Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Recall in Pieces: TL;DR

Now that you’ve been thoroughly bombarded with the odor of ten years worth of dirty laundry from a city you probably think of as a pit stop at the La Quinta in-between LA and Austin, I’m sure you’re wondering why I decided to write this screed…

I love this City.  Warts and all.
I love this special fucked-up little vortex where I was raised and where all the world’s problems seem to become seated and magnified.   From border policy, substance abuse and all its consequences, civic neglect, gentrification, war, power, corruption and greed, and the multitude of legal battles that come with it, we’ve found ourselves consistently in the middle of the national conversation since our beginnings as a modern City.  And that’s shaped us into who we are today.
For all of our political ugliness, El Paso’s a pretty damn interesting place to live, and I know I wouldn’t be the same person I am today without having been brought up amongst its better qualities: our bilingual culture, our unabashed characters, our strong and proud and integrated minority communities, our sense of abiding humanity, and our racial tolerance.  I’m not saying things are perfect, but they’re a lot better than they could be. 
It’s less than perfect qualities, well, my mom always said you can’t make Damascus Steel without a furnace. 
But this issue really struck a kneecap here.  And it was out on the national stage without context.  It really saddens me when others talk smack about us, regardless of the issue, but I was loathe to allow the coasts the opportunity to peg us as a city full of ignorant bigots. 
We have the first gay bar in Texas, the OP, established in 1972.  We have a thriving gay community that was never forced to segregate themselves en masse in their own quarter like the Castro or the West Village of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.  We have an openly gay Sherriff, who is the former Chief of Police, who doesn’t talk about it, but he is very present in the community.  He makes a point of sending representatives to civil rights functions, which is a step above and beyond for law enforcement in Texas.   And, for all the stereotypes about Mexican Catholic machismo, have a culture where a mother will almost always accept a gay son, even if the father is an asshole and doesn’t. 
We also acknowledge that everyone has been through some shit, and even though we joke about it (like the lesser qualities in our politicians) we’ve accepted personal struggle and redemption as part of our narrative. We may not be the City on the Hill.  But we are the City on the Mount.  The salt of the Earth.  The humble.  The peaceful.  Who accept the destitute and the abandoned- Los de Abajo- and we get pissed when we see abuse of power on those who are trying to make good.
I don’t know if Bishop Brown knew what he was doing when he opened the box, but he managed to pit a lot of well-intentioned, and those less than well-intentioned, against eachother.  In his vigilance to deny the rights to one group of “sinners”, he made a whole city suffer.
I have to wonder whether whoever crafted the ballot initiative (Caballero insists it wasn’t Brown himself, though she would not provide me a name) did it in such a way as to create as much chaos as possible.  To deny a clear Civil Rights argument.  To force the hand of government forced to watch their employees suffer, in a way that breached an ethical boundary.  To pit natural allies against one another.  To make it easier to push their political agenda, because that’s all that mattered.  Not the peace, or happiness, or health of the populace. What would Christ have to say about pitting father and daughter against one another?  About using man’s law to force a civic body into denying people affordable healthcare?  How is any of that not the hand of darkness playing-out a Machiavellian scheme? 
But then again personal folly and the egos of the opposition come into play. Beyond all the religious and social implications, is a question of two styles of governance.   representative democracy versus direct democracy, and finding the balance between both.  Many in El Paso, especially those within the old guard of Civil Rights activism and the Chicano movement, find bold moves like vacating a popular vote offensive to their very core.  The to the elders, the outright sense of helplessness that comes with sewing your vote to see it overturned, or to see the will of those you disagree with overturned, is an insult to the system.
Many who have done well in politics here have either been in strong political families backed by powerful business interests, have been hand-picked and mentored by the latter, or have been complete sell outs- starting their careers as activist firebrands in the public interest only to become the very thing they loathe.  Norma Chávez comes to mind.  Visiting her office in Austin when she was still working as State Rep. for the Lower Valley, pictures of her in the Brown Berets graced the walls, as did National Council of La Raza awards, and when she saw herself losing and found out her political opponent was a lesbian, she went to out her at a biker bar.  Fuck that.  Let’s not even start on Norma.  That’s a whole other story.
As for Pastor Brown, he is entitled to his beliefs and his speech.  He can go Downtown with a bible and scream at the top of his lungs in front of Pride Square about the sin of homosexuality like a couple of our street preachers used to do, for all I care.  He can go run a car wash with the words “Support Traditional Marriage” drawn on his chest in magic marker, or petition people all he wants as a private citizen on public property, but when “speech” really means “legislation” and encroaches on the beliefs of others, and their ability to pursue happiness, it’s a moot point.  
So forgive us our politicians, a handful of very vocal Pentacostal Christians, and our lassais-faire electorate who should have been there to vote the ballot initiative down in the first place. But now that we’re here and the courts tried to sort it out as best they could, and our council members and mayor have about a year left to their terms, frankly, I think that it’s time for us all to move on.  Until the next city elections.  God help us all.  

The Recall In Pieces: Send in...the Lawyers

“Yes, I’m in bed with a misogynist, son-of-a-bitch. A fraudulent bastard. And I don’t feel comfortable.  And he can come after my ass.  But it’s the process I’m defending.  It’s the process that knucklehead politicians have put in jeopardy- [they] have been taken advantage of by a charlatan.  And every anti-gay asshole…I despise his people, but I defend the process, and the process is called democracy.”  Such were the sentiments of Jesus B. Ochoa, Civil Rights attorney, Chicano activist, and friend, at the end of a long interview where he defended the recall, and took the courts to task for decisions that he felt were already penned before the legal briefs were filed. 

