El Paso Mayor, Fighting Ouster Over Gay Rights, Counts Legal Bills

David Mildenberg

Bloomberg News

Published: Saturday, Feb. 11 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

AUSTIN, Texas — El Paso Mayor John Cook has amassed $250,000 in debt fighting for his job after casting a decisive vote to reject a ban on benefits for same-sex partners of municipal workers. The move sparked demands for his recall.

Cook, 65, faces a special election after he backed repeal of a law passed by voters in November 2010 that limits benefits such as health insurance to city employees, legal spouses and dependent children. Texas doesn't permit same-sex marriage.

Opponents led by Pastor Tom Brown of El Paso's Word of Life Church petitioned for the recall targeting Cook and the City Council members who sided with him in overturning the ballot measure, designed to protect "traditional family values." Brown helped lead support for the initiative that created the law. Its passage prompted a lawsuit by a city police union.

"Pastor Brown was more than happy to throw everyone else under the bus in his zeal to go after homosexuals," said Ron Martin, president of the El Paso Municipal Police Officers Association. "The pastor figured out of that if you removed insurance benefits just for same-sex couples it would be unconstitutional, but if you removed them for everybody who wasn't in a traditional marriage, then it was OK."

Cook is the only big-city mayor in the United States to face a recall because of issues tied to the debate over same-sex marriage, at least in recent years, said Leslie Graves, publisher of the Ballotpedia website in Madison, Wis., which tracks elections, and Paul Guequierre, a spokesman for the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign Inc. The nonprofit organization advocates equal treatment of same-sex partners by employers.

"Government should not be using tax dollars to endorse a social agenda," Brown said Feb. 6 by telephone. The 2010 ballot measure, which also affected retirees, foster children and other nonfamily dependents of municipal employees, passed 55 percent to 45 percent, with about 20,300 voting in favor. In June, Cook joined four council members to repeal it in a 5-4 vote.

"Once they overturned what the people had decided, that was a cause for a recall," said Brown, whose website includes an article entitled "Homosexuality: Its cause and cure." He said the council betrayed the will of the people. "The highest civil right that all of us possess is the right to vote, and our City Council took away our right to do that."

An April 14 recall election may cost as much as $1.3 million, City Clerk Richarda Momsen said. That's about 38 times the estimated $34,000 cost of providing benefits to the domestic partners of 19 unmarried workers who were affected by the law.

No one actually lost their benefits as a result of the ballot initiative, Momsen said.

Cook, the mayor of the city of more than 649,000 residents since 2005, is scheduled to leave office in July 2013 because of term limits. He said he opposed the ballot measure as unfair.

"El Paso was the first city in the Deep South states to pass an ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on skin color," he said by telephone. "With that history behind us and being a very tolerant community, it was very discouraging to have citizens misled in passing an ordinance they didn't really understand."

The dispute may hurt the image of El Paso, where one of its two New York Stock Exchange-listed companies, Western Refining Corp., is moving more than half its corporate staff to Tempe, Ariz. The city's economy may benefit from the projected addition by 2013 of about 21,000 soldiers at Fort Bliss, which is the nation's fastest-growing Army base, according to municipal estimates.

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