El Mayor vs. Los Good Old Boys
The Chihuahuan desert sky is forever deep in El Paso, and the Franklin mountains seem to lie outside time. For years, the whole place has felt as still as rocksÃ¢â‚¬”even though the stillness includes many things abandoned ages ago by more forward looking cities. There are the $70-a-week live-in house maids. The local economy bogged in the minimum wage. Hordes of polite, bilingual workers with no college education. Local government run behind the scenes by a mostly Anglo oligarchy, in a town where over three-quarters of the faces are brown. The cityÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Anglo leaders (and a few of their Hispanic friends) rubbing shoulders over golf at the El Paso Country Club. The Franklins framing the golfers on their lush putting greens, like a tranquil, immovable force.
Look closer, though, and you see social temblor. For the past two years, El Paso has been shaken by political change that has enthralled many and enraged others. The lightning rod is Ray Caballero, who took over the mayorÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s office in 2001 after running a brilliant, populist campaign that denounced the traditional oligarchs as “good old boys” and promised to make El Paso a democratic, modern city.
After winning by a landslide, he enjoyed a honeymoon with the City Council and set out to wreak unprecedented transformation. Today, however, as he faces a second campaign and May 3 election, he is the target of denunciations, red baiting and rumor mongeringÃ¢â‚¬”dispensed by everyone from Anglo oligarchs to his own daughter. At Council meetings, she wags her finger and calls him a monster. Others sport buttons that say “Comrade Caballero,” with a slash through the last name. The local media reports little of this conflict. The mayorÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s staff is shell shocked. CaballeroÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s loyal supporters continue to embrace himÃ¢â‚¬”while wondering if his own personality has inflamed the conflict. As for Caballero, he celebrates the hostilities. “If youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re not making someone angry, youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re not making change,” he said recently.
After hearing that he is impossibly busy on weekdays, I had arranged to interview him at nine oÃ¢â‚¬â„¢clock on a Saturday morning. While driving to City Hall, I got a call on my cell phone asking to postpone because the Mayor was too busy. We decided to meet two hours later and at 10:56 Caballero drove up. I headed to the parking lot to greet him but found him frozen to the asphalt, talking on his phone. At exactly 11, and not a moment sooner, we went to his 10th-floor office. It seemed oddly big, because itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s devoid of politico kitschÃ¢â‚¬”flags or photos of handshakes with other politicos. The sole decorations are a few works by local artists. One is a drawing by Luis Jimenez, known for his controversial, pop-art depictions of local issues, such as abuse of Hispanics by border policing agencies. The drawing shows several generations of working-class Mexican AmericansÃ¢â‚¬”including a young woman with very gluteal buttocksÃ¢â‚¬”merrily boarding one of the trolleys that used to link El Paso and Juarez. Entitled “Ancient Roots/New Visions,” itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the perfect metaphor for Ray CaballeroÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s administration.
With his brown skin, silvering hair, Roman nose and rimless eyeglasses, 61-year-old Caballero looks more like a Latino intellectual than a politician. It is not just a look. He is a precise and erudite speaker, an eclectic reader, a student of northern Mexico history, an art collector and a world traveler (when I first met him shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, he was headed to Russia to buy icons). As a successful trial lawyer, Caballero has been able to furnish his life with privilege. But some would say that he started out with an edge: His parents owned a thriving motel and restaurant, and the family lived in an affluent, mostly Anglo neighborhood.