His main gripe here, is the vacation of a measure that received the majority of the popular vote, “The example I like to draw is, you know we’re trying to get El Segundo declared a historic district.  Let’s go the referendum route.  Let’s assume we do get the referendum passed, and the city decides, ‘What about that baby [the Plan]?’”
I have seen a lot of lawyers this month, and everyone has a strong opinion about how these cases could have meted out.  Most of the local attorneys I approached didn’t want to give their opinions on record and/or be named. Because of the highly charged environment revolving around the whole mess, I asked a friend of mine, an attorney who is licensed in another state, and has no connection to El Paso politics other than me, to provide me with unbiased legal analysis.  He was not briefed on any of the background.  Only given copies of the laws themselves and related judgments.    
There are multiple legal questions at play within the ballot initiative, the Police and Firefighter’s Union lawsuit, the recall itself, and Mayor Cook’s lawsuit against El Paso for Traditional Family Values and Pastor/Bishop Brown, which can be summarized thusly:
a)    in that they garnered petitions from within their congregations and the churches themselves.
b)   in that they never reclassified their PAC (EP4TFV) from it’s original specific use, which was to raise money, disseminate information about, and collect signatures for the original ballot initiative
Because of the highly charged environment revolving around the whole mess, I asked a friend of mine, an attorney who is licensed in another state, and has no connection to El Paso politics other than me, to provide me with unbiased legal analysis, and help me parse the arguments.  He was not briefed on any of the background.  Only given copies of the laws themselves and related judgments.     

Let’s go line by line:
1) Judge Montalvo’s decision with the Federal District Court Western District says, no.  As per the El Paso Times: the decision, essentially, was that the ordinance repealing partner benefits was so broadly written that it put an equal burden on all parties excluded from benefits.
Per JB: “The judge's observation that the ‘law technically discriminated against everyone,’ was simply dicta and not any part of the ruling. Dicta commonly being defined as not necessary to what the judge actually held in his ruling, and maybe even obiter dicta, which usually- the dicta had nothing to do with anything…
“I honestly think Montalvo saw the lawsuit as poorly framed and in asking the parties to brief the question of due process and equal protection, which was alleged but lacked legal support, since [Officer Jimenez] standing, confused with the contract issue, was up in the air - the judge was actually asking for a hand from the parties as to how he could possibly strike down the ordinance. They failed to heed his invitation…”

2) Joyce Wilson’s answer to The Times regarding council’s authority was, “The ballot initiative is an ordinance. The City Charter provides that ordinances can originate in two ways -- via the action of the City Council or via a citizens' initiative. However, ordinances can be changed or rescinded. An ordinance approved via a ballot initiative doesn't have a different status than that of a council-initiated ordinance… A City Council would decide to not proceed with issuing bonds or moving forward with projects covered by a bond election due to a host of unforeseen circumstances, like an economic downtown. A council also could decide to not impose a tax increase or roll it back at a later date. There may be political consequences for doing so, but the authority does exist.”  Charlie McNabb, City Attorney at the time of the ballot vacation, refused my requests for an interview.
It seems like there should be federal authority limiting the city's ability to do this, against a duly passed initiative. But such authority wasn’t found, after much searching. Essentially, with regards to an initiative, as long as the city council passes its amendment through a process that's valid by its own rules (in Texas, those “rules” would start with the city charter and go on from there), the vacation is valid.

However, it's possible that El Paso's powers to nullify initiative measures might also be limited by state law — which, again, would start with the city's charter.
3) Theresa Caballero insisted during our interview that the law could have been amended by the City Attorney before it made its way onto the ballot. “According to the process, the city attorney has the final word as to how things are worded.  And the City Attorney didn’t change anything.  He didn’t add anything.  He didn’t anything…and then City Council voted to adopt the wording and put it on the ballot.  Why have this wasted exercise when you’re just going to trash it.  That’s wrong.  Why let people chase their tails?” 
 Both Ortega and O’Rourke firmly denied that they or the City Attorney, Charlie McNabb, had the ability to do so.  O’Rourke said, “Not at all, categorically no.  We tried, since we were barred from changing the language we informed the public, here are the consequences.”
Ortega : “If I were to give you something to sign that proposed turning all of the city’s grass orange and you sign it and afterwards and I support changing all the city’s grass to purple I’d be in violation of a number of principles.  We had to take the language as it was given to us. Where the signatures- that’s the language that the signatures attach themselves to.  When I told you Nov. 2009 Tom Brown visited us.  I told him- get a lawyer to help craft the language, that you’re going to propose.  They chose not to do that.  They crafted the language on their own.  It was legally suspect.”
4.            a.            The petitions were invalidated by the 8th District Court of Appeals citing that they were garnered in a way that was in violation of HB No. 2539, Section 2(b), which revises Sections 253.094 of the Texas Election Code to ban corporations and unions from making contributions or circulating petitions in a recall election.
b.            Per the El Paso Times (see timeline) the PAC was organized as a single use PAC for the purpose of collecting signatures for the ballot initiative, and not for collecting petitions for the recall. 

I could not find El Paso(ans) for Traditional Family Values on either the most recent IRS rolls for Texas Tax-Exempt Organizations or on the Texas Comptroller’s online rolls, and was unable to verify the Times reporting.  But, if (b) is true, than Federal charges could also be forthcoming.

