Lyda Ness-Garcia’s ‘October Surprise’

Anderson doesn't believe you, Lyda.

Anderson doesn’t believe you, Lyda.

District 77 hopeful Lyda Ness-Garcia, the only one running against incumbent state Rep. Marissa Márquez, says she was physically attacked outside her home by assailants who “made clear that their motives were political.”

If indeed she was attacked, that’s horrible. Regardless of your political persuasion, no one should fear for their safety because of the beliefs they harbor or are running on.

But to claim this was a politically motivated attack this close to next week’s election smacks of an “October Surprise” — except in February. Ness-Garcia’s statement coyly omits what the alleged attackers said that made her believe the alleged attack was political. So the attackers could have been spouting communist, North Korean isolationist or Texas secessionist political slogans for all we know. But the subtext is clear: Ness-Garcia is putting the blame on Márquez.

Again, I’m in no way condoning violence and I sympathize with the victims of violence of any kind. But this latest episode seems to display a pattern of Ness-Garcia playing the victim, no? In a brilliantly scheduled TV ad shown time and time again during the Olympics (where I’ve been hiding, by the way), Ness-Garcia claimed Márquez was a closet Republican, displaying a photo of her with Rick Perry to punctuate her point. Trouble is the photo was taken during the House’s recognition of Márquez’s grandfather, a decorated World War II soldier who died before he could receive his awards; the photo shown in the TV spot conveniently cropped out the rest of Márquez’s family. But Ness-Garcia defended that as a legitimate representation of Márquez’s secret Republican leanings (nevermind Marquez’s record as being more liberal than all but 24 of her House colleagues) and blamed the media for focusing on the photo distraction instead of the real issues in the race.

When Marquez struck back, pointing out in her own TV ad both her legislative successes and Ness-Garcia’s financial troubles, Ness-Garcia again played the victim — how dare Márquez bring up her not-even-a-year-old bankruptcy in a “pitiful personal attack“? Ness-Garcia blamed her money troubles on cancer and the breakup of her marriage, which left her swimming in debt and cursing the name of her ex (except his last name, apparently, which Ness-Garcia continues to use). Yet the majority of her debts are IRS tax liens and school loans, which don’t generate as much sympathy, I guess.

This all carries the scent of desperation on Ness-Garcia’s part. I don’t have access to polls or anything like that, but it seems to me that Marquez has a cake walk here. Despite Ness-Garcia throwing anything against the wall to see what sticks, nothing is sticking. But to even vaguely allege that a sitting state legislator had something to do with a physical attack against you without offering any proof is ridiculous, libelous and, dare I say, cray cray.

Lyda, if you’re reading this, tell us what makes you think the attackers were motivated by politics. Release the police reports yourself. Otherwise, follow your own advice and ignore this distraction to focus on the real issues of the race. Which are what exactly? I forget. All I remember from the Olympics was that Márquez was once photographed standing next to the governor. Shocking.

In Brief: King-sized edition

On this 79th birthday of The King, here’s some items that didn’t quite make the cut for a whole post:

barney-confetti“Can’t Help Falling in Love” with our crime stats: For the fourth straight year, El Paso was named the safest large city in America by CQ Press. Ahead of New York, Austin and San Diego, our fair city had the lowest violent crime rate among cities with more than 500,000 residents. (Not to be a wet blanket, but EP is #148 among all cities in the U.S. Still, yay us.) Why the Times had to lump reporting on that worthy accolade along with more frivolous (and suspiciously calculated) labels, like “Least Hipster City” and “Worst Dressed City,” I don’t know. So, here’s a more serious pithy quote from police chief Greg Allen: “The fact El Paso has been able to maintain its status as the lowest crime ranking city is truly amazing and is a measurable result of the great cooperation between the residents of El Paso and their police department.” (Personally, I think it’s because of the naturally occurring lithium in our water.)

Crosses erected in Ciudad Juárez near where the bodies of eight women were found in 1996. (Photo: Wikicommons)

Crosses erected in Ciudad Juárez near where the bodies of eight women were found in 1996. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Border researcher has a “Suspicious Mind”: The tale of Juárez’s feminicidio plague has been told so often and for so long, it’s become a sad, yet indelible part of the fabric of our international history: Since 1993, more than 300 women have been murdered in our sister city, a statistic that has garnered international attention, prompted a Tori Amos song, and influenced the plot of The Bridge. But, what if that narrative is actually a sensationalistic myth? In a Texas Observer interview, Molly Malloy, the NMSU border researcher who created and maintains the venerable Frontera List, alleges the statistics show women aren’t being disproportionately targeted in Juárez. Rather, the disproportionate focus on femicides is obscuring the larger societal dysfunction all Juarenses are facing, she says. Pithy quote: “It’s almost like we’re fetishizing these dead women. … If you’re constantly focusing on women as if they’re this symbol for suffering, you never move beyond that particular death to look at the social conditions that gave that kind of life, and that kind of death, for so, so many people.”

disappointed

This UTEP fan is not hopeful for the coming season.

