For the past eight years, a cohesive, though not unanimous City Council has led El Paso up a winding road, too fast and loose for some but knocking off an ambitious list of objectives along the way.
The progressives took El Paso to the next level as the saying goes, rebuilding a decrepit bus system, pushing Downtown revitalization plans, reshaping neighborhoods and winning voter support for the biggest bond package in city history.
It all culminated with the demolition of City Hall on April 14 to make way for a very controversial ballpark Downtown.
But they exhausted a lot of El Pasoans and political capital in the process, and things are bound to change after the June 15 runoff election settles all four of the contested races that were on the May 11 ballot.
Early voting starts Monday, June 3.
At the top of the ballot is the mayor’s race between a leading member of the progressives’ team, city Rep. Steve Ortega, and one of El Paso’s best-known car dealers, Oscar Leeser. The two candidates could not be more different.
Ortega, 36, is at one end of his life, newly married, without an established career in business or profession, and a law degree from George Washington University. But he has eight years of political experience and a thorough knowledge of how city government works.
Being a member of City Council is his first real job, and it’s clear he wants to pursue the political life if he can. His parents are professionals and the first in their families to earn college degrees.
Ortega admits he wanted for nothing growing up.
Though only 18 years older, Leeser is at the other end of things – the highly successful owner of Hyundai of El Paso, with graying hair, grown children and five grandkids.
He’s known to many for rescuing El Paso’s cherished Sun Bowl football game by getting Hyundai Motor America and his dealership to sponsor it. And he’s known to everyone for all those car commercials featuring his mother, Rhoberta.
Leeser’s parents were immigrants from Mexico, and struggled to raise their family on low-wage jobs.
He went to work instead of college, and he tells a story about how he got hired on the spot for his first job at a dealership after waiting for hours to be interviewed because the manager forgot all about him.
Ortega, the high-school debating champ who became a lawyer, was born for politics or the courtroom.
Leeser, the boss, isn’t at all accustomed to debate with – or from – anyone and is so uncomfortable with it that he has refused to meet Ortega face-to-face during the run-off campaign.
That was a political decision that plays much to the advantage of a candidate who came out of the eight-way May election with 47 percent of the votes.
It means he doesn’t have to face drubbings by a City Hall expert who only got 22 percent of the votes, while denying Ortega the public exposure his money-strapped campaign now needs.
Ortega may have spent $237,000 – $40,000 more than Leeser – leading up to the May 11 election, but his 22 percent showing is not a magnet for new contributions.
Both candidates sat down with El Paso Inc. recently – and separately – for extended interviews about the election. They were asked about the election’s hot topics, including the demolition of City Hall, whether a city should be run like a business and everything else.
Q: What do you care about most in life?
My family. I love my family and I think the most important part of my life, and I’ve always raised my kids this way, is to make sure you’re honest and always tell the truth.
Q: What do you do on weekends?
I spend time with my family. I love to hang out with them. I have five grand kids and they’re the dream of my life, and we hang out and have fun.
Q: Tell us about your kids.
I have four kids, three boys and one girl. I have three of them here. The fourth one joined the Navy and he just got out. His wife is from Pensacola, Fla. He’s an air traffic controller. That’s what he did in the Navy, and he’s back in Pensacola doing the same thing.
Q: People always want to hear about a candidate’s platform. What are the major points of the platform on which you are running?
The main thing we’re talking about is that we need to bring jobs to El Paso. Something that can give higher paying jobs – 20, 30, 40, 50 dollars an hour. But the biggest thing that we’re talking about is that we’re going to include the voters. We’re going to listen to the voters. We’re not going to overturn the vote of the people.
When we knock on doors, those are the main questions they ask us. They want to know that they have a voice and make sure that we give them the opportunity to voice their opinion and make sure they can vote on major things. That’s our platform. We’re not going to destroy buildings. One of the biggest things they’re talking about is City Hall and the Insights Museum.
