As he campaigns for his fourth term, Joe Rubio, the District Attorney for Webb and Zapata Counties, hardly seems troubled by the allegations of corruption swirling around his office. At least, he showed no sign of concern last month at an evening pachanga, hosted by Zapata County Attorney Joe López and held at a public park in Zapata.
Rubio, who has a lawman’s sturdy carriage, charted a strategic course through the crowd, spending more time with the county officials clustered around the bandstand than with the friendly inebriates standing around the keg or the women by the food table. Each handshake seemed to reinforce the ties, the organization, whose strength will determine the outcome of the election. If Rubio wins, he will owe his victory in no small part to his network — the local officials and their employees, the firemen and policemen’s associations, the union organizers who have endorsed him — and his skill in maintaining it. (When I observed to him that he seemed to enjoy politicking, he answered, “It’s probably what I do best.”)
That he stands a good chance of winning is tribute enough to the strength of the political network surrounding Joe Rubio. For almost two years, the question has been to what extent Rubio has also been surrounded by a ring of corruption and case-fixing. On May 29, 1998 — Rubio’s forty-fifth birthday — federal agents descended upon his Laredo office and hauled off thousands of files. The F.B.I. also raided the houses of Rubio’s wheelchair-bound father, a justice of the peace, and a bail bondsman who was reportedly dragged from his bed in his underwear.
In the months that followed, Assistant D.A. Ramón Villafranca was indicted and convicted on corruption charges. Rubio has since claimed ignorance of Villafranca’s schemes and painted the convicted prosecutor as one bad egg, but in a multiple indictment delivered last July, the government asserted otherwise, describing a sizable hatchery’s worth of corruption in the vicinity of Rubio’s office. The ten people charged included Villafranca (for a new set of alleged offenses), another prosecutor, and three investigators employed by the District Attorney’s office, as well as the bail bondsman, a police officer, Joe Rubio’s cousin José Rubio, Joe Rubio’s brother Carlos Rubio, and Joe Rubio’s father, Joe Rubio, Sr. In August, cousin José Juan Rubio pled guilty.
Joe Rubio the younger, however, was not indicted. And while in another city, such charges against the D.A.’s office might prompt internal reorganization, resignations, or at least a little perfunctory hand-wringing, Rubio has dismissed the F.B.I. investigation as federal overreaching and rejected the notion that he should hold himself in any way responsible for the office’s troubles. “There are fifty-five employees there [the D.A.’s office], and I think if something happens in an organization, I don’t think everybody else should be blamed for it,” says Rubio. “When you’re sworn in as district attorney you take an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and of the state of Texas. And the Constitution says that you are presumed innocent until proven guilty…. I just think that as an attorney you have a higher duty to allow the justice system to just take its course.”
Nor is he fazed by José Juan Rubio’s guilty plea: “My cousin’s a druggie,” Joe Rubio told me in the car on the way to the Zapata fundraiser. He added that José Rubio took advantage of the similarity in their names to impersonate him: “He would tell people, ‘I’m Joe Rubio,'” said Joe Rubio (whose given name is José Marcelino Rubio.) “He (José Juan Rubio) was making representations that were not true, that he had authority to do certain things in the office.” (José Juan Rubio, in prison in Louisiana, could not be reached for comment.)
Never mind the F.B.I.: Joe Rubio has a campaign to run — under the slogan “Courage to Stand for What is Right.” He is stressing his office’s accomplishments in the areas of domestic violence and child protection — to which he has devoted considerable resources. As there are no Republican contenders for the office, the election will be decided by the March 14 primary, in which Rubio faces two challengers, Albert Gutiérrez and Anna Laura Cavazos Ramírez. No official polls have been taken (as of this writing), but the race appears to be a close one between Rubio and Gutiérrez, whose names appear on thousands of signs plastered all over Laredo, and whose faces stare out from billboards that soar above the long lines of trucks on I-35.
From the standpoint of Rubio’s challengers in particular, it is a race that pits old-style machine politics against open government, and in that sense, this election has played and replayed in Laredo for the past twenty years. “In 1978, when the political machine that dominated Laredo for ninety-four years broke apart, different factions went in different directions,” says Dr. Jerry Thompson, a historian and Dean of Arts and Sciences at Laredo’s Texas A&M International University. “And I think what we have today are remnants of that. These people in county office [have] large numbers of employees at their disposal, and those employees have extended families — you can create a large faction.” Yet Laredo’s explosive growth (it is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country) is slowly dislodging the old power bases. Adds Thompson: “Laredo has become much more sophisticated in the past ten years, and though there is a great deal of political apathy here, I think accusations of corruption do matter, and I think large numbers of people are paying attention to what’s being said.”
But will those people elect a new District Attorney? Albert Gutiérrez is thirty and looks no older; he’s blond (rubio in Spanish) and blue-eyed, and a preppy dresser (Ralph Lauren shirts, Armani glasses). Though eager to become district attorney, Albert Gutiérrez is something of a reluctant candidate when it comes to the gripping and grinning part. (“Albert is not a politician,” his mother Linda Gutiérrez told me.) His campaign signs and push cards forgo the traditional red and/or blue in favor of black and gray, which is in keeping with his apparent intention to stand out by not standing out, to play by the rules. “I’m running under ‘experience you can trust,’ and I really believe that,” said Gutiérrez. “I’m talking about trial experience, experience going to crime scenes. And trust, that’s pretty basic. Plus, you’re not going to have to trust me because that can be through open records. It will all be public, the decisions we made, and why.”
