Community

The Last Time Gentrification Was Stopped By The Viejitos – Medina’s Terrorists

Today, many in El Paso know and sometimes discuss the ongoing friction between public policy agendas for economic development and protecting neighborhoods. The narratives include Segundo Barrio, The Glass Beach Study, Duranguito and the controversy over the 2012 Quality of Life sports arena. The book Who Rules El Paso? argues that an oligarchy composed of Paul Foster and Woody Hunt makes public policy at the expense of Latino neighborhoods. But the book and most of the discussions over the threat on Latino neighborhoods, by the so-called oligarchy, ignores the time that the viejitos around the BHI , now the MCA footprint, rose to defend their homes against gentrification. In 2002, the viejitos around UMC organized themselves and successfully defended their homes against gentrification to make way for the BHI.

This is their story.

In 2001 Ray Caballero told city council that he wanted to create two TIF districts: TIF #2 and TIF #3. One TIF district (#3) was to encompass South Central El Paso around then-Thomason Hospital, now the University Medical Center of El Paso (UMC) to make way for the Border Health Institute (BHI). The other TIF (#2) was called the Downtown TIF and was intended to cover El Paso downtown and stretches up along the far west side of the city along Interstate 10.

TIF district #2 (downtown) was approved in December 2001, while #3 (BHI) was delayed for a week “for consultation with EPISD.”

A Tax Increment Finance (TIF) district generally allowed a municipality to leverage future increased tax revenues to revitalize a blighted community. However an important element for the BHI TIF was the power to take homes away from those living in the footprint and give the land to private investors to grow the economy in the area.

Although Texas law allowed taxing entities to opt-out of TIF districts there was one loophole. El Paso was an exception to the opt-out provision of the state law. This became important because other taxing entities, like the school districts, stood to lose the tax revenue benefits as property values increased in the BHI footprint. However, the important element of the Caballero TIFs was the power of eminent domain.

Under eminent domain, the government can take property for public good. For example, land used for Interstate 10 was acquired through eminent domain. Under a TIF, the power of eminent domain was expanded to include land for economic development. In other words, land could be taken and given to a private entity or individual to develop the economy in the city.

El Paso Independent School District (EPISD) was one of the most vocal opponents of the taxing entities. Dan Wever, then-EPISD board president, opposed Caballero’s proposed TIFs because it would impact the school district’s finances. For EPISD the 30-year tax loss under the downtown BHI was estimated at almost $14 million over 30-years, according to Wever.

Because of the controversy with EPISD, Caballero told the other taxing entities that he would allow them to “opt out.” The problem was that state law, as written for El Paso, did not allow opting out of the TIF. There is no exception to the provision and the mayor could not go above state law. Caballero told Wever on a talk radio program that he had a “fix” for Wever’s funding problem during the upcoming 2003 legislative session. The “fix” appeared to be Eliot Shapleigh’s push to fund Texas school districts via a state income tax. For the BHI to work, the issue of taxes needed to be reframed as a quality of life issue for El Paso. It wasn’t called quality of life then – it was framed as the “brain drain” that was keeping El Paso economically stagnant. To stop the exodus of educated El Pasoans there needed to be a reason to keep them from leaving. High paying jobs was the reason. One of the catalysts was a thriving medical campus offering high-paying jobs. Also, El Pasoans had been talking about a four-year medical school in El Paso, so Caballero wrapped that narrative over the BHI around the promised medical school.

BHI Footprint 2001-2003

BHI Board Meets To Discuss TIF Districts

On January 18, 2002, the BHI Board met to discuss the plans. The BHI board was made up of member institutions that included the El Paso County Medical Society, El Paso City/County Health, City of El Paso, Texas Department of Health, El Paso Community College, University of Texas at El Paso, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center at El Paso, R.E. Thomason General Hospital, now UMC, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Public Health, and the County of El Paso.

