As part of the El Paso Herald-Post’s mission to spark dialogue, discussion, thought and solutions we present 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 a delicious pizza.
We return to House of Pizza (208 North Stanton – mind the construction) for the 3rd in our series of lunches-conversations. Over yet another simply delicious cheese and pepperoni pizza, I sat down with businessman and entrepreneur David Saucedo.
Saucedo is a native El Pasoan, Cathedral and Notre Dame Graduate who returned to the Sun City with an accounting degree to help run his family’s century-old locksmithing business.
Having seen countless interviews, pre-packaged soundbytes and social media lives, I wanted to sit down with the ‘man-who-would-be-mayor’ to talk about his desire to run, his vision and his views on the city he wishes to run.
CB – I guess the first question – and one asked by my wife and countless other voters – why run? Why run given the political climate right now…from the President on down…with all the frustration, anger and partisan bickering?
David – I’m running because we need a change…we have one of the ‘youngest’ cities in the United States…I have a young family now, I have a two-year-old and a ten-month-old, been married three years, have a mortgage, my family’s business is a hundred years old – a locksmith business – and I just feel like we’re not represented correctly.
I feel like there’s a spirit here in El Paso, that we all embody, it’s amazing, and I’ve been saying it’s the pioneers and trailblazers in us…it’s in our DNA…and the vast majority of people here in El Paso are small business owners and they just want to matter, to have a certain level of relevancy in what they do, and what they do in their personal lives, and I just feel like we have nothing in common with the elected officials.
There’s a lack of …well, they’re not relatable…a lot of people run just to run – career politicians if you will – and there no conviction, no passion in the office anymore. And I’ve been saying this for a while now, I think the world of Beto (editor note: O’Rouke, El Paso’s congressman & Senate Candidate) and he’s out there, doing what he has to do and I ask ‘where’s everyone else?’
Just the other day, Cesar Blanco came out with the fire in his belly, and I’m like ‘cool, great’ it’s starting to come out – but for the longest time, there’s been this void of passion for our city and that’s why I’m here, doing what I’m doing.
CB – Do you think that it’s that transitory nature of El Paso that we’ve always – maybe not always, but a lot of the time – that we’ve given over leadership to other people, simply because we’re too busy in our own lives? I mean, essentially, that’s why we have politicians, to represent ‘you’ and do good, and we’ve gotten comfortable in that – in turn – the people we’ve elected have gotten comfortable too.
David – Yeah, I think so…it also lends itself to the whole voter apathy, too. I think that people really feel that – as we’ve been walking and walking every single day – people feel that their voice isn’t heard, and their voice doesn’t matter – they tell me ‘David, you’re probably going to win, but unless you do something to change things, nothing’s ever going to change.’
So, I don’t want to be the candidate they say ‘Oh! Here’s David, I’ve gotta put up with him for the next four years…” and that’s why I’ve been coming out so aggressively about changing the ‘business as usual here in El Paso’ mentality.
There was this study that just came out, that said we have the highest property taxes in the State of Texas, and the third highest in the country and I’m like ‘are you kidding me!? With 27% of our workforce in restaurant and retail and a median income of just about $28,000…and you have the politicians come out and say ‘Oh its amazing…we’ve got unemployment at 4.8% isn’t it great?’ and I don’t think so, I think it’s disingenuous, and I’m going to call it out.
We don’t have a single, identifiable emerging industry – and we could, we very well could, and it’s happening organically – but the lack of vision and having people with that passion to articulate what’s happening…for example, we have tours come in – and that’s great – people come in here, they love El Paso, culture, fanfare, they love it – but then that’s it.
But, unless we become a city with a competitive advantage, nothing’s ever going to happen…with the taxes being out of control, the utilities keep going up with no end in sight, there’s a fundamental issue that that’s why industry doesn’t come to El Paso. It financially doesn’t make sense for them.
We need to have a mayor that can control those things -first and foremost – show that we’re willing to take the fight to the tax burden, to the utilities and then we can have a conversation about competitive advantage, against these other cities, otherwise nothing’s going to happen.
