El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar seems born for politics.
At 42, she has held the office, previously occupied by Anthony Cobos, for one very busy year, after serving one term as a county commissioner.
She is El Paso's third female county judge, following Alicia Chacon and Dolores Briones.
Like Briones and Chacon, she is a staunch Democrat at heart, but unlike them, she is not close to the party in El Paso County and considers it resistant to change and to newcomers.
Despite her liberal leanings, she said, many of El Paso's entrenched Democratic Party leaders regard her as a "DINO," or Democrat in name only.
Where Briones was the compromiser and a quiet dealmaker, Escobar can be blunt and confrontational with people less interested in change, who do not move quickly enough or whom she regards as questionably motivated in their politics or business.
Escobar does not come across as ambitious for higher office, but she talks about ambition a lot when it comes to her aims as county judge and in speaking about El Paso's future.
"This job could be what Judge (Anthony) Cobos made of it, which was show up Mondays, go to Commissioners Court, sign contracts and leave," she says pointedly. "Or, this job can be a very demanding job if you choose to make it one. I've chosen the latter."
Escobar attended Loretto Academy, graduated from Burges High School, and has a bachelor's degree from the University of Texas at El Paso and a master's from New York University, both in English literature.
She is married to a federal prosecutor, Michael Pleters, an assistant U.S. attorney assigned to Las Cruces. They have two teenage children and have, since 2006, lived in a 96-year-old, landmark home in the Manhattan Heights Historic District on the corner of Memorial Park that is on the tax rolls for $230,854.
She is close friends and political allies with city Reps. Susie Byrd and Steve Ortega and former Rep. Beto O'Rourke, who is challenging longtime incumbent U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes for his congressional seat.
Escobar, Byrd, Ortega and Reyes have carried on the "progressive" agenda articulated by Ray Caballero, who was mayor from 2001 to 2003 and now lives in Portland, Ore., and by former state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh and his successor, Sen. Jose Rodriguez.
Together, they have comprised the "other" Democratic Party in El Paso and Escobar would note that none of that group has been implicated in El Paso's long-running public corruption investigation.
However, Byrd, Ortega and O'Rourke were the target of failed recall petition drives over the stormwater utility issue several years ago. And now, successful petition drives have forced Byrd and Ortega along with Mayor John Cook into an April 14 recall election over the domestic partners election issue.
In an interview with El Paso Inc., Escobar talks about her ambitions for the next three years, the changes she has had a hand in making so far and those she would like to see.
Q: Being a county judge in Texas is a little understood post that no longer includes judicial duties and carries relatively little executive or administrative authority, is that right?
Many county judges still perform those judicial functions, including commitments and mental health cases. A county judge can choose to work on certain things. I've signed away all my judicial functions, even the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission hearings. I can still marry people, and I have. I have performed two weddings.
The county judge can also declare someone dead. I don't know what power that is, exactly. I can close the courthouse and open late and do stuff like that.
Q: What kind of day-to-day responsibilities do you have?
I sign all contracts. Everything that the Commissioners Court has authorized comes through my office for my signature. So I'm constantly signing contracts and subdivision plats, anything that requires Commissioners Court approval, it's the judge who signs off on them. I am around every day, so things always pop up.
The county is so different from the city. The day-to-day administrative stuff, the vast majority of what happens in this building is related to the administration of justice.
But the department heads who work for Commissioners Court are the backbone of the county because they are critical departments: human resources, information technology, public works and facilities.
Q: What are your plans and objectives for your first term?
What I have chosen to focus on as the judge is internal reform that I think has been a long time in coming, some external work that as the highest elected official in the county, I should be pushing and working on.
I've chosen to also try to be as strong an advocate as I can be for issues like border policy, border security. I'm probably going to get more involved in Downtown revitalization issues and eco-tourism in the coming year and I will continue working on government consolidation and sharing services.
There are internal projects I'm working on, external projects and advocacy. Those are my three areas.
Q: Being county judge, the highest countywide elective office, traditionally makes you the titular leader of the Democratic Party in El Paso County. It can be a significant platform for creating and pushing priorities and advancing a political agenda.
I wouldn't agree with the titular head of the Democratic Party. I think it's because I am so disconnected from the party. It's certainly not the case for me.
Q: Why is that?
I think it's no secret that the local Democratic Party has been very fractured and not as inclusive as I think it should have been. In both of my elections there were many players in the Democratic Party working against me in both primaries, not all but some of them. I wouldn't hold that against anybody because elections are elections and people take sides and then you work with whoever the winner is.
It's not that I have ever been unwilling to work with the party, I just think that there's a strong structure for new people that's missing. I have been disappointed in the party.
Q: Are you saying there's an old guard run by certain people that doesn't let others in?
I can tell you when I ran against Betti Flores for commissioner, a lot of what I heard from the Democratic Party was, "Who does she think she is to come and run against one of our own?" There's a sense of entitlement and ownership there, and it's probably well founded. It's a small group of people who struggled to pay the rent on the Democratic Party headquarters, who threw enchilada dinners to raise money.