By the early 1970s, Caballero was a young criminal defense lawyer admired as someone who stood for the rule of law and refused to take shit from anyone. He had a legendary bout with San Antonio Judge John Wood, known as “Maximum John” because of his harsh sentences. In 1974 the jury was trying to reach a verdict in a case where Caballero was the defense attorney. It looked like they would acquit, but Judge Wood shut down deliberations and declared a hung jury. The government then rewrote the indictment in ways that made defense more difficult; CaballeroÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s client was convicted at retrial. Later, at a party, CaballeroÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s wife overheard a juror from the first trial mention that Wood had pressured the panel to reach a decision so he could catch a plane. Caballero filed a motion to interview jury members, but the judge overruled it. In 1977, he was in WoodÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s court again. A state witness had a history of lying under oath, but Wood wouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t allow the jury to hear that history. When Caballero protested, he threatened him with contempt of court. Caballero exploded. “You want me to stand here under my oath and take abuse from youÃ¢â‚¬”the kind of abuse I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t take in front of any man?…I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t care if you stick me away in jail forever. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m telling you, you are no judge!” Wood slapped him with a $500 fine and moved to yank his law license. Caballero refused to pay or apologize.
After earning huge awards in several civil cases, he abandoned private practice in 1989 to do community work. He hooked up with then 65th District Judge Edward Marquez and El Paso lawyer Eliot Shapleigh to convene a special criminal court of inquiry to prove the border was not getting its share of highway money and recoup the funds. At the hearings, besuited state bureaucrats were read their Miranda rights as though they were common punks. The ploy worked: El Paso got $65 million in extra highway money.
Shapleigh then won election to the Texas State Senate. With Caballero working behind the scenes, he called for more courts of inquiry. They worked together to force Texas Tech Health Sciences Center to share its control of the Border Health Institute. Charging that the school was using El Paso doctors and patients to support its main facility in Lubbock, Caballero used words like “plunderer” and “parasites.” Some in El Paso were aghast. Others were dazzled by his ganasÃ¢â‚¬”Spanish for gutsÃ¢â‚¬”and “vision.”
Over the years he had been encouraged to run for the office, but had always preferred to work behind the scenes. Then in early 2001, he suddenly changed course and started stumping.
“For a guy who doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t want to be a politician, heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the best campaigner IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve ever seen,” says reporter Neil Simon, who used to cover politics with KTSM-TV Channel 9 and now works in Albuquerque. The best thing Caballero did, Simon recalls, was put a $50 cap on individual contributions; his main opponent routinely received $2,000 and more from the handful of builders, real estate developers, and bankers who traditionally finance El PasoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s political campaigns. “Looking at the number of $50 contributions,” he says, “CaballeroÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s base was clearly huge. Everyone felt like they could be a political player.”
Like a Biblical prophet, Caballero shook his finger at generations of “good old boy” elitism. The powers that be, he said, had left El Paso the fifth poorest city in the country and the only one in Texas that lost jobs because of NAFTA. He excoriated past leaders for touting El Paso as a non-union, cheap-wage town and creating an industrious but unschooled and indigent populace. He talked about cleaning up an environment sullied by years of metal smelting, oil refining and rock quarrying in heavily populated parts of town. He spoke witheringly of banks that exported too much capital. He floated plans for a border health complex in the middle of the city and talked about joining El Paso and Juarez, through a light rail system. He pushed the need to regulate development on the outskirts and revitalize inner-city neighborhoods.
His main opponent was retired engineer and former mayor Larry Francis, whom he beat handily in a run-off. In June 2001, Caballero took office. His first few months went smoothlyÃ¢â‚¬”or so it seemed. Almost immediately there were problems from the likes of El Paso good old boy par excellence, Stanley Jobe.
Today, Stanley Jobe is an El Paso institution, second in stature only to the Roman Catholic Church. Even his staunchest political opponents speak of him with awe. “HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the most powerful person in town,” muses Joyce Feinberg, CaballeroÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s executive assistant. “HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s this incredibly successful man yet when he speaks he almost hesitates, as though he has a little bit of a speech impediment. It gives him an Ã¢â‚¬ËœAw shucksÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ air. YouÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re just drawn to him.” Feinberg recalls Jobe as a “big-ticket purchaser” for the cityÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s main social gala, the Sun Bowl, as well as a substantial donor to the symphony and other civic causes.
He also gives money to people running for political office. Lots and lots of money. In addition to contributing to mayoral and city council races, Jobe and his wife, Martie, and his sister Irene Epperson have given thousands to candidates for state and federal offices. Even more important, they recommend candidates to their friends, and tap the latter for money.
