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Pizza with a Politician: Beto O’Rourke @ House of Pizza Downtown

As part of the El Paso Herald-Post’s mission to spark dialogue, discussion, thought and solutions we introduce Pizza with a Politician. It’s simply a conversation, with a local politician over pizza. All on the record, no set direction or pre-screened questions. And delicious pizza from various locations around the city.

800px-Beto_O'Rourke,_Official_portrait,_113th_CongressWe kick off the series with Congressman Beto O’Rourke (the ‘Robert Francis’ portion of his name having been long-forgotten, except for WikiPedia.) His past is a well-known Borderland tale: son of popular County Judge Pat O’Rourke, rock band member, controversial (for some) two-term El Paso City Council Member, and now a two-term Congressman, defeating border icon Silvestre Reyes for his seat in 2012.

Rep. O’Rourke’s past is not without its blemishes and challenges:  a couple of arrests as a young adult, start-up businesses, music tours and allegations of ethics violations during his time on council – both dismissed – all adding to the tale of a ‘local boy done good.’ His stance on the U.S.’s ‘War on Drugs’ propelled him and his views to a national stage.

O’Rourke, a member of both the Committee on Veteran’s Affairs and the Committee on Homeland Security, spends the majority betoof his time in the Borderland hosting town hall meetings, both for veterans and civilians, and attending to the duties of a Congressman, husband, and father of three.

So it was on a typically sunny mid-September day in El Paso, that Beto (and three staffers) made their way to the House of Pizza (208 North Stanton – mind the construction) for our sit down lunch.

The menu, as crowded as the restaurant’s dining room, has all the staples of a Manhattan pizza joint.

Amid the deep bass of the construction across the street and the din of conversation and lunch rush inside the restaurant, I begin our conversation; looking out on a rapidly changing Downtown El Paso landscape. From downtown revitalization to Iran, we talked about it all.

BETO – You know, me and my staffers are here to interview you right?

CB – Yeah, well, I’m not the one with the interesting Congressional life here…

BETO – Laughs

House of Pizza / Photo: Google
House of Pizza / Photo: Google

The waiter arrives and we order a 15″ pie, which should just be enough for the five of us. The waiter informs us if there’s not enough pizza, there’s always individual slices ready to go.

With our meal ordered, I return our attention to the buildings just across the street, teeming with construction workers.

CB – So, what do you think of that (pointing to the remodeling underway right across the street) when I saw that they were re-doing the old Sears Building – the progression from a once-thriving retail space to an unused property to this, is pretty awesome.

BETO – It’s being done in a first-class kind of way, they are doing it right…it’s so good for El Paso.

CB – When I try to explain to my friends about the buildings in Downtown, I relate it to my experience with my grandfather and his cars…people would pay him in cars. So when he died, we had 20 cars in Tornillo…either bought or given.  And the whole time I was growing up, people would see these cars – awesome cars like his ’59 Cadillac Coupe de Ville, and plead for him to sell it to them, so they could restore it. He’d say “No, one day, I’m going to fix this and it’ll look just like new…”

That’s what these building owners – in  my opinion – are waiting for…a ‘someday’ that will never come.  Hence these buildings…but support for all this renovation started with  you guys…during your guy’s time on City Council.

BETO – Yeah, I think it all came together about the same time. There was some stuff from local government, but like this project – it’s the Fernandez Family, who had already bought the Sotoa Building in the Union Plaza area, and Octavio Gomez who bought some of the other properties in the area and started 1914there were already entrepreneurs doing their stuff, but we did work – as a Mayor and City Council – to reward it and incentivize projects like this.