Q: Your references to overturning the vote obviously have to do with domestic partners and providing health insurance benefits to them. There was a 2009 election on that issue and voters rejected the idea. Then City Council overturned that vote and kept the benefits in place. What are your thoughts about the city providing those kinds of benefits?
It’s not about what the issue is. People are not talking about the issue. They go, “It doesn’t matter which way we voted. It’s not what we voted on. Why would they have overturned our vote?” It’s not even an issue any longer because Proposition 7 passed. So, it’s not an issue any longer and it’s not something we’re going out talking about. People are just talking about the vote.
Q: The Texas attorney general just came out with a ruling that providing health benefits to unmarried couples who worked for a city government, for instance, is in violation of the Texas Constitution. If it came down to having the council vote on whether to go along with the AG ruling or fight for what the city is doing now, which way might you go?
I will fight for what the city is doing now as long as the voters want us to do it. We need to put it in front of the voters.
Q: You mean another election?
If we need to. We need to make sure we follow the vote of the voter. It’s not what we feel; it’s what the voters feel. That’s why they elected us. They’re electing us to make sure we follow their lead and that’s what I will continue to do. That’s my commitment. Whatever the voters want, that’s what I’m going to do.
Q: You nearly won the May 11 election, ending up in the runoff with 47 percent of the vote in an eight-man race. What does that say about the way voters see you and your candidacy?
They want a change and they want a change to trust and integrity and to make sure their voice is heard. We knocked on a lot of doors. That’s their biggest concern.
But the 47.4 percent of the vote we got is not the real number that you need to focus on. It’s that 78.3 percent of the people wanted change. That’s the big number. They said we want somebody different in office.
Q: We’ve heard you are turning down candidate debate invitations and that you do not intend to appear on the same stage or set with Steve Ortega during the runoff campaign. Is that true? If so, please explain.
It is true. We’ve said it’s time to stop talking and start listening. We’re going to neighborhood meetings. We’re having meet the candidate and talk with Oscar sessions. We went knocking on doors Saturday (May 18), and we were invited probably 60 percent of the time, to come in and sit down and talk to people. That’s what they want.
We’ve had 20 or 25 forums and debates. Our platform’s not changing. Our ideas are not changing. I know there were eight candidates and I understand that, but his viewpoints and mine are still the same and we’re moving forward. We’re going to make the right decisions for the voters.
Q: What is your education and professional experience?
I graduated from Coronado High School in ’77, and I attended UTEP for a while. I’ve been in the automotive business since 1979. I’m currently the owner of Hyundai of El Paso.
My education level includes a lot of training for business and financial services. You couldn’t run a business the size of Hyundai of El Paso without a lot of proper training.
We’ve taken our business from selling 15 cars a month to this month in which we’re on track to sell between 450 and 470. A lot of management sources and dealing with people. And a lot of on-the-job training.
Q: What were the jobs you had after you got out of school?
I started at Kemp Ford and I was there a long time, and I was at Mack Massey for a while. I left for a few years but basically I’ve always been in the car business.
Q: How did you get in it?
It’s a funny story. I was 21 years old and I went to apply for a job and the guy interviewed me and liked me a lot. But he needed his boss to come talk to me. So, he said, “I’ll be right back, let me go get my boss.” It was about 11 or 11:30. I sat there, and about 2 or 2:30, I’m still waiting for him. He had gone to lunch. He forgot me. So when he came back, he laughed and said, “You followed directions,” and just hired me right on the spot.
Later, the guy came to work for me for many, many years, became a dear, dear family friend. He passed away about two years ago. We took care of him till the end, and we still take care of his wife.
Q: Having a college degree has been an issue in past mayoral elections, when the city had strong mayor form of government and the mayor was the CEO for an organization with 6,000 employees and a half-billion dollar budget.
Now El Paso has a council-manager government. The city manager is 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?
You can’t take a college degree lightly because a college degree is very important. Coming from parents who were both minimum-wage employees, I needed to go to work.