The only time any politico seems to have balked at Jobe money was when Stanley was serving time for bank fraud. According to court records, from 1989 to 1991, he and his father were part of an elaborate check kiting scheme at a bank they owned in Montana, and at the local El Paso State Bank and Continental National Bank. Stanley was convicted in 1994. He served several months in prison and was placed on probation for five years. About the time his probation ended, he married a lawyer and former County Commissioner, Martie Georges, who began lobbying for a presidential pardon, which he received on President ClintonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s last day in office. The El Paso Times noted the pardon with a story in which local politicians spoke favorably about Jobe.
Even before Ray Caballero took office, Jobe was wary of him. As a former banker, he didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t like that Caballero had helped high school students expose skewed lending practices. Then there was the fact that Caballero had campaigned against environmentally dirty companies. Jobe was already facing lawsuits involving McKelligon Canyon Quarry, the scrabbly acreage he and his family bought in 1990 (they have since sold it to England-based multinational RMC, but Jobe still runs the operation).
Mined since the 1930s, the quarry is a huge gash in the Franklin Mountains that butts up on one side against a gorgeous state park, and on the other against streets filled with salt-of-the-earth, mostly Hispanic families. The lawsuits claim that dust and fumes from the quarry are making their children sick. The Environmental Protection Agency says the air in the neighborhood is clear. Parents want more testing and the suits continue. Caballero has never taken a public position on the litigation. But he made no bones about his hatred for the gash in the mountain. Other unsightly and possibly contaminated sites bothered him, too; after he took office, he began meeting with representatives from dirty industries.
ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s when Jobe sent a letter that was published in the El Paso Times. He accused the new mayor of vowing that the city would use all its powers to shut down the quarry. The letter riled Caballero. In late August, 2001, he humiliated Jobe at City Council. “I want to tell you something, Mr. Jobe,” the mayor snapped. “I didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t tell you to cease operations at your plant, and you know thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s an inaccurate statement.” He went on to lambast the quarry as “ugly, unseemly, and damaging Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve rendered an incredible area useless to residents.” Jobe tried to protest, but the mayor said his allotted speaking time was up. Jobe walked back to his wife, huffing. His eyes were slits.
Caballero had reduced a good-old-boy icon to rubble.
A Border Health Institute is practically an apple-pie-and-motherhood concept in El Paso. But having to sell oneÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s home or businessÃ¢â‚¬”an inevitable part of such a projectÃ¢â‚¬”is another thing. The issue turned into a political bomb. One of the main fuse lighters was freelance political consultant and gadfly Jaime O. Perez, an odd bird even for El Paso.
Go to the Assumed Names section of El Paso CountyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s website and youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll find he maintains more than 20 active corporations, including the Huichol Community, KÃ¢â‚¬â„¢man Le Anahnakatl, and the Sun Circle Cultural Center, a Native American church that incorporates the ingestion of peyote into its beliefs and rituals. One of its principal goals is to return the Aztec emperor MoctezumaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s headdress to Mexico from an Austrian museum. Perez looks the part for this project. He sports a formidable moustache, and his bald scalp is gouged with crevices that resemble arroyos.
I first met Perez at El Paso Community College in the early 1980s. I was teaching English and Perez held a Svengalian orientation for new teachers that included several minutes of chanting followed by him telling us something to the effect of “I have supernatural powers. I can read your minds. I am telepathic. I know thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s someone here who doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t like me. I know who you are.” By then he had run unsuccessfully for mayor, and was grooming a group of young Hispanic students to enter local politics. In 2001 he served as campaign strategist for Anglo engineer Larry Francis. After CaballeroÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s victory, Perez sank below the political radar, but not for long. After an unsuccessful effort to rescind CaballeroÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s tax hike, Perez went after the TIFsÃ¢â‚¬”and created chaos for the mayor.