Photo: Citydata.com
Photo: Citydata.com

It’s all on-going, like the Bassett Tower, Lane Gaddy has that one and he’s putting in a hotel. Lane also has that has that one there (pointing to the building directly right of the old Sears store)…that’s going to be lofts. And this (pointing to the old J.J. Newberry store) of course is – unfortunately – is Billy Abraham property, to it’s going to remain a piece of shit forever…

CB – That’s the thing,  I remember that I wanted a downtown office for my football team and I spoke with Billy, and I told him we wanted an address and we’d be willing to work and remodel it. So I said, what about this one – and he’s “no, that one is going to be a cafe” and it was the same story for all the addresses, and I immediately heard my Grandfather “one day I’ll fix them’…and I’m like “Billy, shit or get off the pot.” I know why you bought them – because you wanted to preserve them – so thank you – now pass’em along.

BETO – Well, you know, let’s hope something happens with those, but if it doesn’t…I think that just with the surrounding properties starting to get the attention and investment – is a good thing for El Paso – but there’s still a lot more to do.

CB – You mentioned the Union Plaza District, where I just was after the Chihuahua’s game the other night at the Pint and Peanut, and I was pleasantly surprised…

BETO – That’s Octavio’s too…

CB – …and he did a great job, it was filled with fans from the game. That part of town has gotten a bit of a rep for being dangerous and rowdy after the clubs let out, but while we were there, it was pretty cool. Of course, two hours later, you have your post-club stabbing…but the idea of a central district seems to have worked.

BETO – But there’s also the other restaurants around that area as well, have you been to Cocina360…they’ve got really good ceviche.

CB – Well, if it’s ceviche, then you’ve got me hooked.

BETO – Laughs

CB – So, I’ve got my opinions about how things are supposed to happen…do you see El Paso moving out of that idea that this is a city of ‘back door dealings.’ Just recently we’ve had some people trying to make the case, with open recorded text messages, that all of that is still going on. Is this a ‘mountain out of a molehill’ or is it that we – as a city were stuck for so long with nothing happening  – that with the renovation of buildings downtown and the ballpark, and things that started with your time in council, do you think that people just don’t get it?

BETO – What do you mean?

CB – That representation…I, as a regular citizen, am not going to be able to make things happen, I vote for you because I want you to do ‘x-y-z’ and this person might have a similar idea and everybody collaborates and projects go through.  But, thanks to the time period from 1945 to 1980, we had no progress, and people forgot how government was supposed to work and our small town mindset held us back?

BETO – I don’t know.  I do think a lot of what happens or doesn’t happen in a city depends on leadership, but that can be elected or civic leadership – like on the Chihuahua’s ballpark, bringing that Triple A ballclub to El Paso is a great example of that. If you didn’t have a Josh Hunt or Alejandra de le Vega you wouldn’t have the ballpark there. If you didn’t have, on council, Steve Ortega or Susie Byrd, or Cortney Niland, you wouldn’t have the ballpark. So it really took public leadership and civic leadership to make that happen.

Some of the building renovations we can see from where we’re sitting, if it weren’t for the Hernandez Brothers, no one else would really do it…I don’t know how much is solely on the shoulders of elected representatives, a lot of things have to come together and go just right and it takes a while.

Union Plaza started in the 90’s, and that was the public sector leading without any private sector investment, so Union Plaza had millions of dollars of public money – trees, pavement, parking garage – and there was nothing but Joe Dorgan and Club 101 for the longest time, then he left.

After that, it still took many, many years for it to get going…so it takes both sectors coming together at the same time for real change to happen. And then I think these bond projects are examples of the larger, public participation. The Hispanic Cultural Center, the swimming pools, the streets, all the things the people said they wanted funded out of their tax dollars…that’s the public coming together around ideas and the elected representatives working within the will of the electorate to get things to happen.

There’s almost a spirit that needs to be present for progress to be made; it can’t be one person or one elected leader or one private sector business owner, it has to be that the city wants to do more.

 CB – But, on the other side of it, you do have people – the detractors – saying “here’s the city giving away land, here’s the city giving away taxpayer’s property to build a privately funded stadium.” Do they have a legitimate gripe?

