COVID-19 response, aid to small businesses figure big in El Paso mayoral race


In atypical election year, incumbents need to show efficiency in managing coronavirus response, observers say

Cars drive down Mesa Street on July 1, 2020 in El Paso, Texas. As coronavirus cases have surged in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott has paused the state’s reopening plan. (Photo by Cengiz Yar/Getty Images)

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – El Paso sits across the Rio Grande from one of Mexico’s largest cities and one of North America’s busiest manufacturing hubs. That why it’s not unusual that international trade figures prominently in the discourse surrounding the mayoral race.

“For every four jobs in Juarez (Mexico), we get one in El Paso. Over 50,000 jobs here are tied to the maquiladoras, so when we look at opportunities for regional distribution centers, they’re tied to the maquilas as well,” said Mayor Dee Margo.

Margo, who took office in 2017, is playing up leadership, fiscal restraint and economic development including recent deals in which El Paso landed an Amazon distribution center and a TJX distribution facility. The latter two represent $150 million in capital investment, hundreds of jobs each and will spur local construction activity, he said.

Big economic announcements, repairing streets and keeping the police department well staffed are usually the “bread and butter” in politics any given year, but 2020 is all but that, observers said. This year, the litmus test for incumbents from the president of the United States to the mayor of the smallest town will be how well they’re managing the coronavirus crisis.

“The most important issue facing the next mayor is how to deal with COVID-19 both as a public health issue and as it relates to the economy — whether he or she can produce more money for rent programs and financial support for businesses,” said Richard Pineda, associate professor of communications at the University of Texas at El Paso. “Normally, an incumbent could turn to economic success, but all of that goes out the window in the face of COVID-19.”

What voters might be looking for is how the incumbent has responded to the health crisis and whether he’s got a plan going forward, Pineda said.

Margo is already feeling the heat from opponents who say that without the mega-projects, the economic reality of El Paso consists of shuttered Downtown shops, thousands of people out of work and small businesses that have received little, if any help during the pandemic. They’ve made their views known at various candidates’ forums.

Incumbent takes heat for coronavirus response

“We are about 80% small businesses and they’re struggling to stay open,” says Oscar Leeser, a former El Paso mayor trying to get his job back from Margo. “We talk about companies coming to El Paso, but we gain one job and lose two to three because people that invested and put brick and mortar back into our community are not able to stay open any longer.”

Leeser was the city’s mayor from 2013-2017 and has maintained name recognition through commercials for his car dealership, observers said.

Like Leeser, Veronica Cabajal is concerned that small businesses haven’t received adequate support from City Hall during the pandemic.

“We need to support small businesses with (personal protective equipment) as well as sanitation, ventilation and anything else we can do to keep them safe,” said the El Paso attorney, environmental and social activist. “And we need to think of how we use our funds. The fact is that assistance money for small businesses and renters is not being used because there still is a wide technological divide and we need to help people apply for those funds.”

She said the city could be doing a lot more to educate business operators regarding COVID-19 guidelines and enforce protocols. It should also proactively identify coronavirus clusters at nursing homes and other institutions with a large number of occupants.

“We have to reopen in a way that is safe, smart and that adheres to scientific and medical guidelines. That  is how we are going to be able to recover our economy safely in the long-term. Otherwise, this is a never-ending game of us trying to chase after COVID,” she said.

El Paso’s economy was hurting even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and that was due to lack of diversification and foresight, said urban planning and economic development specialist Carlos Gallinar.

He’s particularly concerned about high school and college graduates leaving in search of higher wages elsewhere in Texas.

“We are losing more people than any city in the United States […] 54% of our families are on the verge of poverty and wages are stagnant,” Gallinar said. “We are going to have to reimagine and diversify our whole economy. It cannot just be call centers and fast-food franchise restaurants.”

An alternate vision for El Paso

Five candidates are running against Margo. They include Leeser, Gallinar, Carbajal, former Army ranger Dean “Dino” Martinez and high school swimming coach and former El Paso firefighter Calvin Zieldsdorf.

With such a crowded field and a health crisis that has kept candidates from knocking on doors and otherwise introducing themselves personally to the voters, the election is likely to end up in a runoff, observers said.

Margo’s five opponents laid out their case for a different direction for the city at a recent mayoral forum sponsored by the El Paso Chamber.

Gallinar and Carbajal want the city to develop alternative energy sources, such as solar power, and encourage eco-tourism. Gallinar would push for hiking and biking trails everywhere from the Franklin Mountains to the Mission Trail.

Zielsdorf said the current administration has “a lot of inefficiencies within the departments” that needs to be fixed. He wants the city to move toward renewable energy sources and stop the “brain-drain” by bringing about more high-paying jobs for college graduates.

“We need to be innovative to keep not just those who are graduating from (the University of Texas at El Paso) from leaving, but also (help) those who are just sitting around because they can’t find a job,” he said.

Martinez, who grew up in Oakland, California, said El Paso is underutilizing Interstate 10. “So many 18-wheelers … things we can use to build warehouses in South El Paso, West El Paso … I’m looking at El Paso as a superhighway where things can be loaded, unloaded.”

He added he’s in favor of reopening the economy as long as people observe COVID-19 protection protocols.

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