Caballero got directly to the point. He spoke about the plan to use a TIF district for the BHI. Caballero reminded the board that on October 31, 2001, the BHI board had approved for the City of El Paso to be the master land developer. To make it happen, Caballero told the board members that the city had the development tools available through a TIF district. Caballero told the BHI board that the TIF district would allow the city to take property, if necessary, and use it for private purposes. For example, Caballero told them, the city could take a piece of property and develop it for use by a private laboratory or a private hospital. Caballero stated that once the TIF was approved, it would take sixty days to get it done. He told them that there were two TIFs being developed at the same time. One was for the BHI and the other for downtown El Paso. Caballero told the board that notices were delivered to all taxing institutions on October 16, 2001. At the board meeting Caballero thanked Dr. McGee and Dr. de la Rosa for their support of the TIF. Caballero added that the TIF was approved on December 18, 2001. Indicating that now was the time to announce the BHI plans, Caballero told the board to approve making public the board’s plans for the BHI. Caballero made the motion approving the board make a public and media announcement. Dr. Magaña seconded the motion. It was approved by the BHI board.

Dr. de la Rosa, representing Texas Tech, told the board that the BHI was a board of multiple institutions, with each institution having a vested interest in the TIF. He stated that when he appeared before city council, he made it clear that Texas Tech has an interest in TIF District #3. He told the board that there was some confusion over the discussions of the TIF, but there was a sense of urgency to break ground before the next legislative session. The BHI needed to prove its viability to get the BHI money that was destined for UTEP and Texas Tech. It was not enough to have a conceptual drawing, but something solid in the ground that the board could show for the future of Texas Tech and the BHI. De la Rosa supported Caballero’s call to make a public announcement.

Dr. McGee asked Caballero what the message was that he wanted communicated in a press release. Caballero replied that it should state that each entity was going to benefit from the BHI. Each institution had individual plans for the BHI, and the board had a general plan. De la Rosa added that they should mention the board’s plan to submit an Empowerment Zone Grant application, as well as the Research Building at Texas Tech. Dr. McGee added that the plans for a four-year medical school were important.

The message was clear, each taxing entity was going to get what they wanted from the BHI. For the public, the BHI was framed around the promised four-year medical school that Texas Tech had been asking for, for years.

Without the TIF districts the four-year medical school could not happen was the message. The issues about the TIFs for the BHI had nothing to do with a 4-year medical school, although the debates were framed around El Paso getting a four-year medical school. Texas Tech Health Science Center had gone on the record saying that it was proceeding with a medical school with or without the TIF districts. The land for the medical school had already been allocated to Texas Tech.

In April 2002, city council approved a resolution supporting a 4-year medical school and a children’s hospital. The BHI was being reframed as the only vehicle to deliver the medical school and a children’s hospital that many in the community had worked for years to deliver. Although framed as a requirement, the BHI did not materialize but the four-year medical school and the children’s hospital followed without it.

“Everyone should come together behind the Medical School,” pleaded Ray Gilbert, a long-time community activist, at a council meeting discussing the TIFs. The concern was that focusing tax resources on a vague plan for a so-called “campus” independent of Texas Tech and UTEP threatened the medical school. Speaker after speaker made clear that their plans for expansion, research or facility construction would occur whether the city developed a “campus,” or not.

“If you want a children’s hospital or a medical school, we need to scrap the “campus” and support the individual entities (UTEP, Texas Tech, et al) pursuing them,” admonished Luis Sariñana. “The mayor is threatening our community’s efforts in winning the attention of state officials and convincing them that we need to take care of our children and families,” Sariñana added. “The mayor does not seem to care about the medical school or the children’s hospital but seems to care more about having his name on a building on the so-called BHI campus. We need the children’s hospital and the medical school not a bogus BHI campus.”

City of El Paso Moves To Take Control

Although difficult to opt-out, EPISD was the first to sign an agreement with the Caballero administration to opt-out. The agreement spelled out two important requirements, one, that EPISD agreed not to challenge the validity of the TIF and accepted that they would not have any representation on the TIF board. This effectively left the City of El Paso as the only authority to appoint members to the TIF board. (link 2)

Taking Property To Give To Private Developers

But the most controversial aspect of the TIF districts was the eminent domain provision. Under the TIF, private property could be taken by the city and given to a developer to build on it. Proponents of the TIF districts pointed out that no determination had been made on whether any property will ever be condemned or not.