But you're not going to grow your base, when there's new leadership, when people don't say, "This is great. Competition is important. Let the best ideas win." Instead of that, you get, "How dare she."
That certainly is what Beto O'Rourke is facing in the congressional race.
Q: You mentioned internal reforms at the county. What have you worked on and what have you gotten done?
Having been here four years as a commissioner, I can tell you that provided some great context for thinking about modernizing county government and how to propel our county government into more of a statewide leadership role. That's really my goal.
Q: What has been important to you and what's on the horizon?
The structure of the county departments under Commissioners Court was very linear, making it incredibly difficult to manage. There were 12 departments answering to Commissioners Court, including Road and Bridge, Facilities Management and Human Resources.
The level of accountability you have supervising that many people creates an inability to truly manage. The rule of thumb is you want five people to manage and then you organize beneath that.
So the Commissioners Court was not managing the departments and the department heads had not been evaluated. They were turning in self-evaluations over the years. That's part of an evaluation but it shouldn't be the only component.
Q: What have you done about it?
We reorganized the county department heads so that now we have four areas: health and human services, court services and elections, public works, and support services, and 14 departments fall under them.
I delighted about it and not just the reorganization but also the fact that the Commissioners Court has committed to managing. We are now meeting twice a week. We meet on Monday for the regular Commissioners Court and then on Thursdays, we have a special meeting with one of the four sections.
Now, for the first time ever, we are meeting with each team and department and we meet with each of them once a month. Those departments are the backbone for the courts and all the offices.
Q: When did this happen?
It was approved in late September, in time for the new budget year. We started in November, and we have gone through the first complete cycle.
Q: What else?
In January, we will have a strategic planning session with the departments. We'll talk about capital improvement projects. It's been a long time since the court got together to decide here are our needs, and we're actually going to figure out a way to fund them going into the future.
Q Do you mean pay as you go or bond issues and debt?
Both. It will have to be a combination. These are huge changes for a government that had been so set in its ways. We have Sheriff's Department vehicles that are 20 years old and we have no organized way to buy more.
Q: Who will manage that?
Carmen Arrieta Candelaria, whom we share with the city of El Paso under a unique shared services agreement, is working with our auditor's office to develop a capital improvement plan.
What I'm trying to do is change the way we do business at the county to make the organization stronger, more modern, effective and efficient.
Q: How has that been received?
When I talk about the county in that context, people get very prickly and defensive and think I'm being critical of their work, whether it be elected officials or department heads. I don't mean to be critical, but some of our ways of doing things are very outdated.
That's been true of the Purchasing Department. That was another area that I felt strongly about when it came to needing reform.
Q: What happened there? The Purchasing Department is controlled by the judges, isn't it?
By the Purchasing Board, which is three judges and two members of Commissioners Court. There had been many complaints about the Purchasing Department that had never been sorted out by the board. The sense of Commissioners Court has been, "Why bother alerting the Purchasing Board? They're not going to do anything."
When we as a Commissioners Court asked the purchasing agent what he was doing about the complaints, he said, "We follow the law." We also met with the judges, and a couple of them said the same thing, "We follow the law."
My point is the bar has to be higher than that. We need to have policies in place that make people feel comfortable with a complaint process and that it's online, that there's a how-to manual for department heads and vendors online, that the meeting agendas and minutes are online so the public knows what's coming up and what's been decided.
Q: What got you concerned about purchasing?
The Gilbert Sanchez and Luther Jones trial. I was following it very closely and I actually have a transcript of the trial.
One of the things I learned from when Gilbert was on the stand was that one of his excuses for his behavior was, "How would I have known how to go out to bid on something? I didn't know I was doing anything wrong. I never got any instructions or training. There's no how-to manual."
A purchasing bid clerk was put on the stand and he said he was right, we never got any training. We don't have a manual, but he never asked. Obviously, that was no excuse for corruption. In fact, the purchasing agent, when I brought up these issues, challenged me and said, "Well, Gilbert was going to do what he wanted to do. Policies and how-to manuals wouldn't have stopped him."
My response was, "True, but it would have raised red flags."
Q: Could you make purchasing policies part of the county's ethics code?
Absolutely. Then there's a higher standard of accountability. When I said departments have never been evaluated, Commissioners Perez and Haggerty told me that as members of the Purchasing Board, they never had the opportunity to evaluate the purchasing agent, and they were his bosses.
So just as we are changing things for county departments, I want an evaluation by your peers, subordinates, by your bosses and by the customers you serve. I want the same thing implemented for the Purchasing Department.
Q: People might find the trial transcript interesting reading. Is there any way to make it available to the public?
The transcript is fascinating, and I'm trying to get the transcript online, I've asked the county attorney if we can do that so the public can read it. They said yes, but we have to wait for the appeal process and to see if the attorneys object to anything in the transcript.
As soon as the appeal period is over, I want that transcript online. From my perspective, if I have it, it is subject to an open records request and anyone can ask for it once it's been approved and finalized. I would like to get it online because there are innumerable lessons in there for our community, innumerable.
Q: You have also pushed for shared services among local governments. Where is that now?
