In the Dec. 12 mayoral runoff, El Pasoans face a unique choice — two candidates who have held the office, and have a record from their time of service.

Oscar Leeser, El Paso’s mayor from 2013-2017 who did not seek reelection at the time, secured 42% of the vote in the six-person Nov. 3 election. Dee Margo, who succeeded Leeser, received 25% of the vote. 

The winner will be tasked with leading the city amidst a continuing COVID-19 crisis that has overwhelmed hospitals and has been killing one El Pasoan every hour for the past few weeks.

The mayor, who presides over City Council meetings and votes in case of a tie, also has power to veto actions of the council. The mayor also works with the City Council to develop policies for the city manager and staff to execute.

El Paso Matters requested interviews with the candidates to answer a series of questions. Leeser responded by phone, Margo responded to the questions via email.

Here is how the candidates responded.

Question: Why do you want to serve as mayor?

Margo: In the last two years, I have led us through three different crises: Immigration, the tragic shooting on Aug. 3, and the pandemic. We are in a battle with COVID and you do not change leadership in the middle of a war.

I want to lead us out of this and rebuild our economy with jobs and investment. Despite the pandemic, we announced Amazon and TJX distribution centers and that is significant when our economy has taken a downturn and El Pasoans need work.

I will continue to focus on the balancing act of addressing our public health needs and rebuilding our economy so our small businesses are thriving again.

Leeser: I think it’s really important that we continue to make sure the voices of the people continue to be heard. I think it’s very evident that on Nov. 3, 75 percent of the people of El Paso actually voted against the current mayor, which means obviously they are very unhappy with the performance that is going on and they feel very unsafe.

El Paso is right now in a crisis of confidence in our elected leaders, and I think I heard that at the Sun Bowl press conference  — why we lost this Sun Bowl, which has been here for 86 years,  because of all of the negative media and the mayor has been on national TV and literally has embarrassed and slandered our community and they got worried that if they came here, they got worried. The exact words were “players would be infected and then go back home to their families and infect them.”

So we need leadership, we need people that our citizens can feel comfortable and confident to lead them.

I can tell you that the majority of the council members have called me and expressed that they are looking forward to me winning and coming in and working with them, and that was unsolicited to receive phone calls from the majority of council members that wanted to talk to me and find out how we can work together. I’ve been dealing with the county judge (Ricardo Samaniego) and talk to him on a daily basis and talk about strategies and what’s going on.

It’s a lack of leadership and the biggest thing that I’ve said (is) we cannot just represent special interest groups; we need to represent the interests of all of the people of El Paso. 

Q: If you wanted to highlight what you consider your one biggest accomplishment while serving over your first term, what would it be?

Margo: Job recruitment and ensuring public safety is adequately funded.

Unemployment in El Paso went down the entire time I have been in office. Per the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, at the end of 2017 and 2018 the unemployment rate was at 4.4% and 4.2% respectively, and at the end of 2019 we had reached 3.7%.

I worked with our city’s Economic Development team, the Borderplex Alliance and our partners at the county to make sure El Paso was on the shortlist for site consultants. Amazon and TJX choosing El Paso to locate their distribution centers was not by happenstance. These companies alone will add 1,450 new jobs and millions in investment.

Our police fleet needed to be replaced, and our Fire Department needed fire trucks and ambulances. The public safety bond supported by El Paso voters will provide new headquarters for the police and fire departments, a police regional command center in far East El Paso, a fire station off Transmountain in Northwest El Paso, and upgrades to our training academies.

We are one of the safest cities in America and we will continue to remain at the top.

Leeser: There’s a lot of great great accomplishments we’ve done, but one of the ones (was) we were able to take unemployment from over 9% to 3.4% and that was, this number came from the Dallas Federal Reserve. There was an article in October 2017. Robert Coronado was interviewed and he said unemployment in El Paso was 3.4, and he said it’s the lowest it’s ever been in 27 years that they have been taking numbers, and they credit it all to the last three years of our administration. We were able to create 18,000 jobs and bring jobs to our community.

When I ran for office our number one priority (was) to bring jobs to El Paso. To have that independent story written by the El Paso Times interviewing the Dallas Federal Reserve was very telling of the great work that our community, that our City Council as a whole, did to bring jobs to El Paso.

So he said 18,000 jobs were created by the prior administration for the last three years.   

Fact check: According to the El Paso Federal Reserve, the seasonally adjusted El Paso County unemployment rate was 8.2% in June 2013, Leeser’s first month on the job, and had declined to 4.5% in June 2017 when Margo took over. The rate continued to decline to 3.3% in April 2019, but then began to rise again, well before the pandemic. Like other U.S. cities, El Paso saw a sharp rise in unemployment this spring because of the pandemic, and then began to recover in the summer.

Q: How would you contrast your record in office to that of your opponent?

Margo: My opponent did not listen to voters for four years. He inherited the quality of life bond, which was overwhelmingly supported by voters, and he only completed eight projects and none of them were signature projects. In the process he violated the Texas Open Meetings Act by meeting secretly with the majority of council members with a walking quorum. (Fact check: El Paso District Attorney Jaime Esparza declined to bring charges in the case.)

He voted twice to raise taxes (August 2013 and August 2016), and passed five certificates of obligation, raising city debt $331 million; $131 million more debt issued than during my term as mayor.

