WASHINGTON (AP) — The document landed in Rep. Veronica Escobar’s email just hours after a gunman killed 22 people in an El Paso, Texas, Walmart. It was a best-practices guide of sorts to a grim duty, titled “Shooting tragedy: Dealing with a crisis.”
Updated by members of Congress and their staffs and quietly passed around Capitol Hill for years, the how-to guidance was shared over the weekend with Escobar, a freshman Democrat and the latest member of a group of lawmakers charged with leading after mass shootings in their districts.
But as Escobar is learning, no guide to the logistics of crisis management is preparation enough for the sights and sounds of this specific kind of mayhem in one’s hometown. On Monday, two days after the shooting massacre, Escobar’s voice wavered as she recounted the story of a man who got a phone call from his wife, one of the Walmart victims. She had been shot in the legs and could not find their daughter. Both survived, Escobar said.
“The one detail I keep hearing over and over again is: He did not see them as people,” she said of the shooter during a telephone interview. “They were not human beings to him.”
The shooting adds a new and more seasoned chapter to Escobar’s story. The 49-year-old mother of two and wife of an immigration judge spent two decades in local government before coming to Washington this year as part of the history-making class of Democratic freshmen. She’s the first Latina to represent her district and has been tapped by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as an authority on the painful debate over border security.
“She has earned the respect of all as a person who listens to other people, and to whom other people listen,” Pelosi told The Associated Press.
The typically upbeat Escobar is a third-generation American who grew up on a dairy farm in El Paso, a major industrial city that was the jeans-making capital of the world in the 1970s and ’80s. She returned after graduate school at New York University to a hometown gutted by the North American Free Trade Agreement as many of those jobs moved across the border. Escobar was elected as a county commissioner in 2006 and a county judge four years later.
By then, a recovery had started when the drug war took off in neighboring Juarez, Mexico, and thousands of people moved across the border to El Paso. The city’s economy began recovering even faster than the rest of the country after the Great Recession. El Paso is now a largely Latino city of about 700,000 people. The weekend rampage claimed more lives than the number of murders in El Paso just two years ago.
Escobar resigned her post as county judge in 2017 to run for the seat held by Beto O’Rourke when he left to run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate. One bump on her journey came when some primary opponents complained that her husband, immigration judge Michael Pleters, had been appointed by President Donald Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and was charged with upholding the administration’s policies.
Escobar won the six-way primary with 61 percent of the vote and the general election with nearly 67 percent.
Her heady ascent to the House came with the most diverse class of new members in history and she swiftly made a name for herself as a poised questioner of Trump administration officials on the Judiciary Committee. She favors an impeachment inquiry into Trump’s conduct, a decision she said she came to after reading special counsel Robert Mueller’s account of potential presidential obstruction of justice.
Long before then, Escobar took on Trump for his immigration policy and his denigration of Mexicans as rapists. In June 2018, she and O’Rourke led protests against Trump’s family separation policy.
And when Trump in his State of the Union address falsely attributed El Paso’s designation as a safe city to its border fencing, Escobar, seated on the House floor, looked exasperated and openly scoffed.
Now, she says she won’t attend Trump’s visit to the city Wednesday unless she has “the opportunity to talk directly to him.”
What would she say? She sees a connection between the way the gunman saw his victims in Walmart and the language Trump uses to talk about immigrants as an infestation and an invasion.
She said she would tell the Republican president: “I need you to acknowledge that you’ve dehumanized people who are good and equal to all of us. And you need to rehumanize everyone.”
On Tuesday, Escobar said the White House had told her Trump “is ‘too busy’ to have that conversation.”
“I refuse to be an accessory to his visit,” Escobar tweeted. “I refuse to join without a dialogue about the pain his racist and hateful words & actions have caused our community and country.”
For now, Escobar is spending the August break as a public consoler. She’ll be attending vigils, funeral services and making media appearances in the mold of other members of Congress before her, as aides take care of the details.
Rep. Elaine Luria, a fellow Democratic freshman from Virginia who represents the Virginia Beach area where a shooter on May 31 murdered 12 people, said she reached out to Escobar over the weekend with an offer to help — and a copy of the how-to guide on shepherding traumatized constituents through a tragedy, “updated with our experiences.”
In a series of texts, Luria gave Escobar advice: Get all representatives of all levels of government on-site to take care of the myriad tasks required. In Virginia Beach, a firefighter who spoke Russian helped Luria communicate with a victim whose family was trying to travel from Belarus.
“I told her a lot of it is just being there,” Luria said, recalling her exchange with Escobar. “I felt like my job was to give hugs.”
Associated Press writer Will Weissert and researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report.
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