We've had two summits and it's very exciting, but not everybody is on board with consolidation or collaboration. There's still a lot of energy against it. The more the community embraces it and demands it, the better, because it's really in the taxpayers' best interest when you have multiple governments involved.
Q: Government consolidation has been talked about in El Paso for a generation.
Absolutely. So I had my first shared services summit in 2008 and had 100-percent participation from every taxing jurisdiction in the county. Nine school districts, various municipalities, community college district, hospital district, the county, everybody participated. We had three groups: the purchasing group, the technology and the facilities group, with department heads from all of those entities.
Out of that summit came a purchasing alliance with the city, and the county and some other entities. The city led the way.
We're going to have all bids online. We're going to try to standardize things and make it easier for people to do business with government.
Out of that came a shared data center between the city and county with room for other entities if they'd like redundancy capacity for their technology.
Q: Do you have a location?
Yes, we have two data centers. One is on-site at the Mumsen Dunnigan and Ryan Building that we share with the city and the off-site redundancy data center is going to be over near Bel Air High School.
On Thursday, we are having the ribbon cutting for what is called the pod. It's an HP pod and the first time a local government in Texas a government used this kind of technology.
Google uses it, Hewlett Packard uses it and major universities use it but the city and county are the first governments in Texas to use it. It's a huge deal.
The second year, in '09, we had the human resources summit. One of the areas we're still looking at is health insurance, pooling together risk pool funds to see what comes of that.
Q: What do you hope for?
By the end of my term, I hope we have a very modern, efficient organization that is leading the state in innovation.
Q: What is the status of the El Paso County Ethics Commission? It's been three years since the Legislature created it.
It's been up and running since September and we've adopted the new ethics code. The old ethics board, we gave them big plaques at Commissioners Court and said the transition is complete now that the new code has been adopted.
The county has been trained. We had to implement training for county employees and elected officials and for vendors over the summer.
They are also prepared to receive questions about ethical issues and to respond, like the state ethics commission.
Q: You're supporting Beto O'Rourke for Congress and you're part of his campaign. Why?
I see Beto as a courageous and ambitious leader. That's who he is to me. He also is my friend. I think it's very hard for me, personally, to stay out of races that inspire me or that I feel are very important to the community and this one is both for me.
I think Beto represents the kind of courage that I admire and that I think our community badly needs at all levels to ensure that we become the community that we deserve to be. We need leaders like Beto who are willing to make very difficult decisions, despite the challenges that brings on to their own futures.
But if Silvestre Reyes wins re-election, I'll be among the many to offer congratulations and say let's get back to work. I would expect nothing less from him and his folks, as well.
Q: On taxes and the economy, the city is going to be pushing a major bond issue, maybe the biggest ever, around $400 million. There are two issues. One, you are supporting the Downtown arena proposal, is that correct?
In concept. I am still very interested in the details of it. I'm a supporter of major investment Downtown because when you have a community where the vast majority of the tax burden is shouldered by homeowners - 60 to 70 percent versus what commercial properties shoulder.
El Paso is the reverse of what healthy communities have because of the lack of taxable industrial and commercial property.
We have a downtown where there's been divestment for 15, 20 years, so property values have plummeted. In many cases, residential property owners are paying more in taxes per square foot than Downtown property owners. That is an indication of a broken tax base.
How do you fix a broken tax base? If you don't, all you're doing over the years is raising taxes on residential property taxpayers to subsidize what's not been put in on the commercial side.
Downtown is going to take a long time to redevelop and the reason I am interested in and supportive generally of an arena and of big anchors is that property values will go up.
And if you're able to pull more people Downtown for shopping, the sales tax revenues will increase.
Those are the things that fuel local government, not on backs of local residential property taxpayers, but through the expenditures that visitors and people all over make.
Q: They're talking about selling City Hall and spending that money to buy or lease a new building and then knocking down the existing City Hall. Do you have concerns?
I do have concerns. I'm going to look at it with a very critical eye. I also am very supportive of investment.
The challenge for El Paso has been that we have not invested in ourselves with parks and other amenities, and we have become less attractive to industry and for people who want to stay here.
If we stay on the same road we've been on since the ‘80s, we've seen how that failed us. We lost people, we lost jobs, we lost industry and it made it very difficult for us to reverse that trend.
We are not going to do that until we take ourselves seriously and say we're going to need to invest in ourselves.
Q: The Children's Hospital is set to open Feb. 14. It was a big priority of yours. What do you think the long-term impact of that hospital will be?
It's going to create high-paying health-care jobs. It's going to help the medical school produce our own pediatricians, specialists and subspecialists without whom our community would not have access to great health care. Now, our moms and dads have to go to Houston, San Antonio and other places for health care.
It's going to be an important anchor for the Medical Center of the Americas. If we are going to be ambitious and continue with goals that we identified well over a decade ago, one of those goals was to be a medical center hub that could compete with Houston or any other fine medical center, then we have to have those great assets in place: the medical school, Children's Hospital and UMC.
We're going to look back and say the Children's Hospital was one of the best things we ever built. I'm very excited about where we're headed.