El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, left, is fighting for a second term in a Saturday runoff against his predecessor, Oscar Leeser. Credit: The Texas Tribune

Hit hard by the coronavirus, El Pasoans will decide a mayoral runoff where the central focus has been handling the pandemic

El Paso Mayor Dee Margo doesn’t know if any other first-term officials have been asked to join national crisis-management teams. But he wasn’t surprised he was recently asked to consider that option.

“I told my wife, ‘You know, I am not so sure I am an expert on crisis management as much as I am a survivor,” he said.

In his first term as mayor of this border city, El Paso has seen a migrant crisis that led to construction of a controversial detention facility for immigrant children just outside the city limits. It also experienced a racially motivated shooting in 2019 in which the alleged gunman killed 23 people to help ward off what he called a Hispanic invasion of Texas. And now the city is battling a COVID-19 pandemic that has seen one of the largest outbreaks in the country and led to the deaths of more than 1,300 people.

Margo told The Texas Tribune earlier this week it’s what he signed up for, even though he couldn’t have predicted that each year of his tenure would include a crisis that thrust this far corner of West Texas into the national spotlight.

“I’ve just tried to do the best I could given the circumstances we were dealt,” he said.

Margo is fighting for a second term leading the city in a Saturday runoff against his predecessor, Oscar Leeser, that has been dominated by Margo’s management of the latest crisis: COVID-19. While Margo argues it is no time to change mayors, Leeser has pitched himself as a better crisis manager who would do more to bring the city together to get the virus under control.

After garnering only a quarter of the vote in the November election, finishing 18 percentage points behind Leeser, Margo enters Saturday’s election considered the underdog.

“To a certain extent, this race really is a referendum on COVID-19, and I think the sense that I get just based on that initial turnout in the general election, people in the community are not happy with Mayor Margo’s approach to dealing with the pandemic, and that’s multifaceted,” said Richard Pineda, an El Paso political commentator and professor at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Margo faces a well-known opponent in Leeser. Not only did Leeser previously serve as mayor — one term before deciding against reelection in 2017 — he is a ubiquitous face as the star of commercials for his car dealership, Hyundai of El Paso.

Leeser, whose campaign staff initially told the Tribune the former mayor would reach out, decided against an interview until after Saturday’s election.

The office is nonpartisan, though Margo is a former Republican member of the Texas House, and the state Democratic Party is backing Leeser. Neither has leaned in to partisan politics in his campaign, though, as the pandemic has trumped everything else.

El Paso has been devastated by the coronavirus, and on Thursday, it recorded its deadliest day yet, with 44 virus-related deaths.

While mayors and county judges in other big cities have agitated for additional authority to fight the virus, Margo has been more mindful of the statewide rules established by Gov. Greg Abbott. That came to a head last month when Margo publicly split with El Paso County Judge Ricardo A. Samaniego over the latter’s order to shut down nonessential business, which was ultimately halted in the courts.

Margo has also given his critics fodder with a pair of comments he made while responding to the pandemic, including at a late October City Council meeting where he accused a Jewish member of proposing “Gestapo-like tactics” to battle the virus. Margo apologized afterward.

“The better part of valor was to apologize,” he said. “ But I was saying to council members who wanted to shut down that we already determined we needed legal determination before we could do that. … There was nothing personal about that.”

Then, late last month, Margo raised eyebrows again when he suggested in a national TV interview that El Paso’s COVID-19 crisis was because Latinos are more likely to be hospitalized than “normal Caucasians.” He said his comment was taken out of a context and he was referring to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.

In the final days of the runoff, Leeser is airing a TV ad that slams Margo’s pandemic handling, calling him “out of touch” and “out of time.” The ad raises the two comments while also highlighting how Margo’s “communication breakdown over shutdown” made national news and how he did things like granting “37 COVID waivers for weddings and parties.”

Margo said the ad was “just politics” as usual.

“Anytime they attack, they’ve never come up with their own solutions, suggestions or changes,” Margo said, noting that the city-county healthy authority, Dr. Hector Ocaranza, reviewed all the waiver requests.

Margo added that his highly publicized split with Samaniego over local shutdown ordinances was a result of miscommunication.

Samaniego tried unsuccessfully to limit operations of nonessential businesses and impose a countywide curfew. The state of Texas fought and won that battle, however, after an appeals court ruled that the local restrictions went beyond Abbott’s statewide limits on private businesses.

“We had just had a communication disconnect,” Margo said. “My concern was that we had conflicting orders: I had his order and I had the governor’s order, and we had to get it sorted out.”

It’s since been resolved, Margo added, and Samaniego has rejoined the mayor during the most recent news conferences addressing the pandemic.

Margo is countering Leeser’s attacks with his own TV spot that criticizes his predecessor’s time as mayor on multiple fronts. The ad brings up how Leeser was investigated by the Texas Rangers over allegations he violated the Texas Open Meetings Act — the district attorney eventually decided against charges — and “neglected first responders who helped us during COVID.” By contrast, the commercial says Margo has “gotten us more,” including “more resources to end this pandemic.”

Leeser captured 43% of the vote in the six-way November election to Margo’s 25%. The third- and fourth-place finishers — Veronica Carbajal and Carlos Gallinar, respectively — have since endorsed Leeser.

For those looking for a more vivid split from the Margo era, Carbajal and Gallinar may have been the best bets. Gallinar, an urban planner, had the support of Beto O’Rourke — the former presidential candidate, El Paso congressman and U.S. Senate nominee — and ran as an unabashed Democrat. Carbajal, a legal aid attorney, campaigned as a progressive and was aiming to be El Paso’s first Latina mayor.

Carbajal had the endorsement of state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, who is now supporting Leeser.

“Under Dee Margo, what we’ve noticed is that he has been pretty much lockstep with the governor in terms of the restrictions — or lack thereof — that the governor has imposed, contrary to what some of the mayors and county judges have felt needed to be done,” said Rodríguez, who is retiring from the Senate after this year.

Even among Margo’s strongest critics, though, there is not a universal embrace of Leeser. The El Paso Young Democrats, for example, fervently oppose Margo’s reelection but have not endorsed Leeser.

“We understand that Oscar Leeser is going to be … a more transparent mayor than Dee Margo, and he will be more in line with values of El Pasoans,” said J.J. Martinez, president of the El Paso Young Democrats. “On the flip side, Oscar Leeser has not provided a comprehensive plan to combat COVID” and other issues, “and frankly the policies that he has put forward are incredibly vague.”

Martinez likened the choice to the one that many young El Pasoans he knows had in the presidential election, when they were enthused to vote against Donald Trump but not as excited to vote for Joe Biden.

The pandemic hit close to home last month, when Leeser announced he had lost his mother — known for appearing in his car dealership’s commercials — to the coronavirus. Margo offered his condolences after the loss.

The mayor is well aware El Paso is going through a particularly fraught moment — on top of already being much unlike many other Texas cities.

“We’re unique, we’re special and there’s nowhere else like us,” he said. “We’re the largest bilingual, binational and bicultural city in the western hemisphere and we still have to go out there and explain that. But I think we’re getting better about it.”


Disclosure: The University of Texas at El Paso has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.