It all started after Perez and others began visiting the homes of what are affectionately known as viejitos, the Hispanic grandmas and grandpas whose entire savings often is sunk into tiny houses theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve owned for years. The visitors came with a dire message: The mayor is going to tear down your homes and give you little or nothing in compensation. The viejitos and their children and grandchildren went ballistic. They flocked to neighborhood meetings organized by Perez and others. They stormed City Council meetings in tee-shirts emblazoned with logos from Citizens for Good Government, yet another Perez corporation.
“It was the worst nightmare we could have ever imagined,” recalls CaballeroÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s press secretary, Veronica Escobar. At community gatherings the mayor and other officials tried to tell the viejitos they had nothing to fear, but they were too frightened and incensed to listen. The TIF tiff alienated a large swathe of inner-city Hispanics, who otherwise would be CaballeroÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s natural constituency. It also mobilized anti-Caballero efforts from other, far more influential sectors of the city.
One such sector is the building industry. Although construction magnates stand to make millions from a sprawling new medical complex and other ambitious projects, few have openly supported Caballero. Meanwhile, several smaller builders have noisily joined concrete baron Stanley Jobe in declaring all-out war on the mayor.
The most vocal are the Bowling family, headed by Robert Bowling III, a ramrod-straight patriarch whom most people know as Bobby. Along with his three sons, he runs Tropicana Homes and builds “affordable homes,” dwellings in the $70,000 range. The company works by buying land and extending the outskirts of town, where there is not much happening besides sand, mesquite, and Circle K. TheyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re not El PasoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s biggest builders, but they still pull weight. Bobby III gives significant money to candidates running for local office; the Bowlings are active in the El Paso Association of Builders and recently created a new organization, the Affordable Housing Council.
Not long into his term, Caballero imposed a brief moratorium on selling land on the outskirts, so that experts could evaluate the impact new homes would have on things like water use. He also suggested that builders like Bowling be charged for these evaluations, the cost of which are known as impact fees.
Now it was the BowlingsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ turn to go ballistic. In March 2002, Bobby III came to City Council to denounce the moratorium as a violation of the American way of life. He sparred briefly with Caballero, who treated him just as he had JobeÃ¢â‚¬”in the defiant lawyerly tone he had used many years earlier with Judge Wood. Another good old boy bit the dust. Ever since, the talk goes, the Bowlings have vowed to throw Caballero out of office come hell or high water.
They have lots of company, but none so persistent as the woman who has become the sharpest gall of CaballeroÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s time in office: his daughter Theresa.
An attorney herself, she often attends City Council meetings and warns council members not to trust the mayor. DonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t believe him when he talks about drought, she says. He is just trying to control the water so he can control the town. The cameras capture her in tall, rail-thin profile. The Roman nose is much like her dadÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s. The long hands brush back dark, shiny hair. Her fingers slice the air, prosecutor style, as she scolds her father, who stares at his hands, or glances aside, wincing. When she talks past three minutes, he interrupts in the flat voice of someone very tired: “Miss, your time is up.” He frequently flips the off switch of the microphone when she is in mid-sentence. She sometimes keeps talking and denounces him for gagging free speech.
In 2001 Theresa and a sister told the press that Ray had beaten one of his five children. They also accused him of refusing to pay their health insurance and college tuition after he divorced their mother in 1989. Caballero denies all these claims. The accusation of abuse has never been substantiated, and financial documents indicate that he has been generous with his children. He admitted having philandered during the marriage, and a theory developed around town: CaballeroÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s ex-wife turned the kids against their father. After the election, his supporters assumed that Theresa would retreat to private life.
Instead, she began showing up at City Council to support the tax rollback effort organized by Jaime Perez. Later, she helped canvass the TIF zone to warn viejitos that her father would seize their homes. Recently she started appearing at City Hall as the attorney and spokeswoman for the Affordable Housing Council. Now she is tied financially to an anti-mayor force whose members are well-funded and influential.