CB – Do you think that, looking at the way the city has been trying to develop, that it’s been this mish-mash of approaches; one year saying ‘oh, we’re going to attract call centers’ and then the next year, ‘oh we’re going to attract dvd movie manufacturers’…do you think the issue is not having a unified vision for the city or is it just politicians throwing big names out – like Toyota – to make it seem like stuff’s getting done and not really pushing for the progress that attracts those businesses?
David – Push it, right. And another issue is the educational component, you know, we don’t have a single public high school in the top 100 in the state of Texas…not one. And if you contextualize that, education in the First World developed countries, America is toward the bottom…and then within the United States, Texas is near the bottom and within Texas, we’re at the bottom.
So we have a real problem, and when Toyota went to San Antonio…San Antonio has five universities, San Antonio has a very smart population…us? We have one major university – fantastic, that’s fine – but we don’t have competition, we need more schools to increase the education around here…a destination university and I think that’s something that’s different, that we need to start having a conversation about, otherwise – the attrition rate here, for our high school kids – is 28% that don’t even finish.
It’s a problem, but it’s a big joke, yet we keep on throwing money at these problems, we just passed one of the largest bonds in the history of El Paso…but without addressing administrator, faculties and teachers, it just doesn’t get addressed in these things…we’re $2 billion dollars in debt, you know, it just goes on and on, but there’s no real solutions here, just money flowing one way.
CB – How do you make that $2billion dollar debt real to someone who lives in the Lower Valley…if they’ve disconnected, what do you do?
David – We’re the largest city in the United States with the highest level of bond indebtedness…and what people don’t understand is, fine- you’re not a homeowner and that’s cool, you might rent – but your rent is going to go up…and the largest revenue-generator for the City of El Paso is property tax.
So those $2 billion of bonds that are out there and we owe, the payment on that is $103 million, what we collect in property taxes is $153 million a year…that’s just unsustainable, and the only way things work out is to raise taxes, which seems to have been the solution forever, but they’ll always reason it…’it’s only a $20 increase this year, don’t worry about it…but you couple that with utilities and on and on and on and it gets expensive, and no one is ever willing to hold the line.
And – by the way – I’m not a big fan of that phrase ‘hold the line,’ we need a dramatic change, we need to cut, we need tax reform here in town; we don’t have a plan, we don’t have a commercial tax base, we have an opportunity, because there’s other communities that are finding exponential success – like the Golden Triangle in Mississippi – that was the sticks like ten years ago, now they’ve got an advanced steel mill, Yokohama Tires is there now, median income has just about doubled…all they did was say ‘we have people here with the acumen for work, we have people here with the minimum skills necessary to learn a new trade, ok we have access to the Mississippi River, we’re centrally located…let’s go to town with this” and they did.
I believe that ‘Untold is Unsold.’ I’m a big fan of marketers and marketing, like Seth Godin…this guy, he says “in life, or anything that you do, be the biggest and the fastest or the smallest and the slowest…if you find yourself anywhere in the middle, you’re mediocre…you’re invisible…
CB – You’re saying you have to find that identity and go with it…
David – Yes! and it’s here…organically…and I keep on reminding people, I’m from the world-famous West Texas town of El Paso….Texas’ history actually begins here in El Paso, the First Thanksgiving was here…and the list goes on and on…it’s something we don’t embrace anymore, and we keep on benchmarking ourselves against San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Nashville, and we’re selling our name down the river, when it’s one of the strongest things we have.
I believe that heritage tourism could huge, I think that with tourism in Texas being a $6 million industry, and we only take 2% of that.
CB – There was a recent article, about cities building for tourists, versus building for residents…do you think we’re at that junction now…where we’re going to have to make that choice?
David – Yes. I agree.
CB – How do you do that, now with people still convinced that we should have gotten ‘Fiesta Texas’ or that we should have a ‘Six Flags’ isn’t it a bit short-sighted since residents won’t be going there every single week…where is the happy medium there…or is there?