He also failed to upgrade our police fleet when only 75% of it was operational. This required me to purchase 300 police vehicles so 911 emergency calls are responded to quickly.

Leeser: The biggest thing right now is you look at the way the majority of City Council members have called and said we need leadership, we need somebody to work with. Being the people’s mayor makes a big difference.

Being out there and representing 100% of the people. I can tell you the people of El Paso spoke again. The difference is — people want me back. People were very happy that we were able to provide for our community and not just a select few.

Q: What will you do differently as mayor if reelected?

Margo: Focus on rebuilding our economy by working with small businesses, job recruitment and investment in our community to reduce the tax burden on homeowners.

Leeser: When I get elected again. There’s a lot of great things we did working with the community and having an open door policy, but also working with the small businesses.

El Paso is 80% small businesses right now. We are in a confidence crisis and we have to go down and we need to talk to our small businesses. How do we help them stay open — how do we help them stay open, but stay open safely?

One of the things — I’ve talked to a lot of people around town and you can go around town and  you’ll see around El Paso there’s a lot of closed and out of business (signs).

I am confident that buying five buildings with the CARES Act (funding), which was designated for frontline responders to medical providers to get them personal protective equipment, and spent on buildings instead of helping them stay open is really — it’s a shame that Dee Margo and his administration did that.

We really need to go out and help these small businesses. They are the backbone of our community and yet we are spending the money.

We have the Medical Centers of the Americas. Emma Schwartz called me and said “you know I’ve reached out to the city. We can help distribute the vaccine, but the city has not called me back.” 

I’ve talked to numerous numerous doctors that have said we applied for the vaccine. We are in line to get the vaccine we can help the city distribute it. I’ve talked to an infectious doctor for quite a long time the other day and while talking to them I said what’s the biggest problem?

He told me the biggest problem is the city is not willing to listen. 

The thing is we need to listen, we need to bring the right people to the table because we need to make sure that we take care of people — the small businesses — and again it’s important that we help them stay open.

Everything you have read, everything I’ve read lately there’s going to be a second round of money and it’s important that we go out, that we talk about: can we make sure that we get it to the right businesses?   

There’s businesses that didn’t qualify, so we need to go out there and look at how we help them qualify. How do we help them make sure that they are a part of the answer.

I’m looking forward to working with all of council because it’s important. No one can do anything by themselves and I think the current mayor is proof of that — that you cannot do everything by yourself. You have to include your council, you have to include our congresswoman (Veronica Escobar) who has done a great job, that can bring us federal relief. When he (Margo) makes a comment that says: if she wants to help she can call my office and leave a message — that’s not acceptable.

Our county judge, we may not always agree, but I can tell you we’ll agree that we are going to do the best for our community. I have been talking to him, talking to the mayor of Juarez (Armando Cabada) I’ve reached out and talked a couple of times, I’ve talked to Mayor (Ken) Miyagishima from Las Cruces. We talk about being a region. We need to act as a region and we need to act as one.

So I look forward to bringing the leadership skills that it takes, so that we all talk in a united voice.

I can tell you that the embarrassment that has come to our community is not acceptable — how the mayor has continued to embarrass El Paso on the national level has cost us double. It has cost us the 86th year (Sun Bowl) tradition because people don’t want to come to El Paso.

They feel they are in danger, so we need to look at: how do we talk in a united voice and make sure that we help our community grow, and make sure that we take care of our first responders who are central to our city and make sure El Paso continues to become and stays the safest city in America and that we fund police and fire properly.

There’s a lot of things we need to do. … I could give you a list of about 50 things we need to do to act and work as one together and make sure the voice of El Paso is heard.   

Q: Do you think you there have been any mistakes in handling the COVID-19 pandemic?

Margo: I have consistently responded to the pandemic by working with our public health authority, our Office of Emergency Management, and the City Attorney’s Office.

Together, we have done everything legally possible to minimize the spread of the virus and addressing the public health needs of this community. I have also followed the data from our contact tracing to identify behaviors and locations of community spread, so we can implement legal limitations or restrictions.

I have requested and received from the state all resources and supplies needed for medical personnel and our hospital systems. There are 53 covid testing locations throughout El Paso and to date, over 650,000 have been tested. (Fact check: the testing data reflects total number of tests administered, not number of people tested. Many people have been tested multiple times.)

The city has purchased four buildings to be used as health clinics and for vaccinations, which will be a total of seven clinics in El Paso. As medical guidance changes, we will continue to adapt and respond.

Leeser: Numbers don’t lie and we are one of the worst cities in the world. We are one of the worst cities in America and we continue to be. People have lost their lives because we have not done the proper thing. I was personally affected and it’s not about me,  it’s about our community.

Everybody in El Paso that has lost a loved one, we are all together in this and we need to make sure that everybody is represented. It’s a tragic loss when someone loses their loved ones, but you know what — we need to make sure that we stop and do the right thing.  

Have we done anything wrong? You have seen the numbers and the numbers are horrendous.

Today alone (Thursday) is the worst day since the pandemic started of lives that we have lost. Today was the third worst day and it’s because we have not handled it properly, and we need to make sure that we handle it properly and we need to make sure that we help our community to be safe.

Elida S. Perez is a senior reporter for El Paso Matters. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities...