Mistaken report of 2022 campaign contribution highlights some local candidates’ failures to comply with election laws

TRI-COUNTY –– Former Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara is not on a beach sipping a fancy drink. However, Guevara noted that someone might think that’s where she’s at after what appeared to be an enormous, unspent donation to her re-election campaign last fall — a check for $23,255.08 from the Project Red TX Political Action Committee (PAC). 

That whopping contribution — in a county where donations to candidates usually don’t top a couple thousand dollars in total — showed up on a campaign contribution report filed by the PAC with the Texas Ethics Commission on November 1, 2022. Politicos around the county who, long after the election, spotted the PAC’s record online started to wonder what Guevara did with all that money.

“We made a mistake,” said Wayne Hamilton, who leads Project Red TX. “I looked at my books and … the actual contribution to her was $500. So, it would have been nice to give her whatever it was, 23 thousand, but yeah, it’s a mistake.” The PAC eventually filed a corrected report with the commission after The Big Bend Sentinel inquired about the contribution.

Guevara was shocked to hear about the initial donation report, because she said she didn’t get that money. “Now, I can post my pictures of me in the Bahamas,” she joked. “Look, this is her and her husband with Mai Tais and cigars in their mouth.” 

Still, Guevara and other county candidates previously have been dismissive of the importance of something that offers more transparency for citizens to know who is donating what and when — filing the legally required campaign finance reports. “I was so freaking busy,” Guevara said of her time before the general election in 2022 when she didn’t file anything, and she added that putting the reports together can be “complicated.”

Precinct 1 County Commissioner Brenda Bentley pointed out that she always filed required reports and that numerous resources from the Texas Ethics Commission and secretary of state are available to help candidates follow all election laws. Those laws help ensure transparency to voters when deciding if large contributions may be affecting decision-making. Bentley said that with the usual minimal contributions and expenditures locally, the filings are easy. “Why doesn’t everybody just turn them in? It’s not that hard.”

A Sentinel review of campaign finance reports shortly before the November 2022 election showed that most candidates for bigger contested county seats were not following the law — with only David Beebe, now Precinct 4 county commissioner, and Frances Garcia, county treasurer, filing timely reports. After The Sentinel ran its October 26, 2022, story on the lack of filings, reports dribbled in from Garey Willbanks, the Republican opposing Democrat Beebe, and from David Chavez, the Republican opposing Democrat Garcia. Guevara’s opponent, County Judge Jose Portillo, only filed a report for an appointment of a treasurer on September 28, 2022, but did not file any contribution/expenditure reports.

Portillo said he will now file all required documents, including an annual report showing he received about $8,000 for the 2022 election — including a $5,000 contribution from Cibolo Creek Ranch owner John Poindexter — and has about $800 remaining, with most of his expenditures going to the local Democratic Party.

The Texas Ethics Commission — a bipartisan council that oversees laws concerning campaign finance and registering lobbyists, among many other duties — collects reports from statewide candidates and PACs. Finance reports for county races are filed with the county clerk. All are public records. Statewide and regional candidate filings are searchable on the commission’s website. Some counties post their filings online, but Presidio County’s documents currently are only available in the county clerk’s office. 

Candidates must first appoint a campaign treasurer, even if they don’t intend to raise or spend any money, and candidates can serve as their own treasurer. If a candidate or officeholder does not raise more than $1,010, they only need to file a semi-annual report, or an annual report, or both, depending on the calendar dates for their status of an officeholder or candidate. (That limit was increased from $940 this year.)

If candidates expect to or end up raising more than $1,010, more filings are required. The exact schedule for filing 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 primary and general election. 

County races up for election in the March party primaries and the November 2024 election and their current officeholders include: Precinct 1 County Commissioner Bentley, Precinct 3 County Commissioner Jose Cabezuela, County Attorney Rod Ponton, County Tax Assessor Natalia Williams, Sheriff Danny Dominguez, Precinct 1 Constable Estevan “Steve” Marquez, and Precinct 2 Constable Adan ”Pugi” Covos Jr.

Candidate filing does not begin until November 11, but some candidates have verified their intentions with The Big Bend Sentinel. Bentley is stepping down, and Democratic contenders for her Precinct 1 commissioner seat include Deirdre Hisler, Marfa resident and former West Texas State Parks regional director. Hisler said she’s a stickler for record keeping and will file all required reports. 

Ponton will face Marfa attorney Blair Park in the Democratic Primary. Both have timely treasurer reports filed and pledged to file all campaign finance reports. 

Sheriff Danny Dominguez said he is seeking re-election and would file what was required by law. “Of course, yes sir,” he said. “If I take in more than a thousand dollars, I will report it.” 

Precinct 1 Constable Estevan “Steve” Marquez also is running again and he said he will do filings. Precinct 2 Constable Adan “Pugi” Covos said he was still mulling whether to run again, but that he also would file required documents. 

While local races have seen low levels of donations and expenditures for decades, a new dynamic entered the county in 2022 with Project Red TX. The PAC’s mission is to recruit and fund candidates in traditionally Democrat-dominated counties, particularly around the border, to try and turn those seats Republican. That PAC’s efforts were energized with stronger than expected support for former President Donald Trump in some Lower Rio Grande Valley counties in 2020. When Mayra Flores became the first Republican in modern history to win a congressional seat in far South Texas — the 34th district, which includes Brownsville, in a 2021 special election —it further inspired the PAC’s efforts. However, Democrat Vicente Gonzalez took the seat back in the regular 2022 election amidst a “red wave” that never materialized for Republicans in the midterms.

All three Presidio County Republican candidates received Project Red TX backing, but primarily with in-kind donations for signs amounting to $1,262 to Guevara and Chavez each and $700 to Willbanks. Guevara also received the $500 direct contribution. Guevara had dumped the Democrats and filed as a Republican at the last minute before the March primaries, citing her absolute anti-abortion stance and more conservative views on immigration as the reason for the switch.

Guevara said she knew that move would doom her chances, and she was right –– losing 1,228 to 608. County primary vote totals are somewhat an indicator of how many potential votes a candidate can win from party faithful, although far greater numbers show up for general elections. For the past six years, Republican Primary turnout hovers around 80 voters compared to about 800 for the Democratic Primary. 

In Jeff Davis County, two Republicans won in 2022 to give the party the entire commissioners court. With other Republicans incumbents facing uncontested races that election, the county turned completely red. At the time, the Jeff Davis County Republican chair told The Big Bend Sentinel, “My god, we have a clean sweep in this county.” Brewster County now has a mix of parties for county posts, after small gains by Republicans in the last two election cycles.

Despite Presidio seeming to be steadfastly blue, Project Red TX intends to keep spending money in the county trying to recruit new candidates and fund their campaigns, Hamilton said. His PAC also targeted officials in Starr County in the Rio Grande Valley for not filing required campaign finance reports. The PAC’s complaints to the Texas Ethics Commission resulted in the agency issuing fines ranging from $500 to $1,000 for non-compliance. Hamilton said he was unaware that his PAC-backed candidate, Guevara, failed to file any reports.

Dan Dunlap, Presidio County Republican Party chair, said the PAC continues to approach him about possible candidates. “They were hoping I’d get some candidates, and they would like to help once again support our Republicans here in Presidio County, but I haven’t got any yet,” he said. Dunlap said he’ll keep trying to get someone red elected, but he knows it’s an uphill battle with the Democratic state of mind in Presidio County. “It’ll probably be the last blue county in the state of Texas.”