Or Two Priests, a Pentacostal Pastor, and a Municipal Body Walk into A Referendum…
“Did El Paso try to step back into the closet Tuesday?” That was the lede written by El Paso Times political reporters Marty Schladen and Adriana Gómez Licón after the votes were tabulated and 55% of those who showed up to the polls decided to rescind partner benefits for straight and gay domestic partners and the partners of retirees, November 2, 2010. The referendum, born out of a ballot initiative created and led by Pastor Tom Brown (who’s now Bishop Brown- we’ll get to that later) was caressed into life by a thorough campaign of moral and religious appeals and a contested petition, which was ultimately found to be in violation of state elections law.
And so here we are, El Paso, a city that has had enough problems over the decades to fill the Great Lakes a thousand times over. Here we are- the model of boot-strap fortitude in the face of turmoil (we call it rasquachismo for short). Here we are with a booming economy in the face of the economic crisis, our juxtaposition as one of the lowest murder rates in the nation while being Juárez’s Siamese twin, engaging in an unsettling amount of development, setting our place at the table of great American cities. But in the face of our many accomplishments we’re stuck in political purgatory, between a wholly corrupt Commissioners Court, an idealistic, but aggressive City Council, and the internal struggle to define who we want to be in the next 10, 20, 100 years.
This is certainly not the first time El Paso has delt with identity issues and our place on the national stage. We’ve had a multitude of comprehensive redevelopment plans, razed significant historic structures in the 70’s to make way for modernism, had a mayor who led us to become the first municipality in the US to outlaw marijuana before the First World War. This same mayor, Tom Lea, Jr., demolished the barrio, intimidated the Chinese immigrants, and with the help of the Feds, erected the first border station, wherein crossers from Juárez were required to strip, be doused in kerosene to “prevent typhus” and have their belongings sprayed with hydrocyanic acid and steam-dried, among other humiliations. Zyklon A eventually became the pesticide of choice. This was nearly two decades before the Nazis.
We had our own Daleys- men who designed public works to segregate, a strong Democratic machine led by whites who handpicked Hispanic politicians. We’re portrayed in the media as a one-horse town (*cough Tarantino cough*), a relic of the wild west, a den of drugs and thieves. And while some of the latter may have merit, it doesn’t speak to who we really are. In the end El Paso has always been stronger than that. More tolerant than that. And a lot of that tolerance comes from our mutual, sympathetic, interwoven cultural and social ties with Juárez.
El Paso is in the midst of the same ideological struggle that many cities in the West are going through- the pull between the young adults who grew up here who want to see their city be more like Los Angeles or Austin, and religious conservatives who’d prefer to see the city and its politicians conform to their value system.
The recent mayoral recall coupled with our County corruption investigation, the fracas over the Downtown Plan, the huge adjustment that comes with half of Juárez moving to town, and a new population moving in to be stationed at Ft. Bliss, our local politics have been taking on many of the characteristics of lavatorial quagmire.
So that’s why I’m here. Because I’m the local, and somewhere in the midst of that brewing storm of political sewer gases and inflated egos is the story of a City trying to define itself on the world stage as a major player- one that would like to get beyond all the beheadings and reporters hunkered down at the Camino Real Hotel waiting for the next shoe to drop on the other side of the river, and be a center for technology, the arts and education. It’s the story of a host of personal and political agendas- civil rights, religious freedom, and politics, and how a certain cross-section of these groups are trying to mould the city in their own image, and, let’s be honest, how they ultimately capitalize on their work.