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El Paso Mayor John Cook, Recall Target, Takes Stand Against Anti-Gay 'Bigotry'

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John Cook only has 13 months left as mayor of El Paso. But as of last Wednesday, when papers were filed for a recall petition, Cook will be fending off no fewer than two attempts to remove him from office over his support for unmarried domestic partners' health benefits.

Deep in the heart of Texas, Cook has taken a stance on rights for gay and lesbian couples. And the former Catholic seminarian and Brooklyn native is arguing with his opponents in the words of a man who's unafraid of a fight.

"To me this was always about bigotry," Cook said. "Intolerance is bigotry."

The path toward the recall efforts began in 2009, when the city council approved benefits for domestic couples -- both gay and straight. Religious leaders quickly caught on, and in the ensuring firestorm they proposed a referendum to ban those benefits. It passed with 55 percent of the vote in 2010. But Cook wasn't done just yet -- with the help of most of the city council, he had a different partner benefits ordinance approved.

Cook's vigorous defense of his ordinance has thrown fuel on the fire that was already raging in El Paso over same-sex partner benefits.

"I think he's calling the majority of El Pasoans bigots," said Tom Brown, an evangelical pastor who runs Word of Life Church. "If 55 percent of the electorate, he wants to call them bigots, that's up to him."

"We all know marriage is between a man and a woman -- the state law says so," added Brown, who has referred to the people who use the benefits as "fornicators" and "homosexuals."

"It is these activist council people that did a run-around of state law by using our tax dollars to support benefits," he said.

Brown and a coalition of religious groups -- many of them representing Latinos in this town just north of the Mexican border -- started a group called El Pasoans For Traditional Family Values to mount a recall. But there were some legal problems with the attempt, and its fate now lies with the Texas Supreme Court.

Because the initial recall effort seems to be in jeopardy, a second attempt was launched last Wednesday by an Army veteran, Michael Hayes, who now has 60 days to collect enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot.

In a low turnout election, given the city's "apathetic" voters, "it could be a very disastrous result for me if it comes to that," Cook said.

But Cook said he is willing to fight -- and in terms that might surprise some. He noted that "all of my education in New York City, all the way up through Saint Francis College, was in Catholic school." He even spent a year in seminary after college.

"I read the Bible every day," he said. "I'm challenging the argument that the other side is using, which is trying to make this a moral and spiritual issue. And if they want to argue on that basis, I'm very capable of doing that, too."

More than 50 percent of El Pasoans do not have health coverage, he noted, and it would violate everything he stands for if the number of people who do have coverage decreased. And the government, he added, has no business enforcing an Old Testament moral code on its citizens.

"Where do I stop?" he asked. "Do I all of a sudden say ... when you call 911 when you're divorced, committing adultery, you ain't going to get no ambulance or fire truck? And don't expect me to pick your trash up, because that would be condoning sin?"

"It's time for elected officials to start taking what they believe in and make it popular, not taking what's popular and making it what they believe in," Cook said.

Making partner benefits for LGBT couples popular -- in a state that voted in 2005 to deny same-sex marriage legal status by a 76 to 24 percent margin -- will likely be an uphill battle for some time to come. For those voters, Cook is also making a secondary argument, about the 84 retirees, 42 dependents of retirees, 40 children and grandchildren, and 32 dependent adults who would also lose their benefits if the ordinance is overturned.

There is plenty of uncertainty as to whether Cook will actually face a recall effort before he leaves office. On March 23, the Texas Supreme Court denied many of the motions of El Pasoans For Traditional Family Values in its attempt to get the recall on the ballot in time.

Cook's lawyer considers the matter all but dead, but the mayor is not so sure, particularly with the new petition launched last week. He is nevertheless serene about his decision to support domestic partner benefits.

"Even if I get kicked out of office over this," he said, "for standing up for what I thought was right, then I'm okay with it."

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