Although Caballero was arguing that eminent domain was off the table, he told the El Paso Times on February 11, 2002, that “without the tax district, (TIF) the city could only condemn a piece of property for public use.” Caballero was making the point that without the TIF district, property could not be condemned and be given to a private entity. Caballero added that he would use the eminent domain power to encourage development in the BHI footprint. Patricia D. Audato, then representing the City of El Paso Planning Department, reiterated this position by stating in the minutes of the BHI meeting of April 19, 2002, that; “the TIF District provides the City of El Paso a unique opportunity. Under a TIF District, the city gains urban renewal authority. Once outside the TIF District, the city may acquire property, but it can only be used for a public purpose, and it cannot be re-sold. In a TIF District, the city may acquire properties to develop a site, or to turn around and re-sell it to another owner or potential developer.”

Eminent domain was the key to the success of the BHI.

During the first two weeks of May 2002, the issue of the TIFs intensified at city council. Caballero denied the residents of District #3 the opportunity to address council and express their concerns regarding the implementation of the TIFs. For two weeks, residents targeted by eminent domain had been protesting. During the second week, Caballero moved to limit discussion about the TIFs at city council. In response, targeted residents protested at city council the decision to censor their participation, complaining that they had been taking time off from work and that the issue affected their families and their property rights. Postponement of the agenda item was used to postpone the discussion at the last minute, leaving the residents without the ability to express themselves. John Cook made the motion to postpone the decision on the TIFs, keeping the public from addressing city council for a second week.

Anger in the community gave rise to a recall drive against Larry Medina.

Medina Recall – Signature Collection, May 2002 – Jaime O. Perez, center in straw hat with back to camera.

The Medina Recall

The recall of Larry Medina started to gain steam after the second week of limiting the public’s access to the city council microphone. Cook, defending Larry Medina, tried to convince the residents that their properties were under consideration to be bought by Pfizer pharmaceuticals. Cook later recanted the Pfizer purchase rumor, saying that “it was only a possibility.” Larry Medina called the residents in the targeted community “terrorists” as the effort to recall him became official. The motion to postpone the TIFs for another week passed on a six to two vote with Sariñana and Cobos defending the right of free speech.

Larry Medina labeled the viejitos recalling him as “terrorists,” this is their response.

Texas Tech University also had an open meeting to discuss the medical school lobbying efforts. Luis Sariñana and Anthony Cobos were present at that meeting. Dr. Manny De La Rosa made it clear that Texas Tech was “not in the land appropriation” business. An Eliot Shapleigh aide tried to get De La Rosa to endorse the BHI concept, but De La Rosa said that “the BHI board doesn’t have anything going.”

Several attempts were made to stop the TIF districts and their gentrification. These included a failed initiative petition and the start of a recall against Larry Medina.

The Medina “Terrorists”

On May 5, 2002, city council had two agenda items (22A and 22B) giving the mayor control over how the TIF money was to be spent and allowing other taxing entities to opt-out of the districts, although state law did not allow them to. The items were postponed for one week.

60 protestors at city council on May 7, 2002, credit: Martín Paredes

At the meeting there were 60 protesters wearing “Mr. Medina – I am not a terrorist,” t-shirts and carrying signs that their homes were not for sale.

The following day, on May 6, a recall of Larry Medina was launched.

On May 28, 2002, city council again had two ordinances on the agenda to repeal the TIF districts. Eliot Shapleigh weighed in on the TIF controversy with a mailer to his constituents praising Caballero for taking the lead on the BHI. Shapleigh also wrote a column in the El Paso Times.

Although the other taxing entities had been told they could opt-out, unexpectedly, city council deleted the amendments to the Tax Increment Finance Districts (TIFs) that would have released the El Paso Independent School District (EPISD), County of El Paso, Ysleta Independent School District (YISD), R.E. Thomason County Hospital District (now UMC) and the El Paso Community College (EPCC), forcing them back into the TIFs. The city representative-Dan Power asked for an eight-week postponement, but because of the lack of a second, his motion failed.

