Congressman Beto O’Rourke, who limns himself as the champion of the downtrodden, had a problematic history when it came to barrio residents of his constituency. His father-in-law, a billionaire real estate developer wanted to redevelop a downtown section of El Paso and possibly displace barrio residents, businesses in the neighborhood, and Jesuit priests working with immigrants at Sacred Heart Church.
The New York Times reports that in 2006, developer William D. Sanders, O’Rourke’s father-in-law, proposed building restaurants and an arts walk to replace an area in downtown El Paso. O’Rourke represented the targeted area, including a historic Mexican-American neighborhood, at the time.
As Sito Negron reported in El Paso’s Newspaper Tree in April 2006, “O’Rourke, who is the son-in-law of Sanders, made the motion to begin the process of adopting the Plan, calling Downtown ‘one piece of El Paso that was missing on the road back to greatness.’”
The New York Times continues, “Over the next two years, Mr. O’Rourke would defend the plan before angry barrio residents and vote to advance it. At other times, he would abstain. Business owners who opposed the plan accused Mr. O’Rourke of a conflict, citing the involvement of his father-in-law, the billionaire developer William D. Sanders.”
Local historian David Dorado Romo told the Times, “Mr. O’Rourke was basically the pretty face of this very ugly plan against our most vulnerable neighborhoods.”
Sanders introduced the proposal in March 2006. The Times notes, “What might not have been entirely clear to everyone at the meeting was that the plan’s success was largely dependent on the city’s ability to convince property owners in the most blighted areas to turn over their holdings to the private trust. In the case of recalcitrant owners, eminent domain would be used.” The proposal was designed to relocate residents of roughly 500 apartments.
When a vote was taken whether to create a tax zone that would anticipate using eminent domain, O’Rourke neither voted for or against it; he abstained, voting for a temporary moratorium instead, although he later voted against limiting the use of a tax zone.
Business owners in the targeted zone formed a group called Land Grab Opponents. They filed an ethics complaint against O’Rourke, contending that his company, Stanton Street Technology Group, had offered information technology services to the Paso Del Norte Group, a non-profit group that was designed to redevelop the targeted area. The complaint was dismissed by the city ethics commission.
The Times tried to get a comment from O’Rourke, but he declined requests to be interviewed.