Mayor Cook seemed a bit exasperated when I began my interview. I don’t know if it was the sheer volume of questions he’d been fielding on the issue, or if it had more to do with his toddler grandson, John Cook III, begging for attention since there was a new person in the room distracting gampa, but between that and the hailstorm I walked through to get to his office, I think we both wanted to blow through the chit chat and get down to business.
From his bio page: “Mayor Cook was born on February 27th, 1946, in Brooklyn, New York. He graduated from Immaculata High School in 1964, received his Bachelor’s Degree in Business from the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) in 1977, and in 1993 received an alternative certification in Special Education, also from UTEP. John married his wife, Tram, in 1970. He and his wife are the proud parents of six children and the proud grandparents of nine grandchildren and one great grandchild. The oldest granddaughter is 25 years old and the youngest is just a couple of months old.
“Mayor Cook has lived in Northeast El Paso for most of his life where his family has owned and operated several Northeast businesses. He served in the United States Army from 1966 to 1971, served as the District 4 City Council Representative for the City of El Paso from 1999 to June 2005, and was subsequently elected Mayor of El Paso in 2005. He was re-elected in June 2009 and is currently serving his second four-year term as Mayor.”
Two of Mayor Cook’s projects include a catering company called (yeah, you guessed it) Cook’s Catering and a barbeque sauce, Señor John’s, who’s proceeds are donated to his charity, Feed the Nation’s Homeless.
“You know, they always tell you, you should never mix politics and religion. This is a prime case. And the question is- and I know this is where Susie and I depart ways, and where I’ve been confrontational with Pastor Brown and some of the other Pastors- I keep telling them, ‘Do you really want you political leaders to start judging sins? What is a sin and what isn’t a sin?’ ‘Cause that’s what they’re asking me to do right here. They’re asking me to judge the sins of homosexuality and fornication- if those are even sins. And they want me to withhold benefits- or taxpayer dollars- that’s their argument. Why should my taxpayer dollars be used for those people?
“Well, you can get into real theological argument with them. As a matter of fact, I went to a group called ‘Pastors for Jesus’, and I asked them, ‘Are you really serious? Do you want me to start judging sinners into withholding city services and benefits from them if they are sinners? Because I know that three of you in this audience have been divorced. Jesus never said one thing in the New Testament about homosexuality, but he was pretty specific about divorce.
“He said a man who divorces his wife and takes on another is committing adultery. Which is a sin. And the sin for adultery back at that time was you would take somebody out and stone them to death. So, maybe those of you who are adulterers in this audience, I should not pick up your trash.
“And, as a matter of fact, I challenged them, then- are any of you out there not sinners? ‘ One of the pastors raised their hand, and I said, ‘well in that case. I shouldn’t be providing any city benefits to you because you’re all a bunch of damn sinners. And they were silent. They didn’t know how to respond to it. But that, I think, is one of the issues. If they want to start mixing religion, I’m more than willing to use scripture to argue.
“We said that foster children- it was a technicality-and several people called me on that issue and said that they wished that I hadn’t said that because they still had health-care coverage [foster children receive Medicaid as a matter of law] You’re right. I’ll be careful not to say that in the future and to be a little more specific about it. But if you just look at the folks that were impacted. There was quite a bunch of people- 84 retirees, 42 retiree dependents, 40 grandchildren and children…
“And they could be, they could be anybody. You know, when they talk about adult dependents, that could be like, if I had a brother who had mental disabilities or learning disabilities, and he was not able to take care of himself I may end up becoming his caretaker, and I would be responsible for him. He would technically be covered under the City’s healthcare plan, cause I claim him as a dependent, but he doesn’t meet the test of dependent child, that’s what the ordinance called for. So you had all those people who- the total was 198 people to hurt 19. And when we pointed that out to them, they said- that’s too bad. So then I’m wondering to myself, is that what Jesus would have said…
“I’m a Democrat… Moderate Democrat. It’s really hard for people to identify themselves as Democrats or Republicans. As a Democrat, I’m a pro-life Democrat, but if I was a Republican, I think that there [are] a lot of things on the Republican agenda that I don’t agree with. So I’m really sort of middle of the road, which is what I think most Americans are. There are some particular issues that are either Democrat or Republican, but is there really a litmus test that means you’re really not a Democrat or not a Republican?
