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José Rodríguez: The TT Interview

The first-term state senator on being outgunned by Republicans during the legislative session, what the Democrats accomplished and how he thinks Gov. Rick Perry will do in 2012.

State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, on June 26, 2010, at the Texas Democratic Convention in Corpus Christi.

State Sen. José Rodríguez’s first term in the upper chamber of the Texas Legislature came during a session when the Republicans outmaneuvered Democrats on a host of political issues, an easy feat given their majority in the Senate and supermajority in the House. Still, Rodríguez, D-El Paso, says Democrats remained generally unified throughout the session, forcing the Republicans to own the significant cuts made to public education and health care. 

During a recent conference in El Paso, Rodríguez sat down with the Tribune to talk about the 82nd Legislature, the effect free enterprise has had on the border, whether drug legalization is a good idea, voter ID and Gov. Rick Perry’s bid to unseat President Obama.

TT: Two mayors, one former and one current, of Ciudad Juárez have said that NAFTA was a boon to the economy that brought many jobs to the city but the social fabric could not handle the influx, which led to a lot of the current problems. Do you agree with that?

Rodríguez: I do agree with that. NAFTA is billed as a tremendous tool for economic development, but I think NAFTA, as experts have pointed out, is a major contributor for dislocation of people — from farmers in Oaxaca and other parts of Mexico — because they couldn’t compete with large corporations. In this country people don’t seem to appreciate the causes of immigration attributable to our own policies in the United States. People like to point to Mexico and say it’s not doing its job — and there is criticism there, too — but we need to accept responsibility for our contribution to these kinds of phenomena. Our country is a major player in creating the demand for labor, whether it’s consciously seeking the labor, or unconsciously causing it, through programs like NAFTA.

TT: Mr. Alejandro Poire, the spokesman for Mexico’s National Security Council, mentioned [drug] legalization [in the Mexico] in a speech in El Paso recently. Some people say that’s a simplistic approach to solving the crime in Mexico, that it won’t solve everything. What do you think?

Rodríguez: People don’t like to mention the issue of legalization, because you immediately get criticized. I happen to agree with those who say that legalization is an issue that needs to be debated, that need to be considered here in this country. He’s right when he so eloquently described the nature of the challenge, that it’s not just the drug activity that fuels the cartels. It’s all this other activity and we know that here on the border. These are major criminal enterprises; they are not small operations anymore. Legalizing drugs may be only one way of addressing the problem, but I think it’s a key. If you legalize or regulated drugs, we have prohibition as an example, what happens? You take away some of the demand and it lessens the illicit activity. It’s going to continue. I am not naive enough to not see that. But I don’t think it would continue at the level that it is at now.

TT: Did you at any time, in March or April, think, “If I could go back and not run for state Senate, I would not have done it”?

Rodríguez: No, I never thought that.

TT: What were some of the high points for your party during the session then? A lot of people only talk about the beating that Democrats got.

Rodríguez: Nobody has really asked me that and I haven’t really sat down to let that filter. But, right off the cuff, I can tell you that though it’s true we weren’t able to stop the kinds of cuts that were made, there is no question in my mind that one of the things that the Democratic Party contributed to was the adoption of a budget that was essentially a Senate budget. Most of us voted against it anyway, but we adopted a Senate budget that was less draconian and harmful than what was proposed by the House. That’s one. Another accomplishment I think, with one or two exceptions, is that the Democrats hung together. There is no way that the Republicans in Texas — the governor, the lieutenant governor or the Republican leadership — can say "we did this on a bipartisan basis."

Bottom line is that they wanted to be able to say they got bipartisan support [this session], but I think that the Democrats, by being firm and united, have now placed them in a position where the Republican Party is going to have to explain why they did this to education — to children, to teachers to schools — and why they did this to health care. And I don’t think it’s going to be as easy as the rhetoric over there [in Austin] about "Well, people sent us over here to balance the budget without raising taxes." People are going to feel the pinch, and they have already felt the pinch. The hospital district already announced that it is going to have to raise its tax rate. Other local jurisdictions are going to have to raise taxes. They passed a budget that requires local governments to raise taxes.

TT: Do you think it’s going to translate at the polls? Do you think there will be more Democrats in the Senate?

Rodríguez: I think the changes in the upper chamber are going to be slow in coming. I think there is going to be a lot more in the House. I don’t expect a whole lot in the Senate, just because of the particular nature of that body. But I think ultimately, not this next time around, but down the line, it laid the foundation for changes in the future.

TT: Any other successes?

Rodríguez: [Not passing] sanctuary cities and other immigration measures. Apart from the provisions in the driver’s license [which require proof of legal residence to obtain an ID], everything else went down the tubes, for the most part. And I think that was in no small measure due to the Democrats holding the line and being united on that. I was able to get every single Democratic senator to sign that letter [in opposition to sanctuary cities], which I have been told people have tried to do before but no one could. The community had a lot to do with that as well. We fared as well, maybe better, that we could under the circumstances, given our numbers.

TT: Perry 2012; what is your first reaction to that?

Rodríguez: My reaction is that Obama is going to leave him in the dust as soon as they start the debates and start getting in to the campaign. I think Perry will get as far as the nomination on his party’s side. The only way I see him being able to compete with Obama, though, is if the economy continues to go downhill. We are a year and a half away [from the election]; the economy has been rocky and had its ups and downs. I am an optimist. I think eventually it will correct itself, and I just can’t imagine that the voters, after the information in a presidential campaign that comes out, [won’t see] that the reason we find ourselves in this mess is that the Republicans created it. And they opposed every major initiative and the administration proposed. I mean, taking people to the brink on the debt-ceiling debate is ridiculous.

TT: Some Democratic Party chairs in the Valley said they were going to ask their Republican counterparts to appear together on some [public service announcements] intended to educate people about voter ID. If it’s really not about voter suppression, then it shouldn’t be a problem, they say. Do you think this is a good tactic?

Rodríguez: [Laughing] It’s a good tactic, but I don’t know if the Republicans will do it. I wouldn’t expect them to do it. We tried every which way to offer amendments that made sense, that were based on good public policy, whether it be on voter ID, on the sonogram bill, on family planning. So no, I don’t think they would do something like that, but we have to hold their feet to the fire.

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