Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Recall In Pieces: Steve Ortega Profile

Steve and I have had our moments. His style is in-your-face, he openly rolls his eyes during Council, (Don’t deny it Steve.  I’m not the only one who’s seen you do it.)  and I got the impression with my dealings with him that he takes any opposition personally. Well, he does have a JD, so those traits are to be expected.  But, he was remarkably cordial and informative on the occasion of our interview. 
“Steve Ortega. Good morning.  Yes.”
“Fifth generation El Pasoan.  On the Eastside of El Paso.  Went to school in Downtown El Paso at Cathedral HS [a private Catholic high school] and then was away for four years at UT Austin.  Graduated, came home for one year.  Worked as a high school counselor.  Went up to GW University for three years- school of law.  When I was done, came back in 2003.  When I was back I became a campaign manager for the County Attorney at that time, José Rodriguez and then after he won his election, decided to run for City Council and that was in 2004, the election was in June of 2005.  Was re-elected in June of 2009, and I’m serving my last term which ends 2013.  That’s a pretty brief summation right?
“I represent about 75,000 people in what’s called the Eastridge/ Mid-Valley area of El Paso…Middle class, 80%-85% Hispanic.  The people who vote there tend to be older, say 60 years would be the average age of the voter.  Generally-speaking two-person households.  Pretty active constituency…
“Throughout the 80’s as part of this low-wage, low-income- let’s not invest in ourselves- you had a mayor named Jonathan Rogers who was mayor from 1981-1989.  He never once raised property taxes.  And that plays good politics, right?  You can tell voters, I won’t raise property taxes, I’m the pro-business mayor.  He gets elected four times.  The only reason he leaves is because he can’t get elected again.  But that lack of investment in your city meant you had a mass-transit system that was broken.   So you had the poor which we’re all concerned about not able to rely on reliable bus services.  The buses didn’t have air conditioning.  They were breaking down. Etc.  In terms of the community perspective, you had lack of investment in community resources.  You had libraries shutting down early because they simply did not want to pay for the hours to have regular library hours. And again that affects the poor.  You want to take your kid to read?  Libraries shut down?  That doesn’t work.  And so there was a culture in El Paso of divestment, I would argue 70’s 80’s 90’s. And so what Ray did, it wasn’t politically popular says…
“His daughter [Theresa Caballero] led [a tax] rollback.  But if you go back to 2001 when that increase was, I take that back 2002, when that increase was adopted it was for things like keeping library hours open.  For an investment in mass transit.  For an investment in park upkeep, which I think you need as a community.  So he took a hit for the community politically, but after twenty years, thirty years of divestment.  I think he needed to do that…
“Okay. Political philosophy- raise the bar for this community.  I also think that we need to promote density and urban living as the environment and as the economy becomes a bigger and bigger issue.  Climate change enters the dialogue. Really what’s smart communities are doing is they’re investing in the core of their city, because they’re realizing that they’re building up pays a lot more dividends than building out and so when you talk about attracting the thoroughbreds that are going to run your economy into the future these people want an urban environment to live in and the demographics just play that out.  The sprawl model which I would say characterizes El Paso from 1960-early 2000…
“Yeah, it’s still going on.  But now we have more discussion with developing in the center, and so now we have young entreprenuers…who for the first time in my memory are building new residential downtown,  which I think is huge and I think that represents the next phase in El Paso’s residential development is more of an urban type of development.  We also have what is called the exurban or the uptown area- people like Richard Aguilar building a huge smartgrowth community- Mesa and Executive. Granted it’s not in the core of downtown, but… It’s central and it’s infill, so that to me is very important that we develop up the core, from the environmental, from the economic, from the social perspective, sprawl is not sustainable…
“I never called myself a progressive.  That was a label that a lady named Christina Boomer, who used to work with KVIA, she did a news piece on the progressives and the conservatives on City Council.  And at that time she named Ann Morgan Lilly, Susie Byrd, myself and Beto O’Rourke as the progressives and some others like Melina Castro and Eddie Holguin as Conservatives… That’s what she did.  So I’ve never called myself a progressive.  Do I consider myself a liberal?  Yes.  There’s no doubt about it.  Other people said progressive, that’s okay.  Yeah, you know there’s a test you can take on the internet and you answer a hundred questions and it lays out where you lay on a spectrum, and so I’m definitely left of the centrist line.
