Warnings work, votes change, veto override fails
by David Crowder
Posted on January 13, 2009
Three El Paso City Council members bowed to warnings Tuesday from U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes and the city’s state House delegation and changed their votes on a controversial resolution, sustaining Mayor John Cook’s veto.
The City Council had voted unanimously last week on a resolution originally drafted by the city’s Committee on Border Relations that expressed support for Juarez and called upon the federal government to take several steps to aid Juarez and Mexico.
Those steps included clamping down on gun-running and money-laundering; the controversy arose when O'Rourke amended a portion of the resolution calling for less focus on incarceration and more on rehabilitation to asking for an “honest open national debate on ending the prohibition on narcotics.”
Within hours, Cook had issued the veto.
During the three-hour hearing before Tuesday's vote, council members, some of whom are barely on speaking terms, were uncharacteristically respectful to one another. They heaped praise on Cook for his stance and expressed admiration for city Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who offered the controversial 12-word amendment and took a beating in the national media for doing so.
But several of the representatives had strong words for Reyes and the members of the House delegation who wrote letters and made calls to the council that some considered threatening.
“I personally don’t support the legalization of narcotics, but I also don’t support limiting debate,” city Rep. Eddie Holguin said. “Debate is healthy, I feel. I believe that self-censoring ourselves is wrong, and we shouldn’t trample on the Constitution and the people’s right to free speech.”
Reyes’ letter read, in part, “While this resolution is well-intentioned, I believe its passage would be counterproductive to our efforts to enact an ambitious legislative agenda at the federal level. For this reason, I urge you to vote against overriding Mayor John Cook’s veto.”
State Reps. Joe Pickett, Norma Chavez, Chente Quintanilla, Marisa Marquez and Joseph Moody also urged the council not to override the veto.
“Unfortunately for our delegation, there has been negative reaction to the resolution originally passed last week… regarding the support for discussions to legalize narcotics at the federal level,” their letter read. “There will be state agencies, state legislators and others in state government who will see this resolution as the city of El Paso supporting the legalization of drugs.
“Funding for local law enforcement efforts and other important programs to our community are likely being put in jeopardy, especially during a time when state resources are scarce.” [View the letters via links below this article.]
Faced with those words, city Reps. Emma Acosta, Rachel Quintana and Holguin said they had to change their votes on the resolution.
Cook needed three votes from the eight representatives to sustain his veto.
“I want to commend Rep. O’Rourke for being so courageous,” Quintana said. “That is the only word that I can think of because the ridicule that you have faced.
As with the other representatives, she said the phone calls, mail and e-mail to her office were about evenly split in support and opposition to the resolution.
But the letters from Reyes and the delegation “absolutely pushed me over,” Quintana said.
Acosta said, “If we had voted yesterday I would have voted in favor of it.”
Holguin, too, said risking federal and state funding was too high a price to pay for the passage of the resolution.
“When you receive calls and you have both members of the state and federal level telling you that you might lose funding for projects that are of vital importance for El Paso then you know you have to stop and think,” he said.
Addressing O’Rourke, Holguin said, “I congratulate you for accomplishing the goal, which was to gain national attention and to get the conversation started.
“In that respect, I think you were successful, and I don’t regret supporting the resolution the way that it passed. It’s just unfortunate the way that it was portrayed, and at this point, I can’t jeopardize funding from the state or the federal level.”
Rep. Steve Ortega defended the actions called for in the resolution are justified and necessary in light of the drug-related violence south of the border that is spilling into El Paso.
“We’ve had 50 patients at Thomason (Hospital), and had a handful of kidnappings in this past year related to drugs,” he said. “We’ve had local business that have been threatened and extorted for money based on some events in Mexico. … You have possibility of a failed state and failed city and more death and destruction along this business community.
“That to me, you can’t put a cost on, whether it is federal funding or state funding. I ask us to ask ourselves what is the cost of that.”
Turning his attention to the pressure put on council members, Ortega said, “I also want to ask our state legislators and our U.S. congressman to openly name anybody who is threatening the city of El Paso with withholding funding for having dialogue.
“That is un-American, and that is in contravention to our First Amendment. So I’m going to stand with the action that we took last Tuesday. There is to me nothing wrong with having a debate and a dialogue.
“If we are silent on this matter, the prospects for the future of this community are placed in danger. And I’m not going to stand here idly and listen to unnamed legislators threaten us for having a dialogue over the future of this community.”
Cook, who said nothing during last week’s debate, opened the public comment Tuesday with an apology for not being more engaged then, saying it was “disrespectful.”
The council heard from 25 citizens, 16 of whom supported the mayor’s action and nine who spoke in favor of overriding the veto.
The first was Reyes’ deputy chief of staff, Sal Payan, who read the congressman’s letter into the record, and was immediately challenged by O’Rourke to describe how El Paso faces the threat of lost funding if the council adopted the resolution.
Payan recalled when Reyes was looking for funding for El Paso desalination plant, congressional offices that were opposed to the funding would “pick up on comments that news media issue that would crop up, that El Paso was drying up and it was going to blow away.”
“They would come to committee hearings and throw it in his face and tell him ‘El Paso’s drying up, why should we be providing any funding for that effort?” Payan said. “He was able to overcome it.”
He said federally funded drug-prevention programs El Paso and the stimulus package backed by President-elect Obama could be subject to reconsideration.
Asked through his press spokesman for a response to the charge that his letter was threatening, Reyes issued this statement to Newspaper Tree:
“As I stated in my letter, I felt this resolution was counterproductive to ongoing efforts to project a unified voice in the community, as we are advocating for federal projects that will likely be included in upcoming legislation to stimulate the economy. I also felt the timing of the resolution was inappropriate, particularly as President Calderon was meeting with President Bush, President-elect Obama, and Speaker Pelosi this week."
