Mayor John Cook's spacious office on the 10th floor of City Hall is decorated wall to wall with awards and other artifacts of his six years as mayor.

The collection includes three guitars on stands, announcing to a steady stream of visitors that this is a man who loves music.

As the city's "singing mayor," he has produced two CDs for charity, "West Texas Tears" released in 2006 to benefit El Paso flood victims, and this year's "John Old and New," copies of which he gives away.

Cook, 65, served three, two-year terms as the Northeast city representative and is a little over half way through his second, four-year term as mayor.

With 12 years in office, he is one of the El Paso's longest serving City Council members in history. He could be riding out the last two years of his last term with an unfettered sense of pride and accomplishment.

But Cook, who has presided over City Hall during one of El Paso's most creative and ambitious periods, now faces the dubious distinction of being the first mayor in city history to face a recall election.

That election, which may take place next April, was brought about by successful petition drives against three City Council members, Cook and city Reps. Susie Byrd and Steve Ortega.

They are the remaining members of City Council who voted to overturn last November's election. That was when 55 percent of those voting said the city should deny city health benefits to anyone but city employees, their spouses and children.

That election was aimed at the unmarried, domestic partners of city employees to whom City Council extended health benefits in the summer of 2010.

The wording on last November's ballot, however, not only affected 19 domestic partners, but 98 others, including City Council members, city judges, some retirees and 25 grandchildren of city employees.

It was Cook who offered the motion to restore those health benefits, and it was Cook who broke the tie on City Council.

Unlike most of the city's previous mayors, Cook made no personal fortune before coming to public office. He is far from rich, in monetary terms.

He says he has committed half of his retirement, $100,000, to a the lawsuit he filed against the organizers of the recall petition drive to prove the leaders violated state law by gathering signatures in churches and, perhaps, to salvage his legacy.

The trial in that case is in recess until next month. It promises to be a bitter, costly fight that could cost Cook more than money if he loses.

A devout Roman Catholic who entered a seminary after high school, Cook has stuck with his "I am blessed" response to casual greetings when people ask, "How are you?"

It may sound pretentious, even ridiculous to some. But the boy from Brooklyn, who served as an intelligence officer in the Vietnam War, married the Vietnamese sister of his language instructor and landed in El Paso 40 years ago, seems to mean it.

In an interview with El Paso Inc., Cook talks about the recall election and his lawsuit to stop it, as well as the Paso Del Norte Group's plan to put an arena where City Hall now stands.


Q: The city has asked the governor to approve a special April 14 date for the recall election. It can't be comfortable being subject to recall. How do you feel about it?

With something like this, you have to look at the worst-case scenario, and that would be that I am recalled. Then, how do you deal with that on a personal level? I would be at peace even if that happened, knowing that I had stood up for an injustice I felt had to be righted.

If you get recalled from office for doing the right thing, there's nothing wrong with that. What bothers me about it though is that everybody focuses only on the fact that the City Council restored health-care benefits to gays and domestic partners. What about the others?

Q: I think the official number is 117 people. In addition to 19 domestic partners, there were 98 others - including council members and municipal judges - who lost their health benefits and then got them back as a result of council action. Is that correct?

Yes. They're real people too; Mary Haggerty's a real person with 25 years with the city and lost her benefits. Pilo Tejeda, 32 years as a fire fighter, lost his benefits, because if he has another employment that offers health-care benefits, then he has to take those.

Q: Leading up to the recall election, do you plan to campaign on your own behalf?

Yeah.

Q: How? Will you campaign on your accomplishments or defend your vote or both?

Defend the vote. Why we did what we did. There's two arguments. One is that we overrode the will of the people. The argument against that is, did people realize how many people they were taking benefits away from? Or did they just want to punish the two gay people and 17 domestic partners? And did they really understand the ordinance in the first place?

The other argument is, do all people deserve health-care benefits?

Q: And?

To me the argument I'm going to push is the people really didn't know what they voted for.

Q: When the election takes place, do you think El Paso voters will recall you along with Representatives Byrd or Ortega?

I don't know. The vibe I get out on the street is, "Don't give up, we're in your corner." I guess if they're not, they're not going to come over and tell me that they're not.

But I think the majority of the people that I'm bumping into are telling me that they support and understand my position on it, and "Thanks for doing the right thing."

Q: Do you expect to have a financed campaign organization, just as if you were in a regular election?