BETO – Yeah, I think that – first of all – every voice in a democracy is legitimate – and it’s going to take lots of different people, with different points of view and different backgrounds and experiences to make this really work. You can’t have everyone be of a like mind and truly get something significant or transformational done.

So, I think that process of debating how you spend public dollars and use resources, hopefully produces a better result. Because any one proposing the use of those resources, has to defend that idea against detractors and critics. It’s a very legitimate role for someone to play, and is really helpful to the process.

And, above all that, while it’s within everyone’s right to criticize  – what’s more helpful is to criticize and then propose an alternate solution; and with that proposal come up with some resources; now you don’t have to be a billionaire to be involved in the process, but I think you have to say, ‘Listen, instead of a soccer stadium, I want to do a water park.’

I say, ‘That’s a great idea, now I want you to identify investors, where’s the funding coming from, contribute something to the momentum to get the project done.

Not doing anything isn’t an option for El Paso anymore, because – as you mentioned – from the middle of the 20th Century to 1990, we were sinking every year into worse economic position, worse quality of life, unable to attract talent to the city…so not doing anything at all simply isn’t an option anymore.

My hat’s off to those people who have not only made proposals, but backed them up with their own skin in the game or attracting others who can bring resources to bear on that project. I think that’s how any city moves forward.

IMAG0209By this time the pizza has arrived and it is molten lava hot. 15″ of thin crust pepperoni goodness and we all dive into the pie.

Thankfully, the staff has made sure our glasses are filled to the brim with ice, because the heat from the tiny bites we’re able to take would melt a glacier.

 The portions, however, were off. With Beto and I each eating two, and the remaining staffers snagging one a piece, there will have to be some additional slices ordered. At $3.75 each, a fair bargain.

And the conversation turns to El Paso’s unique position and one Presidential Candidate’s take on the border.

CB – Ok, larger issue: In looking at El Paso, I’ve felt that the city is representative of the direction where the country is going. That is to say, the rise of the Hispanic population…mirroring that of the overall population; how do hold ourselves up as an example of how things are going to be in the face of the views being shared by Rick Perry and Donald Trump?

BETO –  I’m an optimist, so I think Donald Trump is really a gift for those of us who have been troubled by the rhetoric coming out of Washington and other parts of the country about the border. Because people have been saying things like ‘We must first secure the border, before we can move forward on immigration reform’ before addressing other significant issues.

What Donald Trump did was explicitly say ‘I’m scared of Mexicans, I’m scared of the border…this is how I think of Mexico and Mexican immigrants – criminals, rapists, thugs.’ I think what he said explicitly, was something that had been implied by many others about El Paso, the border and Mexico. So, I think that it’s been very helpful for him to be that explicit, and it is certainly resonating with a lot of people – which should concern us – but, it should be no surprise.

I think, when you’ve gone that far out on this limb which is not supported at all by the facts: El Paso being the safest city in the country at aIMAG0217 time that net migration from Mexico is zero – just as many people come in as return to Mexico – and at a time when we have record low northbound apprehensions from Mexico…some of that truth is bound to come out in the debate.

And I think – or I hope – that media, the public at large, and policy makers, members of Congress are going to start to catch up with the truth, and it will catch up with Trump. And that’ll be good for us because, we have such a powerful, positive, compelling story to share of why the border is a beautiful place – not just for us who live here and know it – but for people in other parts of the country and the world who want to come to a place where three million people share a unique, cultural identity, speak two languages and in many cases, have two nationalities and are uniquely competitive.

Where else are you going to find that kind of intellectual capital, that kind of opportunity to enter Latin America at its doorstep here or enter North America at its doorstep headed north.

So it’s important that we understand the opportunity we have and speak about it intelligently and bring others into that conversation. Donald Trump has given us a wonderful opportunity to spread our message.

IMAG0216CB – So, basically, Trump’s given us one big teaching point.

BETO – Yes, pretty much exactly. A huge teaching point.

