Steve Ortega

Q: What do you care about the most?

I care about leaving the world a little bit better than I found it. I was very, very fortunate to be born to two wonderful parents, had a very nice middle-class upbringing. I did not want for anything when I was growing up. So, from my perspective, with good fortune also comes responsibility. That’s why I decided to run of office in 2005 – as a way to give back to the community and embark on public service.

Q: Tell us more about your parents. What did they do?

My parents met at UTEP. My mom, Sylvia Cervantes, was born in the Chamizal area. Dad was born in Smeltertown. They were both first in their families to go to college and met at UTEP. She became a speech therapist and got a master’s degree from UTEP. My dad, Roberto, got his master’s degree in psychology and became a dean of math and science at El Paso Community College. They’re active in the campaign.

My father’s semi-retired now and teaching psychology part time at the community college, and my mom is semi-retired working part-time as a speech therapist.

Q: What do you do on weekends?

I really love hiking and backpacking, and like to spend a lot of time in Southern New Mexico or sometimes in the Franklins. Going to movies. Spend time with family and friends. Read a lot, particularly history and sports and political biographies. That’s what I do in my free time.

Q: What did you do in high school?

I was in speech and debate at Cathedral High School. I was in cross-examination debate. My debate partner and I won the Texas Forensic League city tournament and we represented El Paso at the national tournament in Florida.

Q: Did you want to go into law then?

I had thought about it and then in undergrad, I tried really hard, I knew I wanted to go to grad school. So my grades in college were much better than high school.

Q: What was your major in college?

I got a political science degree and one in sociology from the University of Texas at Austin.

Q: People always want to hear about a candidate’s platform. What are the major points of the platform on which you are running?

I think what we have to do is take a look at El Paso’s assets right now. Those assets are what I call the three “M”s. The first is Mexican commerce. Right now El Paso is No. 2 on the U.S.-Mexico border in terms of the amount of trade we do with Mexico. Laredo’s No. 1. Last year we did $88 billion worth of international trade that crossed at our city’s bridges. One of the issues we’ve identified is the long bridge wait times. The more efficient our bridges, the more jobs you can grow in the region.

The second “M” is the medical sector. That’s really where I think El Paso’s future lies in terms of our economy. The Medical Center of the Americas expects by 2025 to have 10,000 jobs in that cluster. Those are good paying jobs with benefits. The third “M” is military and Fort Bliss.

Q: What about Leeser’s platform?

He really doesn’t have a platform, and that is of concern to me. All we’ve heard is run El Paso like a business and potentially bring Hyundai manufacturing jobs to the community.

Q: He’s not showing up for any more forums or debates, right?

The media let me know that he’s not going to participate in any more debates for the duration of this runoff election. I have a hard time believing people would vote for a mayor who would not want to discuss the issues, especially during a campaign. To refuse to do that at the start of this runoff campaign is, to me, astounding.

Q: You came in second in the May 11 election with only 22 percent of the vote. What does that say about the way voters see you and what will you do, or try to do, to turn things around by the June 15 runoff?

There is no doubt that the decisions of baseball; domestic partnerships were not popularly supported by some. I take responsibility for that. In my decision calculus, I like to weigh the pros and cons and then vote in favor of El Paso, even if it’s not going to be popular at the time. I need to do a better job of communicating and listening to those in the community.

Q: Raising money after getting 22 percent of the votes is probably difficult.

Yeah, certainly not as easy as before. I think I’ll be OK. Certainly not going to have a war chest but we’ll be competitive.

Q: Who are your top three or four campaign supporters?

Dan Longoria is a key supporter. He owns Mattress Firm. J. Kirk Robison, who owns the Peter Piper Pizza stores and has some horses. Bob Hoy has also been a big supporter. Octavio Gomez has been a strong supporter. He’s a young entrepreneur who’s done a lot in Union Plaza.

Q: Where do Woody Hunt and Paul Foster fit in?

They are supporters, and I’m happy to call them key supporters. I think they have been unfairly characterized. They’re the two biggest philanthropists that this community has ever seen. They’re behind things like the Texas Tech school of medicine and the Texas Tech school of nursing. They’re giving the first 10 years of profits from baseball to charities. I welcome and am proud to have their support because they’re great El Pasoans.

Q: You have been on City Council for eight years. You outspent your opponent by a significant amount of money with the support from two of the biggest names in town, Hunt and Foster. Why do you think Oscar Leeser received 47 percent of the vote?

I think what has resonated with a lot of people has been the ballpark issue. He has said that he supports the ballpark but would not have made the decision to have it done here in Downtown El Paso.

Also, the domestic partners’ benefits is fresh in people’s mind. He has said he would not support Proposition 7, yet he says he’s for equal rights for all. Those statements just don’t add up. I think what you get with my candidacy is a clear and principled position in the issues rooted in supporting El Paso.

Q: The Texas attorney general has issued an opinion that the domestic partner benefits violate a new provision of the state constitution prohibiting marriage-like arrangements. What is the city of El Paso going to do about that?