Meanwhile, Eliot Shapleigh was appealing for support of the TIFs on behalf of “the children”. Shapleigh conceded that there was no plan other than the Lewin Study (1998) for the BHI. The Lewin Study was not a feasibility study as it was a working paper for setting up the BHI.

On a six to two vote by city council, all taxing entities remained in the TIFs and residents’ homes were still under the threat of expropriation. To the shock of the other taxing entities, like EPISD, the only thing left on the table was the original ordinance with a fast-approaching statute of limitations locking them into the TIFs with or without their consent.

The residents, for their part, spoke out against the TIFs and vowed to continue with their recall efforts. Over 1,569 signatures had been collected with 641 having been validated on that date. The deadline to submit the petition to the city clerk was July 1st.

While the TIF districts was consuming city council, another important event was happening at the same time. Caballero was trying to declare a water emergency to give him full authority over the water politics of the city. (link 3) Authority over water would have allowed Caballero to make unilateral decisions on land development in El Paso and could have allowed him to force development in the BHI footprint to force UTEP and Texas Tech to buy into the BHI vision with the BHI money the state had allocated to them.

Among the defenders of the Caballero TIF districts included The Mexican American Bar Association (MABA) and the El Paso Green Party.

In June 2002, to deceive community residents in Larry Medina’s District #3, the Mexican American Bar Association (MABA) through Francisco “Paco” Dominguez and political operative Ruben Reyes of the Green Party began telling residents that they would defend them against the use of eminent domain allowed by the TIFs. They promised to safeguard the value of their homes. Both MABA and the Green Party endorsed Ray Caballero in the mayoral race. Both are on the record through letters to the editor in the El Paso Times and through public speeches at city hall in support of the TIFs.

At a meeting at the Lincoln Center, MABA members infiltrated the crowd of residents, sympathized with their plight and offered their business card. They attempted to persuade the residents that they would defend their interests against condemnation, while not telling them they supported Caballero’s agenda. It was a local resident who recognized Paco Dominguez as a strong Caballero and TIF supporter and exposed the whole charade. The reaction was swift and angry when the duplicity with which they were operating was uncovered. Instead of defending himself, Dominguez launched into a personal attack against Theresa Caballero, who was helping the residents and Jaime O. Perez one of the leaders of the recall against Medina.

Lincoln Center Meeting – note the police presence, Caballero speaking

The meeting threatened to deteriorate and the police presence intensified. When three policemen moved menacingly toward a resident, who was complaining about the threat of losing her home, a young, angry soldier moved towards the officers and told them that if they moved any closer, they would have him to contend with. The police withdrew from the scene and no violence ensued. The police presence in meetings about the TIFs increased with residents complaining about them intimidating them.

The purpose of the Lincoln meeting was ostensibly to explain the TIFs to the residents. Then-county attorney Jose Rodriguez explained the TIFs to the residents. Caballero delivered a speech and then left Larry Medina to contend with the angry residents.

Medina pointed to a map of the moratorium area and explained there was no moratorium. When a resident asked perplexed, “if there is no moratorium, why are we looking at a moratorium map?” Medina had no answer. City council had enacted a moratorium against further building or house construction and maintenance in the targeted BHI footprint. Caballero was trying to depress the neighborhood making it easier to invoke the “blighted” designation on it.

Although Jose Rodriguez publicly supported the TIF districts his presentation at the Lincoln Center was described by many as half-hearted, at best. But he was solidly behind the BHI. In a February 4, 2002, commissioner’s court meeting where the TIF districts were being discussed, Jose Rodriguez was providing legal advice to the commissioners about them. Rodriguez admitted publicly that he supported the TIFs, adding that he had given speeches and otherwise actively promoted the creation of the BHI which TIF #3 would help fund. Rodriguez was not as public about the BHI as Shapleigh, but he supported the BHI. At the commissioners meeting was also Lee Shapleigh, the county attorney’s liaison to the commissioner’s court. At the time she was married to Eliot Shapleigh. They later divorced and Shapleigh married another Caballero assistant, Joyce Feinberg in 2009. Among opponents of the TIF districts, Ray Caballero, Jose Rodriguez and Eliot Shapleigh were informally referred to as the “Three Amigos”.

