In many ways, El Paso is not the same city it was just six years ago. People who have left and come back say that all the time.
When Robert “Beto” O’Rourke, Susie Byrd and Steve Ortega won election to City Council in 2005 after campaigning on similar visions of the El Paso they wanted to see, it was clear that things were going to change.
They, along with Mayor John Cook and city Rep. Ann Morgan Lilly as frequent allies, have tackled development issues, the kinds of neighborhoods and streets El Paso will build, the way streets will be used, how Downtown will look and much more.
They talked about being progressive, but didn’t want to be called “Progressives.” The label stuck anyway.
And they denied any direct affiliations with an older generation of politicians, including now-former state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, his friend and successor in the Texas Legislature, Jose Rodriguez, and former Mayor Ray Caballero.
It wasn’t long, however, before those natural alliances became clear and that collection of individuals – joined by Veronica Escobar, now El Paso County judge – became the leaders of a new political party of sorts in El Paso, one that was arguably different from others.
No longer referred to very often as the son of the late County Judge Pat O’Rourke, Beto O’Rourke will take his own reputation and political identity with him when he leaves office in eight days – the first of the set to break ranks.
Now married to the daughter of development tycoon William Sanders, Amy, and the father of three young children, O’Rourke has come a long way since 2005.
If he runs for higher office, and it would probably surprise U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes the most if he didn’t, O’Rourke might wish that the public’s last glimpse of him on TV wasn’t going toe-to toe with a Christian minister as he did at last Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
O’Rourke’s aggressive play in the domestic partners fight isn’t the first time he has put it all on the line, and likely won’t be the last.
“Citizen’s really respect public servants who will take on a tough issue, even if they don’t agree,” he said in an interview with El Paso Inc.
“Guts,” he said, “is what’s missing in political leadership today. I think the public is starving for it.”
That doesn’t sound like a man who is leaving politics behind. In the interview that follows, O’Rourke talks about the changes he has seen and had a hand in for the past six years, and what’s ahead for him and the city.
Q: You leave office June 27 after six years on City Council. You could have served another four-year term. But since taking office, you’ve also gotten married and had three children. Was your family a big factor in your decision not to run again?
It has more to do with my philosophy that when you’re elected, you come in, you do your best and then you get out of the way. I felt like six years was the perfect amount of time to do that. Any more would have been too much.
Q: There’s been a lot of speculation about what you’ll do now. There’s talk of a run for Congress next year or maybe in 2014. Are you done with politics? What are your plans?
I don’t know if I’m done with politics. I definitely want to stay civically engaged. Whether that’s running for office, helping people run for office or just being involved in the community in some other way, I don’t know. It’s hard for me to think clearly about that now because I still have time left in this job. Maybe a month or two after I leave office, I’ll have a better idea.
Q: Have you thought about running for Congress?
I have. As you know, a year and a half ago I thought about leaving City Council to run for the 16th Congressional District and decided against it for a number of reasons, one of which was I still had an unfinished term that I owed my constituents. Another was family considerations. So, I thought where I was with the city was where I could do the most good.
That obviously changes once I’m out, so it’s a possibility, something that I’m thinking of.
Q: What are your immediate plans when you leave office and what about Stanton Street, a company you started but have pretty much left in the hands of others for six years?
My immediate plans is we’re going to take a family vacation and take the kids to Legoland in Southern California, which they’re super excited about. Then, my mom and I have just renovated an apartment building my dad bought in the mid-80s at the corner of Stanton and Rim. We’ve just finished the renovations and have almost leased the place out. If it makes sense and there’s a great opportunity, I may look at doing more historic, multi-family rehab. I definitely see the need in El Paso. There’s a number of beautiful apartment buildings that are run down that just need some investment and proper management.
As for Stanton Street, I have not been actively involved in Stanton Street for a number of years. I don’t think I will go back to Stanton Street in any kind of fulltime capacity. I may stay involved as an owner and investor, but I’m not sure. I started it 12 years ago, and it’s doing fine.
Q: We haven’t heard much from or about former state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, a close ally of yours, in months. Do you think he will run for office again? And what role has he played in your political life?
I don’t know. He has not told me his plans. I’ll say this about him. He, Ray Caballero, Jose Rodriguez and others who were politically active when I started to become active in politics in the early 2000s were incredibly inspirational to my generation.
They were the first people I heard in El Paso talking about us as a great city, with a prospect of becoming a great city. That really captured my imagination and really inspired me and made me feel good about living here and made me feel good about getting involved and making this a great city.
Without Sen. Shapleigh, without Ray Caballero and now state Sen. Jose Rodriguez, you would not have this generation of political leadership that includes the current council majority, that includes people like county Commissioner Anna Perez and County Judge Veronica Escobar and many other aspiring leaders who are soon to enter public office, I hope. So a big debt of gratitude is owed to him and others.