But one thing I can tell you is I made sure my kids all had college degrees. It’s important to have a degree, but it’s more important to make sure you understand how to run a business. Even though I don’t have a degree, I have many, many hours of financial training and management. I’ve been doing this for 34 years. One thing I can do is run a business.
Q: You said your parents we were both minimum-wage earners. What did they do?
When we moved here in 1967, my mother sold cosmetics at the Popular and my father worked for the American Furniture Co. Originally, he did whatever needed to be done. There were seven of us, or nine of us including Mom and Dad, that they had to support on those wages. I’m very proud to tell you, my mom and dad worked very, very hard. We had a roof over our head, clothes on our bodies and we had food. You could never ask for more.
They showed us the value of working hard. I respect my mother and father more than anything else in the world. My goal in life was always to make sure I could always take care of Mom and Dad, and thank God I’ve had the ability to help them.
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?
Advantages are that we keep continuity and that we keep moving in the right direction. Disadvantages are if we lose control like we have now and the city manager is setting policies and procedures instead of just implementing them. That becomes a problem.
Q: What are the advantages and drawbacks of the strong mayor form of government?
You know, again, I think we need to put it back on the ballot. That’s what people want to do. If they want a strong form of mayor or a strong form of city manager, we have to be open again to the voters. That’s what I bring to our candidacy: that we will listen to our voters, and we will put things on the ballot that are important to our voters.
With a strong mayor, you control the city and you continue to keep the direction that the city’s going on. I get very worried that we’ll lose continuity if we’re not careful and every four years we make a difference or a change or something. So, continuity’s really important.
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 think the city should and should not be run like a business?
The biggest thing that we need to understand is that city budgets are huge. You talked about what I do in my business. We forecast. We don’t just get up every day and say, “OK, we’re going to sell cars today,” and hope that works out for us.”
We have a $752-million budget and we need to be sure we spend the money wisely. It’s hard when you’ve never had to make a payroll, when you’ve never really done anything. When you run out of money in your business, you go out of business and you need to make sure you continue to run it in a tight manner to make sure it works for everybody.
In the city, every time you need more money, what do you do?
Q: You go into the reserve fund?
That’s right, and we don’t want to do that.
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 and city council do to reduce unemployment?
That’s really one of the most important questions you’ve asked. We need to reduce unemployment. We need to bring the proper jobs and be sure that we bring enough jobs for our city so we can reduce unemployment.
People mistake this but it would be the greatest thing in the world if we could get a plant like the Hyundai plant because when it went into Montgomery, Ala., it reduced unemployment by 4 percent.
That’s how you’re going to do it, by bringing industry to El Paso that employs a lot of people. The model of Montgomery, Ala., reducing it by 4 percent, and theirs was at 11 percent when that happened, so it was huge.
Q: The city has put its business recruitment and retention efforts in the hands of Borderplex Bi-National Economic Alliance. Do you think that is the best way to promote economic development in this region?
Is it the best way? Again, the best way’s going to be when we start getting results. Is that the right plan? Well, we’ll figure it out once I get in office, what is the best way to recruit.
Q: Recruiting businesses and industries to El Paso has always been seen as a priority and a way to bring jobs and higher salaries to the city. Since 2005, how successful has the city been?
You know, we’ve not done a great job. We keep talking about it. We need to continue to go out and recruit and bring businesses into El Paso and make sure we bring the right jobs. Not the minimum jobs but the jobs that will create people’s ability to buy a home, give people the ability to send their kids to school.
Q: Can you name any of the companies that have moved to El Paso and expanded or developed properties here and received city incentives since 2005?
Can I name them? No. I know it’s not very many.
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?
You know, again, we need to make sure it goes in the right spot. And, we don’t want to tear down another building to put something else in there. There’s a lot of property around the area and we need to go look at that property and look at exactly where it’s going to fit and make sure we have proper parking.