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Candidate interview: Jose Portillo, running for Presidio County Judge

Portillo, a former state trooper and city administrator for the City of Presidio, says he supports border security and would like to see the county remain part of Gov. Greg Abbott’s controversial Operation Lone Star program. Many of his fellow Democrats have blasted the program as a waste of time and money.

By Travis Bubenik

Early voting is underway for the 2022 midterm elections, with Election Day set for Nov. 8.

One of the high-profile contests in the Big Bend region is the race for Presidio County Judge, the county’s top elected official.

Democrat Jose “Joe” Portillo, a former state trooper and Presidio City Administrator, is seeking to oust incumbent County Judge Cinderela Guevara, who was first elected to the seat as a Democrat herself but is running as a Republican for the first time this year.

Marfa Public Radio caught up with Portillo to talk about his bid for the office.

Interview highlights

On Presidio County’s involvement in statewide border security efforts

Texas Democrats have largely blasted Gov. Greg Abbott’s controversial border security program - dubbed “Operation Lone Star” - as a waste of time and taxpayer money. The operation has also reportedly sparked a civil rights probe by federal authorities.

While some border counties have either not joined or opted out of the program, Presidio County is among the many counties that are involved in the effort and receive funding from the state as part of it.

Portillo said that if elected, he would seek to keep the county involved in the program because of the funding it makes available.

“I think that’s the only way for if an emergency arose, and you needed to call on the state, you have to have that declaration in place,” Portillo said, referring to border-related disaster declarations that effectively make counties part of the program. “For you to be eligible for funds, if a true emergency arose, it has to be in place.”

Still, he said the Big Bend region is not seeing the same levels of heightened smuggling activity as other border communities like those in South Texas. He described the rhetoric used to address border issues as officials “playing politics.”

“I do agree our borders need to be secure, I just think it’s politics in play, at the national and at the state level,” he said.

On the most pressing issues facing Presidio County residents

Portillo said the COVID-19 pandemic “put a big, huge spotlight” on the challenges facing the region when it comes to health care access. 

He said would like to see Presidio County, as a governmental entity, invest more in emergency services, and to “at least have the discussions” about creating an emergency services district, a taxing entity similar to a local school district that would fund things like EMS and fire departments.

Portillo also expressed concerns about how the Big Bend Regional Hospital District prioritizes its services in the region, which mostly center on providing medical care to people in the region who can’t afford it.

“I’d like to see more assets and more resources being spent in Presidio [County],” he said.

On his priorities for the job if elected

Portillo said if elected, he would seek to jumpstart the planned but long-stalled expansion of the international bridge connecting Presidio and Ojinaga, Mexico, which officials have argued could bolster cross-border trade in the region.

“You expand the port of entry, you open up the rail line, and you make this a viable option” for cross-border trade, he said. “We need to finish the bridge, it was a 13-month project, we’re I think at month 38 or 39.”

Portillo also criticized local officials’ recent decisions to cut funding for the Presidio International Port Authority, an entity that was initially created to facilitate the bridge expansion project and related business opportunities. City and county leaders recently abandoned the entity after raising concerns about how PIPA was spending taxpayer money and whether it was living up to its mission.

Portillo said he would seek to revive the port authority.

“A mechanism like PIPA will be the person to go shake hands with businesses in Chihuahua,” he said. “You have to go and tell them, ‘We’re ready for you to start moving your business through here, we want to get in the game, and we’re asking you to use our port of entry.’”

On Democrats’ chances in the county this year

Presidio County has for years been a Democratic stronghold, often with no Republican candidates on the ballot for key local offices.

But this year’s midterms come as Republicans have made inroads in other Democrat-leaning border counties and as local GOP candidates have received the backing of a statewide Republican political action committee.

Portillo said he “absolutely” believes this year’s election will be more competitive for local Democratic candidates.

“I think it’s good for competition,” he said. “I think it’s good for us to have conversations, that way we don’t get lackadaisical, so it’s not a bad thing.”

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.