5.  During my interview with Caballero and Leeds, they repeatedly referred back to Citizens United.  As did J.B. Ochoa.  So, here’s the big question, is the Texas Law copasetic? 

Texas law's revisions to the Texas Elections Code, in a nutshell, imposes limits on two types of political speech:

- Expenditures: Which are subject to reporting requirements

- Contributions: Which are subject to reporting requirements and a ban applying to corporations and labor organizations.

The Citizens United line of cases includes many instances where reasonable recording requirements are upheld.  There are other questions to consider, like are Texas' recording requirements "reasonable"?

The ban regarding corporations and unions exists in federal law, and has been upheld as it applies to federal elections. The source of this ban in federal law is the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which is quite well established (and which was not touched in Citizens United). In federal law this ban applies to "direct contributions" — i.e., to candidate campaigns or to political parties.

The key question posed by the Texas law is: If the federal government can apply this ban, can states do so as well? This question is hard to verify in the Citizens United line of cases.  Similar bans do exist in a number of states. I’m not sure if there are existing court challenges to those rules, but it can be presumed that since the bans are so widespread, they must be valid or else they would have been widely challenged by now.

What would a federal court do in light of the Citizens United line of cases (not necessarily just Citizens United itself), when faced with Texas' attempt to apply this ban in state/local elections?

HB No. 2539, Section 2(b), which revises Sections 253.094 of the Texas Election Code to ban corps/unions from making contributions or circulating petitions in a recall election, would be held valid in general, and it already had a strong test regarding the 8th District decision.

JB Ochoa has strong feelings about this decision. In my interview via email:
In an email, JB answered my concerns thusly, “Clearly the Texas election code suppresses speech - you have to form a committee, treasurer, file reports - and it you don't you have committed a crime. It is as if the 8th read through blinkers.”  He then cited SCOTUS’ decision,
"'Laws that burden political speech are 'subject to strict scrutiny,' which requires the Government to prove that the restriction 'furthers a compelling interest
narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.'" slip op. at 23

“The 8th's attempt at strict scrutiny is simply to ignore this requirement of a judicial imperative mandated by Supreme Court law.

“’When Government seeks to use its full power, including the
criminal law, to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship to control thought. This is unlawful. The First Amendment confirms the
freedom to think for ourselves.’ slip op. at 40.

“The above quotes are dicta, but they show the court's concern for robust
speech - a shame they were extending it to corporations.

        ‘. . . the Court [has] acknowledged that as-applied challenges would be

        available if a group could show a 'reasonable probability' that
        disclosure of its contributors' names 'will subject them to threats,
        harassment, or reprisals from either  Government officials or private
        parties.'" slip op. at 52, citing authority.

“The Supreme Court. wrote:

       ‘Disclaimer and disclosure requirements may burden the ability to speak,

       but they 'impose no ceiling on campaign-related activities,' /Buckley/,
       424 U.S. at 64, and 'do not prevent anyone from speaking,' /McConnell/,
       supra, at 201 (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted.).’”
There are two potential weaknesses in the Section 2(b) ban: The fact that it applies to specific types of elections (recalls), and the fact that it bars the circulation of petitions.

Limiting the ban to corps/unions' participation in recall elections: if the purpose of this narrow provision is not clear to a judge, then that's a potential source of weakness. This just means that courts will require the law's advocates to explain what public interest the ban serves.

Restricting the right to circulate a petition: The right to circulate a petition is direct political speech; that's a little more fundamental than the right to make political contributions, and thus it receives a little more constitutional protection than contributions (even after Citizens United). Within the timeframe I had to work on this article, we were unable to find any Federal cases specifically addressing the right to circulate petitions.  So we can list that here as another weakness as well.

The scope of the limit: Being for corps/unions' contributions to recall campaigns only. This is presumptively constitutional because much broader limits have been well-established in other states. But it's still oddly narrow, and inexplicably narrow limits on fundamental rights (including 1Amd rights) always raise questions of Equal Protection. If someone with more knowledge of the practical realities of recall petitions wanted to argue that there was an Equal Protection issue here, the question wouldn’t be out of bounds.

What about Citizens United? In Citizens United, the Supreme Court gave First Amendment protection to general political expenditures by corps/unions. This doesn't automatically extend First Amendment protection to corps/unions' direct campaign contributions, which are the issue we're discussing in Texas law...but it's as close as the Supreme Court has ever come to this question. If someone wants to argue that Taft-Hartley is about to be overturned, either on the federal or state level, they will unquestionably rely on Citizens United and try to argue for extending its First Amendment protections beyond general political expenditures to include direct campaign contributions. A case like this probably is kicking around somewhere in the District Courts right now.

6) Brown is currently looking at charges being filed for a third degree felony.  Theresa Caballero and Stuart Leeds have vowed to take their appeals to the Federal level, but that may be on permanent hold as they face possible disbarment. 
7) As long as the 8th District Court of Appeals decision remains valid, the Church is in violation of the Johnson Amendment, and WoL as well as the other two churches involved in petitioning could see their non-profit status’ revoked.  As to my knowledge as of today, the IRS has not started an investigation or proceedings to do so.  But as Steve Ortega put it, “If Tom Brown wants to lose tax-exempt status for his Word of Life Church, then he can collect all the signatures in the world at his place of worship, but once he is receiving his tax exempt status, the law comes in and says your abilities to get involved in politics is going to be limited.”
My deep, abiding thanks to Chris Reeder for legal analysis. 