Meanwhile, also in June 2002, Medina was circulating a counter petition titled, “Mayor Pro Tem Larry Medina and the United Medical Campus”. The Medina petition’s language stated that “if my signature and/or name appears in any recall petition, it is my wish to remove my name from that recall petition.” The Medina petition also included key language like, “unified medical campus, border health institute, a 4-year medical school, a children’s hospital and related facilities.”

Larry Medina was trying to confuse the elderly and scared Latino residents into signing a “petition” that invalidated their signature on the recall petition against him. Medina was also reframing the narrative away from the BHI towards more palatable issues like a children’s hospital.

The El Paso Times Enters The Fray

By late June 2002, the TIF districts had turned into a public spectacle with elderly residents wearing “Mr. Medina – I am not a terrorist” t-shirts packing city council meetings, the recall against Medina gaining traction and public discussions about policy and threatened homes dominating talk radio and the news cycles.

On June 25, 2002, on its website, the El Paso Times published an article by Daniel Borunda alleging that that Medina recall petition organizers led by Jaime O. Perez had violated state law on corporate political donations in their effort. The electronic article was followed the next day in their print edition. The Times’ article alleged that corporate donations were illegally used to help the recall organizers. The so-called illegal corporate donations was an old-thermal fax machine and its telephone number. Although the El Paso Police Department’s “public integrity unit” investigated several individuals, including the author, no criminal charges were filed.

An editorial by Charlie Edgren set the tone that the El Paso Times was going to take on the issue.

With an impassioned defense of Caballero and Medina, Edgren, attacked the residents of the BHI footprint for undermining the “valiant efforts by the mayor to drag El Paso, kicking and screaming, into the 20th century.” The recall effort being waged by the mostly Latino elderly residents against Medina “own none of the dignity of the democratic process,” wrote Edgren. He added that the movement to defend their homes against gentrification was a “bizarre aberration adapted by people intent on self-aggrandizement and with the greater good of El Paso far from their minds.”

It should be noted that Edgren, an Anglo, was attacking Latinos in his editorial. The residents and the recall organizers were almost all Latino.

The effort by the residents was described by Edgren as “wannabe politicos enraptured by the sounds of their own voices.” He added that the Medina recall provided them with “rickety forum…if they could pull off their blinders for just a few moments and see what they’re really doing, possibly it would give them pause, though that is likely wishful thinking.”

Edgren’s editorial described the elderly residents as “an embarrassment that this city can ill afford as it seeks to impress Austin and the Legislature that it’s mature and progressive enough to warrant the establishment of a four-year medical school and a border-health complex.”

Regarding the Medina recall, Edgren added that he did not “deserve being brutalized by the political antics of a few people who could be termed Machiavellian except that that term elevates their tactics and purposes to too-respectable a level.” Edgren closed by writing that the recall was succeeding in nothing more than making El Paso look foolish to the rest of Texas, he argued.

It should be noted that on February 19, 2013, Larry Medina was sentenced to one year and four months in prison after he plead guilty to public corruption charges.

The Charlie Edgren editorial left many of the residents wondering why Edgren was defending Medina’s efforts to oust them from their home. “Doesn’t Edgren know Mr. Medina’s record and reputation,” asked A. Castillo, one of the residents. “I wish Mr. Edgren would visit our neighborhoods and see that we are very humble people with a great deal of pride in our homes. Yes, they are very modest, but they represent a lifetime’s investment,” another resident told us. Yet another one chimed in, “our property is not just a piece of land. It is a home. It is the place where our children were raised and where we will spend the remaining days of our life. I think Mr. Edgren lacks compassion.”

