El Paso mayor’s support for DP benefits helps make him a finalist in World Mayor competition

El Paso Mayor John Cook

El Paso Mayor John Cook’s popularity for his stance on domestic partner benefits may earn him the title of world’s best mayor.

Cook’s efforts were not forgotten when it came time to nominate mayors for the World Mayor 2012 competition, sponsored by London-based think tank City Mayors Foundation. Thirteen of the 22 who wrote in support of Cook mentioned the benefits fight, according to the El Paso Times.

The City Council approved DP benefits in 2009, but the vote was overturned in a ballot measure led by anti-gay Pastor Tom Brown in 2010. Cook cast the tie-breaking vote last year to restore DP benefits, stirring Brown to begin a recall effort. A county judge ruled in Brown’s favor, but an appeals court later sided with Cook in February. Brown then appealed to the Texas Supreme Court but it’s doubtful the court will hear the case.

Cook is among five North American finalists and 25 worldwide for the award that recognizes a mayor’s achievements with a sculpture for commemoration. Votes and comments about the finalists’ achievements will be taken into consideration by the organization.

—  Dallasvoice

VICTORY: Appeals court blocks recall of El Paso officials who voted in favor of DP benefits

Friday's ruling was a major setback for anti-gay Pastor Tom Brown, who may also face criminal charges.

In a victory for supporters of LGBT equality, a Texas appeals court has rejected an effort to recall El Paso Mayor John Cook and two other council members over their support of domestic partner benefits for unmarried city employees.

Texas’ 8th Court of Appeals ruled unanimously on Friday that recall organizers, led by anti-gay Pastor Tom Brown, broke the law in gathering petition signatures for the recall election, which had been scheduled for this spring.

After the El Paso City Council first approved DP benefits for gay and straight city workers in 2009, Brown spearheaded a ballot measure that overturned them in 2010. Last year, after the City Council voted to restore DP benefits, Brown’s group launched its recall effort, which was challenged in court by Cook. A county judge initially ruled against Cook, but the appeals court overturned that decision.

The El Paso chapter of PFLAG issued a statement Friday saying: “It is with jubilation that the recall election, supported by Christian bigots, has finally reached the finish line. The judges clearly saw that this attempt was purely done out of hatred, disguised as the word of God.”

Brown and others may also face criminal charges based on the appeals court’s ruling, which found that his Word of Life Church violated a statute prohibiting corporate political contributions to recall elections. The court also found that Brown’s group, El Pasoans for Traditional Family Values, illegally raised money in support of the recall when it wasn’t registered as a political action committee.

Brown said recall organizers will appeal the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court, but an attorney for Mayor Cook believes it’s highly unlikely the high court would take the case. Cook, who cast the deciding vote in favor of restoring DP benefits last year, reportedly has spent $225,000 on his lawsuit seeking to block the recall. The mayor said he now plans to seek monetary damages against Brown’s group.

—  John Wright

Anti-gay El Paso group plans big push to illegally gather signatures in churches this weekend

As you’ve undoubtedly heard, an anti-gay group in El Paso is gathering signatures in an effort to recall three city officials who voted earlier this year to restore domestic partner benefits for city employees.

The deadline for the group to submit the signatures is next week, and it remains unclear whether they’ll have enough to force elections later this year.

On Thursday night, Mayor John Cook, one of the targets of the recall effort, issued a statement saying he may sue to challenge the signatures because the group has been gathering them illegally in churches, in violation of the Texas Election Code.

Last month, the El Paso County district attorney announced an investigation into allegations that the group was illegally using churches to gather signatures, and a complaint has been filed with the IRS.

If the anti-gay group gathers enough signatures, the recall elections will cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars. Meanwhile, of the 19 city employees who signed up for DP benefits, only two are gay.

A group called No Recall has formed to counter the recall effort.

—  John Wright

El Paso DP benefits update: Hundreds attend ‘No Recall’ rally; DA investigates anti-gay petitioners

About 500 people attended a rally Sunday in support of three El Paso officials who may face recall elections because they voted earlier this year to reinstate domestic partner benefits for city employees.

Meanwhile, the El Paso County district attorney is investigating the anti-gay group that’s behind the recall petitions for allegedly using churches to gather signatures.