Q: Two years ago, you led a move by the council to approve a resolution urging, among other things, a national debate on the legalization of drugs because of the ineffectiveness of the war on drugs. It gained a lot of national attention, not all of it good. Some say it will come back to haunt you if you run again. Your thoughts on that issue today?
We were motivated by the brutality and carnage in Juárez, so there was a very strong moral dimension to our interest. There was also El Paso’s self interest at stake. The largest economic engine for this region is Mexico and Ciudad Juárez.
Mexican nationals alone spend $1.5 billion in the El Paso economy every year. On top of that, there’s $70 billion of U.S.-Mexico trade passing through our ports of entry.
This council should feel somewhat vindicated that just last week, some of the most prominent people in the world, including a former U.S. secretary of state, a former general secretary of the U.N., a number of Latin American presidents, a current European prime minister and other global leaders all signed a statement saying the drug war is not working, that it’s causing more harm than benefit and that we need another solution to this problem.
I’m glad that others are beginning to see the light.
Q: In 2005, you were elected with Susie Byrd and Steve Ortega. The three of you had surprisingly similar views on many issues, starting with development, and were able to push through a lot of changes. How would you characterize this council and the last six years?
We all think of El Paso as a great city that should settle for nothing less than the best in whatever it is that we’re pursing. We’re not always successful in that, but I think that is clearly always our aim and objective.
If you look at our strategic objectives that we made at the beginning of the administration, we set goals to be the least car-dependent city in the Southwest, to have the lowest unemployment rates, to have the highest per-capita income, which, to some people, seemed laughable at the time. But I don’t think you ever improve if you don’t set high goals.
Will we achieve them in five years? No.
But we will achieve them over time, if we keep them as our goals and keep working toward them and hold ourselves accountable for our progress.
Q: It was also about choices, wasn’t it?
Yes, the other thing we have tried to do is make sure there are true choices in El Paso. One of the areas we have worked really hard on in El Paso is to make sure there is quality of life and quality of neighborhoods in El Paso.
We worked on the subdivision code, the zoning code and we provided incentives for Smart Code, smart growth development in El Paso. There’s over 1,000 acres of Smart Code development coming on line over the next 10 years. That will truly offer the El Paso homebuyer and the El Paso citizen choices in where and how they want to live.
Right now, basically, your only choice is urban sprawl for the most part. There are some small in-fill opportunities.
Q: This council has made sweeping changes that will affect the city’s direction for years to come. Let’s start with residential and commercial development. What were you trying to change and what has this council done?
When we came into office, we had a decayed Downtown, an inner core of the city that had seen a net drop in its population for many decades and a booming industry of sprawl developments at the city’s fringes.
No. 1, that’s not sustainable. The taxpayer cannot afford to continue to extend the city services, whether they’re garbage trucks, fire trucks or police cars, out to the fringes of the city while the core rots.
The other side of it is you don’t attract talented, creative young people to your city and you don’t keep them here in the first place if they don’t have the kind of amenities and the kind of experience that they find in other cities.
For those two reasons, we made it a priority to invest in Downtown and the central core area, and I would argue that’s very much paying off today.
Whether you look at the public investment in the infrastructure or the private investment in the infrastructure – like the Mills Building, the Centre Building, the DoubleTree Hotel, the Karam Brothers lofts project at First and Florence – or whether you look at the spirit of what’s going Downtown. That was very much a focus of this council.
Q: You’ve made some controversial statements about the police and firefighters collective bargaining process and the position that has put the city in regarding continual salary increases and benefits. Your thoughts on that today and what the city might do?
I’m a big believer in labor’s right to collectively bargain in the private sector. The public sector is a completely different situation. From my experience these last six years on City Council, I do not think it is in the community’s best interests, certainly not in the taxpayers’ best interests, to have collective bargaining by the police and firefighters.
They are exceptional public servants; however, they are not so exceptional that they get to have these contracts and rights that no other city employee enjoy and which the taxpayer cannot continue to finance without the city going broke.
Q: It sounds rather like the nation’s Medicare problem, and we don’t hear that kind of talk much from public officials.
Whether we’re talking about the drug war or these obligations that the taxpayer has for pensions or whatever, citizens really respect public servants who will take on a tough issue, even if they don’t agree with the position they’ve taken. Anything else is pandering.
In Sen. Paul Ryan’s case, while I don’t necessarily agree with his take on Medicare, I think it’s impressive that he was willing to take that on, because no one else has had the guts to take that on. That’s what is missing in political leadership in America today, and that is guts. I think the public is starving for it.
Q: Texans aren’t big bus riders and neither are El Pasoans. Yet this council, with a lot of push from city manager Joyce Wilson, has made some major investments and commitments in mass transit. Tell us about them and where we are going with Sun Metro?
Sun Metro is being awarded the transit system of the year nationally. It says that in 2005, when we were first elected, Sun Metro for all intents and purposes was on life support. You couldn’t reliably expect a bus to show up when it was scheduled to show up. Many of the busses didn’t have functioning air conditioners.
