New county judge will make history

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Photo Credit Jorge Salgado

Ruben Vogt and former El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar.

It may not have been a unanimous vote by El Paso County Commissioners Court to appoint Ruben Vogt as county judge, but it was a historic one.

Vogt, 33, who served as County Judge Veronica Escobar’s chief of staff for two years, is vice president of Equality Texas, the state’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization.

He’s the first openly gay man to hold the highest position in El Paso County government and almost surely the second in history among Texas’s 254 county government. Dallas elected a gay county judge in 2006.

Vogt will be sworn in at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday at the County Courthouse, and he’s getting married to his partner of five years on Friday.

Escobar, who resigned to run for Congress, said appointing Vogt wasn’t her idea, but it was a good one.

“That came from another member of the court during executive session,” she said. “He said, ‘I have an idea. If what we want is continuity and a seamless transition until voters have their say, then why not Ruben?’”

There are precedents, she said, citing the appointment of Jo Anne Bernal as county attorney. Bernal was appointed to the position when then-County Attorney Jose Rodriguez’s resigned to run for the Texas State Senate.

Then, when former Sheriff Leo Samaniego died while in office in 2007, Escobar said, Commissioners Court appointed his first deputy, Jimmy Apodaca, to serve out his term as sheriff.

Although the county has kept the names of the finalists for the county judge job confidential, County Commissioner Andrew Haggerty told El Paso Inc. on Friday that he recommended Vogt in executive session.

Haggerty, the only Republican on Commissioners Court, also offered the motion in open session on Monday to appoint Vogt to serve the remaining 15 months of Escobar’s term as county judge.

“It was not the judge,” Haggerty said. “I brought up Ruben’s name. I’ve had three years to see how he works. He’s an extremely hard worker and extremely knowledgeable.

“My thought was that in 15 months someone new would just be getting the hang of the job. But Ruben already knows everybody and the inner workings of the county. I think he will do very well.”

The fact that Vogt is gay was not an issue, Haggerty and other commissioners said.

Chuck Smith, CEO of Austin-based Equality Texas, said he was not aware of any other openly gay man or woman who has served as a county judge in Texas.

“We’re very pleased and congratulate Ruben on his appointment,” Smith said. “He continues to be a leader on our board, and I have no doubt those leadership skills will come into good use in El Paso County.”

The vote by Escobar and the four commissioners to appoint Vogt was 4-1, with Commissioner Vince Perez voting no.

“There were other qualified applicants that I thought would have done a fine job as county judge,” Perez said. “I had strong reservations about appointing a member of the county judge’s staff to succeed her as county judge when we had several qualified applicants.”

Commissioners Court’s selection process was conducted privately in executive session over the past several weeks. The one condition for prospective appointees was that the one appointed would not run for the office next year.

Perez and others on the court said they expected to see the names of the other finalists released. That had not happened as of Friday afternoon and El Paso Inc. was told to file a request for the names under the Texas Public Information Act.

Commissioners Court kept the deliberations behind closed doors to “make sure no one feels slighted or embarrassed by not being chosen,” Escobar has said.

Another issue was Vogt’s $1,000 contribution the previous Friday, Sept. 29, to Escobar’s congressional campaign – a fact that Perez said he wished commissioners had been told before they voted.

“The county attorney made the determination that there was nothing improper, but I believe the information should have been disclosed, and I was disappointed it wasn’t provided,” Perez said.

Escobar returned Vogt’s contribution Tuesday.

Asked why he made the contribution knowing he was being considered for the appointment, Vogt said. “I honestly did not think I was a frontrunner. I didn’t pursue this opportunity; the county judge asked me. I just didn’t think I was going to be the one.”

Vogt has spent the last 11 years working for the county and under Commissioners Court.

Before that, he was a legislative analyst for former state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh handling health care, environmental and border issues.

He holds a master’s degree from UTEP in intelligence and national securities studies and bachelor degrees in American literature and political science.

He said he interned with the U.S. State Department and thought that’s where he would end up.

“I found it fascinating, but I was already working at the county, going to school in the evenings and working during the day,” he said. “Honestly, time escaped me, and I have been with the county now for 11 years.

“I don’t plan on running for public office after this, so we’ll see what opportunities lay ahead. But for now, I’ve got 15 months of intense work, and that’s all I’m focused on.”

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