Members of El Paso's gay community have formed a new political action committee to help the mayor and two city representatives stay in office.
Council members Steve Ortega and Susie Byrd and Mayor John Cook are facing a recall election initiated by another PAC, El Paso For Traditional Family Values, after the elected officials did not implement a voter-approved ordinance meant to take away the health insurance of gay and unwed partners of city employees.
The representatives said they voted not to implement the ordinance, which was written and put on the ballot by El Paso For Traditional Family Values, because it was so vaguely written, city attorneys said it would also take away the health insurance of about another unintended 100 city employees.
El Pasoans For Equality chair Tony Ramos said the idea to form a PAC came after he and a few friends talked about how quiet and uninvolved the gay community had been over the past two years when the issue of domestic partner benefits turned recall effort had developed in the city.
"I think that El Paso is a very gracious city, a very gracious community and it has allowed us to go about our lives pretty much happily, which has bred some sort of complacency on our parts. And now when we are under full attack by those who would like to see our rights taken back, it is very important for us to show our face, to show that we are very much a part of this community, because we do not want to go back, after all the gains that we have made, in our fight for equality." Ramos said in an interview on Wednesday.
Recall organizers, who are part of the same PAC that wrote the original ordinance to take away the health insurance of domestic partners, now claim their efforts are no longer about gay or unwed relationships. "The gay rights and the medical expenses become secondary. First, we protect our constitution.," said Ignacio Padilla, a recall organizer.
Ramos said Cook, Byrd and Ortega did what was necessary to keep unintended people from losing their health coverage. "I can understand the frustration of somebody who voted not feeling like their vote was counted, but as has been pointed out several times, had they known the full effect of their vote, had they known that hundreds of people were going to lose their benefits that were not intended to in the original ordinance, I think they would understand that what happpened was an action of checks and balances," he said.
The formation and announcement of the new PAC comes as Cook is fighting to stop the recall process in court. He plans to appeal County Court No. 3 Judge Javier Alvarez's decision not to grant the mayor's request to freeze the recall process as the courts decide if the recall petitioners broke the law.
Cook said petitioners broke the state election code by gathering signatures at churches and other corporations. Recall organizers argue that law is unconstitutional and limits their right to free speech. "It wasn't that I was afraid of facing a recall election, because I'm confident that I'll be successful in that, but it was more about the fact that they thought they were above the law because they were a church," Cook said Wednesday.
Padilla takes issue with Cook's allegations. "He continues to try and lie to the community that we did things wrong. We didn't do anything wrong. We're very proud of what we did," he said.
Cook said he owes nearly $200,000 in legal fees stemming from the effort to halt the recall process. "I can use help from anybody. The legal fees are just eating me alive right now." Ramos said the new PAC already has several fundraisers in the works to help the mayor pay his legal fees.
Ramos said the PAC will reach out to the gay community through voter registration drives, block-walking and teaming up with business establishments where gay patrons congregate, including gay bars.
"We cannot let one faction of this city set us back. History is going to be on the side of those who fight for equality, so regardless of what happens to Susie, the mayor or Steve, history is going to speak well of them because they are the ones who are really in the forefront of equality," said Ramos.
Padilla doesn't agree. "Until the state of Texas approves same-sex marriages as a legal marriage, I'm sorry, they don't have benefits. We can't turn into a super gay community. What about the other people who are paying their taxes. We will fight to the end to defend our constitutional rights and our right to vote and that our vote be respected," he said.