EL PASO, Texas - El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar has appointed attorney Tania Chozet as Commissioner of Precinct 3.
The seat was left vacant by Willie Gandara Jr., who resigned last week after he was indicted and arrested on federal drug trafficking charges.
Only the county judge has the authority and is tasked by the constitution to appoint a replacement after an elected commissioner resigns.
"I have a lot to learn," Chozet, an El Paso native, said Monday morning. "There's going to be a huge learning curve. I can't see how I'm going to run for the position. This isn't what I ever intended to do with my career. I'm really passionate about immigrants rights and immigration policy and that's where my heart lies but that said, I'm also very protective of the community I grew up in which is one of the reasons I decided to give up a job I really loved and do this for a few months."
Until this weekend, Chozet was a lawyer working for the American Civil Liberties Union's Regional Center for Border Rights in New Mexico. She was a policy advocate since May 2011, according to the ACLU's New Mexico website.
The new commissioner is an Ysleta High School graduate with an undergraduate degree from Yale University and a law degree from San Francisco School of Law, according to the ACLU website. Chozet left the Borderland to attend college and the website states "she departed with the intention of returning to someday work on border policy."
Chozet said she planned to begin her 10-month tenure with a new staff, meaning Dora Oaxaca, a candidate running for that office and Gandara's former chief assistant is out of precinct three.
"I think that for the residents of my precinct, the best thing right now is to start with a clean slate, so we're going to start there and I wish Mr. Gandara all the best luck in the world... I think it's really tough (letting the staff go) and this isn't personal at all. I'm just looking at what's best for the residents in my precinct," Chozet.
Oaxaca said she welcomed Chozet, understood her decision and had a file with pending projects ready for the new commissioner.
Escobar said a community member recommended Chozet and the county judge met with her last Thursday. For more than a couple hours, Escobar probed Chozet without telling her she was being considered for the position.
"Poor thing, I think I grilled her, I think she started to get suspicious," Escobar said.
After the lengthy conversation, Escobar asked Chozet to consider taking over the commissioner seat. Chozet and Escobar had more meetings after that initial conversation, "slept on it" for two nights and Saturday both decided Chozet should serve.
"The more that I got to know her and the more that we talked about issues, the more I thought, she has the intelligence and the integrity to restore public trust," Escobar said of Chozet.
Escobar said she purposely did not choose someone who was seeking the seat or a political candidate.
"I made it clear to folks who were interested that if I selected a non-candidate, I wanted it to be someone who would not jump in (the race for commissioner) at the last minute. I don't think that that's fair. I don't think that that's appropriate," she said.
The county judge said that amid the "crisis of trust and in a crisis of leadership" El Paso County is in, she wanted someone with no political ambitions to serve.
Chozet has quit her ACLU job but said she hopes to return after the commissioner term.
"I'm a very private person so I'm not used to cameras. I was telling the judge I was plucked from relative obscurity a couple of days ago and this was a huge consideration and so was giving up a job I loved," she said.
The new commissioner said she did not plan to run for the seat.
"All of this is happening so quickly," Chozet said. "I don't really know left from right right now so I'll leave it to the people who have already been running. They probably know the issues better than I do. I have a lot of learning to do and that's where I'm going to focus on the next few months."
Chozet grew up in a working class home in the Lower Valley. She nearly got teary-eyed as she remembered her parents selling their minivan for her to attend Yale University despite having a full ride at Wellesley College.
"I owe my parents everything. They're everything to me," she said.
Chozet has also worked with The Border Peace Alliance and Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. According to the ACLU website, Chozet, in 2010, traveled to Arizona on a campaign to mobilize Latino voters against SB1070, the controversial immigration bill that requires the state's law enforcement officers attempt to verify an individual's immigration status during a "lawful stop."
According to Chozet's ACLU profile, LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) and criminal justice issues are also areas of interest for her.
Some of her articles on the ACLU of New Mexico's website analyze the impacts of the Obama administration's approach to immigration and studies on Border Patrol strategies.
Chozet has also been vocal about mischaracterizations of the border. In an article dated May 25, 2011 on the ACLU of New Mexico's website, she called on Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West to be "more responsible and honest in his characterization of the border region, so as not to create a charged atmosphere in which residents shoot first and ask questions later."
Chozet wrote the article as a response to an incident in Hudspeth County where a rancher shot two men, whom he alleged were trespassing. The two men, father and son, said they took a wrong turn, were unaware they were trespassing and were shot at by the rancher without warning.
West, a month before the shooting, had called on residents to "arm themselves" because of spillover violence from Mexico. He's also told lawmakers he's concerned terrorists from the Middle East are working with Mexican criminal organizations.
"It is impossible not to wonder whether this incident is a consequence of the increasingly charged atmosphere created by exaggerated and irresponsible descriptions of border violence by elected officials at every level," Chozet wrote about the trespassing shooting.
The new commissioner for now is focusing on restoring public trust.
"I'm really hopeful that I can help the county and my residents start to heal. That?s most important for me. So I just don't want to spend too much time looking back at what happened and just move forward and do it in a better way. It's a huge responsibility and I understand that and I?m one of those people who has lost a lot of faith in our government representatives so I know what it's like. I don't know that I'll be able to turn things around in the few months that I have but I?m sure going to try," she said.
Chozet is the first woman commissioner in precinct three. There have only been three commissioners to hold that office in the last 50 years. The last two, Miguel Teran and Gandara, had their offices raided by federal agencies. Teran was implicated in the FBI's public corruption investigation but never charged with a crime.
According to City documents, City Rep. Steve Ortega had named Chozet to the Museum and Cultural Affairs Advisory Board in summer 2011 to serve an unexpired term to fill the vacancy left by Anna Pilhoefer.
Four people are running for Gandara's Commissioners Court seat. They are Vincent Perez, the former Communication Director for Congressman Silvestre Reyes, current State Rep. Chente Quintanilla, logistical consultant Rudy Loya and Oaxaca, who until Wednesday was Gandara's senior assistant.