EL PASO, Texas -- A U.S. congressman from El Paso is fighting to save his seat for the first time in 16 years. His main challenger in the upcoming Texas primary is young, well-liked and could alter the U.S. role in Mexico's drug war.
The challenger's name is Robert Francis O'Rourke, a former city councilman better known around El Paso as "Beto".
"My parents started calling me 'Beto' from the beginning," O'Rourke said. "I think it's a function of my families both being from El Paso. So even though ethnically I'm Anglo, culturally I'm an El Pasoan."
O'Rourke is tall and lean with the boyish charm of a teen pop star, only older. A classic product of the border, he not only has a Spanish moniker, he's also fluent in the language. He went to Columbia University and now owns a web design company. His grandmother opened a local furniture store that is a favorite among clients in northern Mexico. On the first date with his future wife, he took her to a popular restaurant across the border in Ciudad Juárez.
In an effort to introduce himself to voters, O'Rourke has knocked on some 15,000 doors across town. One of his stops on a recent Sunday was the at the home of Dorothy Kimball, who stepped out in a pink house dress.
Kimball is retired and a Republican. Her barefoot husband answered the door, but when she heard O'Rourke's voice she rushed out to greet him.
Kimball said she likes that O'Rourke represents a change in leadership. This primary she'll pick up a Democratic ballot so she can vote for him.
"Really I mean it just all the luck in the world," Kimball said. "I'll be cheering when you win!"
O'Rourke is the first serious challenger to eight term incumbent Silvestre Reyes, also a lifelong border resident. Reyes grew up on a family farm outside El Paso as the oldest of ten children. As a kid Reyes was a lookout, warning illegal crossers when the border patrol was around.
"My job was to blow an air horn on a truck if I saw the border patrol jeep," Reyes said. "It was part of growing up here on the border."
Later Reyes went on to become a chief for the border patrol, where he implemented the ground-breaking Operation Hold the Line. That initiative boosted agent visibility at the border, resulting in fewer illegal crossings in urban centers like El Paso and San Diego, but created much higher traffic places like rural Arizona.
“We've done an outstanding job of building up the Border Patrol," Reyes said. "When I retired in December of 1995 to run for congress we had 5,600 agents around the country. Today there are almost 22,000."
If Reyes is defeated, things could change along the border he patrolled for 26 years. Reyes is a strong supporter of the Merida Initiative, a $1.4 billion aide package from the U.S government to help Mexico fight organized crime. The money pays for police and military equipment as well as training for judicial officials.
"I would argue that we need to spend more money," Reyes said. "We are working with Mexico to help them reconstitute themselves, helping them to vet their police and military, vet the legal system."
Challenger O'Rourke would freeze funding of the Merida Initiative until Mexico demonstrates a drop in human rights abuses. He also is in favor of discussing marijuana legalization as a way to weaken Mexican drug cartels.
"If you were to lift the prohibition of marijuana … if you were to tax regulate and control the sale in the U.S. you would do a far better job of keeping marijuana away from young children," O'Rourke said, "And you'd do a better job of controlling the cartel violence in Mexico."
Reyes opposes marijuana legalization.
Check out the Fronteras Vote 2012 Election Special & other stories about the fall campaign.
A poll reported by the local newspaper at the very beginning of the race showed O'Rourke trailing Reyes by seven points. About 30 percent of voters were undecided.
Early voting in Texas began Monday and election day is May 29. Since El Paso is largely a Democratic district, the winner of this primary will very likely be the next congressman.