The Recall In Pieces: Deus Ex Machina

If you want a perfect example of what Catholicism is in El Paso, allow me to direct you to the welcome page at Sacred Heart- one of the oldest Churches in El Paso- the foundation of Segundo Barrio, sums it up:
“One of the most beautiful things about this city, the aspect I appreciate most, is its openness to people of color --any color. I am not saying this place is perfect. But it is one of the most tolerant, open-minded communities I have ever lived in. A young black man named Tyrone evacuated here from New Orleans after Katrina. He loved El Paso so much that he has decided to make it his home. Countless soldiers from Ft Bliss have fallen in love with El Paso women and have also chosen to sink roots here and call ‘El Chuco’ home. These marriages, usually between a lovely Mexican American woman and a handsome young Anglo have turned into some of the most beautiful families in the world. And now, many people, at least 40,000 to date, have fled the sad violence of Ciudad Juarez and elected to make El Paso their home.
“The great counselor Carl Rodgers speaks of the importance of giving to others ‘unconditional positive regard.’ That kind of attitude is very prevalent here. And as our Country becomes more polarized over every issue imaginable, El Paso continues to show the world that tolerance and mutual respect make for a safe society. We continue to be one of the safest cities in the country. And I believe it goes back to the fundamental attitude of openness to people, whatever their beliefs, whatever their racial background, whatever the color of their skin.”
And as for the Franciscans, well, I was subject to one of the most frank and beautiful eulogies after my friend Esme Barrera’s murder.  I can’t remember the exact wording, but it was amazingly inclusive- welcoming friends of all faiths, and those with none at all, to partake in a moment of grave fellowship, and remember that justice, love, and peace finds its way.  It was the first time I’d ever seen a funeral where the priest or pastor gave so much attention to the non-believer- to give them equal comfort, to make them feel welcome, to make them feel loved.  It was such a testament to what the Church should and could be, what it is here. 
I was really hoping to get a couple of interviews with well-respected priests for this article, but those who I approached made it clear that their service to their parish predelicted their willingness to air their grievances in print.
I had to tread lightly, because they’re integral to the communities in which they serve.  These guys have nothing to do with the larger national picture of corruption and scandal within the church.  They work as humble councilors, and most of the priests I’ve met in El Paso have been of the same ilk.  Many of our parishes are presided by Jesuits who work in the Barrios of El Paso, advocating for immigration rights, providing comfort to the poorest in the city, and living like their constituency, in humble accommodations and simple, modern means.
Father Rodriguez’ efforts struck me as a deep affront.
I am not Catholic, nor was I raised Catholic.  My mother was Armenian Apostolic.  My father LDS, and my mother converted to the LDS Church after they married.
But, having been raised in a predominantly Catholic city, where most of my peers were Catholic, and where I grew up, having gone to elementary school in Sandoval Barrio and lived fourteen years of my life on the border of Segundo, I have seen with my own eyes how the Church has been one of the only firm advocates for Civil Rights in this city.
And more importantly, I know in my heart that those who advocate tirelessly here for their parishioners of all stripes, have no taste for political advocacy that would isolate any of their flock.
Father Michael Rodriguez presided over San Juan Bautista as a parish priest for 9 ½ years before his re-assignment to Presidio, Texas, on the basis of his avid participation with Bishop/Pastor Brown’s recall efforts.  He wrote a number of Op/Ed columns for the Times decrying homosexuality while the recall was underway.  According to KVIA, “One column was titled ‘Every Catholic Must Oppose Certain Things.’ In it, he wrote that, ‘Any Catholic who supports homosexual acts is, by definition, committing a mortal sin and placing himself/herself outside of communion with the Roman Catholic Church… Rodriguez ended the column by calling homosexuality, ‘An unequivocal intrinsic moral evil,’ and ‘frighteningly, if the majority chooses to deny the objective moral order, then we will all suffer the pestiferous consequences.’”
Allegedly, Rodriguez also helped collect signatures and advertise for the recall effort, “Rodriguez wrote four controversial advertisements, which ran in the El Paso Times, speaking out against the elected officials and the gay lifestyle. He also challenged Mayor John Cook and city Reps. Susie Byrd and Steve Ortega to a public forum.”   If that is the case Rodriguez would be in violation of the Johnson Amendment and State Law.
But the real meat of the issue, and what probably sent Bishop Armando Ochoa packing, was Ochoa’s suit against Rodriguez for misappropriation of Diocesan funds.  Rodriguez is alleged to have solicited donations signed to his personal account for church repairs and improvements and to have hired his brother to do the work without Diocesan approval. 

Per the Times, “The lawsuit gives a detailed account of how the Rev. Rodriguez allegedly inappropriately deposited donations in various accounts to keep them secret, solicited funds and completed building projects without the approval of the bishop and requested checks be made in his name.

“The lawsuit alleges that David Rodriguez was paid $4,000 for unknown work. The suit alleges that David Rodriguez was a participant in some of the priest's fraudulent practices and maintains at least one personal checking account with money meant for the church. David Rodriguez would not comment on the suit.”

As we all know, one can’t really gauge public opinion accurately through the comments section of a newspaper.  Even NPR’s comments can find themselves loaded with hate-filled rants that pass by the moderators, but I find them a better gauge than letters to the editor, but let’s allow the comment of one of his former parishioners, Adrían Juárez to speak.

