Protecting Fort Bliss big part of Silvestre Reyes' legacy to El Paso
Departing U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, a Canutillo farm boy who rose to national prominence as a U.S. Border Patrol sector chief, left a profound imprint on El Paso and the region after 16 years of influence and leadership in Congress, various present and former city leaders said.
Reyes, 68, the eight-term Democratic incumbent, lost his re-election bid for the 16th Congressional District seat last May in a bitter primary race against former city Rep. Beto O'Rourke. He will leave office Tuesday.
Those familiar with his record said Reyes' most significant achievement as a federal lawmaker was protecting Fort Bliss from potentially devastating defense cuts in Washington, D.C., and helping acquire millions in federal dollars for
infrastructure that will ensure the sprawling base's continued growth and economic impact on El Paso and the region for years into the future.
"If it hadn't been for Congressman Reyes and his leadership, Fort Bliss might be closed right now," said Tom Thomas, civilian aide to the secretary of the Army. "Fort Bliss is a national treasure. We made the point very well that it should be expanded, not closed. He (Reyes) was very instrumental in making that happen."
Thomas is based in El Paso. He is responsible for military affairs across West Texas.
Fort Bliss officials once alerted El Paso leaders that the base was at risk of being closed.
"The Army had essentially written off Fort Bliss," Thomas said. "The congressman
made appointments for the community to meet with the senior leadership of the Army and various senators and congressmen on the hill. We did that for four or five years."
Thomas also credits Reyes with taking a personal interest in helping promote economic development and recruiting various companies to El Paso.
"He was very instrumental in the growth of El Paso," he said.
Speaking through his communications director, Jose Borjon, Reyes noted that the potential loss of Fort Bliss was one of the major challenges he faced early in his congressional career.
In the end, Fort Bliss was one of the biggest beneficiaries of the federal government's Base Realignment and Closure process.
"Fort Bliss was obviously a big thing for him, but being able to help constituents day in and day out with case work, helping El Paso and West Texas was really his passion," Borjon said. "Every day was a challenge, a hard-fought day for El Paso. He was a congressman that delivered for El Paso, that took care of El Pasoans, that cared for El Paso and that never lost touch of El Paso and the people."
Reyes, a Vietnam War veteran with combat experience, began receiving national and international media exposure from Washington, D.C., to Mexico City soon after he returned to El Paso and took over the U.S. Border Patrol's second-largest sector in 1993. He devised a new border-control tactic: positioning 400 of his agents on the border along the Rio Grande. The blockade, which reduced a flood of illegal crossings to a trickle, was widely applauded and criticized on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Reyes, a self-described moderate Democrat, started serving in Congress in 1997. Even before he retired from the Border Patrol, various community leaders urged Reyes to seek the seat eventually vacated by then U.S. Rep. Ron Coleman, D-Texas, who chose not to run.
"I want to work hard as the chief lobbyist for the area," Reyes said during his first campaign for national political office.
In Washington, Reyes was often perceived as someone who had a clear understanding of border and immigration issues. He routinely brought high-profile policymakers to the border so they could better understand the issues.
Richard Dayoub, president and CEO of the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce, suggests that Reyes' expertise on border security and immigration benefited El Paso and the nation. He, too, is convinced that Reyes' leadership in protecting and moving Fort Bliss forward will be his main legacy.
"He was instrumental in communicating with leaders in the Department of Defense and getting us, the private sector, access with leaders in the Department of Defense so we could convey to them how important Fort Bliss is and what a great asset it has been," Dayoub said. "For me, that's probably at the top of the list of accomplishments, the single biggest thing that he did in his service which benefits El Paso today and will certainly benefit El Paso for years to come."
Dayoub said the last study two or three years ago indicated Fort Bliss brings a $4 billion to $5 billion a year economic impact to El Paso.
During his long tenure in Congress, Reyes established solid relationships with presidents and former presidents, Cabinet members, and national and international leaders.
He was a strong ally of now House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. Former President Bill Clinton campaigned on Reyes' behalf. President Barack Obama endorsed Reyes' last and unsuccessful re-election campaign.
In one of his highest-profile assignments, Reyes was appointed in 2001 to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He was chairman from 2006 to 2010.
In Washington, Reyes worked to influence policies or laws affecting veterans, economic development, national defense, border security and other critical issues. He supported various federal projects and programs such as education initiatives that he said would benefit El Paso or the region.
"He did a nice job of positioning himself to be able to help in critical areas. That's been a great benefit for our community," said Diana Natalico, president of the University of Texas at El Paso. "He's been very supportive of a number of things that were important to us."
Natalico applauded Reyes for heading the annual Border Security Conference that UTEP hosted for almost a decade.
"That was a great partnership for us to gain visibility and access to people who were involved in policy decisions affecting our border," she said.
Natalicio also credits Reyes with helping to push the efforts that led to the $87 million Kay Bailey Hutchison Desalination Plant, a joint project of El Paso Water Utilities and Fort Bliss.
"The dimension that's important for UTEP is the research potential that it offers our students and faculty," Natalico said. "As water becomes an increasingly more critical resource around the globe, addressing those issues is going to rely on good research. We're at the forefront of that."
Alicia Chacon, a longtime Democrat and former El Paso County judge, figures Reyes' work on behalf of Fort Bliss will probably be his most memorable contribution.
"Fort Bliss has always been significant to El Paso, but he made it even more so through his efforts and leadership," Chacon said. "At the time that the economy was kind of slumping, that expansion and commitment to Fort Bliss kept El Paso still growing and on the move. I don't think people realize that was a major impact on the economy and that he was very instrumental in that."
Gus Rodriguez, an El Paso business leader who lobbied for Fort Bliss expansion, points to millions of dollars spent in El Paso on the largest military construction project since World War II as one of Reyes' biggest accomplishments.
"It was a team effort, but he was leading the charge," Rodriguez said. "He had a great career and did a lot of things for El Paso. He should be respected for his many accomplishments."
Reyes has not discussed publicly his future plans beyond returning to his home in El Paso's Upper Valley.
Long before he imagined the day would arrive to give up his congressional seat, Reyes told an interviewer: "If you look at yourself and say I worked hard. I gave it my best shot, there's a lot to be proud of."