Pivotal Border Elections

Special Report

Voters in El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, have historic if elusive opportunities to influence the futures of two distinct yet inextricably linked sister cities. Although upcoming municipal elections will be held at a time when a convergence of economic, social and environmental forces is laying the groundwork for pivotal 21st century transitions, it’s likely the political outcomes in both cities will be decided by a distinct minority of the electorate.

Dr. Greg Rocha, University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) professor of political science, told Frontera NorteSur  that as few as 13 or 14 percent of the eligible voters might cast votes in the El Paso municipal election, which concludes June 15. With early voting underway, races for the mayor’s office, three city council seats and two school board districts are actually run-offs between the top candidates from May’s election.

Rocha said low turn-out is not unusual in Texas municipal elections, which tend to attract a sliver of older and better educated voters galvanized by passion or anger over specific issues. And this year’s El Paso election is no exception.

The most watched race pits local Hyundai dealer Oscar Leeser against City Council Rep Steve Ortega for the mayor’s job. Rocha concurred with the prevailing wisdom that Leeser has the upper-hand, based on a much higher original vote total than Ortega gained and bolstered by endorsements from his one-time opponents in the May election.

“I don’t know if you can get many new voters out there,” Rocha said of the tendencies in the race between Leeser and Ortega.  “It’s just hard.”

According to the UTEP scholar, the political heat from the controversy over the construction of El Paso’s new  baseball stadium, as well as city government decision-making processes, constitute the “essence” of the 2013 El Paso election.  “I think everybody is just taking a look at the way this city is run, very generally,” Rocha added.

The stadium battle erupted last summer when the El Paso City Council suddenly voted to tear down the city hall building and replace it with a $50 million minor league baseball stadium, all as part of what critics said was a back-room deal brokered by City Manager Joyce Wilson with the private MountainStar Sports Group.

Founded by members of prominent El Paso and Ciudad Juarez families, MountainStar pledged to spend its own money purchasing the Tucson Padres team in return for a lease at a publicly-built ball park. The agreement was envisioned as the detonator of a broader economic revitalization of downtown El Paso that includes a voter-approved package of $470 million in quality-of-life bonds.

However, the manner in which the stadium deal was negotiated and fast-tracked provoked public outcry, street protests and unsuccessful lawsuits. On April 14, a day after the old Asarco smokestacks were felled, El Paso City Hall was put to the wrecking ball and the ground prepared for the new sports-entertainment complex slated for opening next year. The old Insight Science Museum Earlier was earlier demolished to make way for the diamond-in-making.

A backer of the stadium project, Ortega is supported by individuals associated with MountainStar.  Endorsed by the El Paso Times newspaper, the fifth-generation El Pasoan has also received backing from other individuals associated with the Paso del Norte Group, an influential organization of business leaders from both El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. On June 8, Ortega was honored at El Paso’s annual Gay Pride Parade.

The two-term city councilman promotes general goals of economic development, improved border crossings and strengthened ties with the U.S. Army’s Fort Bliss. Ortega pledges to convene a working group in order to create a “comprehensive and integrated approach that will foster positive growth” from the existing city-base relationship.

Leeser’s campaign has been shy of taking specific stands on the issues, emphasizing instead the importance of building public trust while ensuring “transparency” in government. The car dealer’s website lists endorsements from the El Paso Association of Builders, AFSCME, the Texas Narcotics Officers Association and the El Paso Hotel Motel Association, among others.

Relocated to El Paso from the Mexican state of Chihuahua as a young child, Leeser emphasizes working-class roots and a work ethic. His Hyundai dealership’s financial sponsorship of the border city’s famous Sun Bowl has garnered popularity and “good will,” according to UTEP’s Rocha.

In Rocha’s view, the issues deciding the election will come down to the stadium deal, concerns over the proper spending of the new quality-of-life bonds, the role and power of the city manager vis-à-vis the broader city government, and economic development.

Renewed controversy over the cost of the stadium, which now stands at nearly $53 million instead of the $50 million originally promised, the $3 million municipal budget deficit and public perceptions of outgoing City Manager Joyce Wilson could hurt “insider” Ortega’s prospects while boosting the fortunes of “outsider” Leeser, who is not part of  the current city government power structure.  When all is said and done, Joyce Wilson and her style of management could end up costing Ortega the election. Reportedly, Wilson is considering a job offer in Florida.

Whether Leeser or Ortega, the man who replaces Mayor John Cook will take power at a time when the federal dollars that have kept the El Paso economy afloat in recent years are growing scarcer, persistent high unemployment afflicts sectors of the population, and the full portrait of downtown redevelopment remains to be sketched.