Yeah. Susie and Steve and I have talked about combining our resources. Of course, they've only got their districts to worry about and I have the whole city. So while they're talking about doing things like flyers and letters, for me it's probably going to have to be like a 14-day TV campaign in order to really be effective.

Q: If you are recalled in 2012, will you turn around and run to finish the mayoral term that ends in 2013?

Yeah.

Q: If anyone is recalled, the city will need to have a replacement election. Would that require the governor's approval for a second special election date?

Yeah. We'd have 120 days to fill any of the positions that are vacated.

Q: As you look back, is there anything you might have done differently if you had known how things were going to shape up?

No. I think I would have done everything exactly the same. Maybe I would have stressed a little bit more with Barney Field that he had to get an attorney to help him draft the ordinance that went on the ballot to say what it was he wanted to say.

I would have told him you need an attorney who has worked for the city who knows how to write ordinances.

He came back to me a few weeks later and said, "All the lawyers in town are afraid to take on the city." I said, "I find that very hard to believe. Three times a week, a process server walks into my office and hands me a lawsuit somebody filed against the city."

Q: You are also suing to have the petitions from the recall drive against you and city reps Byrd and Ortega tossed out on grounds that signatures were collected in churches, in violation of state law. What's the status of that case?

Well, what happened was this. In the subpoena to appear before the court that we gave to Tom Brown and the other people, there's a place on the back where it says a check or cash for $10 is attached. The process server didn't attach the $10, which is a requirement to serve a subpoena to appear in court. You get paid $10 a day to serve as a witness.

When their lawyers noticed that wasn't done, they filed a motion to quash because the subpoenas were not served properly. The judge had no choice. We had to serve them again, but Tom Brown took off out of town. Even though we subpoenaed him again, he couldn't appear in court.

Q: So the trial has been delayed?

It's postponed until Nov. 14.

Q: If you win at the trial level, they will appeal. If you lose, you also have the option of appealing. How far are you willing to go? To the U.S. Supreme Court?

It's a matter of money. So far, I've probably accumulated $80,000 worth of attorneys' fees. If this thing starts going to the Supreme Court, we're going to have to get some people to help finance it or do pro bono work, because I can't afford it. I'm not independently wealthy. So far, I've only gotten $275 donated to my campaign.

Q: Do you have a website?

Yeah, www.supportmayorjohncook.com, and dot org.

Q: It appears that the other side is interested in making this a test case concerning the rights of corporations and churches to participate directly in the electoral system, and that they are interested in seeing the case reach the Supreme Court.

Yeah. That's why the lawyer from Kansas is here, Joel Oster.

Q: Are they looking to expand the ruling of the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case?

Yes, but that case was very specific as to what corporations could do. El Paso Electric, for instance, cannot fund my campaign. They still can't give a campaign contribution. A political action committee can.

Q: How much do you think it would take for you to carry the case to the Supreme Court if it came to that?

Probably half a million dollars. I've committed to $100,000, which is half of my retirement.

Q: Any closing thoughts on all this, the court case and the recall?

Yeah. I really spent a lot of time trying to figure out whether to go the court route or just focus on the election. Susie and Steve decided to focus on winning the recall election. But I thought it was really important to bring to light that these folks have been misusing the church for their purposes.

I think the church has its business and the government has its. Like Jesus said, "Whose picture's on the coin, mine or Caesar's?" What sins do they want me to be judging? Is it just the sin of homosexuality? Or am I supposed to judge fornication or maybe the people who are committing adultery because they've been divorced and then interpret the scripture that way and not provide city services to them?

Do you really want your elected officials to be judging sins? And which ones?

Q: But they can say, ‘Fine, you don't have to judge the sin, but we passed this measure in an election.'

Yeah. People say I stole their vote by overturning it. I ask them, "Did you really mean to take health care away from so many people?" Only one person has told me "yes," and he said, "I don't think we should be giving health-care benefits to even city employees; they should go buy them themselves." But everybody else says, "We understand and we're with you."

Q: Let's talk about a Downtown arena. The push is on for one, as called for in the 2006 and 2015 Downtown plans. What are your thoughts and where does the arena proposal stand now?

I can tell you that the Paso Del Norte Group is the big driving force behind this arena, and I've had Paul Foster and Woody Hunt come up to the office and try to convince me that I should support it.

But they started off on the wrong foot when I asked them where exactly would the arena go. They said right here.