CB – Now, as far as the stories told about El Paso, and you being in D.C., have you seen more attention to the detail that’s going on in the border, rather than the broad, brushstrokes that we’ve been painted with in the past?

BETO – You know, certainly from the administration I have. The administration has been very responsive to issues we raise, concerns we have and the opportunities we have, that we bring to their attention. For instance, the ports of entry and the need to better support the Border Patrol Agents who work here, and the recognition that $90 billion worth of trade comes through El Paso, they are responsive.

My colleagues in Congress, that’s a different story. Because, in their defense, they’re expected to make decisions on hundreds of thousands of issues and it’s understandably easy to work from your gut or look to what is politically popular – as you see with Trump – to mischaracterize the border and to stoke people’s anxieties and play upon their fears. And they do so very effectively, because for most members of Congress, their number one duty is to get re-elected.

It’s a very large shift in public opinion that needs to be made, but to Trump’s credit, he’s been able to focus the country on this issue…and we need to take this time to make our case for the truth.

CB – Going back to the transformation of El Paso and what we have to offer, just the other day we were at the Fountains at Farah and it occurred to me, that the entire complex is the embodiment of the city’s change. What was once a mile-long garment-producing facility is now a mile-long retail space. There again, you had naysayers, but the ability to transform from manufacturing to service-based economy is impressive – quicker than most other cities in similar situations. Do you think that trend will continue? Will we ever go back to large-scale manufacturing here? Like a Toyota plant?

BETO –  I don’t know. I think your observation is a really good one – just the transformation of the El Paso economy, and the larger US economy.  Its gone from making tangible things, to one that still produces things, but much more focused on intellectual properties, software and design, and increasingly more service-based.

And, I don’t like that, simply because America – and El Paso is a great example – of what happens when a community makes things. I think there’s an opportunity for us to reclaim that. When you look toward a country like Germany, which has a trade surplus and produces things like cars or precision equipment or audio/visual products and markets itself as a brand, that’s what you want to buy.

Now, Mexico is increasingly manufacturing more of what we and the rest of the world buy. But 40% of what we buy from Mexico contains US-sourced parts and in Juarez those component parts, aren’t coming from factories in El Paso, they’re coming from Michigan and other places in the interior of the US. So I see a great opportunity for El Paso to play a larger role in shared production between the US and Mexico.

So yes, I do see an opportunity for El Paso to keep making things, is it auto manufacturing – I don’t know – there’s a lot of auto-related manufacturing in Juarez, so that’s one possible path. But, if you talk to Emma Schwartz at the Medical Center of the Americas, she’ll tell you there’s a lot of opportunity in the medical device manufacturing segment, design and research as well.  And if you look at the high tech, high wage jobs that are out there – the ones we haven’t had in over half a century- that opportunity is there for us.

 CB – Turning to a topic of national/international great discussion – The Iranian Nuclear Deal – I was trying to read most of it and I almost IMAG0210got through it…

BETO – Yeah…laughs

CB – But, on it’s face it opens up dialogue with a country we’ve had a tumultuous relationship with and, given the fact that we’ve been in a state of near-constant war for the last 15 years, do you think that war-footing mentality has hurt us internationally? That we have a tendency to launch a drone rather than sit and talk to someone first is a foreign idea?

BETO – I don’t know. I think there’s definitely an need to have conversation about what our goals are around the world and what we need to do to achieve them. Are we promoting democracy? Are we promoting a global economic order? Are we promoting stability? What are the things we want and what are we willing to do in money or in military commitments to achieve them? I think, absent that, it’s very easy for the United States to commit itself to those things in a way that isn’t always to our benefit or the benefit of others. Iraq in 2003 is a great example.

CB – There is this vacuum that was created, in that area, that is now being filled with groups fighting each other and – above that – you have this concern over nuclear proliferation from Iran – but the agreement seems to swap out the long-term pursuit of a weapon for short term promises and gains in other weapons – the lifting of the arms embargo – if they agree to our terms. Are we trading one weapon for others that may be turned against us in the not-to-distant-future?

