It’s been 24 years since El Paso was without the services of Joe Pickett as a go-to member of the Texas House of Representatives.
Surprising all, Pickett, 62, resigned for medical reasons soon after winning a 13th term in November. He didn’t use the word cancer in his interview with El Paso Inc., but it has been widely reported that he stepped down to focus on his treatment and recovery.
In a special election on Jan. 29, former El Paso city Rep. Michiel Noe, El Paso Community College trustee Art Fierro, both Democrats, will vie for the District 29 House seat along with Republican Hans Sassenfeld.
“I think our community certainly is going to miss having him as an advocate,” said El Paso state Rep. Joe Moody. “Here in this building, the work that he’s done over the last couple of decades on behalf of El Paso is really something that we may not have a full appreciation of for years to come.”
He’s a Democrat, but Republican leaders tapped him not once but twice to chair the House Transportation Committee.
There, among many other things, he had a big hand in drafting and selling two proposed constitutional amendments to free up millions for major transportation projects in Texas. Voters approved both in separate elections.
In a legislative career that might not be over, Pickett held more leadership positions in the House than any other El Pasoan in history.
Former House Speaker Joe Straus, said in a letter to Pickett: “On issues ranging from public safety to homeland security to transportation, you have repeatedly earned the trust and the respect of your colleagues.
“They know you to be approachable, honest, and deeply committed to the well-being of El Paso residents.”
A successful businessman, who never went to college but teaches real estate courses, Pickett is anything but an all-business guy and is known for whacky stunts. Two stand out.
In 2013, when representatives sat for a photo at the start of the new session, a vintage film camera was used to photograph the new cohort of legislators that slowly panned the chamber from left to right. Pickett stood against the wall on the left and when the camera had captured his image there, he walked around behind it and took his regular seat on the right.
So, when the photo was printed and officially framed, Pickett’s image appeared twice – to everyone’s astonishment. No one had done that before – and no one will again. The next class photo was digital.
Around Halloween the next year, he pulled his greatest stunt of all. The front of the Pickett compound on the Eastside is a reconstructed Texaco gas station, and inside is his collection of vintage vehicles that includes a 1927 Model T.
Pickett shipped it to Austin and working with mechanics, disassembled it completely, smuggled the parts to the Capitol and secretly reassembled it in his office, which was already a tourist attraction.
They had to repeat the trick to get it out – without all the secrecy.
Pickett sat down with El Paso Inc. in his Texaco office to talk about how he got into politics, what he accomplished, liked about politics – and didn’t.
Q: What can you tell us about why you had to resign after winning re-election in November?
Late in November, early December, I discovered that I had some residual issues from my surgery almost two years ago. Maybe it’s not as dire as it was originally, but I didn’t want to repeat trying to put in 12 to 14 hour days for five months during a legislative session while undergoing treatment. I just decided to take care of my health first. There’s other people that can step up, so I’m stepping aside.
Q: Do you think you might run for office again? You could keep your seniority if you were elected to the House again.
It’s too early to tell. I’ve been doing it a long time. I’m going to be preoccupied for about three months on personal health and business issues. I probably won’t even think about it until April, and who knows? I do need some time, and I do need a break. Never say never.
Q: What about as a lobbyist or in some other capacity?
Lobbying is not anything I’m interested in. I won’t be hanging around the Capitol, sitting on benches made by prisoners spread throughout the pink dome. I have had people approach me and some offers to work with some large law firms and consulting companies.
Q: You were first elected to the El Paso City Council in 1989. Why did you go into politics?
I was disappointed at the feedback or the lack of communication I got when I reached out and asked about aesthetics and improvements in the parks and why we didn’t have landscaping in the medians. I just couldn’t get anybody to respond or take notice, so I just ran for office myself and did all the things I complained weren’t being done.
I started the first median landscaping programs in El Paso, and now it’s just kind of the way we do business. I had a lot to do with the first regional police command center at Pebble Hills.
I started recycling as a voluntary effort. I formed a nonprofit that I still have, and we clean up graffiti. I still fund it myself, but on a much smaller scale, thank goodness.
Q: You had a direct hand in the city’s recycling program?
