EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – El Paso has endured three major crises in the past two years, beginning with the massive arrival of refugees from Central America in late 2018.
Social organizations and local government officials struggled to feed, accommodate and send on their way thousands of migrants freed from detention.
A year later came the mass shooting at the Walmart near Cielo Vista Mall that left 23 dead, 23 injured and left the community in shock and need of healing.
And then came the COVID-19 pandemic. Death, hospitals filled to near-capacity and bodies piling inside mobile morgues followed.
Mayor Dee Margo was involved in managing all that chaos and says he’s proud of the leadership he provided the city. “I’m optimistic that people recognize we’ve gone through significant challenges the past two years and that it’s going to take some serious leadership to get us through this” COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
But whether Margo will be the one to lead remains uncertain.
One of his rivals in the Nov. 3 general election beat him by 39,000 votes and another came three percentage points shy of leaving him out of Saturday’s runoff.
And the attacks by his rival, former Mayor Oscar Leeser (2013-2017), have been sharp and relentless. One ad accuses Margo of exacerbating the COVID-19 crisis by granting 37 waivers for weddings and parties and savages verbal miscues on Hispanics and a Jewish council member.
Margo says Leeser took advantage of his being immersed in managing the pandemic response to get ahead of him in the polls. “That has been my priority. I go to bed with statistics and I wake up with statistics and thinking what actions we’re going to need to take as a city to deal with that,” he said. “My focus before was the pandemic. Now it’s the pandemic and getting reelected.”
That means running ads reminding voters of how the Texas Rangers investigated Leeser for ethics violations that included holding “secret” meetings with four members of the council. Participants in that “talk” regarding a Downtown arena allegedly took turns leaving the gathering so another could come in, thus circumventing open meetings laws. The local district attorney declined to prosecute.
Margo’s ads also accuse Leeser of raising taxes twice. And he says Leeser neither has a plan to combat the COVID-19 pandemic nor become a true leader in the community.
“The comments to me from mutual friends – and we do have mutual friends – are that he’s running to sell cars. Leeser spends $2.5 million a year in his automobile dealership ads, that’s why he had a higher name recognition,” Margo said.
“It’s very telling that neither the police nor fire (associations) endorsed him. They had four years under him and three and a half with me. We passed a public safety bond and we did the things that Leeser didn’t do like replacing police vehicles. That had a direct impact on public safety and 911 response times.”
Border Report this week made repeated efforts to interview Leeser but never got a call back.
Earlier, Leeser told KTSM that Margo has “disrespected” the community and botched handling the pandemic by, for instance, using CARES Act money to purchase five buildings instead of distributing it to local businesses. He also said he’ll maintain better relationships with other community leaders.
Margo in October found himself at odds with El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego over the latter’s shutdown of non-essential businesses at the height of a COVID-19 surge that was making the national news.
“I can tell you the majority of his council has reached out to me and talked to me of how we can unite and have one voice,” Leeser told KTSM. “I’m excited to work with the council, I’m excited to work with the County Judge which I talk now on a daily basis with.”
He also says all the mayoral candidates eliminated in the Nov. 3 election have endorsed him.
But Margo says voters will see through Leeser’s lack of a plan and look at his own record. Margo says major companies like Amazon and TJX have decided to open distribution centers during his tenure, bringing more than 900 jobs and $150 million in investment during his tenure.
“My expectations are that we will win reelection and that I’ll be able to lead El Paso through a third crisis. I think most people agree you don’t change leaders in the middle of a battle or a war,” the mayor said.