They are also virtually impossible to talk with. While I was in El Paso last month reporting this story, Jobe did not return a single phone call or e-mail. Theresa Caballero refused to be interviewed and so did Bobby Bowling IIIÃ¢â‚¬”he didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t like the ObserverÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s story about CaballeroÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s 2001 campaign. Meanwhile, most El Paso reporters I approached feared speaking on the recordÃ¢â‚¬”they were afraid of their superiorsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ disapproval. Even CaballeroÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s main opponent in the current mayoral race declined to be interviewed. It was all a sad reminder of the cityÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s longstanding stagnationÃ¢â‚¬”the reason I moved away a few years ago. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d been active in immigration civil rights issues after I got sick of hearing about maids and gardeners being pistol-whipped by the Border Patrol. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d always felt righteous and prosecutorial about such evils, but powerless to stop them. Fellow activists said I had great ideas but was too outspoken. Now the same is being said of the mayor.
As for Caballero, he acknowledges that his rough verbal style has angered his critics. But, he insists, how else can he be? He attributes his snappishness to a lack of civility at City Council meetings. The bad vibe, he says, is provoked by enemies like his daughter and the machinations of the good old boys.
Others blame Caballero; at least one influential supporter has turned against him.
Councilman John Cook is a cheerful version of Ichabod Crane. Tall and gangly, with a bald pate and longish gray hair at the sides, Cook has an intellectual, goofy, and friendly air. He was raised in Brooklyn; during the sixties he once played folk guitar at a club across the street from where Bob Dylan was performing. He joined the military and was sent to El Paso for training in the Vietnamese language. Cook counts himself among those who personally urged Caballero to run for mayor, and during CaballeroÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s first weeks in office he was a strong supporter.
But, he says, his admiration soured at the City Council meeting where the mayor denounced Stanley Jobe. As Caballero angrily denied that he had ever threatened to shut down the quarry, Cook interrupted to describe a conversation the two had had weeks earlier: “You said, Ã¢â‚¬ËœStanleyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s going to have to get his rock somewhere else.Ã¢â‚¬â„¢” Since then, Cook says, Caballero has virtually stopped meeting or talking with him and heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s concluded that Caballero is simply not a political leader. HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not willing to share information with City Council. Water and other issues appear on the agenda with no prior notice. He complains that Caballero promises that theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll get together later, but it doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t happen.
CaballeroÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s staff also lament the communications problem, but blame the mayorÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s self-imposed, gargantuan work load and the lack of enough people to help with it. They bristle when discussing constant attacks on the administration that they say are motivated by little more than political opportunism. The most frequent come from councilmen Luis SarinanaÃ¢â‚¬”Jaime PerezÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s protÃƒÂ©gÃƒÂ©Ã¢â‚¬”and Anthony Cobos. When Caballero publicly denounced Jobe, for instance, Sarinana did not even pretend to hide his loyalties. “Way to go, Stanley!” he yelled as Jobe stalked from the microphone. Caballero and his administration also distrust John Cook. They think heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s been bought by the Jobes of the city.
If so, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s in the same amorphous, winking way that almost all El Paso politicosÃ¢â‚¬”including Caballero supportersÃ¢â‚¬”have been purchased. “During my first election,” Cook remembers laughingly, “I called Stanley Jobe. He said, Ã¢â‚¬ËœDo I know you?Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ I said, Ã¢â‚¬ËœNo, but I was wondering if I could get you to contribute to my campaign. As I recall, you got into some trouble with the law because you were writing checks before the money was there. And I have the same problem. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m out of money, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve written checks.Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ Jobe starts laughing and says, Ã¢â‚¬ËœCome by my office.Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ He left a check for $500.” Cook also talks about the real payoff: when the Jobes tout him to their friends as the candidate to back. He is proud that the couple threw a fundraiser at their house for him. “IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve got a pretty good reputation with the business community,” he says. “They think IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m reasonable. TheyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve been very generous.”
