Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Recall in Pieces: Profile of Beto O'Rourke

This photo is NOT a political endorsement

I think the first time I met Beto was at Stanton Street’s Christmas Party in 2001, right after the first print edition went out.  I was a few weeks short of 21, and pretty shy.  It was the first time I was being published, and as I timidly sipped on my red wine, I was approached this incredibly tall guy (6’4”?) who was almost 30, but didn’t look a day above 20, wearing an oxford blue button-down and khakis.  I may be remembering that incorrectly because I almost always see him in an oxford blue button-down and khakis, but it was winter, so they may have been charcoal.  But it was very business.  And he was a little tipsy.   He was every bit the idealistic, Ivy League, sweet-but-efficient tech guy, asking me all kinds of strategic questions about things that I wanted to see Downtown as someone who had lived in the neighborhood for a few years.
That’s still very much the same person he is today.  He still doesn’t look a day above 20.  He still wears oxford blue shirts.  And he still asks strategic questions with a kind of dry inquisitiveness that hints at naïvité, but I can assure you- naïve he is not.  
I have always been honest about my displeasure with certain policies and projects he, and his two friends in Council (Steve Ortega and Susie Byrd) championed, or the ways in which they went about achieving those goals.  But we're not getting into that right now. 
He is currently running against Silvestre Reyes in the Democratic primary, and things are getting pretty ugly.  Part of his strategy is branding himself as the young, progressive alternative to Reyes who’s not afraid to bring big issues to the forefront of the national conversation.  You may remember Beto from the national news as the Councilman who toyed with decriminalizing marijuana possession in city limits, and who penned a book with Susie Byrd calling for marijuana to be legalized  nationwide to help lessen the Cartel’s financial grip and decrease Mexico’s violence.  A noble cause in the eyes of many, including myself.  Shame he won’t be following through with that campaign promise.  Well, Reyes’ ad team (Two Ton Creative, who worked on Beto’s re-election campaign for Council and the City’s branding which I mentioned earlier) didn’t skip a beat. But it’s probably going to keep getting worse from here on both sides.  Primaries are on the horizon after all, and SuperPACs will have a big hand in both candidates mutual destruction.  But his and Reyes’ campaigns are a discussion for another time.
“So, I’m from El Paso, born and raised.  On my dad’s side I’m fourth generation, and my dad was involved in Democratic party politics growing up.  And he was a County Commisioner and a County Judge.  And was very involved in State and to a degree National Democratic Party politics.  And to a degree I was always around political events, civic issues, that kind of thing that was going on.  And I don’t want to give you a really long biography.  So lived in New York for a while, and then moved back here.  Went to Columbia and then lived in Brooklyn the following three years after graduating.
“So then moved back here…[19]98.  And then shortly thereafter started Stanton Street, which had two components.  There was an online magazine that briefly had a run as a weekly, as you remember, and then had a web design and an online software company that still exists today that’s still called Stanton Street.  And then in ’05 I ran for and won a seat on El Paso city council, re-elected in ’07.  Did not seek re-election in ’11, and in September of that year I decided to run for Congress.  Which brings me to today.
“I was truly excited about El Paso.  I felt like growing up here this was a town that was very accepting of it’s mediocrity.  You know we were just kind of an also-ran city.  We used to be great.  We were sucking wind and we were kind of okay with that.  But the young people obviously were not.  And it seemed to me like the young people, if they could, got out of town, in the 1990’s.  And that’s why El Paso exported more young people than any other community in the United States.  Bar-none.  So there’s just no way to deny it.  Young people did not want to be here for the most part if they could find a way to get out.  When I moved back at the end of the 90’s it seemed like there had been a shift and sense that we could again be great and were determined to make it happen.  And so, I wanted to be part of that.
“I’m a Democrat, and you know I’m proud of what I consider to be the best traditions of the Democratic Party like tolerance, valuing immigrants and immigration, social justice, equality, the best impulses of the Democratic Party are what attract me to that party.  Progressive is a label that people have applied to me and people that I’m associated with in the City.  It’s nice enough.  Who does not want to make progress.  Who does not want to see things improve.
“[District 8] was a really interesting district, because it was so strangely drawn.  Because it doesn’t really match the spirit of a single member district.  Where you have a definable constituency that has- you know…it’s really interesting because there are such divergent needs and divergent populations.  You have probably the wealthiest zip code in El Paso that’s in district 8 that’s around the El Paso Country Club, and you have one of the poorest urban zip codes in the United States- 79901.  And there are census tracks within that zip code where incomes are less than $7000/year.  Very poor part of the country.  And so it was a wonderful district to represent because of that.  It was a true cross-section of El Paso in every way imaginable.  And amazing people. “