“I thought [the budget measure granting equal benefits] would pretty much go under the radar. And it might have except that Susie, Steve and Beto made sure that it didn’t.
“Because, in reality we had actually done that back when Jan Sumrall was on city council. Is when we changed the policy. But the policy never got changed to the healthcare, the insurance program. So, I guess the question was asked, and I’m not sure which of the three asked the question, “I thought that policy was changed. What’s happening? There [are] still people whose domestic partners aren’t covered so we made a big deal about it. I say we, because it’s the body. So, but I still thought it- having already had the public debate and stuff about it back when Jan was in office, and I was a city representative at that time, I didn’t think it would raise anybody’s attention to the issue. Especially when we found out only 19 people had applied for it. And it’s like $34,000 a year out of a quarter of a million dollar budget. [Out of] 6,200 employees- in the big scheme of things… It’s small… Yeah, it was nothing…
“It’s been a very divisive issue. And I mean on several fronts. Number one- you had the very sensitive issue of gay marriage, and people wanting to know- is this a gay marriage issue. And to me it’s not. It’s an equal protection under the law issue for somebody whether they’re gay/straight, married/not married. I think by the 14th Amendment we have an obligation- if you want to follow the Constitution to give equal protection under the law. So that’s the number one issue. The second issue is why this thing really got so much play is that the people who passed the ordinance, whether they understood it or not, and their elected officials came in and said, ‘Well you can’t do that.’ And we fixed it for them and put it back the way it was that they took that as a personal affront to their right to vote. Even though those people don’t understand the constitution and they don’t understand representative democracy. And they don’t understand the things that elected officials have been doing for years.
“The City actually defended the ordinance, by the way in Federal Court. We said this ordinance is defensible because it does not identify a particular class of people- it identifies a very broad class of people. So you know, the arguments from your civil rights lawyer friend, he needs to try to answer that question for me. Was it a defensible ordinance or wasn’t it? Could we have overturned the people’s ordinance and I think the police union proved, no you couldn’t. The judge was very specific in saying that this ordinance is very defensible. It doesn’t discriminate against a class of people. Especially not a protected class of people.
“So his argument was that we did have another recourse? I think that’s a flawed argument. So the only- we had two choices. And I sat down with our legal staff here and asked them for advice. How do I fix this? Should I change the ordinance then so it just focuses on the gays and the fornicators? Is that one of my options? Yes, you can do that, and then it would be tested in a court of law. And then it could be overthrown.
“But then by the time you get that done, you’re going to have 198 people, and actually at that time they told me it was 119, it turns out it was 198. But you’re going to have 198 people who are going to be without healthcare benefits in the meantime. So if that’s what you’re going to do we’re going to put that on the agenda. I said well, how bout just putting it back the way it was? Well, you’re probably going to get people really mad at you to put it back the way it was.
“And I told them, well, it’s about time people started doing what was right and tried to make it popular instead of doing what’s popular and trying to make it right. So, I did what was right. Could I have taken an easier way out? Yeah, I sure could have. Yeah, I don’t know who any of those 198 people are. I don’t have a personal relationship with them, but I am their mayor, and whether they voted for me or not, I’m their mayor and I have to represent them. And I’m glad it got to a tie vote, so I could actually step in and it was only proper that they mayor on an issue like this not remain silent...
“I can tell you this. I’ve been in public office since ‘99 and this has been the most divisive issue since ‘99. I’ve seen things in people’s personal lives that they get less passionate about.”