BETO – To be clear, the agreement says Iran will never have a nuclear weapon. That’s the premise from which all other parts of the agreement flow. So everything in that agreement – from our perspective – is to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and to insure that we, the parties to the agreement, can verify that is the case. And it spells out in very clear language to Iran, should they not adhere to the agreement, to snap back to the incredibly debilitating sanctions.

I’m saying right now that the US will use military force if it is clear that Iran pursuing a nuclear weapon, despite this agreement. So one of the reasons it made sense to me to support this agreement is that it allows us to try and achieve diplomatically and peacefully what might otherwise be only achievable through military means, while not removing any of our other options.

This agreement makes it very easy for the United States to – without the ability of any other party of the agreement to veto – sanctions or other actions. If those actions aren’t sufficient, the US can still use military force and can do so from a position of strength and moral high ground, and with an ability to convene other world powers; as opposed to an isolated America acting alone, if we had not approved it.

You simply cannot dictate to a sovereign country your will, unless it’s at the head of an invading army – like we did to Germany in ’45 and Iraq at the end of the first Gulf War in ’91.

Within the limits of the treaty, it’s as good as you can get, from our five negotiating partners at one end of the table and the Iranians on the other end.

CB – Bottom line, you disagree with those who say we’ve kicked the ‘nuclear can’ down the road for someone else to deal with in 15 years.

BETO –  Hmm, there is some risk. And it will require extraordinary US leadership to verify that Iran is adhering to the agreement. It does pose – for the United States – some challenges in 8-, 10- or 15 years, for us to hold them to the different milestones of this agreement. There will be challenges for America and we’re going to have to decide to do, if we want to successfully contain Iran’s path toward a nuclear weapon.

And, by the way, Iran will be a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which has its own set of guidelines, and if they don’t adhere to that, our leadership at that time will have the framework to react.

CB – Ok, so you mentioned future United States leadership, five, ten years, where do you see yourself in that timeline?

BETO –  >Long Pause and laughter from a staffer< I really don’t know…some of that is my decision to make, some of that is my family’s, and some of that is going to rest on the voters in El Paso.  >long pause again<

So, I will certainly seek another term…and I would like to serve that third term, but beyond that…I don’t know. Um…there’s a possibility I seek a third term and I’m not elected….or I seek the term and am elected…and that’s in March…only 6 months away.

CB – Beyond March, and beyond 2016 and a third term…Senate Seat? Cabinet Position? I mean, you and I are about the same age, and – as I mentioned before, the demographics of this country are changing, looking more like El Paso’s…and right about the same time Hispanics and minorities become the majority…I’ve always heard from some of my friends, “You know who’d be a good Presidential Candidate in about 20 years….” and your name comes up.

BETO – Hmmm >even longer pause< Typically, in those conversations, have you-all been drinking or taking any sort of substances…

CB- Laugh…there may be some adult beverages involved…

BETO – No…there’s nothing I want to do that’s outside of El Paso or that not directly connected to El  Paso. So, I love this job because I represent this community’s interests, in our Nation’s Capitol, on the most pressing issues of the day. Whether it’s the Iran Treaty, trade, border security or immigration, El Paso has a really compelling story to bring to all these conversations and a really unique perspective, so that is a terrific honor.  And that’s about as far away from El Paso as I want to get.

Photo: Beto FB
Photo: Beto FB

About Chris Babcock

Editor in Chief: El Paso Herald-Post, horizoncity.com Chris began his long journey in Journalism back in the early 70’s. Armed with a Bell and Howell 8mm camera and tape recorder. Chris would go on to document such events as the great plastic dinosaur attack on Tornillo, GI Joe’s dramatic rescue of Barbie from a backyard mud pit and a massive toy train derailment caused by Godzilla. FULL BIO

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