Yes, I convinced my colleagues at the time. We started voluntary recycling, and the first place was Eastwood High School. It was so successful, we were overwhelmed with tons and tons of newspapers and cans.
It wound up being citywide after a while and eventually the city actually took on the program of picking it up at your house.
Q: Other examples?
There were small things that were kind of big for me as an independent person. I remember being in my real estate office and a fire marshal coming in for an inspection and then writing me an actual bill for a $25 fee.
That was one of the first things I stopped when I was on City Council because they get paid a regular salary to go around doing inspections. Those kinds of things bothered me and we continued looking at things like that.
Q: You were El Paso Inc.’s El Pasoan of the Year in 2013 for your work on the medical school, transportation and getting a constitutional amendment on the ballot that put more money into transportation. What’s the key to being a good legislator?
Actually, just showing up and being involved. One of the things I found out in the Legislature and, I remember, with the court of inquiry and beating on our chest that we don’t get our fair share. I agreed with part of that – El Paso not getting its fair share. But what I discovered quickly was if you got involved and participated, you almost were entitled to a piece.
El Pasoans weren’t participating in elections, and even the successful business people opening up their wallets. We were just nonexistent in Austin.
I don’t believe there was a disrespect for El Paso. I didn’t run into people who said, “Oh, you’re from El Paso. We don’t like you. It’s just a dusty border town at the far west part of Texas.” That’s not what I ran into. What I ran into was, “Oh we haven’t had anybody from El Paso participate. Welcome, sit down.” And I did.
Q: You’ve been involved in every session of the Texas Legislature for 24 years, what are you going to miss?
What I’m going to miss the most is the camaraderie I’ve had with the people I’ve become close with over 24 years.
Q: What have you liked the most – and the least – about politics?
What I liked most was being able to get things done – to actually cut red tape, circumvent bureaucracy and help people get licenses or issues taken care of that have hindered their businesses.
When people call and say I’m trying to get my trucking business off the ground, but I’ve run into some red tape and I can’t get anyone to return a phone call, I could pick up the phone and make that happen.
What I’ll miss the least will be the death threats, the 16-hour days and the fact that I can’t have a bad meal and complain or give free driving lessons because of who I am.
If you complain about something, you’re special and arrogant. It’s kind of like walking on eggshells all the time. It’s kind of hard to be a normal person.
Q: I don’t want to make you pat yourself on the back, but what do you see as the most important thing you’ve accomplished?
It’s not one thing. The two constitutional amendments, to me, were huge. They were the biggest funding source in the history of TxDOT – opening up the bank to the tune of close to $5 billion a year.
Then there were things that meant a lot to me because they came from issues from El Paso. I created the Silver Alert about older people missing that you see on your smartphones and on the highway system. That’s not big money but it’s important to people.
I fought tooth and nail for what people considered small bills – foster care and children and a bill giving state employees comp time for, like, three hours a month to volunteer. Things like that are important to me.
Q: Any idea how many people the Silver Alert has helped?
A couple of years ago DPS looked it up, and it was dozens and dozens.
Q: Do you feel you’ve left anything undone?
Transportation related, I removed the toll charge on Cesar Chavez Highway from Zaragosa to U.S. 54. I also wanted to keep a toll off the major Westside construction project – Border Highway west and east, from Sunland Park almost to U.S. 54.
Q: The toll is supposed to pay for it?
No, it’s paid for. There is no purpose for the tolls. Tolls are usually used because you’ve issued bonds and tolls are used to pay off the debt. But there are no bonds on this to repay.
Q: Isn’t the money supposed to go to maintenance once it’s finished?
Yes, but maintenance is a misnomer. I blew that out of the water about five years ago when I was chairing transportation and showed that Texas could absorb all of the maintenance on all of the toll roads and it would have almost no effect on our overall budget.
Q: What do you think the effect of the toll will be here and how much will it cost?
There’s two lanes in each direction. If you took those lanes and Interstate 10 and did not have a toll on any of it, you disperse the traffic pretty evenly.
