SANTA FE -- Oscar Leeser, born in Chihuahua City, Mexico, in 1958, will take office Sunday as mayor of El Paso. His by-the-bootstraps success, first as a businessman and then as a politician, may influence debate on how to craft immigration policy.
Leeser won the nonpartisan mayoral election with almost 75 percent of the vote, trouncing an eight-year city council member in the runoff.
With that heady triumph, Leeser will become mayor of the second-largest city on the U.S.-Mexico border, El Paso's population only behind San Diego's.
Leeser's roots in Mexico played little part in his election. Voters embraced him for his business acumen and civic pride, his auto dealership having sponsored the annual Sun Bowl game, El Paso's signature event of wintertime.
But it will not be long before reporters and television news producers from around America take notice of Leeser's background as a hardworking immigrant who made a splash in his adopted hometown.
Spanish was Leeser's first language. In interviews across the years, he admitted that he had difficulty learning English after he moved with his parents to El Paso as a 9-year-old in 1967.
This makes Leeser's story all the more inspiring. A stranger in a strange land, he set goals, pushed himself to meet them and worried about making a difference.
Leeser may have critics, but anybody who talks about the American Dream could use him as the poster child.
Years ago, we would run into one another at a dry-cleaning store on El Paso's West Side. Leeser had no idea I was a newspaperman, but he was unfailingly friendly.
I knew him because of his television commercials for his auto dealership. Leeser's mother, Rhoberta, costarred in the ads and contributed to his becoming a figure known by his first name. Anybody in El Paso who mentioned Oscar probably was not talking about de la Hoya or Robertson.
Name recognition was only part of Leeser's rise. Plenty of businesspeople appear in advertisements. Not many can parlay that sort of attention to success in the political arena.
Leeser did it because he oozes both intensity and goodwill toward others.
This is not to say that he will find the going smooth as he takes office. It could be choppy, challenging, even maddening for him.
El Paso's form of government is built around a city manager who has much more day-to-day power than either the mayor or the city council. Leeser will have to be careful not to let the nature of the beast neuter his natural desire to lead.
I have never cared for the city council-city manager form of government, and I suspect Leeser will like it even less. My complaint is that the system lacks accountability.
If a mayor is running the city, voters have a clear idea of his record and of the city council's. But when a city manager is added to the mixture, the lines of responsibility blur. Part-time council members have a built-in excuse for any failings. The mayor's agenda takes a back seat. Voters do not get to hire or evaluate the city manager because that is the council's purview.
With all of these layers of bureaucracy to navigate, Leeser will have to find his way. It may take him a month or six weeks.
Nonetheless, he will start his political career as an important symbol. A border city of 665,000 elected him as its top politician. Now the whole country will take notice of him.
Leeser will be sterling when he sits down with The New York Times or The Washington Post. He is ambitious without any sign of arrogance, serious-minded but with a sense of humor, hardworking but not a grind.
National stories about El Paso in recent memory have focused mostly on corruption, criminal convictions of politicians and a cheating scandal in the largest public school district, orchestrated by the former superintendent no less.
Leeser will draw attention for other, more uplifting reasons.
He arrived in El Paso as an immigrant, made friends, built a business, kept his word to customers and won election as mayor in resounding style. It is easy to lose faith in government. Leeser's story shows us that we should never lose hope.