Cook often votes against Caballero, but says itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not because contributors are pressuring him. Clearly, though, he wants to stay on their good side. “HereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a Jobesque experience I had once with John Cook,” says Ruben Reyes, a UTEP student, Green Party activist, Caballero supporter and current contender for a spot on the City Council. “I went to Cook to get him to consider looking to see if Jobe was following the law at the McKelligon quarry. Cook didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t say, Ã¢â‚¬ËœLetÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s talk about it.Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ Instead, he said that JobeÃ¢â‚¬”he called him Ã¢â‚¬ËœStanleyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢Ã¢â‚¬”provides jobs. And he said, Ã¢â‚¬ËœRuben, youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re young, youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re ambitious. You donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t want to make enemies of people who can help you out.Ã¢â‚¬â„¢”
Caballero staffers are horrified that the Jobes show up at City Council with a pet issue and immediately dictate the outcome of a vote. They point to a measure proposed after September 11, 2001. Because of the World Trade Center attack, traffic at international bridges on the U.S.-Mexico borderÃ¢â‚¬”normally snarled to begin withÃ¢â‚¬”is slower than ever as agents check for terrorists. Concerned that exhaust fumes might be making bridge inspectors sick. Caballero asked the Council to vote for funding to install air-quality monitors. The Jobes freaked out. They accused Caballero of plotting to help plaintiffs in the quarry lawsuit. Bridge monitors, they said, would really be used as quarry monitorsÃ¢â‚¬”even though the quarry is nowhere near a bridge. City Council, including John Cook, voted down the mayorÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s request.
And at a meeting I attended recently, members of an ecology club at UTEP asked the Council to support their request that the EPA hold hearings on the environmental impact of Jobe ConcreteÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s plans to do new quarrying on El PasoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s west side. Martie Jobe and a Jobe company lawyer charged that the students just wanted to “scapegoat” their firm. Councilman Cobos declared that the UTEP delegationÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s spokesperson had been sent by Caballero. Caballero said heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d never met the man. The studentsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ resolution was rejected.
On its face the story seems fishy, since the company recently opened an El Paso office. I called the real estate firm, Recon, and an employee told me that the Internet posting was false. No matter. Within hours, it was part of a smarmy cloud of “mayor-discourages-business” rumors that waft through the city like a miasma and are given credence by the media. Texas Monthly, for instance, published a piece last year that quoted Bobby Bowling III and other, unnamed, developers lamenting that Caballero is bad for business and that companies wonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t relocate under his watch. Yet Expansion Management, a national magazine covering business growth strategy, recently ranked El Paso near the topÃ¢â‚¬”above San AntonioÃ¢â‚¬”on a list of 50 cities considered the friendliest for business expansion. (One of their criteria was “ease of working with local political and economic development officials.”)
Why donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t reporters check this stuff and challenge the rumor mongers? For one thing, they are often too busy to do so, because the media companies they work for are understaffed. When I was at the El Paso Times in the mid-1980s, I often had to churn out two stories a day, and I often produced cotton candy. But with Don FloresÃ¢â‚¬”the TimesÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ editor and vice president since the mid-1990sÃ¢â‚¬”fluff may be spun with ideology.
Flores is known about town as a member of the El Paso Country Club, an oasis for the local elite. Brought in from out of town by the Gannett Corporation, he has become an avid golfer and a vocal RepublicanÃ¢â‚¬”in a mostly Democratic town whose main sports are soccer and drag racing. Last year the paper gave its El Pasoan of the Year Award to Rich Beem, a golfer based at the country club whoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s won a couple of major tournaments.
Seeking to analyze its market, the paper conducted focus groups several weeks ago with two groups of young women: one Hispanic and the other Anglo. Each was asked to imagine the Times as a person, and to describe him or her. Without having spoken to each other, both groups said the paper is a middle-aged man, single, with no children, living in an apartment or a condo. He wears Dockers and favors easy-listening music. HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s boring. The person envisioned was remarkably like Don Flores.
Bores who hang out at the Country Club and work on tight budgets are unlikely to do in-depth, critical stories about politics. Media people told me they think Stanley Jobe deserves more attention. But Jobe keeps a low profile. And thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s just fine with the powers that be at El Paso news outlets.