Suspensions leave Miners “All Shook Up” or Miners’ “Good Luck Charm” at sportsbook doesn’t pan out: Meanwhile, the worst-kept secret this week was the real reason UTEP basketball players were suspended last month: They bet on sports, which is a mortal sin as far as the NCAA is concerned. Justifiably freaked out that this could be the tip of the iceberg of a point shaving scandal the sports world hasn’t seen since Arizona State in the 90s (players served time in jail), UTEP called the FBI, kicked out three upperclassmen players, and wondered out loud how to field a team this year. As luck would have it (perhaps a bad choice of words considering we’re talking about a gambling scandal here), there’s no evidence the players bet on college games or were involved in point shaving; they probably just wandered innocently into the sportsbook next door to the glorified ballroom where they were playing in the Bahamas after Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, salvaging the season became possible thanks to UTEP’s football coach, who remembered he had two players — brothers — who were on the Times’ all-city squads last year in both football and basketball. The hopes of the season, already marred by the unceremonious departure of the team’s top recruit, now rest on the Jones boys and the rest of the shell-shocked squad, which begins conference play tonight. May the odds be ever in your favor, kids.

tumblr_lyxy1fx63w1qaclw9Stories describe payday lender as toll lanes’ “Devil in Disguise”: Johnny-come-lately Newspaper Tree finally showed up to the payday lending party today with a report that ACE Cash Express became the North Texas Tollway Authority’s partner for in-person transactions via a no-bid contract. (The payday lender is the El Paso partner for the new Border Highway toll lanes by default, since the employee-less Camino Real Regional Mobility Authority contracted its tolling operations to NTTA.) But the Tree quickly loses the plot with a long digression about one NTTA board member who may or may not be a director of ACE Cash Express, but it doesn’t matter anyway because NTTA’s contract is non-exclusive with the firm. It really really doesn’t matter locally because the CRMMA, as promised, will be discussing getting rid of ACE Cash Express or adding other in-person vendors at their next meeting on Jan. 22, regardless of whom the NTTA partners with. (An aside: The new Tree is beginning to seem like the antithesis of Martín Paredes’ blog: Martín regularly has War and Peace-length posts alleging wild conspiracies, but never “shows his math” to prove anything; whereas the Tree regularly posts equally long tomes full of the gory details of their FOIA requests, but rarely shows a newsworthy reason why they went through the trouble. Edit, amigos.)

banner_diversityGame warden reports recommend “A Little Less Conversation,” more action on diversity: The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Game Warden division has a diversity problem. (Pithy quote: “Who becomes a Texas game warden is decided at conception. The color of one’s skin can mean 30 years of going nowhere,” said one agency veteran.) Of the more than 500 game wardens across the state, three-quarters are white men — only 40 are women, 65 are Hispanic men, 13 are black. Prompted by two reports last year that recommended reforms, the department will be among the first state agencies to hire a diversity officer, which I think is a step in the right direction. (El Paso does have game wardens, by the way. A plane carrying three looking for deer and sheep poachers crashed into the Franklins in 2010, but no one was seriously hurt.)

elvis-thanks.gif.pagespeed.ce.3WZDYTEyghEPISD board gives principal a “Blue Christmas”: The EPISD board of managers gave Dr. John Tanner, erstwhile principal of Austin High School, his termination notice right before Christmas last month, and he had 15 days to appeal. But I haven’t heard anything whether he did or not. He was finally let go after he was fingered as one of several administrators who participated in the scheme to game federal accountability standards by “disappearing” students or manipulating credits, then was placed on leave, then was brought back by the old school board, then was put on leave again by the new board of managers. (Panthers are cats and have nine lives, after all.)

Fingers crossed we see some social justice at city council tomorrow

fingers-crossedCity Council will tomorrow, hopefully, finally enact the payday lender ordinance that was originally passed a year ago, but put on hold in July. Designed to protect the most financially vulnerable — who, without credit to their name, must resort to payday lenders for short-term loans that frequently become long-term vortices of debt — the ordinance will cap interest rates and the number of times a loan can be rolled over. Payday lenders will also have to have to register with the city.

