Former El Paso city councilman Beto O'Rourke  has defeated US Rep. Silvestre Reyes in the battle for the Democratic Party nomination for the seat Reyes has held since 1996. According to election results  from the Texas Secretary of State's office early Wednesday morning, O'Rourke had picked up 51.3% of the vote to Reyes' 41.3%, meaning O'Rourke also avoids the need for a run-off election.
O'Rourke garnered national attention in 2009, when he championed a council resolution calling for a national conversation on legalizing and regulating drugs as a possible solution to the drug cartel violence just over El Paso's border in Mexico. The mayor vetoed the unanimously-passed resolution and the council was set to override the veto until Congressman Reyes threatened that the city would lose federal funding if it insisted on pushing the legalization conversation. The override vote failed, but O'Rourke has managed to use the issue as a launching pad for his campaign against what had been a heavily-favored incumbent.
O'Rourke has spoken eloquently of the violence in Mexico and its roots in drug prohibition, including at Drug Policy Alliance  conferences, and is the coauthor, along with fellow El Paso city council member Susie Byrd, of Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the US and Mexico, which calls explicitly for marijuana legalization.
"O'Rourke's victory demonstrates that support for drug policy reform, and even for legalizing marijuana, is no detriment to electoral success - in fact it was a key asset in his triumph," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of Drug Policy Action, the Alliance's campaign and lobbying arm.. "Reyes' surprising defeat, meanwhile, shows that kneejerk support for persisting with failed drug war tactics can hurt politicians at the ballot box."
Earlier this month, the Democratic primary for Attorney General in Oregon featured a similar dynamic. Ellen Rosenblum won a surprising victory over favorite Dwight Holton, in a race in which medical marijuana became a major issue. Rosenblum is supportive of patients' right to safe and legal access to medical marijuana, while her opponent, former Interim U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton, is sharply critical of the program. Although Holton was heavily favored early in the race, he was targeted for defeat by supporters of medical marijuana after actively trying to undermine responsible state regulation. With no Republican filing for the office, Rosenblum is all but certain to be the state's next attorney general.
"Beto O'Rourke's congressional victory in Texas, coming on the heels of Ellen Roseblum's victory in Oregon's attorney general race, shows that drug policy reform is no longer a third rail in American politics," said Jill Harris, managing director of strategic initiatives for Drug Policy Action. "In both of those races, the candidates' views on marijuana reform were used against them in attacks by their opponents - and in both cases, the voters supported the pro-reform candidate. A majority of Americans now favor treating marijuana like alcohol, and strong majorities of both Democrats and Republicans say the federal government should not interfere with state medical marijuana laws. From blue states like Oregon to red states like Texas, it's a new day for the politics of drug policy reform."
Having won the Democratic primary, O'Rourke is well placed for a victory in November in this solidly Democratic district that has sent Reyes to Washington eight times. But now, it's a drug reformer El Paso is likely to send to Congress, not a drug warrior.
(This article was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)