Leeser shares El Paso’s success in DC
El Paso Inc. - By David Crowder
He was sitting just at a few seats away from first lady Michelle Obama during the State of the Union address.
He went to a White House luncheon where Vice President Joe Biden spoke for more than an hour.
He attended a head-spinning series of meetings with members of Congress and the Cabinet, ending with a question and answer session at the White House with President Barack Obama.
That’s what El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser did last week.
“It’s been nonstop,” Leeser told El Paso Inc. late Thursday. “We’ve been running since we left El Paso at 6 a.m. Tuesday, and we haven’t stopped since.”
Leeser spent most of the last week in Washington D.C., attending the 83rd Winter Meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors with nearly 300 of the nation’s mayors. The meeting coincided with the State of the Union.
Leeser also had an individual meeting with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro.
Leeser said he and the former San Antonio mayor spent some time talking about the Housing Authority of the City of El Paso’s innovative handling of the federal Rental Assistance Demonstration Program, or RAD.
“I asked him if he would come to El Paso to see what we’re doing, and he agreed that he would come, so we’re going to reach back to his office when we get back,” he said. “Hopefully that’ll be in the very near future.”
Leeser, who traveled with his chief of staff, Taylor Moreno, also met with Will Hurd, the new Republican congressman from the 23rd District of Texas that stretches from San Antonio to El Paso.
Out of that meeting came an invitation to join a delegation of 24 members of Congress meeting today, Sunday, in McAllen, Texas.
“So, we’ll be getting back on Saturday and then Sunday morning, we’ll be traveling to McAllen for this meeting Sunday night to talk about border concerns,” he said.
Leeser said much of the mayors’ gathering involved sharing stories and ideas with one another and with some top-level Washington officials.
At a reception just before the State of the Union in the office of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Leeser said they chatted about her father, a former mayor of Baltimore, and about El Paso.
“I told her about our unemployment rate, how El Paso has been growing and how it’s really exciting to see the unemployment rate going down,” he said. “When I took office it was 9.1 percent. Now, the unemployment rate in the city of El Paso is 5.8.”
The city’s jobless figure has actually improved since the mayor spoke. According to the latest figures released Friday, the city’s unemployment rate in December 2014 dropped to 5.2 percent. That’s below the national average, but still a bit higher than the Texas unemployment rate of 4.1 percent.
Back to the mayor’s schedule. Thursday included meetings with Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, and with the staff of Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. On Friday, it was on to the Pentagon.
“We’re taking great notes and pictures,” Leeser said. “We have follow-up meetings set up. When you come to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, everybody shares their best ideas.
“We’ve already talked with some of the mayors and said we’d like to sit in front of them so they can outline how these programs work and how we can bring them to our community. We have those meetings coming up in February.”
Before going to Washington, Leeser’s travels during his first 16 months in office already totaled 16 trips to 12 cities, making him the city’s most traveled mayor in recent memory.
Leeser campaigned on a platform of bringing a business approach to City Hall and jobs to El Paso.
He said the best thing about the U.S. Conference has been the openness and willingness of other mayors to share their ideas and experiences.
“The thing they say is, ‘We don’t have a patent on anything. This is for everybody to learn and to share the best ideas.’ It’s been a very rewarding, exciting and productive trip.”
The city of El Paso is a new member of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and Leeser was one of 20 Texas mayors who attended the winter meeting. Dues for a city with El Paso’s population are $26,215 a year, according to the conference’s website.
Leeser’s predecessor, John Cook, was active in the National League of Cities during his eight years as mayor. League dues are about $24,000 a year for a city the size of El Paso.