The attorney general’s opinion is just that; it’s an opinion. Legal experts from Austin, Dallas and El Paso disagree with that opinion. Domestic partner benefits are marriage or common-law marriage. The U.S. Supreme Court will soon rule on 14th Amendment protections for people regardless of sexual orientation. I think the march of history is very clear.

Normally there would be a suit filed by the state, but I think everyone is holding tight for the Supreme Court decision. I think when we look back in 50 years, we’ll realize it was ridiculous to not treat all with equality.

Q: Having a college degree has been an issue in past mayoral elections, when El Paso had a strong mayor form of government and the mayor was the CEO of an organization with 6,000 employees and a half-billion dollar budget. Now, El Paso has a council-manager government. The city manager is the CEO, and the mayor presides at City Council meetings but has no executive powers.

Is it still important for the mayor to have a college education?

I think it is, and I think what we’re doing is setting an example for the youth of this community. I don’t think having a college education is the most important criteria. That is understanding what it takes to move El Paso to the next level, a willingness to make the tough decisions and having bold ideas for the community. I don’t think a college education hurts. I think it helps when you look at the major Texas cities today, all of those mayors are either educated at a four-year level and many of them beyond that. El Paso would stick out if we had a mayor without that education.

Q: What do you see as the advantages and drawbacks to the council-manager form of government in which a city manager is the CEO and works for City Council?

The professional administration of government. We have close to $500 million in bonds that are coming up. Do we want those professionally administered or politically administered?

Another advantage we have seen in the last eight years is the city has been one of the public organizations that has not been hit by the public corruption scandal. I think when you have professional management, you have a buffer that can shield you from some of the shady dealings we’ve seen take place at some of the other organizations.

The disadvantage is the mayor and council don’t have as much power over the day-to-day running of the government. So, if a department is in the opinion of the mayor and council not performing, you can’t just fire that department head. All else being equal, I prefer the city manager form of government.

Q: For years, mayoral candidates have campaigned on the idea that El Paso city government should be run like a business. In what ways do you thing the city should and should not be run like a business?

For me, the purpose of a business is to maximize profits. That is not the function of city government. The function of city government is to allow for a foundation for prosperity for your community. Things like great neighborhoods, a great transportation system, great downtowns. We have made huge strides in each of those categories in the last eight years. We have come a long way and too far to turn back.

Forbes and Newsweek name us a top 10 or 15 emerging downtowns, safest city No. 1 for several years, Manpower Inc. names us the city with the most consecutive private-sector job growth. Sun Metro in 2011 gets the American Public Transportation System of the Year Award. The city clearly is moving in a great direction. We saw it in the bond election. And, that’s what the job of a city leadership is, to set the foundation for a great community.

Q: El Paso’s unemployment rate is now at 9 percent, one point above the national rate and 2 percent higher than Texas. Realistically, what can a mayor or the city council do to reduce unemployment?

Create an environment for job growth, and we’re starting to see that now. One, the focus on the medical center area. Two, transportation. Ten years ago, we effectively had no public transportation. You either had a car or that was it. Buses weren’t showing up on time. They were breaking down. Now, it’s an award-winning system and we’re reintroducing the trolley to El Paso. We’re completing the loop around the community. We’re introducing bus rapid transit. All that is on its way.

And neighborhoods. If you want to have a thriving community you need thriving neighborhoods. One of the first things we did in 2006 was require a park for every 100 homes. The philosophy when the city was run like a business back in the ‘80s and ‘90s was let’s just build homes and homes and homes and no parks. That’s why running a city is different than running a business.

Q: The city has put its business recruitment and retention efforts in the hands of Borderplex Bi-National Economic Alliance. Do you still think that is the best way to promote economic development in this region?

I think the best way to promote economic development is to think as a region. Juárez is not our enemy; it is our ally. Southern New Mexico is not our competitor; it is our ally. I support the efforts of Borderplex because instead of thinking of El Paso as an island in the sea, it embraces the regional model, which I think makes all the sense in the world.

Q: With all the city and REDCo’s efforts to attract new business to El Paso, how many jobs were created as a result?

I believe there have been about 2,400 jobs that have come to fruition as a result of those incentives in the last seven years.

Q: Is that a good number?

No, it’s not. El Paso was on the decline from 1960 to about 2005 and you’re not going to turn that around in one year or two.

There was also the Juárez violence and an economic downturn in 2008.

It’s difficult to create jobs in that environment. The recovery is coming now that the violence in Juárez is going down, the stage is set for job growth.

Q: The biggest single item approved by voters in the November bond election was a $180-million downtown performing arts center and arena. Under what circumstances do you see that being built and where might it go?

I think there are two areas where it could go. One would be in the San Antonio-Santa Fe area. Another area that’s been discussed would take a tremendous effort by the community. It would be over the freeway.

You would cap the freeway the way Dallas has capped their freeway. So, you would link up Sunset Heights to the Downtown area, create a plaza promenade area and then have your arena there on top of freeway.

I think it’s a long shot but it could be another location if all the stars lined up.


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