:::
IN RELATION TO THE RECALL
“[Partner benefits were introduced] probably in July of 09… No, I didn’t [forsee a backlash].  There were a few people during the budget hearings that spoke out against it.  But the first time I knew there was going to be a backlash was in November of [2009] when Tom Brown came to my office with five or six others and said that they were going to do a [ballot initiative] of the domestic partner benefits provision.  So that’s the first time that I thought that there may be a backlash against it… People had threatened referendum dozens of times. On dozens of different issues in 2005, and no one had actually come through on a referendum.  And so I thought, given that history is the best indicator of future performance that it was going to happen…
“It’s an interesting philosophical argument.  The question was do you implement the proposal, and let me be very clear about the language because the language is very important here.  What was voted up was a proposal by the citizens to the councilman ordinance.  It was not a mandate that the ordinance immediately be implemented.  So the ordinance was introduced just like every other ordinance, I voted against the introduction of the ordinance, and then it was presented to the council and I voted against it.  There again.
“But the philosophical argument was, do you automatically support the perspective of the voter even if it’s repugnant.  And at that time Beto would have argued yes, and I would have argued no.  And the test that I gave myself, I’ve read a lot about the civil rights movement, and the test was… the question was if I’m in the mid 50’s in Alabama, and there’s a voter sanctioned proposition that blacks have to sit at the back of the bus, do I vote to implement it?  Even though I know that the popular vote says yes.  And I would hope that if I was transported 60 years in the past I would have voted no, and so that informed this decision.
“Hindsight is 20/20, alright?  At the time that it was passed I did not think that it was going to get the opposition that it did, and quite frankly if Tom Brown was not in this community, it probably wouldn’t have.  It would have passed with some opposition, but not become the mess that it’s become.  So if you wanted to be a test case for this issue respectively, would you have done things a little different?  Sure, but at that time, we didn’t think, sure we’ll make this a test case to the Supreme Court, we’re going to do the right thing and we felt in 2009 was to offer domestic partner benefits, with no sort of legal and court agenda behind the vote…
“You know that’s something that’s still a possibility.  An equal rights amendment to the city charter.  The city does have a pioneering ordinance that was done in 1962 before the civil rights amendment that says that public accommodations have to treat everyone equally.  At that time the case was black and white.  At that time there were restaurants, for example that wouldn’t serve African-Americans.  You fast forward to 2002, ray caballero adds to that anti-discrimination ordinance language that deals with same-sex issues.  Transgender issues and that gets introduced into the ordinance 50 years later.  There are those like Susie Byrd that want to have a Charter Amendment on this issue…
“Burt Williams was alderman [in 1962], and they [he and Nolan Richardson] went after a softball game- took Nolan Richardson to the Oasis which was owned by Former Mayor Fred Herbie and they refused to serve Nolan Richardson because he was black, and rightfully so that outraged Williams.  He proposes an amendment to Council at that time and very controversially it passes over the objection of the Mayor Ralph Sightsinger.  And so that’s the genesis of the ordinance as it relates to equality in El Paso [http://newspapertree.com/news/4163-former-mayor-recognized-for-62-ordinance-banning-racial-segregation-in-el-paso]…
“I think you can and I think we did.  The issue that Susie wants to do, and it’s much like the issue of a bill v. changing the Constitution.  We have the ordinances that are on the books and we have the practice that’s on the books with is what she would like to do.  She would like to enshrine that in our actual charter, which is analogous to the US Constitution for the purposes of City government.  And frankly I’m okay with that.”









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