On the other hand, the Caballero administration is not known for accessibility to the press. Previous mayors often received reporters on a momentÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s notice. Not Caballero; itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s hard to collar him even at public events. “Council meetings would end and Caballero would duck into his private elevatorÃ¢â‚¬”like he was the President,” recalls Neil Simon. As for me, I got two hours. When we finished, Caballero said he has “little use for the media,” and that giving interviews such as the one we had are a “waste of time.”
He had always hoped the community would be his voice to the media, but that has not happened. Few people write supportive letters to the El Paso Times or show up at Council meetings to support his proposals. Caballero says the city is “extraordinarily passive.” But Texas Rural Legal Aid attorney Michael Wyatt recalls a time when Caballero could mobilize the troops. “Before Ray was mayor he was always coming up with all these brilliant ideas and was trying to get people to take the lead. During his campaign he said, Ã¢â‚¬ËœWeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve got a big agenda, and I canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t do this by myself. If this is going to be a community success, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s going to be a community effort.Ã¢â‚¬â„¢” Wyatt says supporters are willing to come out for the mayor, but he doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t tap them. “We donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t know which battles to join. We donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have the inside perspective about when to write a letter to the paper, when to show up at City Council.”
Being mayorÃ¢â‚¬”especially if one is trying to develop a cadre of like-minded politicosÃ¢â‚¬”also requires patience. It takes time, yet Caballero waffled about running for a second term. Late last year, he tapped Executive Assistant Joyce Feinberg to run in his place. She would be mayor, the plan went; he would be the brains behind the scene. But Feinberg dropped out, spooked by months of vicious gossip and rumors that private detectives on the opponentsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ payroll were about to poke into the lives of Caballero staffers.
Ray came back into the race, butÃ¢â‚¬”as usualÃ¢â‚¬”reluctantly. Francisco Dominguez, an El Paso attorney and Caballero campaign volunteer, recalls the scene. “We had a Ã¢â‚¬ËœPlease, Ray, runÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ meeting with about 200 people” where Caballero was supposed to announce. “He has the nerve to stand up there and say, Ã¢â‚¬ËœWell, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m still thinking about running but I canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t get what I want done without a real City Council. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m going to give you till next week to come up with names of people to run for Council and then IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll let you know.Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ It was almost a riot! IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m in the back thinking, Ã¢â‚¬ËœOh my God, Ray, you are going to mess this up. WeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re here because youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re going to tell us youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll run. ThereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s no room for negotiation!Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ In end he had sense to say Ã¢â‚¬ËœIÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m going to run.Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ But he was about to mess it up. I canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t figure out what part is naivete and what part is hubris.” But CaballeroÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s supporters are still staunchly behind him. “HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not a hero,” says Councilman Larry Medina. “But heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a great mayor with a great heart.”
“HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s our candidate,” says Dominguez. “HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s what weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve got.”
This time around, thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s little populist pizzazz. Caballero has worked extraordinarily hard for two years and has much to show for it. El Paso is in excellent financial shape, the Border Health Institute is well on its way to development, and light rail is said to be firmly in the works. Still, months of gossip, accusation and flip-flopping has dispirited the city. And the $50 contribution cap is a thing of the past. During the first campaign Caballero spent thousands of his own dollars to plump up those modest donations. Now he canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t afford to. His new cap is $500.
On the other hand, heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s starting to schmooze with businessÃ¢â‚¬”which makes sense even to his populist supporters. “I canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t imagine anybody being more pro-business than Ray,” says County Attorney JosÃƒÂ© RodrÃƒÂguez. “Tax Increment Finance zones are good for big business. Access to capital from banks is good for small business, which is 80 percent of business in El Paso.” Ralph Adame agrees. He is director of the information technology company DTSI and a player in El Paso business circles who wants to get his friends to the table with Caballero. “He has not done a good job of embracing these people, but they are behind him because the economic base he wants to build on is going to be beneficial to everyone.” And Caballero seems amenable to winnowing a newer breed of capitalists from what he calls the Old Guard monopolistsÃ¢â‚¬”the “small group more interested in control than they are in making money.”