What’s going to happen is at the beginning people who are for it are going to tout how it is helping the congestion because it’s taking people off of I-10. But it’s not going to be the same number that it was if there was no toll.
Q: So there’s nobody to stop it now.
Yeah, for the most part.
Q: What about the federal shutdown?
I’m just glad I’m not flying back and forth from Austin, having to go three hours ahead of time. It is an exercise in futility.
Everyone – city council members, county commissioners, state representatives – are going to be subject to the wrath of the public because of the shutdown. I have a hard time believing that Congress doesn’t have a way to go around the president if the president believes he can go around the Congress.
Q: Think the Senate could go around the president?
Right. I believe it’s there because all state constitutions are based on the federal constitution and I know we would do that in the state of Texas. I just don’t think Congress is ready to do that yet, but they’ll buckle before the president does. So eventually, something will happen.
Q: And Democrats help Republicans pass a budget?
I think so. People always ask, “Who do you want to be in power, Republicans or Democrats?” My response is I don’t care. I just want the numbers to be close enough that everybody’s forced to work together.
When the Republicans took over the house in 2002, for a couple of sessions, the numbers were close and we got things done.
Q: Anything else you wanted to wrap up in the Texas Legislature?
I wanted to work on a headquarters facility for the Department of Public Safety on Fort Bliss. That was going to be one of my focuses this session.
I was hoping to get 25 acres as a swap with the Department of Defense and Fort Bliss by doing some transportation improvements on Fort Bliss as a trade-off.
Q: So is DPS hurting?
Yeah, they even have school portables that they brought onto their facility over on George Dieter. They’re hurting because a couple of years ago, DPS realigned. Our region was part of another region, and the headquarters was in the Midland-Odessa area. Now the headquarters for this region of Texas is El Paso, and they’re strapped for space and facilities.
Q: People today – but not just today, of course – seem to have a particularly low opinion of politicians, thinking they’re crooked and more interested in money and power than serving the people who elected them. How would you describe elected legislators today?
We absolutely have some of those. Those of us who are involved know who they are because it’s very apparent. Sitting next to someone, you hear comments under the breath or the type of issues they work on or how they work with special interest groups.
Then there are those I also know who really feel the need to try to change the world and got involved like I did. So the answer to your question is yes and yes.
If somebody thinks there’s a politician out there who’s self-serving and just trying to feather their own nest, they’re right. If they thought there are people in office that they respected and thought that they could make a difference and did in their lives, they are also correct.
Q: The Texas Legislature meets for 140 days every two years. How time consuming is it to be a member of the Texas House or Senate when the Legislature is not in session?
It depends on how long you’ve been there, No. 1. If you’re a freshman legislator, you’re at the bottom rung. You don’t have the same responsibilities as someone who’s been there a while. If you’re in a position of leadership, you’re expected to do more.
For many years, I’ve had leadership positions that required me to have two budgets, two sets of staff – one in Austin and one in El Paso. It’s been a full-time job for me for at least 12 years.
Q: Officially, a member of the House is paid $7,200 a year. Why is it so low? Is it appropriate?
I don’t really think it’s necessary to make a change and, frankly, it wouldn’t happen right now in a state that is so conservative. It would take a ballot initiative, a Constitutional amendment.
The public may not know it’s just $7,200 a year gross, but the Legislature is only in session for 140 days every two years for the majority of the 150 members. There are probably 15 or 20 of us that are full-time. I wouldn’t want a system where a chairman got paid more than a nonchairman. I think it’s fine. You have to plan for it, like I did. I lead a conservative lifestyle. I’m a real estate broker. I buy and sell properties and an old car now and then.
Q: So that is OK with you?
Let me clarify that a little bit. There are some things that need to change. A year or so ago, House administration said I was No. 65 out of 150 representatives that are now in the negative because it’s $7,200 a year, which is $600 a month and the deductions are more than our House pay.
Q: Deductions for what?
Income tax, Social Security and the biggest one, health insurance. Out of the $600, the deductions come out to, like, $730. So twice a year, I had to write a check to the state of Texas to continue to serve.
Q: That means you have to pay the state to serve in the Legislature?
So you asked about the $7,200, which is my gross pay. But my net is about $2,000 a year.
