EL PASO — When Oscar Leeser, an immigrant from across the border in Chihuahua, Mexico, was a boy here, he played football to help him assimilate into American culture.
Four decades later, Leeser, 55, is the new mayor of his adopted city, and he faces a challenge similar to the one he faced when he wore a helmet and cleats: moving forward to the goal line while navigating tricky obstacles.
And Leeser, who runs a car dealership, is doing so by stressing partnerships with local business groups and former adversaries on the campaign trail.
But the challenges are daunting. El Paso, the state’s sixth-largest city, lags behind Texas’ average in household income and high school graduation rates. Twenty-five percent of its residents live below the poverty line, com- pared with 17 percent statewide.
El Paso has been divided over an effort to lure a Triple-A baseball team to a new stadium being built at the site of the former City Hall building, which the city demolished. The Mountain- Star Sports Group, a private company, is building the $64 million stadium, and it is being partially financed by the taxpayers.
Supporters of the plan said the project would modernize El Paso and revitalize its economy. But others criticized the City Council for not putting the matter before voters.
Leeser says that El Paso needs to stop dwelling on past conflict and move forward on the stadium and new initiatives to improve the city.
“I told people from the start that I didn’t like the process — I would have never destroyed City Hall,” he said. “But now we’re not looking backwards any longer because you cannot succeed in life by looking backwards. As the figurehead of the city, we need to make sure” the stadium is successful.
During his campaign, Leeser, who was elected last month, was accused of lacking a platform, and he was short on specifics during a recent interview in his office. But he pointed out that he had been in office less than a month, and said that he was still learning the intricacies of El Paso politics.
“One of our main focuses moving forward is economic development,” he said. “We’ve been in office 20 days. The biggest thing we need to do is work with the city and make sure we have a good game plan moving forward, and we’re going to have a master plan.”
According to U.S. census data from 2007 to 2011, El Paso fell behind the state’s averages in the percentage of people with a high school education or higher, and in household income.
Asked how to eradicate such gaps and the poverty level, Leeser simply said that change would come with greater economic development and an emphasis on manufacturing.
Part of his outreach on that front is the newly created Borderplex Binational Economic Alliance, a merger between two economic coalitions — the El Paso Regional Economic Development Corporation and Paso del Norte Group — that was created in late 2012.
The alliance seeks to pool the economic potential of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico; southern New Mexico; and El Paso to develop projects and improve the quality of life for the region’s nearly 3 million people.
“I talked to the Borderplex when I was running for office and I said, ‘Tell me the biggest thing people are competing for,’” said Leeser, who identifies himself as a Democrat. The response, he said, was manufacturing, and he added that the alliance would create both high-tech and low- skilled jobs.
A key figure in that merger is Rolando Pablos, the Borderplex alliance’s chief executive. He is a former member of the state’s Public Utility Commission and a member of the board of the His- panic Republicans of Texas political action committee. But he said that partisan politics would not help El Paso realize its full potential and that city leaders realized that.
“El Paso, Texas, is on the cusp of an economic renaissance,” Pablos said. “As we get all of the negativity behind us, I only see a bright future. This is all about economic development.”
Leeser is also looking to establish a strong bond with U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat who supported Leeser’s opponent and was a key member of El Paso’s progressive city leader ship until his election to Congress last year.
O’Rourke said the new mayor could count on his support. He acknowledged that during his time on the City Council, he and his colleagues were so dedicated to getting things moving that they may have neglected to clearly voice their goals.
“Many of us had grown up in an El Paso that seemed comfortable with mediocrity,” he said. “And I think, partly, our campaigns and our time in office was to become, as a community, much more ambitious. We moved a lot of things and didn’t always do the best job of communicating why we were doing something or how this played in.”
Leeser also takes the reins in the Sun City after it garnered national attention for the former leadership’s stance on socially sensitive issues.
The City Council was mired in controversy in 2011 after overturning a city ordinance that rejected benefits for the partners of unmarried city employees, including those in same-sex couples.
Leeser said he would not be the death knell for progressive growth in El Paso. But he did say he believed social issues should be left up to the individual.
“It’s not for me in life to tell people how to live their life behind the closed doors,” he said. “It’s for me to treat people equally and respect everybody.”
Anna L. Perez, an El Paso transplant who spoke during public comments at last week’s City Council meeting, said she saw a new direction for the city, but only if elected officials were courageous enough to speak out.
“The hopes that I have is for transparency, that they ask for specific details,” Perez said. “The past council simply gave their own power away. This is what the voters wanted was change, and this is what the new council appears to have — the citizens at large, at heart.”