And opponents of the recall got some support last week from basketball legend Tim Hardaway. Hardaway, who played at UTEP, once famously said he hated gay people but now says those behind the recall need to “grow up.”

—  John Wright

What’s Brewing: Wedding bash continues in NY; Houston LGBT memorial; El Paso benefits fight

Your weekday morning blend from Instant Tea:

1. Hundreds of gay couples tied the knot on Sunday in New York on the first day same-sex marriage was legal in the nation’s third-largest state. The festivities continue today with, among other things, the first group wedding involving about 50 same-sex couples at Niagara Falls — which was also the site of some of the first weddings early Sunday. The first couple to marry in Manhattan, according to the Associated Press, was 77-year-old Phyllis Siegel and 85-year-old Connie Kopelov, shown above, who’ve been together 23 years. From The AP: Witnesses cheered and wiped away tears after the two women vowed to honor and cherish each other as spouses and then kissed. “I am breathless. I almost couldn’t breathe,” Siegel said after the ceremony. “It’s mind-boggling. The fact that it’s happening to us — that we are finally legal and can do this like everyone else.” Outside afterward, Siegel raised her arms exultantly as Kopelov, in the wheelchair, held out a marriage certificate. Watch video from the first day of same-sex marriages in New York below.

2. A memorial to honor victims of anti-LGBT violence will open this week in the heart of Houston’s Montrose gayborhood, Culture Map Houston reports. The garden’s roots stretch as far back as the 1991 hate crime murder of gay banker Paul Broussard, whose killer was recently granted parole. “This garden is about recognizing our community and how fragile each one of us is,” says Sally Huffer of the Montrose Counseling Center. “When one person disappears, it leaves a void.”

3. A straight El Paso woman is fighting an anti-gay group’s efforts to recall Mayor John Cook and two council members for voting in favor of restoring domestic partner benefits for city employees. As we reported last week, the group led by anti-gay Pastor Tom Brown filed its notice of intent to recall the mayor and two council members on July 18. On Thursday, Jodi Casey began her campaign against Brown’s group by asking people to switch their Facebook profile pictures to the image at right. Casey is also considering forming a political action committee to organize a rally in support of the elected officials. “There’s so much negativity by these supposed Christians,” Casey told The El Paso Times. “They’re giving Christians everywhere a bad name.”

—  John Wright

Pastor threatens recall drive if DP benefits restored in El Paso; council to vote today

Pastor Tom Brown of Word of Life Church was the driving force behind a ballot measure to repeal DP benefits in El Paso.

The pastor behind a ballot initiative to repeal domestic partner benefits in El Paso is threatening to launch recall petitions against city councilmembers who vote in favor of an ordinance to restore them.

The council is slated to vote on the ordinance this morning that would restore benefits taken away under a ballot initiative approved by voters in November. Mayor John Cook introduced the ordinance last week after a federal judge upheld the ballot initiative.

The El Paso Times reports that today’s vote on the ordinance is expected to be close. Pastor Tom Brown, who spearheaded the ballot initiative, is threatening recall elections against Cook and any council member who votes in favor of the ordinance. From the EPT:

The initiative was intended by its authors just to end benefits for 19 unmarried partners of employees. But it also cost more than 100 others — including members of the City Council — benefits because of the way it was worded.

Brown said the mayor is now trying to override the will of the voters.

“We’re doing it because the mayor is trying to overturn the democratic process,” Brown said on Monday. “This is the first ordinance the people of El Paso have ever passed. If (what Cook is trying to do) works, it will be the end of direct democracy in El Paso.”

Cook said he proposed the ordinance as a matter of principle, not because it’s popular.

“I’m not going to change my position because of threats,” the mayor said.

City Rep. Susie Byrd, who supports Cook’s ordinance, was even more blunt.

“I don’t think public policy should be shaped by bullies or bigots,” she said.

—  John Wright

El Paso council to vote on DP benefits next week

El Paso Mayor John Cook

After a federal judge upheld a ballot initiative repealing domestic partner benefits for El Paso city employees last month, Mayor John Cook has introduced an ordinance to reinstate them.

The council is scheduled to vote next week on Cook’s ordinance, after his motion to introduce it was approved 6-2 on Tuesday. El Paso began offering health benefits to the domestic partners of gay and straight city employees in 2009, before anti-gay groups sponsored the 2010 ballot initiative limiting benefits to current city employees and their legal spouses, and calling on the city to uphold “traditional family values.”

