2022 elections see few campaign finance filings among local contenders

PRESIDIO COUNTY — As election day looms, many Texans are following the money — campaign money, to be exact. Candidates at the local, state and federal level are required to file regular reports of campaign donations and expenditures in the interest of transparency. These laws also apply in tiny Presidio County — where at press time, only two candidates in contested races had filed the appropriate paperwork ahead of November’s election.

The Texas Ethics Commission — a bipartisan council that oversees laws concerning campaign finance and registering lobbyists, among many other duties — makes the distinction between “local” and “statewide” offices. Statewide candidates must file formally with the TEC; local candidates, like those running for office in Presidio County, report directly to the county clerk. 

All candidates in Texas must first appoint a campaign treasurer, even if they don’t intend to raise or spend any money. Candidates are allowed to be their own treasurer. What happens next depends on how much money candidates expect to raise — $940 is the magic number. Below that dollar amount, candidates only need to file one report. 

If candidates expect to or end up raising more than $940, a different set of rules applies. The exact schedule for filing finance reports depends on when a campaign treasurer is appointed, but generally speaking, candidates with opponents must file two semi-annual reports and two reports before each uniform election date — due 30 and eight days before each respective election.

Precinct 4 Commissioner candidate David Beebe, who reported $3,897.75 in contributions, filed on the 30-days prior deadline. Incumbent candidate for Treasurer Frances Garcia — who reported 0 contributions and $324 in expenditures — filed an 8-day prior report. This election cycle, Beebe and Garcia were the only two candidates to file reports at all. 

County Clerk Florcita Zubia explained that that’s not out of the norm. Zubia is on the ballot herself this November — she’s running unopposed for her current position, and serves as the treasurer of her own campaign. “I bought like two yard signs and I paid for them out of my pocket,” she said. “Nobody has ever made a big deal about [campaign finance reports] not being turned in.” 

That may change this year as a hotly contested judicial race drew concerns about out-of-county money giving certain candidates a boost. Incumbent candidate for County Judge Cinderela Guevara received a contribution of $1,361 in yard signs from a conservative PAC called Project Red TX; she told The Big Bend Sentinel she planned to report the money, but hadn’t yet filed a report at press time. 

Guevara indicated that filing the necessary reports and campaigning on top of carrying out the duties of county judge was difficult. There was also an important transition in her staff — Guevara welcomed a new assistant, Cecy Bejarano, earlier this year. “There’s a lot of projects going on in the county that you’re constantly busy with,” she explained. 

Guevara’s opponent, Joe Portillo, had not yet filed a report either. “It’s just a handful of people who have contributed to my campaign — they all have roots in Presidio or they own property here,” he explained. “I don’t have a big checkbook.” Portillo’s biggest individual donation — a $5,000 check from Cibolo Creek Ranch’s John Poindexter — exceeds the $940 threshold for more lax accounting. 

Compared to state-wide races, Poindexter’s and Project Red’s contributions toward local judicial campaigns are chump change. Pipeline magnate Kelcy Warren — benefactor of the Lajitas Resort — donated $1 million to Greg Abbott’s gubernatorial campaign last year. Warren is just one of 39 individuals who have made contributions of $1 million or more to Abbott since he first ran for statewide office in 1995. 

Beebe — whose relatively small-dollar county commissioner campaign finance report is 33 pages long — explained that the stakes are low for local candidates. Unless a whistleblower files a formal complaint with the TEC, omissions or representations at the local level aren’t likely to garner penalties or even a second glance. “No one ever goes to jail for this stuff,” he said. “It all just sits in a folder in the county clerk’s office.” 

Beebe’s own motivation for filing a finance report came from experience. Through his years in city and county government, he’d seen lots of drama driven by speculation about campaign donations — and because most campaigns weren’t self-reported, the gossip couldn’t be proven true or false. Early in his political career — while running for Marfa City Council — he decided to run without accepting donations.

When he left the city and decided to run for county-level positions, he changed his tune. In his first term as justice of the peace, he only accepted donations from within the county, but quickly realized that wasn’t the best way to beat the rumor mill. “I started only accepting donations from outside the area — none of those people have business in front of the JP,” he explained.

Compared to other down-ticket campaigns, Beebe raised some serious cash, but not all of it went to his own campaign. His campaign made donations to larger state-wide candidates like Beto O’Rourke for governor and Luke Warford for railroad commissioner. All of these contributions are documented in the report. “If you’re dealing with any money of any significance, you need to go ahead and file,” he said. 

He conceded that the process — especially for first-timers — wasn’t self-explanatory. Candidates must keep separate bank accounts for their war chests, and the requirements for what needs to be reported is exhaustive. One particularly finicky example: if you put a campaign expense on a credit card, the interest you pay on that expense to the credit card company must be separately itemized and reported. 

The process is also complicated on the party level. Unlike county-level candidates, county-level political parties report directly to the TEC, which comes with greater oversight and penalties for miscalculations. The threshold is a bit more generous — Jason Ballmann, communications director for the Presidio County Democrats, explained that the party could take in up to $34,220 in contributions before having to appoint a treasurer and report more frequently than once a year. 

He also clarified that the party can advise its candidates up to a point — but ultimately wasn’t responsible for individual candidates’ lax accounting practices. “We are really there to be a source of advice and guidance — though we do not, for moral, ethical and legal reasons, run candidates’ campaigns directly,” he said.

The Democratic Party, on a state and national level, has been looking for a way for their candidates to be able to raise and report money more transparently. Online donations are an attractive solution because political parties and campaigns in Texas cannot accept anonymous donations. Presidio County Democrats were one of the first local organizations to set up an ActBlue account, which allows candidates to accept contributions from anyone residing in the United States over the internet — with a corresponding electronic paper trail. 

Ballmann felt that the extra focus on this year’s races was no accident, and that getting folks energized about the political process would hopefully lead to more enthusiastic — and transparent — campaigns. “We’re here to represent the people of Presidio County,” he said. “We want to make sure that we’re doing it really well and we’re doing it right.”