By Abbie Perrault, The Big Bend Sentinel
PRESIDIO COUNTY — May 2 came and went with no votes cast for the three Marfa City Council seats up for grabs. Later this month, May 26 will pass too, without Presidio County and their fellow voters across Texas casting ballots for primary runoffs. Instead, both elections have been pushed back, due to concerns that polling places might become vectors for the spread of coronavirus.
Governor Greg Abbott, in one of his coronavirus-related orders, allowed local governments to delay elections: Marfa will not vote in three councilmembers until November 3, leaving the three incumbents seated for another half a year, and the hotly contested congressional seat in Texas’ 23rd District, currently held by the departing Will Hurd, has a Republican runoff now rescheduled for July 14.
Entering the TX-23 Republican runoffs are Tony Gonzales and Raul Reyes. But how does one safely campaign across a district that spans from the outskirts of El Paso to western San Antonio in a time where coronavirus is flaring on either end of the district?
Candidates have had to figure out how to digitally duke it out, since social distancing and previous stay-at-home orders have driven candidates away from traditional town halls, campaign stops and debates.
Democratic nominee for TX-23, Gina Ortiz Jones, is running her campaign with the November election in mind, hosting virtual town halls, contacting potential voters via email and spending a lot of her efforts talking about COVID as it impacts topics such as small businesses, Native American populations, rising domestic violence, veterans and border healthcare.
Meanwhile, Republican runoff contestants Gonzales and Reyes are going head-to-head until July 14 in the hopes of facing off against Ortiz Jones in November.
Reyes called the first month of COVID tough for his campaign. “You can’t do town halls. That wasn’t going to happen.” Instead, Reyes went to social media. “We’re doing some town halls in Zoom meetings, anything we can to stay in contact while being sensitive to the times that we’re in. The good news is that we’re slowly opening up Texas. Even so, we’re wearing a mask and making sure we’re staying cautious.”
Canvassing, hosting events and shaking hands have long been integral parts of campaigning, and Reyes and Gonzales both mentioned June as a date they might begin in-person interactions again.
Gonzales said most campaigning has gone from in-person to being on the phone and online, though his campaign has traveled a few places across the district in recent weeks and will be doing a volunteer effort at a food bank this week. “We will continue to add campaigning and events in a safe way,” Gonzales said.
While Ortiz Jones’ campaign has honed in on coronavirus conversations, and Reyes says the virus has only heightened his commitments to border security and the need to manufacture things in America (specifically in his district, he says), Gonzales said coronavirus hasn’t really impacted his platform at all.
It has hit pocketbooks for constituents and potential donors, however. Reyes said it has been a challenge getting donations, as many have lost work during the lockdown. Initially putting fundraising on hold, the campaign has now picked up its fundraising presence “with the understanding that times are a little tough. We’re grassroots, so a lot of folks are donating five, 10, 15 where they can,” Reyes said. “It’s definitely harder, but we’re fortunate.”
“Hitting fundraising goals is more difficult in this environment,” Gonzales said, “but the generosity of many people and our own hard work is getting us there.” His campaign has still been able to raise over a million dollars.
Gonzales, who finished first in the initial primary and is endorsed by Representative Hurd, has also been collecting endorsements from established Republican names, and grassroots conservatives like third place finisher Dr. Alma Arredondo-Lynch.
“I have support from grassroots conservatives like Dan Crenshaw and Sid Miller and mainstream Republicans like Will Hurd and George P. Bush. By earning the support of both Will Hurd and Dr. Arredondo-Lynch, candidates who ran against each other in the GOP primary in 2018, I am showing that I can fully unify the Republican Party to win this seat in November.”
Reyes is glad not to have Hurd’s endorsement, since the TX-23 Republican has often run counter to President Trump during his time in office. Instead, Reyes draws a line of Hurd Republicans versus Trump Republicans, saying a vote for him is a vote for the Trump side, rather than Gonzales’ alignment with Hurd. Reyes has challenged Gonzales to a debate, though he hasn’t gotten a response as of yet.
In the more localized city of Marfa elections, candidates have all but ceased to campaign. Incumbents Buck Johnston and Yoseff Ben-Yehuda both said they were not currently actively campaigning.
For Johnston, Ben-Yehuda and Natalie Melendez, their campaigns are at least visible in the sense that their current positions on council afford them a place on Zoom while they continue their public decision-making on behalf of the city. “I think it’s a good way we all get to show our true colors in a public forum,” Ben-Yehuda said.
For the other two candidates vying for the three seats up for grabs, visibility can be more of a struggle. Stephen Boelter and Eddie Pallarez were hoping to get seats this month. Now they will have to wait half a year for their shot.
Pallarez will mostly avoid face-to-face encounters with potential voters, instead relying on “posters, some Facebook and maybe some phone calls.” He said his campaign is “basically on hold until a couple months before the election.”
That’s okay with him though. “I know we have some good councilmen now, so I don’t have any grief about it,” he said. “I’m just going to wait my turn. I’m enjoying retirement right now, but I’ll get in there whenever the time comes.”
The extended terms for the three council members, Johnston, Ben-Yehuda and Melendez, mean the council will have the unexpected opportunity to work on another budget together. Johnston called that a rare opportunity. The current council members have been through the budget cycle together already, and “it gives us a second opportunity to do that,” Johnston said. “We’re familiar with the budget and we’re familiar with each other. We have that historical knowledge.”
Pallarez also said the election delay was the right thing to do, mentioning elections in other states that proceeded despite coronavirus, and ultimately resulted in further transmission of the virus and extremely depressed turnouts.
Ben-Yehuda pointed out that the November delay could actually result in a higher turnout for city elections, which will now align with the 2020 presidential and congressional elections.
When elections were delayed, Governor Abbott said all options were “on the table” in response to questions about expanding vote-by-mail, which would reduce contact that could transmit coronavirus. In response, Texas Democrats pushed for expanding vote-by-mail through the courts. A requirement for a voter to have a sickness or physical condition in order to qualify to vote by mail could be expanded to everyone who fears contracting coronavirus, one lawsuit argued. Lawsuits are now volleying back and forth, with judges in turn saying more voters will and will not be able to access mail ballots.
This week, a handful of organizations filed together to claim that certain Texas voting rules are unconstitutional in light of a public health crisis like a pandemic. It remains to be seen where vote-by-mail lands for Texans come July or November.
Voting in the July 14 runoff will be at the County Annex building in Presidio and the USO in Marfa. Voters can vote at either location during early voting, which the governor has extended due to public health considerations. Early voting lasts Monday, June 29 through Friday, July 10. On voting day, precincts 1 and 7 will vote at the USO and 2 through 6 will vote at the Annex.
Workers wearing masks, available hand sanitizer and social distancing of six feet are all likely precautions at polling sites, according to Election Clerk Florcita Zubia. The clerk welcomes other ideas that will help make voting sanitary and safe for all Presidio County voters.