El Paso Residents: O’Rourke’s Involvement With Father-in-Law’s Development Project Contrasts Populist Image

Rep. Beto O'Rourke / Getty Images

Rep. Beto O'Rourke, the Democratic nominee for Senate in Texas, faces scrutiny from some El Paso, Texas residents for his support of a 2006 real estate deal, one they say contradicts his populist image and support of progressive causes.

In 2006, billionaire real estate developer William Sanders proposed a development plan for El Paso that faced backlash from local residents. O'Rourke, Sanders' son-in-law and a member of City Council, was one local resident who supported the deal, the New York Times reports. As a member of City Council, O'Rourke represented the targeted area, including a historic Mexican-American neighborhood.

Calling downtown "one piece of El Paso that was missing on the road back to greatness," Mr. O’Rourke, now the Democratic candidate for Senate in Texas, voted to take the first step forward with the plan.

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.

"Mr. O’Rourke was basically the pretty face of this very ugly plan against our most vulnerable neighborhoods,"  David Dorado Romo, a local historian, told the Times. Dorado Romo said the episode resurrected longstanding race and class divisions in the city.

Sanders' project focused on a 300-acre area of downtown El Paso and, according to the Times, 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.

The plan intended to relocate the residents of over 500 apartments, Residents were concerned their property would be taken through eminent domain to support the project. Further inflaming tensions was a branding survey, which the city of El Paso conducted as part of the development project, that found the city's residents were perceived as "dirty" and "lazy." For some, the negative impression left by the project has not subsided.

Citizens were quick to look at O'Rourke's involvement and whether he would profit from the development. An ethics complaint filed against him said "his financial involvement only crystallizes the conflict of interest for Representative O’Rourke."

O'Rourke ultimately recused himself from decisions involving the development, though a lawyer for the group Land Grab Opponents said, "Even if he didn’t have an actual conflict, the optics were terrible."

The development plan was ultimately abandoned, partially, that same lawyer said, because in 2009 Texas passed a ballot initiative prohibiting the use of eminent domain to attain property for private use.

O'Rourke's opponent, Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), has drawn attention to the Texas Democrat's involvement with the project. An ad from Club for Growth Action called O'Rourke "Beto the Bully" who wanted to "displace poor families to enrich his own."

The latest polls show Cruz leading O'Rourke by 6 points, just over a week out from election day.