Gutiérrez grew up in Laredo, went away to college (U.T.-Austin) and law school (St. Mary’s), and returned to Laredo to begin his career. He spent a year in private practice before going to work for Rubio as an Assistant District Attorney in 1995. “Me and several young lawyers who went in there all about the same time, we weren’t aware of any corruption, as far as money changing hands, but there was a lot of peculiarities, for example, Joe’s father was there all the time, as if he was working there,” Gutiérrez said. (Rubio confirmed that his father paid visits to the office, but countered that Gutiérrez’ mother also used to stop by. “Everybody’s parents used to visit their sons and daughters,” he said.) Gutiérrez also ran up against the office pecking order. “You had the people who had been there for awhile, they had their clique and they were obviously in good with Joe’s father, which carried over to Joe. Me and several other people never got into the clique; we didn’t want to, but if you weren’t in there you weren’t in that much favor with Joe.”
Gutiérrez left to work for a private firm three months after the 1998 F.B.I. raid, and announced his candidacy not long after that. His campaign has emphasized his own record as a prosecutor (he won sixteen of sixteen cases tried) and advanced proposals to make the D.A.’s office more accountable to the public; he has claimed that too many sex offenders are given probation rather than jail time. He has noticeably not gone on attack against the corruption allegations, due in part to small-town manners. “Joe knows a lot of people in town. A lot of people aren’t going to vote for him, but they don’t want to see him get smeared,” explained Gutiérrez. But perhaps it’s also because as a former prosecutor, Gutiérrez’ ability to position himself as an outsider is limited: he may not have been in “the clique” but he did work in the office for three years. He recalls one case he worked on, in which an eighteen-year-old held up a motel office with a shotgun. Rubio, says Gutiérrez, called him into his office and instructed him to offer probation; when Gutiérrez protested that he couldn’t offer probation on an aggravated robbery charge, Rubio instructed him to reduce the charge. “It was clearly a favor,” recalls Gutiérrez. Rubio says it never happened.
Whether it happened or not, it points to one of the criticisms that have been leveled against Gutiérrez during the campaign. “If his motivation is that there are all these questionable dealings in office, why didn’t he say anything when he was working there?” asks the third candidate, Anna Laura Cavazos Ramírez. “Why did he just sit there and wait and watch for three years?” Ramírez, who served as an assistant D.A. before Rubio came to office and later as county attorney, was Rubio’s only opponent in 1996; she lost decisively. This time around, with a fraction of the money raised by Gutiérrez and Rubio, Ramírez is the gadfly of the campaign, launching volleys against both candidates. “All of us knew it (corrupt dealings) was going on,” she says. “Anybody who works around county government, who works around the justice center knew all of this was going on. She minces no words about Rubio, having told the Laredo Morning Times, “You can buy your way out of anything, including murder in that office” — referring to allegations in an F.B.I. affidavit, that murder charges were dismissed or probated in exchange for money. Rubio calls the allegations false.
“It was pretty disgusting to me that this man might get elected despite the scandal, despite word getting out, the thought of him getting elected is totally distasteful to me,” said Ramírez. “What does it say about the city of Laredo?”
The same day as Rubio’s pachanga in Zapata, the Gutiérrez campaign held $500-a-ticket luncheon fundraiser at Nuevo Laredo’s swanky Cadillac Bar, which is owned by cousins of Gutiérrez’ father. The contrast between the two events could hardly be sharper: instead of beer kegs and county brass, here were cocktails and well-heeled professionals. The guests, whom Gutiérrez described as “mostly friends and family,” included bankers and trucking company owners — old Laredo money and new. Gutiérrez leads the money race, having raised $138,000 compared to Rubio’s $68,000. (“Joe is very very powerful, and has many of the office holders supporting him,” notes Ramírez. “But Albert has dug into his base of support; he’s pulled away some of the people with money and influence because that’s who his relatives are.”) As a result, Gutiérrez has been able to run more television advertising than Rubio.
After the fundraiser, Gutiérrez drove out to the offices of T.S.I., a Laredo trucking company, to meet with Patrick Leyndecker, a company executive who’d called to offer a campaign donation. Leyndecker, a jittery man in a red “USA” T-shirt and red baseball cap, sat Gutiérrez down in his office — a small, windowless room presided over by enlarged photographs of his daughter and a stuffed ocelot — and explained that he had an older brother in prison because of a misdemeanor. “You know how it is, they say, you got ten grand, we’ll take care of it. And we didn’t want to do that, so they gave him five to eight years,” Leyndecker said. “It’s a bunch of B.S., man. It’s time for a change.” He showed Gutiérrez a pad of paper with a list of names — people who, he said, would vote for Gutiérrez.
“That’s exactly what we need,” said Gutiérrez. “If everyone did this, we’d be set.”
It is perhaps a smaller organization than the one backing Rubio, but Gutiérrez’ alliance of small lists and large donations could help him unseat the incumbent. After all, a pachanga isn’t what it used to be. “In the old days,” a union official told me at Rubio’s evening function, “we would have slaughtered an animal, and this would’ve been an all-day affair. But now, people are busy….”
Whether this race pits a machine politician against a reformer (as Gutiérrez would have it) or a protector of the innocent against an inexperienced upstart (as Rubio would), it certainly pits old politics against new. In the end, the election may boil down to television versus carne asada. “Around election time,” explained one Laredo political observer, “the air is thick with the fragrance of carne asadas you have in the neighborhoods. You feed the pobres, the organizers get to take home the leftovers, and the candidate shows up for a cameo. One carne asada probably translates to a fair number of votes.” Rubio probably has the carne asada advantage; the question is whether Gutiérrez’ commercials can overcome it.
Former Observer associate editor Karen Olsson lives in Austin.