“As someone who's been a parishioner of San Juan B[autista], and received most of my Sacraments, beginning with my Baptism into the Church, I am saddened to hear of this tear in our Church community. But given the ‘Abuse-from-the-pulpit’ that Fr. Rodriguez spearheaded and the manner that he took advantage of his position, caused a great and un-needed crisis in the Diocese.

“Make no mistake about it, what Fr. Rodriguez represented (and continues to represent) is clear and unmistakable hate for a another God-given human life that happens to be part of the LGBT community. Guided by the medium that God speaks to us, our conscience, I will stand with those who are marginalized, just as the Lord Himself stood with marginalized (Luke 7:22; Mathew 11:5). We are not put on this Earth to judge, we are put on this Earth to Love (Romans 5:8). Lest we forget the lessons of our great Catechism, El Justo Juez, is the Ultimate and Final Judge of our actions and short-comings regarding our duty to Love one another (Catechismus 1021-1022).”

As our city’s demographic changes, though, so does it’s religious contingency.  I’m sure I’m not the only one that has noticed that megachurches and the Evangelical community have blossomed here.  Whether that has anything to do with BRAC, or not, it’s here and it’s a force to be reckoned with.  This religious community has made a point of making legal advocacy their next step in doing what they consider to be the “Lord’s Work”, and we’ll just have to brace ourselves as these constituencies and the law work themselves out. If we see ourselves as a community that embraces tolerance, we must actively pursue it for the greater good.  And that means our young people need to get off their tuches’ and show their numbers at the polls.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Recall In Pieces: Susie Byrd

Susie Byrd and County Judge Veronica Escobar have been playfully referred to by veteran local journalist David Crowder as, “that dangerous political sister duo,”  and not without merit.  They are formidable, and cliquish and when they’re in the room together, there’s a very Mean Girls vibe going on. 
Having spent the better part of my childhood and adolescence on the receiving end of that vibe, I grant a wide birth when the two of them are at The Tap together.
Vibe to the side, she’s soft spoken and easy with a smile.  Tall, and athletic, with a deep tan, and hazel eyes, she’s a former high school championship soccer player.  She found herself involved in an on-field fight a few years ago playing on a local Parks & Rec team, and the Times dubbed her “Susie the Brawler” for the week.  That competitive spirit suits her to politics, and who knows, maybe on-field delegation helped prepare her for the shitstorm she was soon to face.
Before I met Susie the political animal, I knew Susie as Bobby Byrd’s daughter, who worked at the family publishing house, and who was never without her kids at the coffee shops. 
“I was not born here.  We got here when I was in second grade.  So I’ve been here since then… I grew up in District 2.  I grew up in Manhattan Heights, went to Crockett Elementary, Bassett Middle School, and Austin High School.
“I started 2005.  That’s when I ran, so 2005.  I’ve been serving now, this will be the end of my seventh year.  I have one more year left in my term. 
“Well, a couple of things, [I wanted to accomplish].  One, a big part of it is Downtown redevelopment, very much related so sort of improving the quality of life in the whole community. Both the economic sort of status of the city, but also sort of what I think drive people to cities, which is our revitalized downtowns and great neighborhoods and fun places to be.  That was a big priority.  And really investing more in older neighborhoods, [rather] than in building out the new neighborhoods. 
“Yeah, we [ran together].  Beto was interested in running but he felt like you couldn’t accomplish much just on your own, but it would be good to have people who have the same ideas working on the same issues, so he asked me and he asked Steve and we all ran together.
“I’m a Democrat in value.  I don’t necessarily think that party politics is particularly helpful in moving an agenda forward.  Just having worked in El Paso .  I think that ideas are more important than party, but I very closely identify with the values of the Democratic Party.  And you know, I don’t know.  People have described me as a Progressive Democrat, but for me that stuff- if you get captured by that stuff it doesn’t necessarily help you- it doesn’t move your agenda forward.  I’m all about El Paso- that’s my deal…
“Veronica (Escobar- County Judge), Steve, Beto and I really came to government from a really different perspective.  Demanding that government works for the people instead of for a handful of people, and we really looked at the issues of corruption that have plagued our community for a long time.  And then I think because we wanted to do something different, sort of transformative change for El Paso…
“[District 2] it’s  a mix.  It looks like El Paso.  It’s probably about 80% Hispanic.  It’s everybody.  It’s just a real mix of folk…mostly low income but even then there’s a range in there of folks.  It kind of depends which part of District 2, as you go farther Northeast, it’s a little more diverse in terms of racial background and ethnic background…
“This issue is distressing me so much.  I feel like that vote that was taken last year is very much out of sync with who El Paso really is.  Whether it’s because it’s poorly worded, or because the easy language of family values, but I think the base value that I learned growing up in the neighborhoods I grew up in was everybody is welcome.  Everyone is treated equal and that’s a value that I learned and understood growing up in the neighborhoods that I grew up in.  And so it seemed pretty natural when we looked into the issue of domestic partners it’s not a big issue at all.  It seemed pretty straight forward that it would be something that people would feel supportive of.  And I think- my sense is it’s confusing to a lot of people, given our cultural background- that the language and all of the sort of politics around gay rights is not necessarily a comfortable conversation for a lot of people.  But if you talk about it in sort of terms-Greg down the street whose been living with Paul for 20 years, who’s an active member of the neighborhood association shouldn’t he be able to provide for Greg in the same way that I provide for my husband.  And people are like- oh, yeah.  Of course…
“A lot of people, especially Catholics are not comfortable with the language of gay rights, but they’re not uncomfortable with gay people.  Because they have family members or neighbors or friends…
“That’s the neighborhood I grew up in.  That’s the city I understand.  That’s why I’ve been really troubled by people like Tom Brown that have sort of gained political muscle through this process.  He’s pretty much out-of –step with what the political values of this community are.
“Here’s the big deal also, and I don’t know how to resolve this.  I was actually, I’m glad that the Mayor won, because I think that was a really important case and it had really important implications for how you conduct these types of things, but I still feel like there’s this unanswered political question: what are the values of this community?
“In some ways I felt like a repudiation of the recalls through the election process would have been a clear sign like, the community’s not going to put up with this.  It’s kind of really intolerance for other people because of their sexual orientation…but I felt like being able to defeat the recall would have sent a clear- here’s what our communty’s really about and so one of the things I’ve thought about putting forward a city charter amendment. 
“Hopefully that will go forward in November.  I don’t know if I’ll have the support of the council, cause I have a feeling everyone’s really gun shy on this issue, but that would just be a broad anti discrimination clause…My instinct was to do it at the same time as the ordinance.  I really felt like it was important to have a competing idea in the election process, and also a charter amendment would have more legal validity because it can only be changed by the vote of the people, other than an ordinance, but I was kind of convinced out of it because every time you open up the city charter, you can only go in another two years.  You can only change it every two years.  And I should have just done it.  You learn.” 