Following that near meltdown, this council invested significantly in new buses, in holding the administration of Sun Metro accountable for strict performance measures. We’ve completely turned around that system. Going forward, back on the theme of choices, we’re going to provide a choice that will be competitive with a car commute to work. Along the major corridors in El Paso – Mesa, Alameda, Dyer, Montana – you will be able to take a Bus Rapid Transit bus that will in some cases have its own dedicated lane that will get you to work just as fast along that route as a car would.
So, after lagging behind the rest of the nation in 2005, we’ll be leading most of the transit agencies of the nation going into this next decade.
Q: What about transportation? From small policies, like bike lanes to street designs and major projects. What were your aims?
We wanted to make it nicer and safer for people who have no choice but to walk or ride their bike to work. And there are tens of thousands of El Pasoans who are in that category. It is not unrelated that we lead the state in pedestrian accidents and fatalities. Try walking around the city and you’ll realize why. Our sidewalk system is horrible, where they exist at all. Mesa is a major corridor, but huge patches of it have no sidewalks. I have seen people in wheelchairs trying to navigate the rubble and weeds along the street to get to the bus on Mesa. That’s indefensible.
The same with bicycles. A lot of times when people think of bike lanes, they think of people in Spandex with expensive bikes who are riding recreationally or for exercise on the weekend. It’s important that we have options for them, too. I’m more concerned about the constituents I have in South El Paso. If we were to go out on Paisano Street now, we would see dozens of bikes going in both directions, because that is the only economical way for those people to get to work, to do their grocery shopping and to get around town, and it’s just not safe for them.
Q: Any regrets about the three-mile-long freeway we’ll probably see the state build along Transmountain Road from the state park to the interstate at a cost of about $80 million that Byrd bitterly opposes?
Realistically, that was as good as it was going to get. You are going to have development along Transmountain, regardless of whether the city or state did anything. That road, where we’ve already seen a couple of fatalities, was going to become more dangerous as you had more development and more use. Something had to be done.
Q: The so-called Downtown Plan hasn’t gone as planned in 2006, but changes are coming. Tell us about them.
I think the Downtown Plan has been going very well.
Q: As it was originally drafted? With the real estate investment trust and massive acquisitions of property, big box stores, all that?
I think the intent of the plan is being realized: To recharge Downtown, to bring energy into the core of Downtown and to capitalize on what was already working, such as South El Paso Street, and revive what was long dormant, like the Mills Building, the DoubleTree Hotel, etc.
So again, while it’s still in a very early stage, all the signs show and all the momentum is moving towards something really great for Downtown.
Q: Where has Mayor John Cook fit into all this? He is the city’s first mayor who has not run the city and had executive powers that are now in the hands of the city manager.
He has been a great mayor for the following reasons. He has really allowed those of us who are passionate on a given issue to lead on it and has gotten out of the way. He’s tried to broker compromise when it seems like there are two opposing sides that can’t come to an agreement on a policy issue. He has bent over backwards to accommodate every stakeholder and interest group on any given issue, and he’s been incredibly accommodating to all concerned.
Q: What about Joyce Wilson and the role she has played becoming the first city manager?
I think you had almost the perfect marriage where you had a very ambitious council that wants to do a lot of things in a short period of time and you have, I would argue, the most capable administrator possible to get all those things done.
Q: Was there a single objective, policy or goal that you all were unable to pass that you particularly wish you had?
One area where we really failed and have continued to fail is in animal control. Even though it is no longer under the city county health district, it is still a low-performing part of the city. We still euthanize over 20,000 dogs and cats every year.
Beyond the fact that we’re killing all these animals, it costs you and me as taxpayers more than $2 million a year to round up those animals, warehouse them and then dump them in the landfill. And we’ve done nothing about the problem. That’s disappointing, and I share in the blame for that. I could have done a lot more on that issue.
I hope future councils will take that up and try to make improvements, but that is very clearly a failure on our part.
Q: Taxes and fees have also been big issues and big complaints. How would you characterize what this council has done since 2005 in those areas?
I think the city has done an exceptional job in holding the line in taxes in the six years that I’ve been part of it. We’ve been a little over the effective tax rate in a number of years. One year we were under the effective tax rate.
Q: Your allies have included County Judge Veronica Escobar. Your thoughts on her future in politics?
Veronica is a truly exceptional leader. There’s no one else like her. She’s one of the most courageous people I’ve encountered in public life. For example, and I’ve never seen this happen in El Paso before, she ran for countywide office on a platform that included a tax increase. So she’s brutally honest with her constituents. She’s incredibly effective at moving her policy goals forward. I think she’s been most successful with the Medical Center of the Americas and, specifically, Thomason – now University Medical Center – and the children’s hospital.
I would love to see her in a much higher position at some point.