Candidates at EPC’s Mayoral Forum Weigh In On Major Issues

 In News

On October 12, the day before early voting began, the El Paso Chamber hosted a forum with all six of El Paso’s mayoral candidates: Veronica “Vero” Carbajal, Carlos Gallinar, former Mayor Oscar Leeser, current Mayor Dee Margo, Dean “Dino” Martinez, and Calvin Zielsdorf. As the Chamber has no political affiliation and does not offer endorsements, the  forum served as an opportunity to create dialogue between the candidates and to clarify their stances on various economic issues relevant to El Paso’s business community. The questions were based off of responses collected from Chamber members about their business-related priorities going into the mayoral election.

Moderated by Liz O’Hara (who serves as Chair on the Chamber’s Government Relations Committee), the forum was divided into four segments. The first gave all six candidates the opportunity to share their strategies for rebuilding El Paso’s economy. The second paired candidates up and asked them to respond to questions about infrastructure projects in El Paso. The third asked pairs of candidates to respond to questions focused around business development and retention. The final section asked candidates to reflect on what they would like their business legacy as Mayor of El Paso to be.

Below, we summarize their stances on the major business-related issues covered in the forum.

Veronica “Vero” Carbajal

On supporting economic recovery and our business community: Carbajal emphasized a need to reopen in “a way that is safe, in a way that is smart, in a way that adheres to medical guidelines” in order to avoid a repetitive cycle of opening and closing. Carbajal stressed that CARES Act funding should be used “immediately” and in “the most effective way.” She outlined a path towards recovery that includes educating small businesses on safety measures, enforcing violations, eliminating clusters, and providing PPE and other sanitation support to businesses. Carbajal also expressed concern over how the technological divide within El Paso impacts the accessibility of the CARES funding and proposed hiring back furloughed City employees to assist individuals with applications for CARES Act funds. Carbajal also advocated for supporting the workforce by providing free WiFi throughout the city and making more affordable childcare options available.

On the I-10 expansion project: Carbajal does not support the I-10 expansion project citing concerns over its environmental impact on historic and low-income neighborhoods. She added that this project encourages “car dependency as well as semi traffic” at a time when climate change should be at the forefront of political agendas. Referencing the proposed green deck that would be built over the I-10 trench, Carbajal pointed to the Chamizal neighborhood as an example of high levels of pollution existing in an area in spite of a large green space.

On emerging sectors: As Mayor of El Paso, Carbajal would focus her attention on home-grown businesses involved in the environment, technology, the arts, healthcare, solar, and heritage and ecotourism as opposed to the sports and entertainment industries, which Carbajal stated do not provide adequate wages. “This is where the future is at,” Carbajal said. “This is where we need to be moving towards.” To support these industries, Carbajal would develop incentives so that there is “shared risk” in the endeavors. She also expressed a need for student loan repayment programs in order to encourage El Pasoans to move home and innovate locally in these areas.

“As Mayor of El Paso, I want my legacy for business and the economy to be…”: “That we are growing in a way that is sustainable for the environment and the economy and socially. That we are thinking 20 years down the road…I want our business community, including our micro-enterprises, to have access to incentives, to have access to technology and assistance, and that they’re not paying the price for everything happening downtown. Most businesses are not downtown. Most businesses do not benefit from downtown expansion projects or incentives.”

Carlos Gallinar

On supporting economic recovery and our business community: Gallinar emphasized a need to to address COVID “first and foremost” but noted that, even before COVID, “the economy [in El Paso] wasn’t as good as it should have been.” Gallinar pointed to the ongoing outflow of people from El Paso, the statistic that 54% of El Pasoans are on the verge of poverty, and that wages are stagnant as evidence that El Paso’s economy as a whole must be reimagined. Gallinar then introduced his plan to pivot towards solar and renewable energy. “Let’s be the Sun City not just in name, but in practice,” Gallinar said. Gallinar also mentioned working with Dr. Ahsan Choudhuri, Director for the Center for Space Exploration Technology Research at UTEP, to encourage El Paso graduates to stay in El Paso. Gallinar also touched on a need to invest in ecotourism, complete the work started with the Medical Center of the Americas, increase trade capacity with Mexico, and continue work on downtown.

