Cowed by a US congressman and Texas state legislators who warned of funding cut-offs, the El Paso City Council has reversed last week's unanimous vote to call for a national debate on drug legalization as part of a resolution supporting its sister city, Ciudad Juárez, which has been plagued by prohibition-related violence. A motion to override Mayor John Cook's veto of that resolution last week failed Tuesday, with the council voting 4-4. Six votes were needed to override the veto.
And stepped into a firestorm as the vote drew national attention. O'Rourke appeared on CNN's Lou Dobbs program, only to be pilloried by the pseudo-populist demagogue. Mayor Cook, meanwhile, was mobilizing support for his veto, and denigrating anyone who supported the resolution as "pot heads."
The resolution also came under fire from Congressman Silvestre Reyes (D), who represents the city in Washington. In a Tuesday letter to the council, Reyes warned that the city could lose federal funding if it passed the resolution.
"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," wrote the former Border Patrol supervisor. "As our nation faces one of the worst economic crises since the Great Depression, Congress is currently drafting an economic stimulus package in which El Paso stands to benefit. This is where our focus must be at this critical time, and it is important that our message reflect priorities that will provide real gains for the community."
The city's state legislative delegation also spoke out against the resolution. In a Monday letter to the council, the five state House members who represent El Paso in Austin issued the same sort of extortionate warning that Reyes did a day later.
"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," the letter read. "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 revenues are scarce. We understand your stated goal is to bring attention to the problems that illegal drugs cause in our community and society. However, the position to ask the federal government to legalize narcotics does not bring the right attention to El Paso. It says 'we give up and we don't care.'"
The message from Reyes and the state legislators was clear: Shut up about even thinking about debating drug legalization or it will cost you. On Tuesday, the El Paso city council showed it could not stand up to that sort of political hardball, but it was quite a session. (Thanks to El Paso's NewspaperTree web site for all quotes below.)
While the council members were careful to be diplomatic toward each other and the mayor, it was clear that some of them mightily resented being blackmailed. "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."
"I want to commend Rep. O'Rourke for being so courageous," said city Rep. Rachel Quintana. "That is the only word that I can think of because the ridicule that you have faced." Quintana said that while her constituents appeared split on the matter, the letters from Reyes and the state delegation "absolutely pushed me over."
"If we had voted yesterday, I would have voted in favor of it," said Rep. Emma Acosta, who also cited the threatening letters as her reason for changing her vote.
Rep. Holguin said the threatened price was too high. "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. But he congratulated O'Rourke for getting national attention and getting 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, who voted to override the veto, was angered by the heavy-handed interventions and said the resolution was necessary. "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 to the intervention of Reyes and the state legislators, Ortega issued a challenge: "I also want to ask our state legislators and our US congressman to openly name anybody who is threatening the city of El Paso with withholding funding for having dialogue," Ortega said. "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."
"I think it's unfortunate how this came about, but that's life and that's politics," said Rep. O'Rourke. "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 effect, 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."
O'Rourke reminded the council that the city is suing the federal government over its proposed 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."
As the council prepared to vote, O'Rourke concluded his remarks. "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."
This time it wasn't. But the forces of suppression and intolerance have shown their true colors, and national attention has been drawn to the issue despite them.