The new mayor will also help steer a larger, city-wide make-over in motion that includes new highway construction, possibly improved border crossings and the redevelopment of the former Asarco smelter property on hundreds of strategically-located acres near Interstate 10. And if climate trends continue, El Paso’s next mayor and city council will inevitably grapple with the overriding issue of water.

Undoubtedly, and for better or worse, the Sun City’s incoming political leaders will have a special opportunity to leave their marks on the history books.

Some irregularities have surfaced in the election. Problems with voting machines were reported at the Carolina and Regency polling sites during early voting in the first week of June.  Candidates Leeser and Ortega both said they were aware of the issue.

Similar to El Paso, downtown redevelopment is also a big issue in municipal elections scheduled for July 7 in neighboring Ciudad Juarez. And as in El Paso, controversy swirls around the Juarez project, with many residents expressing anger and frustration over the scope and pace of road work, railway overpass construction and building demolitions. The issue has reached the Mexican Supreme Court, which recently agreed to hear a legal complaint filed by 13,000 Juarenses against continued train traffic in the city on environmental and public safety grounds.

Mega-projects and mass gatherings like the one at the new baseball stadium inaugurated last year by a Juan Gabriel concert, or the giant “X” structure on the edge of Chamizal Park that was christened last month before an audience of tens of thousands, again ushered in by Juanga  himself,  have been the governing hallmarks of the state government led by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

Five candidates are competing for the Juarez’s mayor’s seat, but the race is essentially between two of them: the PRI’s Enrique Serrano Escobar and Maria Antonieta Perez Reyes of the National Action Party (PAN).

Ciudad Juarez was once a stronghold of the conservative PAN,  but the PRI has run the city government since 2004. According to analysts, fatigue over public works and Perez’s charisma are factors that could work in favor of the PAN candidate, but the PRI’s political machine will still be hard to beat.

Political observers identify development issues at the top of the plate in this year’s election, but the security question sizzles just beneath the surface. Officials tout the sharp declines in murders and other crimes during the past year, but violence and crime still remain at high levels. It’s a rare day when the press does not report at least one murder.

Recently, one man told Frontera NorteSur that he had lost two friends to bullets in as many weeks. Young women keep disappearing, extortions are still happening and robberies are the lot of daily life. This week in particular was off to a bad start, when five possible homicides were reported early on Monday, June 10.

In many ways, the pattern of violence is a throwback to the pre-2008 years, when street gangs bloodied working-class colonias, gender violence surged and justice routinely eluded its day under the sun. Countless crimes from the last five years remain unsolved.

In this context, the person who might replace current Police Chief Julian Leyzaola is arguably just as important as the new mayor. All eyes will be watching the mayor-elect’s role in appointing Ciudad Juarez’s new police chief, or whether Mexico City and Chihuahua City will make the decision.

Although Leyzaola is expected to depart when current Mayor Hector “Teto” Murguia’s term ends in October, a possibility exists that he might stay at his post. PRI candidate Enrique Serrano told local reporters that he recently spoke with the police official but could not offer definitive news at the moment about Leyzaola’s future.

Like El Paso, citizen participation in the July 7 election is widely anticipated to be weak. Dr. Eduardo Borunda,  political researcher with the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez (UACJ), projected a 30 percent voter turnout. While higher than the predicted turnout in El Paso, the number is still a significant drop from 1998’s municipal election, when 52.8 percent of registered voters cast ballots.

According to political consultant Edgar Lara, electoral abstentionism favors  authoritarianism  and political illegitimacy.

“If there are no solid and coherent proposals made to the citizenry by the campaigning candidates, it will be hard for citizen participation to move from 30 percent,” Lara commented. “If the political parties don’t succeed in convincing the electorate, the elections will be a failure.”

Political Science Professor Hector Padilla, who teaches at both UTEP and UACJ, contended that the campaigns are missing the mark on fundamental issues of poverty, human rights, jobs and public safety.

In the final weeks of the contest, a “dark donkey” candidate has emerged to compete for the mayor’s office. The hopeful is Burro Chon, who’s identified as a Foxconn employee. Promoted on Facebook, the independent candidate’s main campaign proposal is the minimum wage for the mayor, so the new municipal president “knows how it feels.”

Additional sources:  Lapolaka.com, June 9 and 10, 2013. Nortedigital.com.mx, June 3 and 9, 2013. Articles by Francisco Cabrera and editorial staff. El Diario de El Paso. May 20, 26 and 31, 2013; June 5 and 7, 2013.  Articles by Diego Murcia, Rocio Gallegos, Juliana Henao, and Karla Guevara Walton. El Paso Times, May 28, 2013; June 2, 3 and 6, 2013. Articles by Cindy Ramirez, Lorena Figueroa,  Aileen B.Flores, and editorial staff. KVIA.com, May 28, 2013.

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