On the arena and downtown development: Gallinar does not support the arena. Despite having voted “enthusiastically” for the bond in 2012, Gallinar cited concerns over the project having been delayed and as a result having become too divisive and expensive to continue. “That ship has sailed,” Gallinar said. Looking ahead, Gallinar outlined a downtown strategy that includes more projects with first floor retail and upper floors with mixed-income housing. Gallinar also stated he is in support of I-10 downtown expansion only “if it includes the park.” Gallinar also conveyed his priority to connect downtown to a proposed hike and bike trail system that would ultimately connect all of El Paso’s neighborhoods to the Franklin Mountains.

On fostering the growth of small and medium enterprises: Gallinar once again reiterated the need to diversify El Paso’s economy by focusing on solar and renewable energy as well as high-tech manufacturing. Gallinar expressed a desire to bring Boeing back to create more engineering jobs for UTEP graduates. Gallinar also pointed to ecotourism as an essential component in El Paso’s future success because “small businesses and local economies are tied to the beautification of a city.” Overall, Gallinar indicated that big picture items would create supply chains across different sectors.

“As Mayor of El Paso, I want my legacy for business and the economy to be…”: “That my children, and that every child in El Paso, will stay in the greatest American city. I want my daughter Olivia and my son Joaquin to stay in El Paso…We have all the ingredients to be a great city. We have the culture, we have the people, we have the location, we have a history of being innovative…We need a mayor who will work with every single person in our community and restore trust back at City Hall, and I am up for the challenge.”

Oscar Leeser

On supporting economic recovery and our business community: Leeser indicated a need to “go out and talk to our small businesses…about how we can help them continue to open their doors” rather than going out and bringing in new companies. Leeser expressed concerns over bringing jobs in if jobs are still being lost locally. Noting that El Paso is “about 80% small businesses,” Leeser stressed keeping businesses open and keeping individuals employed.

On the I-10 expansion project: Asked about government stimulus and infrastructure projects including the I-10 expansion, Leeser noted that with the most recent government stimulus one of the “the biggest issues…is that no one really knew what to expect.” He added that he wants to make sure “business people and community leaders…have a seat at the table” to ensure that funds are properly distributed to those who need it. With regards to the I-10 expansion project, Leeser acknowledged the importance of I-10 both for El Paso and for other parts of the country that use it to transport goods. However, Leeser noted a need to explore all options with TxDOT before committing to one and suggested the railroad property as an option.

On fostering the growth of small and medium enterprises: Leeser referred to El Paso First, a policy he worked on as Mayor of El Paso, which gives extra points to local companies when bidding on City projects, allowing them to develop more competitive bids. He also highlighted his work on incentivizing the hiring of veterans during his term as Mayor.

“As Mayor of El Paso, I want my legacy for business and the economy to be…”: “I’m not looking for legacy and nobody should be looking for legacy. We should be looking at how we get our citizens back to work, and we get food back on the table…We need to stop talking about things we’re going to do in the future. The future starts today. It’s important that we have a Mayor that’s prepared to go to work today…We need to talk about our citizens that can’t pay rent, that can’t eat…It’s important that we don’t look for legacy, but we look for trust, and we look to make sure we take care of the people and put them back to work today.”

Mayor Dee Margo

On supporting economic recovery and our business community: In thinking about the current economic climate, Margo emphasized, “We’re not going to reopen our economy—we’re going to have to rebuild it after this pandemic.” Margo pointed to the absence of a tax rate increase and the disbursement CARES Act funding as two areas where he has worked to address community needs during COVID-19. More broadly, Margo pointed to his reinvestment in neglected areas as evidence of his commitment to rebuilding El Paso; for example, the redevelopment of the Cohen site and the Angora Loop. He also touched on his work bringing Amazon and TJ Maxx to El Paso and the jobs those two projects will create.

On the arena and downtown development: Margo does support the proposed arena, asserting a need to “complete the task we agreed to do.” Margo spoke about the importance of being able to attract conventions, particularly when the hotel infrastructure already exists to accommodate large influxes of visitors for those types of events. In addition to the economic revenue the arena would produce through events (which Margo noted would mostly be concerts, not sports), Margo also emphasized that there could revenue generated through naming rights.