The ballot measure passed by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent, and a judge ruled that because it was so vaguely worded, it affects not only domestic partners but also retirees and elected officials. According to the judge’s ruling, more than 100 people, including 19 domestic partners, are slated to lose their benefits Aug. 1. The El Paso Times reports:

Cook said he realizes he’s going up against the will of the voters with the new ordinance. He said he will work in the coming months to persuade the electorate to change its mind. His motion passed 6-2.

“I think it’s important to do what’s right and make it popular instead (of doing) what’s popular and make it right,” he said.

It is far from certain whether the ordinance will pass next week.

Before council can consider an ordinance, it must vote in a previous meeting to introduce it — usually a routine matter. But two city representatives — East-Valley Rep. Eddie Holguin and East-Central Rep. Emma Acosta — voted on Tuesday not to even introduce Cook’s ordinance.

Holguin said that he personally wants to give health benefits to gay and unmarried partners of city employees but that the voters have spoken.

“I feel I have to respect the will of the voters and I have to put my personal opinion aside,” he said.

—  John Wright

SREC member wants to oust Speaker Joe Straus because he’s Jewish, doesn’t hate gays enough

Speaker Joe Straus

We’ve already told you about the anti-gay forces that have undoubtedly been working behind the scenes in the race for speaker of the Texas House, but now it looks like they may be starting to emerge publicly. The Texas Observer posted a story Friday in which John Cook, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee, explained his opposition to Speaker Joe Straus. Cook’s biggest problem with Straus, apparently, is that he’s Jewish: “I got into politics to put Christian conservatives into office,” Cook says. But Cook also accuses Straus of being pro-choice and pro-gay rights:

His opposition to Straus, he said, was rooted largely in his belief that the current Speaker is both pro-choice and pro-gay rights. “He’s a pro choice person basically,” Cook said. (Earlier in his career, Straus did vote against banning gay couples from serving as foster parents and against a ban on late-term abortions, but Kyleen Wright, president of Texans for Life, has been one of his biggest supporters.) Cook called the Republicans who worked with Democrats to elect Straus “turncoat RINOs.” (Republicans in Name Only.)

As the legislative session draws closer, it’ll be interesting to see whether the so-called tea party folks who oppose Straus start to escalate their attacks based on his 2005 vote against the gay foster parenting ban. Particularly since Straus has said he voted against the ban because it would have cost the state a lot of money and gone against his libertarian principles. From a January 2009 interview in which Texas Monthly asked Straus about the vote:

STRAUS: …  I’m not supportive of adoption by homosexual couples, but the whole issue of government with a fiscal note attached and government employees investigating people’s private lives caused me a great deal of heartburn. I remember looking at the expenditure of taxpayer money for that and it was a lot. And it required what? Going into people’s homes? Watching the way people dress or the way they talk? I have some pretty strong libertarian leanings, and sometimes that causes a conflict. What gave me confidence to hit the button I hit was that I was very certain that Barry Goldwater would have done the same thing.

—  John Wright

El Paso voters rescind domestic partner benefits for city workers — and possibly for retirees too

El Paso was home to one of the few, if not the only, anti-gay initiative on the ballot anywhere in the U.S. on Tuesday. And The El Paso Times reports that the measure to roll back domestic partner benefits for city employees passed easily:

The ballot initiative was supported by conservative religious groups that took aim at the city’s domestic partners ordinance from the time that it was passed by the City Council last year. But the way the initiative was worded caused confusion among some voters — and questions about how city officials will implement it.

“I’m sure there will be some legal action,” Mayor John Cook said.

Fewer than two dozen city employees receive the benefit. Opponents say it sends the message that the city approves of homosexuality and of heterosexual couples living out of wedlock.

And the initiative struck a chord with a majority of the El Paso electorate.

The story goes on to say there are problems with the wording of the initiative, which says, “The city of El Paso endorses traditional family values by making health benefits available only to city employees and their legal spouse and dependent children.”

The meaning of “endorse” is unclear, according to the mayor, and city legal staff says the measure could be interpreted to exclude retirees from DP benefits.

Good. Let’s hope it gets tied up in court for a long time.

—  John Wright