The ordinance is virtually identical to ones previously enacted by Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio because they felt the state’s laws didn’t go far enough to protect consumers. Indeed, payday lenders, who typically charge fees that add up to upwards of 500% in yearly interest, have found a loophole in Texas Constitution (which caps loans at 10% in yearly interest) by classifying themselves as “credit service organizations” that purportedly help improve consumers’ credit. What typically happens instead is that consumers are ruined by these loans as they get trapped in a cycle of high-interest debt.

Because such usury is forbidden by the Bible, Texas’ Catholic bishops, Baptist ministers, and other faith-based groups have pushed for socially just payday lending reform, but have received no such succor from the Legislature. In fact, in some Texas counties, payday lenders have enlisted justices of the peace and district attorneys as pseudo-collection agents, who threaten debtors with arrest and jail time to work off what they owe. (The practice is verboten, the state agency in charge of regulating payday lenders advised in October. But we already know about the fox-in-the-henhouse who is in charge of that agency.)

The state’s inaction is why cities like El Paso must resort to regulating payday lenders themselves, despite charges it’s not city business or lawsuits from payday lenders. Here, Carl Starr filed a lawsuit against the city (which he later dismissed because the ordinance was put on hold) arguing the city overstepped its authority. But Texas cities that have enacted payday lending ordinances appear to be winning in the courts, though several suits are still pending.

El Paso’s city attorney told the Times she does not foresee the ordinance being repealed tomorrow. However, it should be noted that Eddie Holguin and Carl Robinson voted against it last January. And that’s what’s hard to understand, since I don’t get how voting against an ordinance intended to help protect the poor from usurious lenders jibes with the “social justice values” Holguin says he was raised on (Robinson, too, I would imagine). So I’ll be interested to see if Holguin’s vote tomorrow in particular matches with his stated faith and candidate platform, or if he’ll instead use the threat of lawsuits against the city as an excuse to put taxpayers last and abandon the poorest of his constituents.

UPDATE: Despite comments that indicated he thought it wasn’t the city’s job to regulate borrowers’ financial choices, Holguin did vote for the ordinance at this morning’s meeting, which passed 6-1; Robinson did not attend. In fact, the only no vote came from Larry Romero who, though he rarely speaks at meetings, commented that the ordinance was the beginning of some sort of slippery slope where the city will start limiting everything including citizen’s alcohol intake: “Is the city going to step in for all the social ills?” Only when the state doesn’t and there’s a clear public interest to do so, Larry. That’s the role of municipal government in Texas and is why the City of El Paso was incorporated in the first place.

For whom the toll smells (plus a detour regarding payday lenders)

The new toll lanes on Border Highway will open next week, and the Times is predicting confusion. If you use the new lanes, it’ll cost between 40¢ and 90¢ to travel if you have a toll tag on your windshield; twice that if you don’t — you’ll get a bill in the mail.

To get the tags, you can pay online, by mail or by phone. But the only place to pick up a tag or pay in person is at a payday lender — which “may be one of the the least-defensible ideas ever,” the Times quips. No kidding.

A quick detour: On payday lenders

stoge.gif.pagespeed.ce.kn362MrMzyWhile the topic of payday lending is a whole ‘nother post, it’s enough to say that Marty Schladen at the Times is doing great work shining light on the fox-in-the-henhouse that is William “Bill” White, corporate vice president of a payday lender Cash America, which was recently hit with $19 million in federal fines for exploiting poor people and service members with interest rates above 500% APR. By the way, White is also the governor-appointed chairman of the state commission in charge of regulating said payday lenders. (No conflict of interest at all, right?)

Since the state isn’t doing anything to protect the poor from being shafted by White’s company and other payday lenders, cities have had to take up the charge instead. El Paso’s city council voted to enact such an ordinance last January; but in the summer, they put it on hold for six months. (More on that next week when they take it up again.) Houston also approved restrictions on payday lenders two weeks ago.

Why is the Camino Real Regional Mobility Authority — our local tolling entity — using a payday lender to handle in-person business? Because they have no staff to run a toll road right now. So they’re contracting with the North Texas Tollway Authority to handle all transactions (including online, by phone and by mail), and the NTTA has an established relationship with the payday lender chain. But you can tell CRRMA chair Scott McLaughlin is uneasy about that, so he told the Times they’re looking into adding other businesses. I hope that happens soon.