David – I think it’s about timing…we’re recognized as one of the best places to raise a family…I think that’s money in the bank right there, but if we’re talking quality of life, the problem here is that the City of El Paso has this idea that ‘if you build it, they will come’ and we keep doing that, yet we’re at the point where we’re ignoring the people here.
I’ve been making the argument that downtown – and I love downtown…I’m bullish on downtown and it’s fantastic – but, what good is a strong, vibrant downtown if we’ve got 200,000 people kicking and screaming? And I’ve been asking this and people are perplexed by my question, because I ask – look at the parks in the Lower Valley, Central and other areas, and they’re dead, they’re brown, they’re horrible…but you look at the Westside, and they’re nice, and pretty and green…because 55% of the people who vote are from the Westside, and I’ve always asked ‘do you think a park like this would be tolerated on the Westside?’
We need to level the playing field and we need cultural buy-in…we need to have the competitive advantage of El Paso work for our families, because the best ambassadors for the city of El Paso, is ourselves…but what I’d like do to is go ‘big’…hire an outside firm out of New York to help brand ourselves…I feel like the branding efforts we have come from within…it’s like the example I like to give ‘How can you read the label on the jar if you’re inside the jar?’
We don’t know what other people want, we think we know…it’s time to take a big step back and ask a pro, what’s special about El Paso, share what we think is special…and that’s the angle I want to take.
But – overall – I think El Pasoans need to feel like they matter within their own city.
CB – And you think that’s really what’s at issue here…looking at an 8% turnout for the last election, and early voting numbers are trending toward half that number, is that a direct representation of what you just said…people feel that disconnected with their government?
David – Yeah. I think so. I mean, what keeps us here? Family, perhaps it’s a business…for me – as an accountant – facts don’t care about your feelings, it’s all about numbers…and it doesn’t make sense to live here. It’s very expensive, we’d be better off living somewhere else, right?
But we stay because of those components…and if that’s true, we need to figure out – the government needs to realize – that people aren’t going anywhere, but they also feel like they don’t matter…if we had civic engagement and cultural buy-in, El Paso would be booming….I mean we’re the 19th largest city in the US – between Detroit and Seattle…
CB – Which is an odd situation, because when you look at the way the Southwest grew, up until the 50’s – El Paso was the defacto Capitol of the Southwest…do you think we lost the position to San Antonio and Phoenix thanks to leadership that was disconnected from the everyday El Pasoan, and began to do for themselves?
David – One of the events where we blew it, I think, was in 1972 when we had the TransNational Monorail with Nestor Valencia, it was fully funded from both Mexico City and DC…it was a done deal…we had an administration that was working on it, then an election, and the one that came in and said ‘kill it, we don’t want it.’
After that, other cities started making moves, ’74 the Spurs are bought; in the early 90’s when Herb Kelleher (co-founder of Southwest Airlines) called the city about the high gate fees, no action was taken, and now Southwest has a huge hub in Phoenix, in 2001 when the ‘HyperBorder’ project was worked on here, city leaders were like ‘well, I guess…ok’ and the project ends up in Tijuana…this is the problem, it’s not the lack of opportunity, it the lack of foresight, vision or the guts to say what’s right for the people.
When you have a project fall in your lap, and you’re a typical politician here in El Paso, you have to call the powers that be and see how they feel about it. No, no, no…the people need a leader who can identify an opportunity for all, and then run with it.
CB – You talked about you making your way around the city, the contact that your having with residents, how has that changed you and your campaign?
David – They’re very impressed – first of all – that I’m knocking on their door – compared to my opponent, who is not…and then they’re like ‘wow…you care’ and then when I ask them what concerns them, the main things are…well the main thing I found out is that everyone has a different definition of ‘quality of life.’
The city tries to push ‘quality of life’ as venues, but the majority of people I’ve talked to, quality of life begins the moment they step out their front door. The moment they realize they need to call the police, and there’s a chance they won’t show for three hours. That the roads are a mess, that’s quality of life for them.
