In Northeast El Paso, a most unusual City Council race
The candidates in the District 4 City Council race may have differing opinions on the issues, but they agree on one thing. The biggest challenge their district faces is it’s undeserved bad reputation among the rest of El Paso.
However, some of the candidates to represent Northeast El Paso on City Council may not be well-positioned to boost that reputation.
Incumbent Sam Morgan is awaiting a trial on felony and misdemeanor charges for domestic violence. Shawn Nixon is currently in jail and has been accused of funding his campaign with six figures worth of bad checks. Candidate Sissy Byrd has a past felony theft conviction, though she has become a well-respected community volunteer in the quarter century since. Candidate Joe Molinar downplayed the lethality of COVID-19 and said George Floyd bore some responsibility for dying beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. Candidate Wesley Lawrence is a 23-year-old college student with limited experience.
“We get a negative image. The media portrays us — any time there’s something bad, a shooting, a murder, a major traffic accident, if you follow the media it’s Northeast El Paso, Northeast El Paso, they cannot say it enough,” said Molinar, a retired police officer.
Lawrence, a lifelong resident of the Northeast, agreed that the area’s negative stereotype is significant. “When it comes to challenges, number one would be our image. A lot of people think the Northeast is dangerous but we’re absolutely not.”
Byrd, Lawrence, and Molinar spoke with El Paso Matters about their visions for Northeast El Paso, their stances on key current issues, and the unusual nature of this year’s District 4 race. Morgan did not respond to multiple interview requests. Nixon, who has been jailed since Oct. 2, also did not respond to interview requests.
Meet the candidates
Voters who live in District 4 have an interesting choice to make on their ballot. Candidates for this race possess wildly differing life experiences and worldviews.
There’s Byrd, a grandmother who volunteers long hours helping some of El Paso’s most vulnerable community members and has a lengthy list of awards for her community service; Lawrence, a 23-year-old Eagle Scout and college student; and Molinar, the retired police officer and former Marine whose slogan is “a call to duty.” These candidates run the gamut, and that’s not even mentioning the tabloid-fodder names on the ballot, Morgan and Nixon.
Morgan, a retired Army officer, prefers to be called Dr. Sam, though he is not a medical doctor. He earned an online doctorate in 2018 from Northcentral University, in a program that requires about half the credit hours of a typical university doctoral degree. During his tenure on City Council, Morgan has been known for often siding with Mayor Dee Margo on controversial issues, including the decision to withhold COVID-19 cluster data from the public. Candidate Molinar critiqued Morgan for accepting a $5,000 donation from Margo during his previous bid for City Council.
“It says something about him, accepting that type of money from the mayor,” Molinar said. “It comes with a cloud that says, ‘Hey, I’m the mayor, you’re going to do as you’re told because I contributed to your campaign. The reason you’re here is because of me.’”
Molinar has accepted $6,000 in campaign donations from the El Paso Municipal Police Officers Association and the El Paso County Sheriff’s Officers Association, and in response to a question about public safety spending in the El Paso Matters Voters Guide, Molinar said, “I would leave the spending of public funds up to Chief of Police Greg Allen and his top management / administrative staff.”
Nixon is 21 years old and is unlikely to be a serious contender for office given his current incarceration. Vendors and employees of Nixon’s claimed that he failed to pay workers and bounced dozens of bad checks in order to finance his campaign for city representative.
City response to COVID-19
Cluster data has become a key topic among candidates when discussing the city’s approach to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. In their El Paso Matters Voters Guide questionnaire responses, Byrd, Lawrence, and Molinar all agreed that cluster data should be released to the public, contrasting with Morgan’s established stance on the issue.
However, these three candidates did not all agree on contact tracing, and on the extent to which the city’s response to the pandemic has been appropriate thus far.
Molinar expressed resistance to contact tracing as a viable method of quelling the spread of the virus, and sought to downplay the deadly nature of the virus.
“Here in El Paso there are more people that pass away from diabetes, heart-related issues, hypertension, stroke, all kinds of stuff. Why don’t we talk about that?” said Molinar. This statement contains factual inaccuracies: El Paso has had 556 deaths from COVID-19 as of Oct. 12, significantly outpacing deaths caused by diabetes and stroke in typical years. If COVID-19 continues at its current rate of fatality in El Paso, it is likely to surpass cancer as the second-leading cause of death, and may approach heart disease as the leading killer.
In contrast, Byrd emphasized that getting COVID-19 under control must be the top priority for our community, and advocated for expanded and improved contact tracing. She has experienced the deaths of family members and friends to the deadly virus since the start of the pandemic, and expressed consternation at efforts to put business interests before the safety of the community.
“If people are dying, infrastructure’s not going to mean anything and neither is their job. I know in order for our city to thrive, we have to make sure we have businesses open, but we have to make sure they are safe,” she said.
