With claims of a mass land grab by his opponent that would result in a glut of displaced locals, a fair political question could be posed: Is U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes getting desperate?
The Texas Democrat is facing his most formidable challenge since his 1996 election from primary challenger Beto O’Rourke, an upstart politico who married into the family of a prolific and well-heeled developer.
Reyes most recently told a gathering that O’Rourke favors an international bridge from El Paso to Juárez, Mexico, that would take the homes of up to 5,000 families.
O’Rourke countered that he had no such idea but also maintains a bridge is needed to remedy backups and bolster international trade.
The bridge has been discussed over the years, although what drives the recent debate is partly politics from Reyes – he is seizing on an opportunity - and a report from the Texas Department of Transportation that supports a new bridge.
Wait-times to cross the border often hit two hours, traffic density is growing and failure to address the growing need for another bridge will hurt the region’s economy, the June 2011 study points out.
Reyes, seeking his ninth term, sent out a mailer that claimed O’Rourke and supporters, including his father-in-law developer William Sanders, would “bulldoze entire neighborhoods” for a new international bridge.
The mud-throwing by Reyes angered Ted Houghton, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, so much that he publicly called the notion of families being displaced "ludicrous.”
Houghton, an appointee of Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry, has not donated to Reyes or O’Rourke.
O’Rourke pointed out that Reyes made his accusations at a community meeting called by the Ysleta school district superintendent. Reyes’ sister-in-law, Martha Reyes, is a trustee in the district.
Rep. Reyes contributed $1,000 to Martha Reyes’ 2008 campaign fund, according to a report from Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington. The timing and Yselta-Reyes connection is examined here.
The Reyes campaign did not return calls.
Reyes is among the incumbents targeted by the Houston-based super PAC Campaign for Primary Accountability, which has been turning primaries upside down with generous ad spends either supporting challengers or against entrenched powers like Reyes. The CPA has received money from a group connected to William Sanders, O'Rourke's father-in-law.
Last week's historic ouster of veteran U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, by state treasurer Richard Mourdock was aided by the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, two D.C.-based groups that favor smaller government.
The Reyes-O’Rourke District 16 contest is close; a recent poll published by the El Paso Times has it 39 to 32 percent in favor of Reyes. Early voting begins May 14 and runs through May 25. Election day is May 29.
The bridge issue in El Paso has been in discussion for years, with a separate span already under construction.
It bears similarity to an international bridge controversy in Michigan, where Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has been pressing to build a new bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.
Snyder first tried a legislative end-around via Democrats in the statehouse, but was thwarted by his own party. Anti-bridge factions in Detroit targeted property owners in affected sections of towns to gin up opposition by handing out fake eviction notices.
In the El Paso district, the two leading Democrats have been swatting at each other over a number of issues. Reyes at times has sounded like a big-government Republican when attacking O’Rourke in a campaign mailer for refusing to give tax breaks to businesses and suggesting he might be chummy with a Tea Party platform or two.
"Mr. O'Rourke would have sided with Tea Party extremists willing to shut down the government and put everything on the chopping block -- veterans' benefits, Social Security benefits, Medicare, Head Start, financial aid, etc.," the mailer claimed. Reyes’ campaign Web site uses a graphic in an attempt to link O’Rourke to conservative groups.
O’Rourke said that, while he is “certainly not a Republican,” he didn’t put himself in a narrow political category. He noted that he’s challenged the wisdom of the drug war, fought for the rights of lesbians, gays and transgendered people and supported a mass transit plan in El Paso.
“But I’m also someone who considers himself a fiscal conservative,” he said.
O’Rourke continues the primary contender favorite of using the past to project the future for his opponent.
His campaign site notes that he advocates term limits and stresses his Democratic Party bona fides. It points out that Reyes has been absent for a number of key votes.
Reyes, in fact, was missing from a Sunday event for various candidates in the region.
"Reyes has not faced a challenger like this in 16 years," said Gregory Rocha, an assistant professor of political science at University of Texas-El Paso. As a former city council member, O'Rourke's grasp of the issues is "tremendous."
Reyes' attempt to paint O'Rourke as a Republican is the biggest political slam one can deliver in the Democratic-heavy district, Rocha said, as the winner of the primary is assured to win the election.
O'Rourke's bigger challenge, though, is voter turnout. He's the young candidate who needs strong support at the polls from the youth vote, which doesn't turn out in grew numbers.
"We've seen candidates do it before," Rocha said. "They'll come out."
Whether the numbers will send O'Rourke to Washington is a political guess at this point.
Steve Miller is a reporter for Texas Watchdog, which is affiliated with the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.