The Lion's Den: Politics makes strange bedfellows
by Jaime Abeytia
Posted on April 23, 2009
It's true of politics anywhere, but particularly so in El Paso. There is a uniqueness about El Paso politics that makes it so great to watch. Maybe it's the cast of characters, maybe it's the environment, or maybe it's just something in the storm water, but there is more drama in El Paso politics than the box DVD set of Betty La Fea.
The fact that El Paso is a small town is one reason that politics gets real interesting around here. It makes for close friends and at times, deep hatred. Alliances can be pretty solid, but nothing runs as deep as a good old-fashioned political blood feud.
There are a few political factions in town, but there are people within the various factions that go back and forth between factions from time to time and there are even rivalries within the factions that many do not know about. In general, the factions are pretty disciplined about drawing political lines. The Shapleighites, the Lutherites, and the Chavistas (Norma, not Cesar) are the top echelon of alliances and rivalries. That doesn’t mean that these three individuals are calling all the shots, though there is a degree of shot-calling, but it is more often just the figureheads that politicos tend to align themselves to.
County Attorney Jose Rodriguez is starting to develop a stable of his own with several of his former staff winning elections recently. It's probably the most well-known secret in town that state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh and state Rep. Norma Chavez will duke it out for U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes' seat when he retires. There is talk that Rodriguez may find his way into that race as well.
I should also point out that not everyone fits nice and neatly into a faction. Mayor John Cook is usually aligned with the Shapleighites, but has been known to veer off at times. It's well-known he covets a position in Austin. County Judge Anthony Cobos at times appears to be a lone wolf despite ties to Luther Jones (namesake of the "Lutherites"), and Reyes has a political machine at play, though it hasn’t produced too many other elected officials as yet.
Many elected officials think they are the head of their own factions; they aren't, but they like to think that. City Reps. Eddie Holguin and Steve Ortega are an example of a political rivalry between the factions. They probably won't admit to a rivalry, and they may not admit to being in a faction, but Holguin is a Chavista and Ortega is a Shapleighite. On City Council the rivalries seem to be most pronounced between the Shapleigh and Luther factions.
Only in El Paso's political scene do you have such on odd pairing of people that are interwoven in both friendly and contentious relations. Here's an example of just how complex it can be:
-- Holguin and Ortega are rivals and I am friendly with both.
-- Holguin is friendly with Jaime O. Perez (Cobos' chief of staff) and Perez and I aren't going to be exchanging Christmas cards anytime soon. [Ethics complaint filed against county judge's chief of staff, March 20, 2009]
-- Former city Rep. Alejandro Lozano is Holguin's tio-in-law and they won't be exchanging Christmas cards either, yet Jaime O. Perez is close to both.
-- Holguin endorsed city Rep. Emma Acosta, Lozano's rival, which brings us back to Ortega, who is also supporting Acosta.
I communicate well with Holguin, Ortega, Lozano, and Acosta. Despite the fact that David Crowder focuses on Holguin's actions, I happen to think Holguin is a pretty good member of council, even if he occasionally forgets to ask Crowder permission to take a dump during council meetings.
The existence of factions can also lead people to make some erroneous assumptions. For example, I have a great relationship with Holguin and Ortega and write critical and laudatory pieces about both. People not familiar with that dynamic might assume that if I write a piece complimentary of Holguin that I am aligned with him, or that if I write a laudatory piece about Ortega then I am in his corner.
The truth is I have to be able to have them both trust me in order to get them to be candid with me. That means I have to respect when a conversation is off the record and look at an issue from both sides before I decide what side to take. Not an easy thing to do because we all come to the table with our own ideas, thoughts, morals, and values, but they both take my compliments and criticisms well and know that they are issue-based and not personal. They both have to know that I don’t “work” for anyone, rival or friend. I have similar relationships with other community leaders and elected and appointed officials.
Another way this erroneous assumption comes in to play is when one assumes that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. That is not always the case and can more often than not lead to even more division.
A recent piece on the NPT blog underscores the overlapping of factions in El Paso and features an email exchange between Chavez and Perez. Perez played a key role in at least one of Chavez's campaigns in the past and now finds himself working for Cobos, who at least from the email appears to be at odds with Chavez over a statement made to NPT. Perez, finding himself in the middle, smooths things over in the email reply to Chavez's general counsel.
Chavez herself appears to be in the middle of a faction battle with several prominent El Paso leaders, including County Commissioners Veronica Escobar and Anna Perez, and state Rep. Marisa Marquez. Marquez was someone Chavez thought would be a new addition to the Chavista stable until their fallout. Shapleigh had supported former state Rep. Paul Moreno in the last primary election, in which Chavez staked a lot of personal political clout to get Marquez elected. But Marquez now finds herself more closely aligned with the Shapleigh faction.
Which leads to another question. Where do the members of the now-weakened “Moreno Mafia” throw their allegiance now that their head of political state is no longer in the legislature? They absolutely will not side with Chavez because the Chavez-Moreno rivalry is the text-book definition of political blood feud. Do they support Shapleigh, who is Anglo? Or do they look to side with the growing Rodriguez faction? Might some of them join up with Cobos?
The bottom line is that in politics, today's rival is tomorrow's colleague and vice versa. People that run for office have various motives for doing so. Some do it for the status; some do it for the money, some for the ability to make decisions and some to serve their community. But whether their motives are ulterior or altruistic, candidates and elected officials are driven people. Interesting things develop when that many driven people get together. Sometimes it’s where conflict happens; sometimes it’s where cooperation happens. But one thing is for sure, it’s always where politics happens.
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