Former El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser was returned to office Saturday, trouncing the man who succeeded him in 2017, Dee Margo.
Leeser picked up more than 79% of the 53,929 votes cast in the runoff election that ended Saturday. Leeser had a large lead over Margo in the Nov. 3 election, but a runoff was needed because neither candidate received a majority.
In winning less than 21% of the runoff vote, Margo suffered the most lopsided loss for an incumbent El Paso mayor in recent history. The last incumbent mayor to lose a re-election bid was Joe Wardy, who received almost 49% of the vote in a 2005 runoff against John Cook. In 2003, Mayor Ray Caballero received 36% of the vote when he lost to Wardy in the general election.
El Paso voters tossed out incumbent mayors in three successive elections between 1977 and 1981. Since then, the only incumbents to lose re-election bids were Susie Azar in 1991, Wardy and Caballero. Those prior mayors were serving two-year terms at the time of their defeats; a 2004 city charter amendment changed mayoral terms to four years.
A 2014 charter amendment changed mayoral elections from the spring of odd-numbered years to November of even-numbered years, coinciding with higher-turnout presidential elections. So Margo’s term will wind up being about 3 1/2 years.
Leeser was mayor from 2013-17 and chose not to seek re-election after his first term.
Margo faced an unprecedented series of crises since winning election in 2017. A surge of migrants from Central America in 2018-19 created a humanitarian crisis, which was primarily handled by nonprofit organizations. A white supremacist terror attack killed 23 people at a Walmart on Aug. 3, 2019. And the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately impacted El Paso, especially in the fall. More than 1,700 El Pasoans have died of the disease so far.
The city’s handling of the pandemic has been controversial and likely played a key role in the voters’ harsh rejection of Margo. He cast the tie-breaking vote against disclosing more detailed information on where clusters of COVID-19 cases were occurring. The city stopped enforcing its own public health orders in the spring and summer, choosing instead to “educate” violators.
And in the midst of the mayoral campaign, Margo made two inflammatory statements.
At a City Council meeting, Margo accused city Rep. Peter Svarzbein — who lost many family members in the Holocaust — of favoring “Gestapo-like tactics” by favoring additional steps to slow the spread of COVID-19. Margo later apologized.
In a national television interview, Margo said that Hispanics have a higher rate of COVID-19 hospitalization than “normal Caucasians,” using the language of a longstanding racist trope that non-white people are less than normal. Margo said his comments were taken out of context, though he didn’t elaborate. In a later national TV interview, Margo used the phrase “average Caucasian” in a contrast with Hispanic hospitalization rates.
In other runoff elections Saturday, one City Council incumbent was re-elected and another lost.
In Central El Paso’s District 2, city Rep. Alexsandra Annello had 52% of the vote against her former aide, longtime city employee Judy Gutierrez.
In Northeast El Paso’s District 4, retired police officer Joe Molinar comfortably defeated incumbent Rep. Sam Morgan. Molinar won 54% of the vote against Morgan, who is facing felony and misdemeanor domestic violence charges.
El Paso voters also decided two municipal judge races.
In Municipal Court 4, Lillian Elena Blancas — who died on Monday of COVID-19 — defeated Enrique Alonso Holguin. Blancas won 62% of the vote. City Council will have to appoint someone to fill Blancas’ four-year term.
For Municipal Court of Appeals judge, Maria Ramirez will be elected after winning 57.5% of the vote against Rebecca Tarango.