On supporting the retention of business: Margo cited the importance of local partners like the El Paso Chamber, the City’s Economic Development department, and Borderplex Alliance in ensuring the development of business in El Paso. Margo also specifically stressed the importance of supply chain development and leveraging maquiladoras. He also noted that warehouse projects, like the recently announced Amazon and TJ Maxx ones, will create not just the promised jobs but also generate additional jobs related to the construction of the spaces. Margo also underscored the need to bring COVID-19 under control, citing the statistic that “over 50,000 jobs are tied to maquiladoras and supply chains” across the border and that the tax revenue generated by the border is critical for El Paso.

“As Mayor of El Paso, I want my legacy for business and the economy to be…”: “The last two years we’ve dealt with the immigration crisis, the August 3rd shooting, and now this pandemic…I will always utilize my experience and my relationships at all levels of government to ensure that El Paso has the resources needed to continue combating this pandemic or any other challenge we face as a community…Business is a driver, and our economic viability is predicated on the education of our workforce…I will do everything I can to promote El Paso—who we are, what we are, where we are.”

Dean “Dino” Martinez

On supporting economic recovery and our business community: Martinez likened El Paso to his hometown of Oakland, CA, which is also a port city, and said that El Paso should embrace its identity as a “superhighway” for goods. Martinez indicated this flow of goods could create many jobs and “bring the economy up.” Generally, Martinez also voiced a need for the citizens of El Paso to “support each other” and “keep the city to where it’s best.”

On what El Paso can do to improve economic outcomes tied to the port: Martinez reflected that El Paso has “always worked well with our sister city” and that there are many residents in Ciudad Juarez who are eager for work. Martinez suggested looking to the future and sharing infrastructure in order to better support El Paso’s international port.

On emerging sectors: Martinez expressed a need to “put our heads together with leaders of El Paso” but specifically noted healthcare as “vitally important.” Martinez suggested reaching out to businesses lost in the California wildfires and encouraging them to relocate to El Paso. He also conveyed that El Paso needs to “return to normal with extreme safety.”

“As Mayor of El Paso, I want my legacy for business and the economy to be…”: “My legacy would be to show big business you need to turn on and start listening…We need to work together as if it were WWII. COVID-19 is a war, and we need to turn around and bounce back. My legacy is to get warehouses, to get supplies, to get interstate working for us—to make things happen for El Paso, Texas.”

Calvin Zielsdorf

On supporting economic recovery and our business community: Reflecting on the state of El Paso’s economy, Zielsdorf suggested that El Paso should instead focus on rebuilding the City government and “how it works for the citizens of El Paso” as opposed to focusing on rebuilding the economy, mentioning concern over inefficiencies within City departments. He also highlighted the importance of supporting renewable energy, which he indicated could generate many jobs. Zielsdorf also proposed rethinking how infrastructure is built and looking for repaving options that aren’t “going to have to be repaved in another four years.”

On what El Paso can do to improve economic outcomes tied to the port: Zielsdorf stressed that foot traffic is critical for El Paso and that downtown improvement projects (like adding the lights along El Paso Street) have had a positive impact. He also suggested diverting trade from El Paso to the port in Santa Teresa, NM in order to reduce pollution and congestion downtown, adding that the downtown bridges should be reserved for pedestrians.

On supporting the retention of business: Zielsdorf expressed opposition to pressures to increase wages, instead proposing that the City government provide more opportunities to citizens directly. Zielsdorf conveyed a desire to eliminate the “middleman” and instead directly assist citizens that are struggling. “We need to inject money directly into the citizens through district projects that are designed and constructed by those that live within the districts,” Zielsdorf said while outlining his efforts to improve economic outcomes within the city. He added that these projects would also have requirements around renewable energy. Overall, he suggested these kinds of projects would help “put money in the people’s hands,” in turn encouraging them to stimulate the local economy.

“As Mayor of El Paso, I want my legacy for business and the economy to be…”: “That I helped boost small business the best way possible…We need to pump money back into our citizens by giving them district projects that they can do together…and be proud of it…That’s going to turn around and feed those small business because we cannot rely on small businesses, especially now during this pandemic.”

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To view the complete mayoral forum, visit our YouTube page.

For information on the 2020 election, visit El Paso County Votes.