Page 7


Commitments in El Paso BY LOUIS DUBOSE El Paso FOR FIVE MINUTES Margarita Robles had the access to political power almost never available in places like El Paso’s Segundo Barrio, when Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros and U.S. Representative Ron Coleman, Democrat from El Paso, walked into the front room of Robles’ 160-square-foot, two-room tenement apartment and began asking questions. Robles explained how a family of six managed daily life in a downtown “presidio,” where 50 people competed for two bathrooms at the end of the hall. After Cisneros and Coleman left, Robles watched as TV news crews pursued Cisneros. “I have some hope that the government will do something,” she said. “At least they’re paying attention to housing problems now.” For Cisneros and Coleman, this face-toface encounter with El Paso’s poor would continue for another two hours, as their tour, organized by the El Paso Interreligious its way through South El Paso, stopping at a church gym that doubles as a shelter for farmworkers, then at a federal housing project where Cisneros asked why so many units were boarded up. At the housing project, Coleman responded to a question about the defeat of Clinton’s economic stimulus package. “It really hurts this community. Some of the money Republican senators called pork would have been spent right here. It would have put more police on the street, the money for infrastructure would have created jobs for this kid’s parents, [building] roads and sewers in the colonia we’re going to visit. This is what Republican senators gleefully call pork?” Then it was time for Coleman and Cisneros to get back in the EPISO van for a 30-minute ride east, to the waterless hardscrabble colonia Las Pampas. Standing beside a crumbling outhouse at Las Pampas, Coleman continued to fume about the filibuster of the stimulus package. “One hundred percent of the schoolchildren here have hepatitis, either Type A or Type B,” Coleman said. “One hundred. You can check the tests and surveys by the Socorro District. Since when is domestic spending, on sewers, on water, considered pork, as Republican senators described it? I am looking forward to voting on some of their bills in the House.” Standing outside a house in Las Pampas, Cisneros asked colonia resident Paulo Guerrero about the quality of the colonia’s well water. “If you bathe the children they itch and their skin is stained,” Guerrero said. There was something almost ritualistic about the encounters, four stops for a Cabinet member to ask questions, then promise to look for solutionS. But, as Margarita Robles said, “At least they’re paying attention.” Later in the afternoon, in the El Paso Civic Center, the process would be reversed. Here, where 3,200 gathered for EPISO’s 12th anniversary convention, the solutions were already defined and elected officials and candidates were asked if they would support the solutions. EPISO is a member of the statewide Industrial Areas Foundation, a nonpartisan network of grassrootS community organizations. While EPISO members talked, government officials and candidates listened. “Mayor Tilney, on water issues your record has been good. On housing, we believe your agenda is being sabotaged by your subordinates,” EPISO member Manuela Cadena said to El Paso Mayor Bill Tilney. Standing at the microphone at the center of the stage, she then asked Tilney, who had also taken EPISO’s morning tour, for his public comment to EPISO’shousing agenda: the identification of available federal housing funds and the direct application of those funds to the construction of housing units. Tilney, who faces 11 opponents, said he would work with the EPISO agenda. The same question was then repeated to four of his opponents who had been called on stage to respond. In El Paso, where more than 28,000 are known to live in substandard housing units like the one where the Robles family lives, and 4,000 are on public-housing waiting lists, one issue on EPISO’ s agenda is housing. Cisneros said he is appointing former San Antonio City Council member Frank Wing, -who joined him at HUD, to serve as a liaison between the city and the colonias and the federal agency. Another issue is the regionalization of water and wastewater services; EPISO members and organizers have worked with El Paso Senator Peggy Rosson, the sponsor of a bill that provides a mechanism to bring the city’s numerous independent water districts into the city’s water and sewage system. Rosson said she had been working with EPISO on water and utility issues even before she was appointed to the Public Utility Commission by former Governor Mark White. Rosson’s bill has been opposed by state Representative Tony Parra, an El Paso Democrat who, Rosson said, last week said he would like to make some changes in it. “We need to convince Tony Parra that regionalization is the way to go,” EPISO organizer Maribeth Larkin said. Jessica Wales, an EPISO staff member, said the bill is also opposed by members of independent water districts and by attorneys, whose work for the districts is very lucrative. Wales cited the Las Pampas colonia as an example of why the Rosson bill is necessary. “If you look at where Las Pampas is on the schedule of the Lower Valley water districts, they won’t get water until 1998 or 1999,” Wales said. Small independent water districts don’t have equipment or resources to get water to the colonias, and when federal funds are available, it makes little sense for four or five districts to go through the same costly bureaucratic application processes, Wales explained. Three Democratic Senate candidates, interim Senator Bob Krueger, Jose Angel Gutierrez and Richard Fisher, addressed the convention, and all three agreed to meet with EPISO on May 23, if there is a runoff and if any of them are among the runoff candidates. Krueger, who is heavily favored to make the runoff in the U.S. Senate race, was asked if he had any regrets about joining the fouror five-member Democratic minority that voted against the Clinton budget package in the Senate. “None whatsoever,” Krueger said. “I always indicated that I would not support increasing taxes, which is what the budget resolution did, until the government was made more efficient.” The budget resolution he voted against, and the economic stimulus package, which he supported, are entirely separate issues, Krueger said. “Wastewater treatment plants, Head Start money, childhood immunization, police on the streets, highway and bridge infrastructure, all those things are very important to El Paso and they are all in the economic stimulus package,” Krueger said. The same invitation, to come back to meet EPISO in May if there is a runoff, has been extended to any Republican candidate who advances to a runoff in the Senate election. Republican candidates were invited to the April 25 EPISO convention but none attended. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 13