Nubia Legarda, a 19-year-old UTEP student and member of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, urged the council not to back down and poked at Cook for referring in an e-mail to people who support the resolution as “potheads.”
Westsider Irene Ortega said drugs destroy lives and wondered why El Paso is ready to throw in the towel in the fight against drugs.
“Are we a chicken city, cluck, cluck, too scared to continue the war on drugs?” she said.
Daniel Rodriguez said there’s no such thing as a healthy discussion about legalizing drugs because young people take their cues from adult conversation.
“There are things I believe should not be open for discussion, and this is one of them,” he said.
Dr. Arturo Dominguez, who has been in practice less than a year, said he thinks it would be possible to legalize and regulate some drugs, such as marijuana, and noted that a number of states permit its use for medical purposes.
“Don’t be afraid politically to take a courageous stand,” he said.
After the public comment, Cook called on each of the council members to speak on the resolution before he called for the vote.
O’Rourke was last and began by thanking Cook for his tactful handling of the issue.
“I don’t at all question your motives,” O’Rourke said. “I think you have, arguably, the toughest job in the room, and I think you do it quite well. I would also like to say I am incredibly proud of every member of this council, every member, and it doesn’t matter which way you vote on this.
“I think it’s unfortunate how this came about, but that’s life and that’s politics. … I will also say that the threat from Congressman Reyes, then articulated again by our House delegation at the state level is unfortunate, but it’s having its desired affect, which is to chill discussion. …
“And I want to be clear, I have not heard a specific funding amount that is being threatened to be withheld. I haven’t heard a specific congressman or senator who has threatened to withhold that money, just vague, unspecific threats that should we have the courage of our convictions, money will be withheld from this community.”
The public may be unaware, O’Rourke said, that the city is suing the federal government over the border wall.
“If the federal government had come back and said we’ll withhold funding from your community if you continue with this lawsuit, would this council fold on this lawsuit?” he said. “If our very principled position on undocumented immigration and on the Minutemen were challenged by the federal government, and we were told we were going to lose our funding if we continued with our position, would we fold?
“It’s not just this issue. It sets a precedent that when debate is to be chilled, when positions are to be changed, people higher up will threaten us that we’ll lose our money, and you have to ask yourselves if you can live with that.
“All we’re asking for is a conversation, and no important issue in the history of the United States, social, criminal legal or otherwise has ever been harmed by having an open discussion. That’s all we’re asking for today. I hope the original resolution and the mayor’s veto is overridden.”
Before the vote, the outcome of which was evident by then, Cook challenged some of the assertions that had been made during the debate, citing a failed experiment with legalized marijuana in Alaska that led to higher use by teenagers.
And despite the criticisms of the anti-drug efforts, Cook said, statistics show statistics now show a drop in the number of children using drugs as a result of in-school programs.
On the vote, city Reps. Ann Lilly, Susie Byrd, Ortega and O’Rourke voted for the veto override. City Reps. Melina Castro, Acosta, Quintana and Holguin voted against it.
To reach David Crowder, write to firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 351-0605
-- 'Potheads' have sent their message; now it's time for the 'silent majority,' Mayor Cook urges in e-mail, by David Crowder: “I need folks to be contacting their reps.” Cook’s email reads. “I can tell you that all the potheads have sent their e-mails and they are encouraging the reps to
stand by their decision. Why does the silent majority remain silent?" Posted on January 12, 2009
-- O’Rourke in national headlights over 12 words in Drug War resolution, by David Crowder: Since the end of the City Council meeting on Tuesday, O’Rourke has been interviewed by CNN News and National Public Radio and blasted by commentator Lou Dobbs, who went off about the crazies on the border. Posted on January 9, 2009
-- Cook's veto not supported by committee that created the drug war, Juarez solidarity resolution, by David Crowder: "My intention is to ask that this be on the Tuesday agenda, as adopted, for reconsideration, and we'll just see how the votes fall." -- city Rep. Beto O'Rourke on putting the vetoed resolution before City Council next week. Posted on January 7, 2009
-- Mayor vetos unanimous resolution urging Washington to consider drug legalization, by David Crowder: "Legalizing the types of drugs that are being smuggled across the border is not an effective way to combat the violence in Mexico, and I would not support efforts in Congress that would seek to do so.” -- U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes' comment on the council's resolution. Posted on January 6, 2009
-- Drug War resolution requires resolve, by Sito Negron: In the heat of battle, the mayor dismissively calls people who think this makes sense "potheads," and appeals to a "silent majority" to come to council and support his veto. I'm thinking the silent majority is on the other side, and it's going to stay silent unless a few people have the courage, as did the City Council, to say that publicly. - Posted on Jan. 12, 2009
-- Identity and Drug War politics, by Richard Wright: People's identities are defined, to a point, on how they feel about drugs and their continued illegality. Unfortunately, this has produced a situation where no solution is consensually acceptable. Posted on January 12, 2009
-- I'm on your side, even though your ideas about the Drug War are stupid, by David Karlsruher: I'm just asking for some clarity here. People want to stop the drug wars in Mexico, but all I hear for a solution is to get more Americans hooked the cartel's top selling products. Pardon me if I'm not buying it. Posted on January 8, 2009
-- Former mayor to City Council: Stay the course on drug resolution, by Bill Tilney: As a former mayor, I understand the position taken by Mayor John Cook, when he decided to veto the resolution at the last moment. With that, the council did the right thing; now that you have gained the attention of the national media, don't drop the ball. Posted on January 8, 2009
-- Let's talk about the Drug War, by Sito Negron: Mayor John Cook's veto was everything that's wrong with the public policy debate on legalizing or decriminalizing or changing the focus of the nearly 40-year War on Drugs. Posted on January 7, 2009
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