That group is supporting CaballeroÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s main opponent, Joe Wardy, the non-Spanish-speaking owner of a trans-border trucking business. WardyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s claim to fame is that heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a “nice guy”Ã¢â‚¬”someone who wonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t make waves. He has garnered the support of the Jobes and practically everyone else whoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s allergic to Caballero. Since his staff refused my interview request, I was unable to ask how much money heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s gotten from donors, and finance records will not be available for weeks. But while I was writing this piece, hundreds of thousands of El Pasoans opened their mailboxes to find a 16-page color booklet explaining WardyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s positions (heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s against light rail, against the TIFs, against CaballeroÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s style).
Jaime Perez is running, too, on an anti-tax-increase, low-growth program (El Paso schools are palaces compared to those in rural Mexico, he said at a recent candidatesÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ forumÃ¢â‚¬”so whatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the problem with El PasoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s economy?). The buzz is that Wardy will get the support of the Bowlings, but I saw some of them at PerezÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s campaign kick-off partyÃ¢â‚¬”with a group of people who were eating chile con queso, dissing Caballero, and talking about how much fun it is to post anonymously on the anti-Caballero forum linked to PerezÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s website. (“Man, thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s real free speech!” one chortled.) Speculation has it that Perez is running as a spoiler. A certain number of Hispanics can be expected to vote for him simply because of his name. Taking those votes from Caballero will benefit Wardy.
Meanwhile, Wardy billboards grace Interstate 10. So do pictures of Caballero. There are other signs as well, showing the upper half of a male head, with nothing visible except for a hard hat and hard eyes. “Jobe,” the hat says. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s an eerie reminder of where power still lies in El Paso.
And there is another, weirder power: Theresa Caballero, who haunts her fatherÃ¢â‚¬”and the communityÃ¢â‚¬”like a telenovela. Many El Pasoans are truly puzzled about her claims of abuse.
“I love and honor my children,” Caballero said during our interview. People who know him shake their heads. “It makes me want to cry,” says Dominguez. “She has no history of civic participation, no history of commitment to anybody or anything. There are folks in the campaign whoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve suggested we can be aggressive about dealing with her. But Ray has said, Ã¢â‚¬ËœSheÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s off limits.Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a tragedy.”
Politics is dirty business, and in the end, Caballero may simply be too private and too principled for the muck. As the incumbent he started the race with a leg up. But when I asked what happens if he loses, he shrugged. “ThereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s something more important than being thrown out of office: that I do the right thing and speak the truth. You should never allow petty considerations to get in the way of community service. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s dumb!”
Win or lose, his main legacy may be the way he has opened the political process to people who never thought they had a place in it. “IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m thinking of running for school board,” says press secretary Veronica Escobar. Until working with Caballero, her only political involvement was with an immigration rights group that had no entrÃƒÂ©e to City Hall until the current administration. Another young El Pasoan, Ruben Reyes, has also gotten the bug. HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the UTEP student who asked City Hall to support an EPA hearing about the Jobe quarry. HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the kid John Cook told not to make waves if he wanted help from the good old boys.
As Reyes tells it, he used to be a gang member “running from the law.” When Caballero ran last time, Reyes did phone work for him. HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s gotten involved with the Green Party. And now heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s running for City Council. “I know that people do very bad things for money. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m not naÃƒÂ¯ve about that,” he says. “But I will not let it silence me.”
He joins a new political generation in El Paso, one much freer of the sleaze and stasis that I remember from just a few years ago. Clearly, Caballero has been a liberator. If he wins, maybe heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll talk nice to the likes of Stanley Jobe. Maybe heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll get away from his office and out to the next ribbon cutting. Maybe heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll help his supporters help himÃ¢â‚¬”and their city. Maybe El Paso will leave its rock of ages and enter the 21st century.
Contributing writer Debbie Nathan lived in El Paso from 1984-1998. She
currently lives in New York.