz, senior Latin American and border studies major and external liaison for the University Democrats at UTEP.

"However, aside from the local political games, the media attention and an increase in voter turnout in the upcoming Democratic primary, this race will not be a contested race."

Diaz said he believes two of the challengers, Jerome Tilghman and Ben Mendoza, have no factual opportunity at landing the big prize.

"Beto O'Rourke has a better opportunity than the other two, because of his political network and experience in city council. However, at this time, he does not have the momentum to pose a real threat to the congressman," Diaz said. "Reyes is the one with the influence and seniority, the one that brings the money to the El Paso Democratic Party."

Reyes has been in office since 1997. During his time in Congress, he has served as the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. His experiences as an armed services member and as a member of the Select Intelligence Committee have made him a key member of Congress on defense and military issues. That influence and seniority is what Congressman Reyes hopes will help them pull votes in the election. However, O'Rourke has a different view.

"I think that a big part of the problem is that you've had someone in D.C. for so long that they've lost touch with El Paso," O'Rourke said. "You may have someone up there with the seniority and the relationships, which can be beneficial, but why then is it that our Veteran's Affairs system ranks the worst in the country? Why do we have terrible long bridge lines that affect jobs and the economy here in El Paso?"

Reyes has been advertising himself as a candidate who works, literally, with his "Reyes Works" campaign. According to Reyes, he has worked to get more than $6 million in funding to improve the UTEP campus, $128 million for road construction projects and more than $1 billion to build the new William Beaumont Army Medical Center.

Reyes promotes himself as a seasoned candidate who knows who to work within Congress to better the situation for El Paso's middle class.

"I stand with President Obama, thank him for his leadership and implore him to continue to fight for working middle-class Americans. I also stand committed to helping the President protect Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and veterans' benefits to ensure that our heroes and some of the most vulnerable groups in our society have the support they need," Reyes said in a recent statement.

O'Rourke is challenging the incumbent as a young politician with fresh ideas, which is something that attracts voters such as Luis Santos, senior history major.

"Some things I've heard, and I'm taking a few liberties here, is that Reyes doesn't show up to vote a lot and O'Rourke has called him out on that, that he spends more time in Washington than he does down here," Santos said. "I believe that with that kind of attitude it's demonstrating complacency with his position, it's more of a privilege than a public duty to his constituents in his district. To me, I believe Beto O'Rourke would do a better job of listening to his constituents."

O'Rourke is a former member of El Paso's City Council, where he was involved in such initiatives as helping draft an anti-minutemen resolution and the downtown revitalization plan. He also attracted controversy over his advocacy of using eminent domain in conjunction with the plan. O'Rourke believes that Reyes' seniority has not produced much for El Paso.

"Well obviously, I dispute that because I live here," Reyes said. "Every week I commute to Washington D.C. to do the business of representing the 16th district in Washington D.C. I live here, I shop here, I meet here with people as much as I can, I know these issues firsthand."

Reyes said his experience of working in this district makes him stand out in Congress when dealing with issues like border security.

 "I think in terms of my background I'm the only member of Congress that has experience with border issues like border security and I have border patrol experience out of all representatives," Reyes said. "So, I think it's important to highlight my record and let the people decide. The people have a clear understanding of what they want represented at a federal level."

O'Rourke and Reyes are not the only two candidates in the race. Jerome Tilghman, a former educator and Army officer, is also in the running, with his primary focus being on education. He believes a strong, educated labor force is the key to El Paso succeeding in the future.

One of Tilghman's major points of discussion is that he is a candidate who is free of the widespread corruption in El Paso politics, and that Reyes and O'Rourke are candidates who are debating issues they should have resolved together years ago, working as members of Congress and city council.

The fourth candidate, Ben Mendoza, a local activist and member of the group that tried to recall mayor John Cook, is focused on bringing more jobs to the borderland to help increase El Paso's tax base, one of his ideas is to build a transnational monorail from El Paso to Juarez that would take people up and down I-10.

"I really like to follow politics in general and would like to say this election is very important," Santos said. "We have the first serious challenger to an incumbent in 16 years in the El Paso area."

With four candidates in the running, Diaz said there is an array of issues that are important at multiple levels of government that the candidates should be ready for.

"At the state level, there are issues like re-districting, college tuition, the Dream Act, voter ID law and the prevention of immigration law enforcement by local police," Diaz said. "At the federal level, issues such as immigration reform, union workers and their collective bargaining rights, the economy and the presidential election are also important for me, among many others issues."

An upcoming debate for the candidates will take place at 7 p.m. March 1 at Coronado High School. The Texas primary election is scheduled for April 3.

El Paso has traditionally experienced low voter turnout. According to the El Paso County election summary report, the last time Reyes was on the ballot only 13.1 percent of all eligible voters cast their votes.

"Voter turnout is important; you have the tools to make a difference for your community simply by voting," Santos said. "People don't think it makes a difference — look, it can make a difference if Reyes is voted out and Tilghman or O'Rourke is voted in."

Henry Arrambide may be contacted at


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