The Mayoral Recall in Pieces: Prologue

I spent two months writing this from February to April of this year for The Awl, but due to it's sheer size, I believe the editor lost interest.  It sat on his desk for over 8 weeks, so, kids, I'm going ahead with it myself, before it loses all relevance. 

Tomorrow, I'll be publishing the Legal Analysis and Extro.

Happy Primary Day!

For those of you working for political campaigns, all photos and text are Copyright © 2012 Jennifer Burton. All Rights Reserved.

That means you must ASK PERMISSION BEFORE APPROPRIATING IT FOR YOUR RESPECTIVE CAMPAIGNS.  That includes poorly Photoshopped memes smearing your opponent (*cough*BillionairesforBeto*cough*).  Go ahead and quote if you want to.  That's fair use, but jacking my photos without asking is not cool. Toodles.

As it was intended:
1) Because All Politics is Local
2) Timeline
3) Intro to the Uninitiated
4) Profile:Steve
5) Susie
6) Beto
7) Mayor Cook
8) Theresa Caballero
9) Tom Brown
10) Deus Ex Machina
11) Send in the Lawyers
12) In Closing, TL;DR


The Recall In Pieces: Intro to the Unitiniated

I’m sure as you were sitting down to your morning coffee or trying not to get work done and reading about our political woes on the blogs from afar, you assumed that we were just another bunch of homophobic rednecks from Texas.  Yeah, that’s right.  I read the comments.
We’re not. El Paso is an incredibly tolerant city.   El Paso is about 90% Latino.  Most of that 90% is Catholic.  And I don’t think we’ve voted Republican in a gubernatorial election or a Presidential Election since Reagan.  Seriously.  We’re so blue in the veins Dem, we almost have two different Democratic parties.    
And that’s where we really need to begin.  There’s a back-story to all this.  A narrative built on good intentions, and aggressive legislation, and decades of local apathy and brain drain.  The new measures were implemented as part of a formula- an algorithm of how local government could act to rehabilitate a city long dependent on call-center and textile work that would attract young professionals.  One that created wealth to spread around troubled neighborhoods.  Through the first major initiative, the rest of the city’s solutions would fall into place. 
If we really wanted to go back far enough, we could see the seeds of this current generation of political dogma being planted by Mayor Ray Caballero who served from 2001-2005.  Two of the councilors listed in the recall were part of his election campaign: Susie Byrd- his campaign manager who later became an aide, and Steve Ortega who volunteered for both his election and re-election campaigns. 
I’ll let Steve Ortega describe Caballero’s mission, and where El Paso was in the late 90’s, early aughts:
“I volunteered on his campaign and he was really inspirational because he had told a story about El Paso from 1900-1950 being a great American city.  We had beat both the State of Texas and the country of the United States in per capita income in 1950.  Fast-forward 50 years in 2000 and we’re at about 60%of per capita income and his allegation was, business leadership, political leadership in the latter part of the 20th Century sold this city as a low-wage, low-income Mexican city and we’ve got low-wage, low-income results. 
“And his response was, we’ve got to set the bar as high as we can because we can be a leading 21’st Century City much like we were 50 years ago, 60 years ago.  And I really bought into that.  I was from here, I’m a fifth-generation El Pasoan, I decided to come back, and be part of a community that really set the bar very high for itself, and I think we’re realizing that.  I think what forced us to realize that was NAFTA in the 1990’s before we had the outmigration of the manufacturing/ garment industry economy that really El Paso staked itself to in the 50’s and 60’s.
“So you had the departure of company’s like Farrah.  Farrah had the largest single-story building in the State of Texas, here in El Paso it was the Farrah company.  You had Wrangler that was here, you had Levi’s that was here.  And again this is what we primarily based our economy on was the garment industry.
 “So NAFTA in ‘94 forces us to re-think our economy as those jobs leave and you had great public sector leadership in the late 90’s- people like José Rodriguez.  People like Elliot Shapleigh and then you had some visionary business leadership.  People like Woody Hunt who said how are we going to rebrand our economy and one of the areas they said we need to focus on is health.  And so together the public and the private leadership lobbied the State of Texas to create the first medical school to be created – actually the second medical school in the United States to be created in the last 35 years, so you have the Texas Tech school of Medicine in the middle of the Medical Center of the Americas which represents I think one of the key [components].
“Again, we’re setting the bar very high.  We’re no longer saying, come to El Paso we’re slow, we’re cheap, we’re poor.  We’re saying build our economy on something that has a higher expectation for ourself as a community.  That’s one way we’re going to do it.  That excitement, that kind of leadership, that kind of vision excited me, because I felt like it did justice to the people who live in this community and gives opportunity to those who want to prosper in this community.  That’s what got me excited about running for office at that time.”
The election of ’05 felt like a huge milestone.  It was, across the board, a young council, headed by a guitar-playing, folk singing mayor, and after the deep depression a lot of us were marinating in after Bush was re-elected, it was a refreshing change of pace.