Lawrence agreed that contact tracing is a vital component to community COVID-19 response. “We have to adequately fund contact tracing. It’s the most important thing we can do to figure out where this virus started and trace it from there,” he said.
However, Lawrence also said he believes the local government has “performed amply” in it’s COVID-19 response thus far.
Differing perspectives on policing
When I told Joe Molinar that I wanted to talk with him about national and local attitudes about policing, he exclaimed, “woohoo!”
The former police officer effusively shared his opinions of the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement and the Memorial Park protest in which El Paso police used tear gas and beanbag rounds against protestors.
When asked about the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer who knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, Molinar suggested that Floyd was at least in part responsible for his death.
“Really, if you look at the autopsy report that’s not the cause of death. And so now we know the fact that this man had ingested at some point or another substances into his body, and I’m going to say willingly, because no one’s going to force him to take that. And so what was he doing? He knew he was going to go back to jail or prison, so accountability starts with that individual. Had he not been doing what he’d been doing he’d be alive today, we wouldn’t have a George Floyd case,” Molinar said.
The two autopsies performed on Floyd both ruled his death a homicide.
Molinar also defended the EPPD use of force at the Memorial Park protest, saying that the officers would not have done so unless they had a good reason.
“The police officer has the authority to say ‘you know what, this is an unlawful assembly,’ and you need to disperse. And those people protesting need to leave, they need to disperse. Failure to do that is not good. So whether it’s tear gas, rubber bullets, or whatever else they use, if that’s the means to disperse the crowd, that’s the means to disperse the crowd,” Molinar said.
Byrd holds a starkly different stance on policing and protest.
“Being a Black woman, a Black mother, a lot of people who are not Black do not understand how that affects us every single day. How it affects our community. But what surprised me was that when George Floyd got killed, America took notice,” Byrd said. She said that she firmly supports the right to protest, and believes that the EPPD should not have used tear gas and beanbag rounds at the Memorial Park protest.
“I don’t believe in defunding the Police Department, but we need social services involved. We need a board to reevaluate any incidents like that, because this is our city and we need to take care of each other. And there is nothing wrong with protesting,” Byrd said.
Lawrence also advocated for an oversight board as part of necessary steps he sees for El Paso police reform. Furthermore, he pushed for other changes including: body cameras for police officers, allowing the district attorney to come to the scene of a crime when an officer is accused of misconduct, ending chokeholds, and ending the use of force on nonviolent offenders.
“Right now two millions dollars have been spent on legal cases regarding the 33 people who have passed away under police custody here in El Paso, so I think it’s important that we get body cameras and we find a way to fund that,” Lawrence said.
El Paso Matters has reported that the city has spent $1.7 million in four deadly force lawsuits in recent years.
An “exciting race”
“This race definitely has been exciting,” said Lawrence, reflecting on his first campaign for elected office. “When I first went to City Hall to make my candidacy official, never in my mind did I imagine one of my opponents would have been locked up for not treating the community with the respect it deserves, in terms of writing bad checks and ripping people off.”
What-ifs abound in this race. What if Morgan wins, and then is convicted of the charges that he faces? The City Council is empowered to remove a council member from office if they have been convicted of a crime of moral turpitude.
This standard could also potentially be applied to the previous charges against Byrd, though perhaps is less likely given the length of time since her offense. Byrd was convicted of theft between $20,000 and $100,000 in 1996. When asked about her conviction, Byrd emphasized that she is not that person anymore.
“I did make a mistake but I will not make a mistake again,” she said.
She reflected on the question of what it means to make amends after committing a crime. “When you make a mistake the difference is, do you keep making that mistake or do you change to make sure you’re doing what you should or should not do. I’m not saying I was young and stupid, what I’m saying is, if you know something’s not right, don’t do it, even if you need to have a job to take care of your children or whatever,” Byrd said.
Byrd and the other candidates interviewed for this article expressed varying degrees of criticism of Morgan and his lack of public remorse regarding the pending domestic violence charges.
“A lot of people don’t feel that he showed regret. But when you abuse somebody, there’s nothing around it. You abused that person. And so therefore, he’s the one who has to live with what he did,” Byrd said.
Lawrence said Morgan owes the public an apology.
“He should have apologized to the community, because that’s another black eye that our community got in terms of the situation that occurred. I think he should have stepped aside and put his personal life first. At the end of the day, his wife deserves happiness, she deserves to feel safe, and she deserves closure,” he said.
Molinar, who has been knocking on doors to connect with constituents, said that he has heard dissatisfaction with the incumbent Morgan as an echoing refrain among voters. “I have heard time over time over time, even before I was block-walking, this man should resign,” Molinar said.