And the vast majority of El Pasoans don’t want much, they just want the nuts and bolts to be taken care of; really I don’t think I’ve spoken to too many people who wanted the ‘visionary’ things…nobody’s saying they want the arena, baseball field…they’re just like ‘please take care of us.’ I’m not going to say I was shocked by it, but it was more like being humbled by it…because it’s all been dominated by arena and the like, so infrastructure to some isn’t sexy, but it’s THE quality of life for the people I’ve spoken to.
Infrastructure, public safety and smart economic development -good jobs – the people have helped me focus on those three main things…and it’s resonating.
CB – Do you think that the current administration has flipped the ‘Maslow’s hierarchy of needs -city version’ and gone after the big things before taking care of the basics? Shooting for an NBA D-League franchise before a simple sidewalk?
David – Yeah, I think so…I think it’s also stacking favors and the people of the city of El Paso are shouldering the burdens…which is fine, I like these projects, but we need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time…we need to take care of our people, too…I mean we spent – and I exposed this – $112 million on infrastructure projects, sidewalks, roads – yet you still drive around and you go ‘well, where did the money go?’
One of the things I’ve been talking about, as an economist, is the only way things are going to change is to call for an audit…an independent, third party audit, immediately when I come in, I want to see exactly where we are at, everything I need to know, because otherwise you’re just shooting in the dark.
And another problem, as an accountant, you know – you start looking at the budget. I’m a big fan of zero-based budgeting. I don’t care what you did to meet the prior year, let’s start from scratch…let’s rebuild the budget and any savings that we have, that should go in the form of tax cuts. That’s what needs to happen here, we need tax reform…it’s unsustainable what’s happening here.
CB – Do you think that the current state of “city hall” could have some overstaffing issues, purchasing issues, that are there and we’re hemorrhaging money?
David – Hmmmm….lemme tell you what, I’m looking at everything…but I’m not a fan of just accepting things as they are or ‘that’s just the way things need to be’…I’m going to make sure we look at every opportunity or deficiency…and get it fixed. You already saw that I came out with getting rid of the City Manager and City Attorney…that’s the only way you’re going to get a change…and the media ran with it and said ‘oh, look, he wants to get rid of departments’ I look at it like this, if I get rid of the City Manager, inherently department heads are going to change.
I think the status quo is alive and well in El Paso, and we need a dramatic change…because – again – it’s unsustainable.
CB – Going back to one of the touchier issues, Duranguito and the Arena, looking into the way that flowed out of the same well as the decision to build the baseball stadium, do you see local sourcing as being a way to avoid the problems of finding a location and communicating the project?
David – I don’t know why we hire these out of town firms, who don’t understand the culture and the significance of certain areas…and it’s almost seems like the city leadership tells them ‘we want to put it there…now we’re going to pay you to tell us why’ instead of doing a true, in-depth analysis.
So now the arguments are, ‘well we already spent $700,000 on the study, so might as well go ahead with the project.’ Let’s do the math: we’re down $700k, let’s go ahead and compound that loss by putting the rest of the $180 million into the wrong space.’ The arguments don’t make sense, and they’re just trying to pull the wool over our eyes…and I’m not going to tolerate it.
CB – So, when you look at it, if you’re elected mayor, you’re willing to put the brakes on the project and look at other location for the project?
David – Well, I think that’s happening now, if you look at the lawsuit in Austin…there’s a real chance that this whole thing could get shot down. Because of the language, the ambiguous language…I remember when we voted for it, it was going to be in downtown, but if you put it on the ballot again – with that specific location – it would fail.
I do believe it should be in the railyards, but one of the main things is that there’s nothing stopping the planning commission in changing, expanding the downtown boundary lines…putting the arena somewhere in a larger downtown boundary, why confine it to that area?