If you build it, will they come? Not likely

Fiddy's response to whether he'll use the new toll lanes

Fiddy’s response to whether he’ll use the new toll lanes, which cost 40 cents more than he does

Back to the toll lanes. While the Times is predicting driver confusion, I’m predicting driver aversion. Except for when they were building the toll lanes and traffic was reduced to one lane in either direction, Border Highway is just not that crowded. (See for yourself: Go to Google Maps and drag the time slider to see the typical traffic on area roads at those times. Note that, except for a couple of short yellow segments in the mornings, Border Highway is green all day — a far cry from the yellow and red mess that is I-10 in the morning and evening rush hours.)

These traffic count maps from 2011 — before they started the Border Highway construction — give the hard numbers: an average of 40,500 vehicles per day use Border Highway between the Patriot Freeway and the Zaragoza Bridge versus an average of 187,900 vehicles per day on the parallel section of I-10 between the Patriot Freeway and Loop 375 on the Eastside. That’s four-and-a-half times as many drivers on I-10. (Fun fact: The busiest road in El Paso is I-10 in front of Cielo Vista Mall with an average of 248,000 vehicles per day. I-10 by Sunland Park Mall? A little more than half that.)

Since drivers won’t have any real incentive to pay to zip past nonexistent traffic jams on Border Highway, I’m betting the toll lanes will sit largely unused. Then what? Joe Pickett told El Paso Inc. in July that, if the toll lanes don’t pay for themselves in 15 years, they’ll be converted into free lanes. “It’s the first [road] of its kind in Texas,” Pickett said.

What kind of toll revenue would it take then? The CRRMA estimates the cost of the Border Highway project at $79 million. Spread that out over 15 years and 365 days a year, and then factor in the most expensive 90¢ toll per trip, and the rough, back-of-the-napkin estimate is you’d need 16,000 cars per day to use the new toll lanes to break even. Based on the average use of the road currently, you’d need 2 out of every 5 cars traveling on Border Highway to use the toll lanes starting next week. Good luck with that.

A speed limit sign on the new State Highway 130 near Austin. (Photo by Bob Daemmrich/Texas Tribune)

A speed limit sign on the new State Highway 130 near Austin. Note the lonely car. (Photo by Bob Daemmrich/Texas Tribune)

Compare the Border Highway project with the underwhelming usage that is already plaguing the new toll road way east of Austin, and you’ll see why toll roads aren’t the panacea they were once thought to be. State Highway 130 is a 91-mile bypass from Georgetown to Seguin that nobody is driving on because it’s too out-of-the-way, despite an 85 mph speed limit and lots and lots of TxDOT signs encouraging people to use it (they even rebadged parts of I-10 as SH 130). As toll revenues are way below estimates, the bonds used to fund the project have been downgraded twice, now to junk status, and the whole project is in danger of default. Things are so bad that El Pasoan Ted Houghton, the chair of the Texas Transportation Commission, floated the idea of swapping the toll from the beleaguered SH 130 to notoriously clogged I-35, which goes through the heart of Austin. Too bad it’s not exactly legal. (Fun fact: SH 130 was the original designation of the road from El Paso to the Guadalupe Mountains in the late 1920s.)

Learn to love ’em

But back here, El Pasoans should probably get used to tolls; they are the way of the future. In the next three decades, according to the latest MPO transportation plan, six projects will add dozens of toll lanes all over town:

Length
Project
Est. cost
Year of Expenditure
6.4 mi. I-10 Express Lanes: from Transmountain Rd. to the New Mexico state line in Anthony $128M 2031
4.8 mi. I-10 Express Lanes: from Mesa St. to Transmountain Rd. $115M 2023
2.0 mi. I-10 Express Lanes: from Sunland Park Dr. to Mesa St. $70M 2023
7.0 mi. Border Highway West: from Santa Fe St. Downtown to Racetrack Rd. near Sunland Park Mall $800M 2015
5.7 mi. Loop 375 Express Lanes: from the Zaragoza Bridge to Pellicano Dr. $53M 2015
21.0 mi. Northeast Parkway: from Loop 375 near Railroad Dr. to I-10 near Vinton via N.M. Highway 404 $399M 2023/
2031

In other words, the Border Highway toll lanes are just the beginning. It won’t be long until there’s a toll network all the way around El Paso, and elevated toll express lanes atop I-10 on the Eastside have to be on someone’s long-term planning board, too. So you’d better just go ahead and get your toll tag. You just won’t have a reason to use it any time soon.