“I just felt like, as misguided and as poorly worded as that ballot initiative was, in my mind, words have meaning and elections have consequences.  And that ballot very clearly stated, only city employees, their lawfully-wedded spouses, and their dependent children will be entitiled to health benefits.  And the effects of that obviously, not only were the half dozen domestic partners going to lose their health insurance, but so were retirees who didn’t meet any of those classifications, because they weren’t current employees nor were they spouses, nor were they children, so were grandchildren who were dependents, foster children, etc.  And I actually had constituents who called me up and said, ‘I worked my whole life in the private sector, I don’t get a pension, I don’t get health insurance, I don’t get these kinds of benefits, and I don’t think my government employees should get them either. ‘ There were certainly people who voted for it because they don’t like [the benefits aspect]…and then there are people who don’t like gays or lesbians and so they don’t want them to receive health insurance, and then there were people who had no idea what they were voting on…
“So I kind of felt like well, that’s how El Paso voted, and like it or not we have to accept it.  And there was also some thought that there was a way to.  There was a thought of having another election, which I really liked a lot.  My complaint, and a lot of other people felt the same way, if the wording had been transparent, and people really understood what we were voting on, I think…A whole other ballot initiative and this time instead of a ballot initiative to write a city ordinance like this one, have a ballot initiative to amend the city’s [charter]…
“So the idea was that we were going to have another election [another ballot initiative], for the charter amendment and let that very clearly decided whether we wanted to treat everyone who worked for the city of El Paso the same, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, whatever.  So that plan is interrupted when the police union sues the City of El Paso, because the retirees are not going to receive their benefits any more.  And it goes to a Federal District Court…
“I just kind of saw it, it is what it is, and I didn’t understand what the ramifications would be.  So anyhow, it comes out of Montalvo’s court and he says, the law that’s passed by the voters is not unconstitutional, because it doesn’t discriminate against any one group, it discriminates against everybody.  It discriminates against the LGBT community.  It discriminates against retired police and fire-fighters, it discriminates against foster children, so everybody got screwed.  But he warned the City, if you want to restore these benefits to any one group, say you feel really bad for the retired police and firefighters, and you just want to give to them and not to the unmarried domestic partners of your gay and lesbian city employees, you will run afoul of the US Constitution’s 14th Amendment equal protection clause, so it’s either all or nothing. 
“And the other thing that we learned at that point once we received Montalvo’s decision is we had two weeks before the effects of the ballot initiative were going to take place, so within two weeks, people were going to start losing their insurance.  And I’ll tell you the overriding concern, probably, there were many:  There was the moral imperative- do what’s right because everyone should be treated equally and fairly regardless.  And then there was this other issue, which is in 14 days hundreds of people are going to lose health insurance.  I have no idea if they are on respirators if they’re perfectly healthy, if they’re on dialysis.  Those were my factors- those different factors that I named.  If it had just been six employees, let’s have another election, because I’m confident in El Paso. 
“We have an amazing history of tolerance.  We’re the first city in the former confederacy to desegregate public places, which is huge- 1962, long before the rest of the south does that.  The first all black starting five in college basketball.  One of the first Mexican-American Mayors- maybe the first [Raymond Telles] in 1957.  Just a wonderful, rich history of tolerance and progress.  And so I thought we put this to the voters in very clear language. 
“I trust El Paso, but the two week deadline…since we were barred from changing the language we informed the public, here are the consequences.  I know [Brown] really hate[s] gay people and that’s really unfortunate- I know that’s who [Brown and his group] were trying to get at… those two groups that he was wanting to punish or remove healthcare benefits, but he ended up hurting a lot more.  So we told him that.  In the run up to the election.  If you just want to focus on these groups, this is how we would write it so you can get that done and also make it more transparent to the public who you’re trying to affect, and who their vote would affect, but he was not having it. 
“One thing in hindsight I wish we had done a better job of was- the City could not have done this at City expense, but maybe I could have, the Mayor could have- other people could have raised money and done an ad campaign and said look- if you vote yes in Novemeber, here’s what you will be doing.
“No, I didn’t think it would be thrown out in court.  I thought it wouldn’t pass. I thought this thing was ridiculous.” 

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