CB – Which was part of an earlier plan, right…where the railyard would be incorporated as a Central Park, connecting two parts of a larger downtown…
David – So that plan, it’s beautiful…they’re going to redevelop Five Points…new high rises in downtown…the central park…did we scrap it? did we abandon it? I don’t know…we’ve already waited five years to get these projects done, now – all of a sudden – it’s an emergency to get it done and this is why people don’t trust our government.
I think we need to get in front of it, I know I’m going to inherit a mess…I’m ready for it…we’re going to be coming with truth and honesty, and that’s what El Pasoans want. Acknowledge the shortcomings and work on it, and I think that’s how you get buy in on it. The arena is an example…people want it, at the same time the city wants to promote living in downtown, and they’re placing the arena in the only functioning neighborhood in downtown…it just doesn’t make sense.
CB – Do you think that was part of the plan, the tactic, announce it (the arena) is on the way, don’t kick people out, but the property owners start thinking ‘sell’ and they – not the city – start getting rid of the tenants…did someone in the city know that was going to happen?
David – I think it’s suspect…the purchases that were made, the people that were locked into contracts, I think the entire thing is curious and it needs to be investigated.
CB – Do you think that the way the entire arena deal has unfolded is indicative of what’s happened over the last thirty, forty years – that people have served on council just to get those types of contracts, and to get their buddies in on the work?
David – I don’t know…I think what you’re describing is cronyism…to the max, and to say that it doesn’t exist is to be naïve; but I think that people have gotten reckless with it, it’s just become more blatant, more obvious and the fact that I started campaigning and come out and call it cronyism…and then the burden of proof is on me, and I bring people forward, and then nobody wants to talk about it anymore…it’s interesting.
But I feel good, saying what I have to say, I’m not coming up with this myself, I think the vast majority of El Pasoans feel the same way.
CB – Coming out of the general election, with so many competitors and you being one of the two left standing, do you think that is an indicator that voters want that change…regardless of the partisan labels that have been tossed around.
David – I’ve asked people – attack me on my platform, attack me on my vision, attack me on my plan for El Paso, they don’t…radio silence…it’s always on party affiliation, or Boys and Girls Club…that has nothing to do with what I want to do for the city of El Paso…and it’s a stretch…and I think my vision for the city has resonated, and I knew that would get us into the runnoff with Dee.
Dee knew it too, you could see it on election night…all of us were excited and partying on election night, and you could see it in his face…he needed 51% and didn’t get it; now he’s running. People just want a change, that’s what the decision comes down to…partisan stuff aside…it’s change or more of the same…that’s what it comes down to.
CB – So let’s look ahead…it’s a year from now, you’re the mayor…what’s the one thing – the one accomplishment you can point to and say ‘we got that done?’
David – I think improvements in our ports of entry, having the dignified pedestrian crossing in place, and something that we could do quickly and efficiently, and would have a deep impact would be – and this is taking a page out of Jaime O. Perez’s playbook – taking the city’s money out of Wells Fargo and putting it into a local credit union…the impact that would have on the local entrepreneur, putting the money back in to local circulation…it would be dramatic; these are small things we can do to help the El Paso entrepreneur.
I want to create an environment where we can all find success, but I believe improvements to the ports of entry, having more capital available in El Paso, those are things that will have an immediate impact on us.
CB – Finally, let’s combine all the 92% of the registered voters who didn’t vote the first time around into one person, and that one person is on the fence about voting in the runoff election. What’s your message to get that voter off the fence and into the booth?
David – I’m going to make El Paso the most talked about city in the United States; I want to give El Paso its rightful place in national politics, national relevancy and influence…I want to bring awareness to our people, we all get along – and I think if you could bottle up that goodness in time when things are just so polarizing, I think it’s something we can sell…we can lead the way.
When I’m in office, I want them to know they have someone there who is no different from them, I have a family, I have a mortgage, I have student loans I have to pay, I’m working with my family…and I feel their plight, I know how hard it is, and that all my decisions will be made from that position – how they help my family, their family…all of us, from the common ground that is our city.