The first factor in that algorithm was The Downtown Plan.  I’ll be frank.  I can’t be objective about this because I was deep in the middle of it.  But from where I stood, it really set the tone for the administration, and I, and other progressives that, I guess, see themselves as beholden to the barrio- indebted to equality and justice, fairness and concerned with poverty, never saw this city leadership the same way. 
We voted them into office, and I didn’t regret it because I felt like my former rep, Anthony Cobos, was a hostile machine Democrat who only cared about his neighborhood association and making money.  But I was disappointed and disgusted, as were many others in the civil rights community, because we didn’t see this first step as a matter of alleviating barrio poverty or living wages.  To us, it looked like we were just moving our poverty out of sight.
April 1, 2006, the City unveiled a comprehensive Downtown plan as part of a bi-national redevelopment initiative spearheaded by Bill Sanders (one of the largest developers of commercial property in the nation) on the US side, and Carlos Slim (does he really need an introduction?) on the Mexican side. 
I was there in the audience, as an op-ed writer and Downtown resident.  And all of us downtown were blindsided.  The historians, the civil rights community, the Diocese, Downtown business owners, attorneys for real estate holders.  Everyone felt like they were left out of the process, and that the Plan had already been pre-approved by a cadre of developers and politicians.  Here’s a distillation of the Plan, its actors, and opponents.
The designers of the Plan, SMWM, an urban planning consulting firm from SF, took a sharpie to the District 8 map and wiped out one of El Paso’s oldest residential neighborhoods- Segundo Barrio: the birthplace of the Mexican Revolution, the birthplace of the word “Chicano”, the birthplace of Pachuco.  Segundo is not strictly-speaking Downtown.   It is the Second Ward.  A neighborhood just south of Downtown’s business and financial center, which directly abuts the river and, were it not for the river, the border check and the bridge, would seamlessly merge with Ciudad Juárez.  It is primarily populated by the most recent of immigrants, and consequently, the very poor.
Community meetings featured pleas for Segundo’s residents- all concerns quelled with a promise that houses would be bought at market value and residents of Section 8 housing would not be thrown into the street- that they’d have interim housing and an opportunity to have rent stabilized housing in the new condo/apartment developments for 4 years (which is a load of horse shit. What person making about $11k a year-the median household income of Segundo- can afford to relocate a family twice within a short time frame?  I don’t know if you’ve ever been married with kids and made that little in a year, but I have and it’s a pretty insurmountable proposition.) 
There was brief talk about naming one portion of Segundo’s business district “Little Seoul” to appease the largely Korean shop owner’s contingency, but the Korean community wouldn’t get on board.  Two streets, Stanton and part of El Paso Street, which both lead to international bridges, were not slated for demolition and, on the original map they were joined with the cross street Overland and given the name “The Golden Horseshoe”.  Local historians were promised that properties slated by the original design for demolition (such as Teresita Urrea’s home on Oregon Street, or the building where Los de Abajo was written) would be exempted.  Sacred Heart church was promised to be spared, as was the last original adobe structure that Tom Lea didn’t manage to “cleanse” from the barrio.  The Farmworker’s Center, which caters to the needs of day laborers, was also promised amnesty.
The buildings in Downtown proper (which already had historic protection, some of which are on the National Register for Historic Buildings including the one I live in) were slated to become an incentive district. Property owners who committed to renovating their properties would receive matching grants and see their property tax valuations frozen for 10 years. (Something I totally agreed with.)
All of this felt very prescient to the civil rights leaders in the barrio, who after decades of watching the city leaders actively ignore Segundo, letting it’s streets crumble and slumlords rule unchecked, felt like- shit this is what they come back with? Segundo and Chihuahuita, though they are the oldest neighborhoods, have no special historic designation.  And to say that’s a sore spot is woefully inadequate.  Though leaders in the barrio have fought for decades to classify the neighborhood as such, they have been roundly opposed, and with a plan in place to house affluent young professionals in the works, their efforts felt like one more breath to the wind.
And then the conspiracy theories started.  I’ve heard them all.  The most popular theory that I’ve heard is that Segundo was deliberately left to deteriorate so the City Fathers would have a reason, other than just race and class, to expel the residents.  And, then there’s the most troubling. I’ve heard people postulate that the drug war in Juárez coincided a little too neatly with Sanders and Slim’s redevelopment plan- that somehow the Cartels have colluded with business interests to drive business owners out of Downtown Juárez so the properties could be bought for pennies on the dollar and redeveloped without any resistance. 
Seriously.  This is what people were talking about immediately after the Plan was proposed, and not without basis.  Because there is very little trust in leadership here.  Because there were plenty of city leaders who were bigoted good ol’ boys who did nothing but try to profit from their political connections.  And because we’ve continued to find ourselves embroiled in a mind-blowing amount of public graft.