Q: Right where you're sitting, City Hall?

Yeah. Their plan is to demolish City Hall, to build a new city hall for us over in the governmental district by the federal courthouse and to build an arena or multi-purpose center on this site.

What I told them is I know a little about how the political process works in El Paso, and I couldn't really see a successful bond issue if the people were to say, "That damned Mayor Cook, he wasn't happy with a Taj Mahal office that he had, he's going to have to tear it down to build an arena and build something brand new someplace else."

The private sector would build it for us and we would have to lease it from them.

I told those guys, "Look out the window here. What do you see going down Santa Fe Street but a bunch of junk?" I got a map and showed how the footprint for a new arena fit. I said, "Why not use that?"

And they said, "Because we might have to use eminent domain."

I asked how they came up with this site, and they said it wasn't the only site they looked at, they looked at every city-owned site and the only one they could find is this one.

Q: How would an arena be paid for? City manager Joyce Wilson has said it could be done with private dollars. Is that the plan?

No, I don't think so. I think the plan is a three-way partnership: the city, the county and the private sector.

Q: Would the city and county come up with two-thirds of the money and the private sector, the rest?

There's been no formula for the allocation.

Q: What do you think of that?

I told them my house is paid off, and all I do is pay the taxes on it. But somebody comes along and says, "You know what? Why don't you demolish your house? We'll build you another one, and then you can pay it off in 30 years, or you can rent from us."

Something about that doesn't seem to work for me.

Q: So you don't like the idea of putting an arena here?

No, I don't. But do I support some kind of multi-purpose center in the Downtown area? Yes, for a couple of reasons.

When I became president of the Texas Municipal League, I figured it was my opportunity to get them to come to El Paso. Well, they had the elected officials' conference here, but we're not big enough to support the whole Texas Municipal League conference they have every year.

Q: Because of hotel capacity?

We're missing two things: hotels in the Downtown area. They say the furthest allowable would be a five-minute bus trip. Secondly, our convention center doesn't have enough exhibit space, plus all the meeting space we would need.

Q: The newly expanded Civic Center isn't big enough to accommodate them?

No, it's still not big enough. For example, when they had the league conference in San Antonio, the exhibit hall is as big as ours and they had all these garbage trucks and fire trucks and everything municipal you could think of from all over the country. It filled the exhibit hall. But then for lunch, they have another big exhibit hall just as big as the other one.

Q: El Paso can't match that?

No.

Q: So as we look at the arena they're discussing, is there a size that's been mentioned and cost?

They do have a size, I think it's 17,000 seats. I don't know what the cost is.

Q: But the plan doesn't just involve an arena. Isn't it part of a much larger plan that's on the order of $400 million and involves an arena and a new crop of public buildings?

Yeah. It involves an arena and possibly a baseball stadium that they've looked at putting right behind Union Depot, and parking garages. The whole enchilada.

Q: What they're looking at is a publicly financed revitalization project?

Yeah. Three of our City Council members and city manager Joyce Wilson went to Oklahoma City two weeks to look at what they've done there. That involves the same consultant that the Paso Del Norte Group has hired, Harrow Sports.

Q: In 2005, the city engaged PDNG to do a plan for the revitalization of Downtown El Paso. The city contributed public money to the cause and PDNG hired a San Francisco architectural and planning firm to put the plan together. It was very controversial.

Isn't that similar to the new arrangements that have been made, with the Downtown Management District partnering with PDNG, which has hired Harrow Sports to come up with this plan? Once again, it's happening without involving direct input from El Pasoans, which was the problem a lot of Downtown people had with the Downtown plan in 2006?

I think this is more specific because it's talking about an arena as a driver for Downtown. It's not really a departure for the Downtown Plan that we've been working at. And I don't think the Downtown Plan got derailed by public opinion so much as it did by the economy.

Q: It sounds like the only thing you don't like about the plan is the idea put the arena where City Hall stands today. Is that right?

Yeah. If that's the starting point, then it's the stopping point for me, and I think it would be the stopping point for voters of El Paso, too. Quite frankly I can't believe El Pasoans would say, "Go ahead and tear City Hall down and build an arena there."

It would cost between $9 million and $18 million to rehab the building. But what would it cost to build a new 11-story building with gobs and gobs square feet? We're probably talking $200 million.


E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at dcrowder@elpasoinc.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.

 

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