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Not Ocasio-Cortez, not O’Rourke: An El Paso congresswoman’s different approach

Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Tex.) speaks during an El Paso Strong Community Action event in El Paso on Aug. 7. (Luke E. Montavon/Bloomberg News)
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EL PASO — Rep. Veronica Escobar was holding her monthly meeting with constituents at a local high school last Saturday, fielding the usual questions about conditions on the border, when an aide approached and whispered urgently.

Escobar calmly turned to the crowd and said, “You all, I’m so sorry, there’s an active shooter. We are going to need to clear the event.” As people began to panic, she hastily clarified, “It’s at Cielo Vista [Mall], not here.”

Hours later, Escobar, a Democrat, stood behind Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott at a news conference as he pronounced, “Bottom line is: Mental health is a large contributor to any kind of violence or shooting violence.” She angrily shook her head, and upon receiving the microphone placed the blame elsewhere, saying the shooting was “fueled by hate, and it’s fueled by racism and bigotry and division.”

Escobar has been ubiquitous in El Paso since the shooting, along with her more famous predecessor, Beto O’Rourke.

In her seven months in office, Escobar, 49, has built a reputation as a passionate but pragmatic lawmaker, carefully building a case against the administration’s immigration policies while working within the restraints of Congress. If Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) offers one model for new lawmakers looking to have an impact — brash comments, clashes with leadership, a big social media presence — Escobar offers another.

For a lawmaker often behind the scenes, Escobar has been uncomfortably thrust into the national spotlight by a tragedy that is deeply personal. It was only last month that, as an outspoken pro-immigrant voice, she and her family started getting death threats. Guards are now being deployed to her events.

And now an attack by a killer who was aiming at Latinos like her and her two children.

“I’ve had young people tell me that they never understood that the color of their skin could inspire such hate,” Escobar said in an interview last week, talking through tears. “We’ve been torn up in so many ways. This is going to be a long journey to rehabilitation for all of us — emotional, physical and mental.”

Escobar has spent hours at the makeshift memorial dedicated to the victims that she calls “Ground Zero for grief and hope and love all at once.” She’s been a frequent presence at hospitals, meeting with those recovering from bullet wounds and advising relatives who suddenly find themselves turned into caregivers.

And she has repeatedly and publicly blamed President Trump, telling CNN for example: “He put the target on our back. He needs to peel it off.” She was among the first to urge Trump to stay away from El Paso, a message he ignored with his recent visit.

Escobar, who grew up on a dairy farm and served as county judge, has earned a level of respect in Congress usually reserved for more seasoned lawmakers. Among Democrats, she has become the chief explainer of the human toll of Trump’s immigration policies, and she has given dozens of colleagues, including ­Ocasio-Cortez, personal tours of the border. One senior Democratic staff member noted that when Escobar speaks at caucus meetings, the room goes silent.

Escobar is a longtime friend and ally of O’Rourke’s, and Democratic leaders see her as an emerging voice on border issues. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has shown her rare favor, describing her as a “star” and awarding her seats on the Armed Services and Judiciary committees, the only freshman on both high-
profile panels.

El Paso residents protested President Trump's visit to the city Aug. 7, after a mass shooting killed 22 people at a local Walmart. (Video: Melissa Macaya, Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

Her call for Trump to stay away from El Paso attracted enormous attention, given presidents’ traditional role as comforters in times of tragedy. But Escobar contended that Trump himself had paved the way for the shooter.

“This is one of the sites of one of his rallies,” Escobar said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” referring to a February gathering in El Paso. “He came into one of the safest communities in the nation and, as a result — or maybe not as result, that is probably unfair — but months later, a gunman came into our community.”

When the visit became official anyway, Escobar said she contacted the White House, asking to speak to Trump so she could relay what she had heard from her constituents.

“He needs to own his words, repudiate them and take them back — because without doing that, those words are still hovering over us and there are still people out there with hate in their hearts that grab onto those words,” she said. “He needs to re-humanize the people that he’s dehumanized.”

The White House told her that Trump was too busy to call, she said. Escobar responded that she would not be “a prop” for his visit, and instead joined local activists in organizing an “El Paso Strong” counter-rally.

Escobar is the first Latina to represent the El Paso area in Congress, and while she speaks of “leading with love,” those who know her prefer the term “chingona,” Spanish slang for a tough woman. Since taking office, she has often provided a counterpoint to Trump.

A recent fight among House Democrats over a border spending bill shows how Escobar operates. Pelosi singled her out in a closed-door meeting for her contribution to the bill, which included restrictions on how undocumented migrants could be treated.

“Thank you so much, Veronica, for what you have done,” Pelosi told the caucus, according to the notes of one Democrat in attendance, who provided them to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity to reveal details of the closed-door meeting. “She is right there on the front lines and understands all that is at stake.”

But Senate Democrats promptly abandoned the House bill, overwhelmingly joining Senate Republicans in passing an alternative that kept the funding but omitted the migrant protections. To the frustration of many liberals, Pelosi decided to go along, accepting the Senate bill as the fastest way to get the $4.6 billion for the border crisis.

Escobar opposed the Senate bill on moral grounds — but cast her dissenting vote only once it was clear it would pass, deciding that the funds were too important to delay.

Liberals were furious at Pelosi for what they considered a capitulation to Senate Republicans. “Hell no,” tweeted Ocasio-Cortez, who is an ally of Escobar’s despite their different approaches. “That’s an abdication of power we should refuse to accept.” She told CNN: “We didn’t even bother to negotiate. . . . We are a House majority, and we need to act like it.”

Escobar, though clearly upset that the Senate bill had prevailed, was more diplomatic. “I don’t have the kind of inside baseball that would make me feel confident about pointing any fingers, so I’m going to refrain,” she said at the time.

House leaders then pushed a second, Escobar-authored border bill to deal with some of the issues the earlier legislation had omitted. Escobar pushed hard for a vote, several Democrats said, but ultimately several dozen centrist Democrats grew weary of the effort and forced Pelosi to back off.

Escobar’s role in such immigration fights has already made her a target. The Washington Examiner published an article last month accusing her of sending staff members to Mexico to coach would-be migrants “to pretend they cannot speak Spanish to exploit a loophole letting them to return to the U.S.”

Escobar has said there is “zero truth” to these accusations, and that the article led to death threats against her, her staff, her children and her husband, who is an immigration judge.

“I think it’s important for people to know that there are consequences to their words,” she told reporters at the time. “Being irresponsible, and using xenophobia and bigotry to fuel hatred, has a consequence.”

President Trump visited first responders at an emergency operations center in El Paso Aug. 7, while activists held a rally attended by Beto O'Rourke. (Video: Reuters)

When Trump arrived in El Paso on Wednesday, Escobar was onstage at the counter-rally surrounded by other elected leaders, and the criticism she received from conservatives seemed overwhelmed by the enthusiastic reception to her remarks in her hometown.

“This country has had a long and painful journey with racism,” she said. “It’s only when we stand and we recognize one another for being human beings worthy of dignity, worthy of grace, worthy of love, only when we recognize that in every person — regardless of color, regardless of gender, regardless of who you love and whether you were born on this side or on that side of the river — we will not have redemption until we do that.”

Robert Moore contributed to this report.