Vivian Rojas’ reaction to the attack by Charlie Edgren was angrier, “How dare Charlie Edgren accuse us of being an embarrassment to Austin. Who does he think he is? We are fighting for our property rights. If he doesn’t like it, let him donate his home to Caballero and Medina and leave us alone.” Rojas’ mother lived in the footprint of the BHI. It was the threat on her mother’s home that propelled Rojas to run for office in the next elections. She won her seat.

The Recall Fails

In July 2002, the organizers behind the recall of Larry Medina submitted their petition to the city clerk. The city clerk declared the recall petition signatures as “insufficient” because they lacked a notary seal on each signature. The recall organizers resubmitted the petition with the notary seals, after a notary notarized each page of the original signatures that were deemed “insufficient” by the city clerk.

In the end, the recall against Larry Medina failed after several attempts were made to force the city to accept the signatures.

Move To Repeal The TIFs

When Ray Caballero lost his reelection campaign to Joe Wardy on May 3, 2003, 35.91% to 58.35%, the move to repeal the TIF districts began. Then representatives Anthony Cobos, Luis Sariñana and Dan Power put a council agenda item calling for repealing the TIFs on May 13, 2003. Although Caballero had lost his reelection campaign his term had not ended. The three representatives were opposed by Jan Sumrall, Paul Escobar, Rose Rodriguez, John Cook and Larry Medina who was still running in a run-off election.

The two items were 3A and 3B. Both called for the repeal of the TIF districts put in place by the Caballero administration. The proposed ordinances: “Discussion and Action to repeal and totally eliminate TIF District number 2 (3) to include the dissolving of the TIF Board that has cognizance and control over TIF District number 2 (3) and make null and void all past and present council action that is in effect associated with TIF Number 2 (3) to include moratoriums, agreements, and commitments to persons and organizations. Additionally, discussion and action to cease with finality the collection of any and all monies connected with TIF District Number 2 (3) and return this same money to its place and/or owner of origin.”

The two agenda items were the required two-week notices before city council could act. Then representative John Cook first tried to delete the two items through the consent agenda. Cobos moved the deletion item out of the consent agenda forcing the city representatives to publicly vote on the deletion item individually. Larry Medina then made a motion to postpone the two times until June 10, the date that the incoming Wardy administration was to take over. Medina seconded Cook’s motion. The postponement motion carried 6 to 2 with Cobos and Power voting against postponing the items.

Readers should note that the two items would not have canceled the TIF districts, they were just making the regulatory notification to the community that in two weeks the items would be discussed and voted on.

Cook justified his action after the council meeting by telling the Anti-TIF coalition members that then-Texas senator Eliot Shapleigh had called to tell him “no action should be taken during the current” Texas legislative session. Interestingly, El Paso’s Democrats were part of the 50 Democrats that brought the Texas legislature to standstill by breaking quorum during this time.

The TIFs Are Finally Put To Rest

On June 10, 2003, during the first city council meeting of the Wardy administration, the two ordinances to repeal the TIF districts were introduced. On July 1, 2003, during the city council meeting, the fate of the TIF districts came up for a vote in items 23E and 23F. When the votes were tallied, only Paul Escobar voted to keep the TIF districts. Between 50 and 60 residents in the targeted area were present to witness the vote. Seven speakers spoke on the two council agenda items with only one, Lisa Turner, speaking in support of keeping the TIF districts.

It was John Cook who made the motion to approve the two motions to repeal the TIF districts. Cook had previously derailed the two measures by blocking their two-week notices during the lame-duck session of the Caballero administration. As for Larry Medina, he lost his seat to Alexandro Lozano ibn the run-off election that same month.

Editor’s note:
Martín Paredes extensively covered city politics from 2001 through mid-2005 for the online publications: El Paso Metro and the El Paso Tribune. Unless specifically noted, the information presented in this article comes from contemporaneous notes taken by the author at the time of the events depicted here.

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2 replies »

  1. I recall this matter. Very unpopular with the public in south central El Paso especially the eminent domain provision. Lesson one and lesson 1001 : don’t do Anything South of the freeway or it will blow up in your face. Only reason the ballpark went through is that the City owned the land.

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