Chihuahuas branding named one of year’s best

el_paso_chihuahuas_logo_alternatesAnother award for El Paso… Brand New is the logo-reviewing arm of international design megasite Under Consideration. Shortly after the Chihuahuas’ name and logo were announced in October, Brand New’s chief critic Armin Vit, a defeño now based in Austin, wrote up a brief review of our new home team’s branding. Pithy quote:

“More like Chi-wow-a, am I right? … This is such a fun and ballsy set of logos.”

Indeed, of the many team identities unveiled last year, the Chihuahuas’ was the only one to make it to Vit’s best-of-the-year list announced today (at No. 5) — yet another testament to the positive view most people outside of the El Paso bubble have of what’s going on here. (Alas, the “It’s All Good” slogan made no such lists that I’m aware of.)

Times editor wins national award

youre_awesome_jensen_acklesI’m breaking my self-imposed holiday hiatus to join those congratulating Bob Moore, editor of the El Paso Times, who will receive the Benjamin C. Bradlee Award as Editor of the Year from the National Press Foundation for his role in exposing the EPISD scandal. The awards were announced Monday. Moore will be in good company at the March awards gala as CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and NPR’s Robert Siegel will also be receiving the foundation’s highest honors.

Moore is often pilloried by ill-informed folks locally, but Brownfield’s got it right — since Moore returned to helm the Times newsroom two years ago, the town’s paper of record has done a heckuva job, despite plunging budgets, a layoff-weary and overworked staff, and corporate mandates that often put civic engagement last. On that last point, Moore is wholly unlike previous editors Chris Lopez, who would never OK any stories critical of places he hoped to one day land a sweet PR gig, and Don “I Am The Board” Flores, who frequently put political and advertiser interests above editorial ones.

Now, the Times is by no means perfect; El Pasoans should continue to hold it to a high standard as it’s the only daily left. But, Moore’s award is proof that, when state and national organizations look objectively at what’s going on in El Paso, it’s nowhere near as bad as what the loud, but tiny, clique of conspiracy-theorists would have you believe. (I think voters agree with me, but that’s another post.)

Shawver Park lights go dark Friday, Holguin continues to lie about it

I-dont-believe-youThis wasn’t going to be a full post. I was going to let sleeping carpenters lie. But then Eddie Holguin had to go and fib to KFOX.

It started yesterday when KISS FM reminded us that Holguin’s Christmas lights display at Shawver Park will come to its ignominious conclusion this Friday, some five days before the actual start of the Christmas season (oh yes, it’s still Advent in the Mills household).

Indeed, the Shawver Park Christmas lights debacle that made El Paso a laughingstock ’round the country will not even make it to the titular holiday it purports to celebrate (versus the holiday Holguin actually had in mind). Yet, we knew this all along. Do read the press release (sent by his aide and dated Nov. 26), as Holguin cheerfully takes the credit for the display — before he started playing the blame game. Pithy quotes:

The Shawver Park Light Display presented by Mayor and City Council as proposed by Representative Eddie Holguin Jr., will begin with the entertainment on Friday, November 29, 2013. … Entertainment will be each Friday evening at 5:00 p.m. through December 20th coinciding with the final day of this first time event.

So before Thanksgiving, you had Holguin taking ownership of the event and subsequently noting that it was going to end the Friday before Christmas.

But when it all turned into a humiliating embarrassment a week later, Holguin started pointing fingers — it’s all the city manager and parks department’s fault, you see — instead of blaming his own poor planning skills. His feeble attempts to acquit himself of all culpability continued with his comments to KFOX last night:

Holguin, who spearheaded the project, told KFOX 14 the city manager’s office just came to him Tuesday to tell him the display would come down Friday. … “You know, I would have loved to have had a say in all of those decisions but unfortunately the city manager’s office and the parks department didn’t allow me to participate in those decisions,” Holguin said.

Bull. As evidenced by the press release above, he knew last month the folly that was about to occur the week before Christmas. And if the city staff was keeping him out of the loop during the planning process, why was he so eager to take the credit? Pithy summary:

throne-of-lies

It all adds up to a pathetic end to what should have been a delightful addition to this season of merriment — I’m referring to Holguin’s candidacy this election season. But the Lower Valley also got cheated out of what could have been a great new Christmas tradition, and that lies squarely on Holguin’s shoulders.