One of the most prevalent charges was that Beto O’Rourke- the rep for District 8, which includes Downtown and Segundo Barrio-was colluding with his father-in-law, Bill Sanders.  The Plan was approved by city council on the strength of the Byrd/O’Rourke/Ortega voting bloc, a vote, which O’Rourke didn’t recuse himself of.  The Plan gave massive tax benefits to his father-in-law, and the allegation was that Beto stood to make untold amounts of money as an heir apparent. 
But, when a vote came to establish the TIRZ- the financial vehicle with which the Plan could be implemented, Beto did recuse himself, citing his wife, Amy’s involvement with Clinica Familiar de Salud La Fe (a network of health clinics which also runs the charter school La Fe Preparatoria where Amy currently works) and their potential for benefiting from the reinvestment zone.
This was not the only personal relationship that was dragged into the fray.  Susie Byrd’s father Bobby- publisher at Cinco Puntos Press had to defend his daughter’s decisionwhile alienating a friend of many years.  There were many awkward and bitter moments.  I haven’t really spoken to them about the matter in years, but I’ll assume that time has healed the wounds as best it can.
Even I ended up in a big fight with my husband, a recording engineer, who was freelancing with a Two Ton, a local ad agency, at that time, and who agreed to help with the City’s re-branding presentation.  
What this Plan did, though, was drive a fissure between two sides of the progressive community.  The wealthy, upper-middle class, and progressive middle class, as well as a lot of young voting age students got behind it.  Conversely, much of the civil rights crowd as well as the subsection of the student class we’d now think of as the Occupy crowd found ourselves on the wrong side of the issue.  And that’s wholly separate from the other, conservative-leaning establishment Democrats, who seem to completely disagree with every issue that’s come out of this council. 
This was six years ago, so I’ve been having a very hard time finding the same forums or blogs where I can copy paste quotes and links.  But if you really want a taste of the condescension, here you go.  And rhetoric became equally charged on the other side of the isle.
What almost immediately happened after the Plan was proposed was an issue both republicans and democrats could be appalled by- a doubling of property valuations Downtown at the height of the real estate bubble, as well as city-wide revaluations adjusted to more closely reflect the nationalmedian home price.  The doubling of property valuations Downtown was said to be a matter of leveling out the tax burden with regard to commercial properties, helping to fund the Plan, while also raising the value simply on the basis that they hadn’t had a revaluation in ages, and surely theymust be worth more now in this market.
The valuation also seemed designed to encourage tax delinquency, opening a route to seizure.  Most of these buildings only have the street level spaces rented out to bodegas and stores.  Unless a landlord is also doubling rents on street level shops, I doubt their income would be able to handle the new tax burden. 
And then the threat of eminent domain became a reality.  The city, in a move that most saw as making an example of a delinquent landlord, seized the historic Fall Mansion. Billy Abraham, for those of you not in the know, is this Oscar-winning actor’s nephew.   And almost everyone in El Paso would say Billy is El Paso’s most delinquent landlord.   Okay, the bees weren’t his fault, but something about it makes for a nice analogy.
The building where my apartment is located is sandwiched in-between two of his, and in the 14 years I have lived here I have had to call him an average of once a year to inform him that squatters are staying in his buildings, windows are newly broken, or -most recently- that the side of the Confiteria Elite building became a waterfall after a bad cold snap burst the pipes attached to the swamp coolers on the roof.  Well, I called him after I called the fire department.  But you get the idea.  He was a really easy target for the city, and I don’t blame them one bit. 
In the middle of all this, the City started spending money on all kinds of image enhancement measures.  Like this, and this, and most infamously, this. Go ahead. Let’s all say it together- THAT’S RACIST!  Wow, what a colossal waste of $100,000 that was. Sanders Wingo- a major ad agency that caters to minority markets shopped that out.  Nice.  Oh, I should also mention that the “Sanders” in “Sanders Wingo” was Bill Sanders’ father.  You get the idea.  It’s really not hard to see why people are paranoid in this town.
After the Glass Beach debacle, the city hired Two Ton Creative to craft a branding strategy.  They came up with this. 
These controversies served to overshadow the other really great things that were being done.  Like our new curbside recycling program.  Like the privatization of our public transportation administration (yes, that’s what I said- service has improved immensely).  Street improvements, new storm water drainage (which came out of a 100 year storm that flooded many neighborhoods, and which became a throwdown in its own right), securing an ArtSpace development, more funding for the arts, libraries and education.  We’ve seen a lot of great quality of life initiatives. 
But the conservative Dem’s will continue to moan about property taxes and not being pro-business enough, and the far-left Dems will continue to keep the stink eye on who’s making hay for big business, and the progressives will tell the two on either side to stop whining- isn’t it so much nicer here, now?  We know what's best for you.
But, needless to say, we’re stuck with three groups in one party that can’t trust each other with something as bland as a bond measure for a new school project, let alone fundamental infrastructure changes.