First it was Steve Cooley, running for Attorney General in California in 2010, who learned that it wasn’t a good idea to be seen as an anti-marijuana candidate in a pro-medical marijuana state. Next it was Dwight Holton, suffering the same fate in the Attorney General race in Oregon this month, beaten by pro-marijuana political organizing in the first state to decriminalize personal marijuana possession.
Now the power of the pro-marijuana vote has shifted to a decidedly non-medical marijuana state, Texas. Specifically, El Paso, just across the border from the second most violent city in the world, Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, where eight-term congressman Sylvestre Reyes just lost the Democratic primary to El Paso City Councilman Beto O’Rourke.
O’Rourke made news in 2009 when he spearheaded a resolution in the city council that called on the federal government to have a serious debate about legalization of marijuana to help combat the Prohibition War violence just over the border. After the council approved that unanimously, the mayor vetoed it. Mayor Cook said it would make El Paso a laughingstock and “I don’t think anybody thinks we should be able to run down to the corner drug store and be able to buy heroin or cocaine or methamphetamines.” As a re-vote on the resolution was prepared, the Mayor urged the “silent majority” to make their voices heard against the resolution because “I can tell you that all the pot heads have sent their e-mails and they are encouraging the reps to stand by their decision.”
That’s when Congressman Reyes stepped into the fray and lobbied the city council with threats that federal funds might be cut off to El Paso if they were to pass this resolution. Undeterred, O’Rourke to the challenge right to Congressman Reyes and now the only federal funds being cut off to El Paso is Rep. Reyes’ congressional paycheck.
On Tuesday night, El Paso voters ousted Reyes in a Democratic primary, in favor of the council member who had pushed the 2009 legalization resolution, Beto O’Rourke.
Reyes, a former border control agent who was elected to Congress in 1996, had the backing of President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton. Reyes brought the popular Clinton to the district to campaign for him this year and dredged up his opponent’s burglary and driving while intoxicated charges from the 1990s. It wasn’t enough.
O’Rourke didn’t give up the fight for legalization, instead challenging Reyes for his job in the 2012 primary. In April, he told HuffPost the drug war was a failure and is fueling the violence across the border.
Reyes tried to make it a campaign issue, telling voters to “Say NO to drugs. Say NO to Beto.”
They said no to Reyes.
I know many pot reformers get discouraged by politics. I hear a lot of “lesser of two evils is still evil”* and “they’re all just bought-out corporate shills”** and “the system is broken”*** and “we need third parties”**** talk. But these recent defeats of anti-reform candidates, whether it’s Cooley the Republican in a general election losing to a Democrat or Democrats like Ellen Rosenblum and Beto O’Rourke taking out DNC-backed administration-favorites like Dwight Holton and Sylvestre Reyes, provide the blueprint for serious marijuana legalizers to get their way.
It’s all about the local elections and the primaries. Certainly the pro-reform calls of El Paso voters ring louder in the city council’s office than they do the halls of Congress. Definitely the votes of a committed, organized pro-reform bloc count for more in a sparsely-attended May primary election than a heavy-turnout presidential election. If you really want marijuana legalized, learn the lesson the conservatives did when they were at their nadir in the Goldwater years – build your movement from the school boards on up, not the president on down.