Q: But you don’t want to change it?
I wouldn’t want to change the salary, but what I would like to change is members should not have to pay out of their pocket for those things that are out of our control.
Q: Another thing I bet most people don’t know, including me, is how retirement works for legislators. How long do you have to serve to qualify for a pension and how much is it?
On the surface, it sounds like it’s a great deal because you only have to serve eight years. There isn’t anybody who’s reading your paper working in the private sector who’s not going “you only have to work eight years before you’re entitled to retirement? Man, I want that kind of deal.”
First off, the majority of House and Senate members never make it to eight years in office. If you do serve eight years or four terms, you wouldn’t be able to draw any retirement until you’re 65. If you serve at least 10 years, you could start drawing retirement at age 50.
Then, because we don’t make any money, per se, they base retirement on the salary of a state district judge, and that’s about $140,000 a year. You get 2.3 percent credit a year, which is what other state employees get.
So, if you served eight years you would get 18.4 percent of a judge’s pay, or $27,600 a year. That’s not much. After eight years, you can also be entitled to your health insurance starting at 65 if you serve eight years. You can get it at 50 if you serve 10 years.
I’ve been there for 24 years, so I will get 2.3 percent, times 24 years, times a district judge’s pay, which comes to $82,800 a year.
Q: What’s most important for El Paso in this session?
Maintaining Texas Tech, UTEP and Fort Bliss in a protective mode and at times getting additional monies for capital improvements at UTEP and Texas Tech and expanding the programs that we’ve got.
Every single session is about protecting those three entities as our base in El Paso. As long as those three are strong and protected, El Paso will always do well.
Q: Years ago, we had a Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board under John Ashcroft, who said UTEP would always be a regional university with only a few Ph.D. programs. Dr. Natalicio had a big hand in making sure that was not the case. What would you say about her contribution to this community?
If you had asked me what is the biggest thing facing El Paso, I would have said it’s attempting to replace Dr. Natalicio, who has brought so much attention, focus and success to El Paso. To me, that’s the biggest issue facing El Paso. Who is going to replace her?
Q: This is a rich state. Why won't Texas legislators fund education adequately and fairly across the state?
I’m not an advocate of what I’m about to say and that would be a statewide income tax. You’re not going to hear that in much of the debate even in the session even though the leadership says this is going to be a hot item.
You want to fix public education? You can’t. you’ve got over 1,000 public school districts that collect more taxes than all of the municipalities and the counties combined that are powerful.
I remember the chairman of public education asked me one time, “Hey, Pickett what would you do if you could just anything?” I said the first thing I would do would be a really simple bill, just like a paragraph, and it would say there will be no more than 254 school counties in Texas. That in itself would probably be one of the best things we’re going to do but we’re not going to do it. There’s just too much power.
So there isn’t a fix. It’ll be better at times and worse at times, but there’s isn’t a fix.
Q: What are your thoughts on the proposed border wall?
I think the intelligent people you listen to, the ones who are involved who actually live on the border and the ones who have experienced it will tell you: Are there are places where we need a physical barrier? Yes. Do we need a solid, 600-mile wall? Absolutely not. It’s a waste of money and wouldn’t be effective.
That’s, I think, the problem we’re having. It’s not just nationwide. People assume Texas doesn’t want it. I know that’s not the case. When I was chair of homeland security, I would get these calls form people in North Texas and Panhandle, saying we need more Texas Guard on the border because they’re coming over in droves.
I’d say who told you. And they’d say my neighbor. I’d say where’s your neighbor, and they’d say they live behind me. I’d ask, “Have they ever left Lubbock?” And, they’d say, "No.” I think there’s lots of aspects of it.
Yes, I think there’s portions that need physical barriers. But to say we’re going to build the Great Wall of China? Absolutely not.
Q: It does seem like it worked when Silvestre Reyes was Border Patrol chief here and they imposed Hold the Line, putting agents along the border.
Thank you. It was very effective. But even now, there are places here Downtown where the fence can’t be put exactly on the border. We have access points where even TxDOT and the police have to get on the other side of the fence. But that’s not Mexico.