Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn | Photo courtesy El Paso Matters
On the eve of the Texas governor’s June 30 visit to the Rio Grande Valley, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz gave Fox News viewers a lesson in the state’s massive geography.
El Paso, he said, where Vice President Kamala Harris traveled days earlier, is 800 miles from the Valley. “Chicago is closer to Washington, D.C. than El Paso is to the Rio Grande Valley,” the Texas Republican told Fox News host Sean Hannity.
El Paso isn’t only hundreds of miles from what Cruz describes as the “epicenter” of the nation’s immigration crisis: it’s also more than 500 miles from his closest field office, located in San Antonio.
Neither of Texas’ two Republican U.S. senators have a field office in El Paso, the state’s sixth largest city and the biggest one on the Texas-Mexico border. Sen. John Cornyn’s nearest office is in Lubbock, some 300 miles away.
Field offices are “a common occurrence and increasingly the way that senators operate their state-based operations, so it’s surprising and shocking that they don’t have one” in El Paso, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.
“It’s, I think, also lamentable because this is ignoring a constituency voice through benign neglect,” Rottinghaus said. “Whether it’s intentional or not, the implication of not having field offices is the issues and problems of the community are not important to the senators.”
Cruz and Cornyn’s staff did not make the senators available to be interviewed and did not respond to a series of emailed questions, including why the senators don’t have a field office in El Paso and when they last visited the city on official business.
The last senator to have an El Paso presence was U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm, also a Republican, who retired in 2002 after 17 years in office. Cornyn was elected to the seat in November of that year, and has since been re-elected three times. His current term ends January 2027.
Margarita “Margie” Velez, an El Paso native who served as the director of Gramm’s El Paso office, described her role as the senator’s “eyes and ears.” “What he wanted us to do was listen, be there for the people and let him know what the constituency needed and wanted,” she said.
Gramm’s Texas counterpart, Democrat U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and then former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, a Republican, did not have offices here, Velez said. Cruz was elected in 2012 to fill Hutchinson’s vacant seat following her retirement. Reelected in 2018, his current term ends January 2025.
Cruz and Cornyn both have offices in Austin, Houston, San Antonio and Tyler. Cornyn has one in Lubbock and near the border in Harlingen, while Cruz’s office in the Rio Grande Valley is in McAllen. Cruz does not appear to have a West Texas office, according to his website. A staffer in Cruz’s San Antonio office said that office covers El Paso.
El Paso was important to Gramm and he traveled here multiple times a year, Velez remembered.
“My senator felt that he needed to have somebody in El Paso, that El Paso was very important to him and what his role was in the Senate,” particularly on issues of trade and immigration, she said.
Gramm was not available for an interview, according to his assistant at the DC-based American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, where he is a nonresident senior fellow in economics.
Cruz and Cornyn have not been to El Paso this year. Their last trip to the Texas-Mexico border was in March when they, along with a dozen other Republican senators, traveled to the Rio Grande Valley in response to the increase in migrant crossings.
The Texas senators visited El Paso two years ago, in the wake of the Aug. 3, 2019, Walmart mass shooting, when 23 people were killed. It’s unclear whether they have since traveled to the region for fundraising or campaigning efforts, or even official business.
Politics likely play a role in the senators’ decision not to have staff in El Paso, political scientists say. The region has long been a solidly blue area of the state. Gramm only carried El Paso County in the 1990 general election, according to archived election results.
El Paso County Republican Party Chairman Ray Baca said he understands why Cruz and Cornyn don’t have a local field office.
“I’m disappointed that they don’t have better representation; however, I also understand that El Paso has been seen by the Republican Party for the longest time as a lost cause,” Baca said.
“They have not in the past seen El Paso as a viable place to win votes,” he added. “Now my response to that opinion is that we are improving. We’re making progress, and maybe with some help from them and their staffers we could get more people.”
But Republicans have represented El Paso at the local and federal levels. Former El Paso Mayor Dee Margo is a Republican and a former state representative who represented West El Paso. Texas’ 23rd Congressional District, which spans from far east El Paso to San Antonio, has been Republican-held since 2014.
“If the political calculation is that a large pool of Republican voters are in other parts of the state, and we want to concentrate our efforts there, I think it’s hard not to send a message that says, we think those parts of the state are more important,” said Richard Pineda, chair of the University of Texas at El Paso’s Department of Communication and a local political commentator.
“Representation should never be quid pro quo … because it means that you’re losing out on having a feel for what’s happening in a place like El Paso,” Pineda added.
While Cornyn has never won El Paso County, he received slightly more votes here than in Lubbock County in his most recent election. In the Nov. 3, 2020 election, Cornyn got 80,021 votes in El Paso County compared to 79,459 in Lubbock County, according to figures from the Texas Secretary of State’s office.
Pineda said that in order to represent the entire state, the senators should consider having a permanent presence here.
To understand the “fabric of a community,” you can’t just parachute in when it’s convenient, he said, adding that El Paso offers a different perspective from other parts of the U.S.-Mexico border, such as the Rio Grande Valley.
“I think by not having somebody in El Paso, both of the U.S. senators give up a little bit of their authority on talking about border-based issues,” he said.
“We often operate under the assumption that things are wrong, that immigration policy is wrong or there’s problems with it — certainly there are, but El Paso does so many things right,” Pineda said. It’s a city with a historically close relationship with Juárez, and a place where people criss-cross an international boundary regularly for school, work and to see family, he said.
“Having somebody here who can see what’s going on and see what works is huge. That would translate into better representation and better policies.”
Author: Molly Smith – El Paso Matters
Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014, with stops in Austin, the Rio Grande Valley and now El Paso. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 915-247-8857.