They came to the ranch to sip their drinks and grill cabrito and corn on the cob in the South Texas brush country. NorteÃ±o music blared. For a short time, shotgun blasts, following the arcs of fluorescent orange clay pigeons, pierced the night sky. The pachanga was a mostly male who’s who of Hidalgo County, a private party of politicos, including the mayor of McAllen, a well-known heart surgeon, and current and former state district judges and attorneys.
Not long ago, Ismael “Kino” Flores, a veteran state Democratic representative for the southern half of the county, probably would have been there. But the host, former County Judge Ramon Garcia, no longer backs him. Flores, who has a reputation as a political bruiser, hasn’t had a primary challenger for his District 36 seat since 2000. No Republican has opposed him since he was elected in 1996.
This time, Flores has a strong opponent on March 4 in Sandra Rodriguez, a former juvenile probation officer and school board trustee from a politically active family. She joins critics of Flores’ affinity for lobby money and Republican Speaker Tom Craddick. They say Flores abuses his office by drumming up consulting fees with local governments, and that Republican rule in Austin has been bad for the Rio Grande Valley.
“If you are elected to be a state representative by a group of people, you cannot go to those people and ask for a consulting fee to pursue their interests,” Garcia said. He was standing in the December cold near two huge barbecues. Huddled nearby was Billy Leo, another former Flores ally and longtime mayor of La Joya, where Flores began his political career on the school board. “Anything with a dollar sign, Kino is involved in,” Leo said.
Flores has a $3,000 per month consulting contract with the city of McAllen to help capture public utility franchise fees. (Granted, other lawmakers conduct business with entities influenced by the Legislature.) Flores, who said he helped collect $1.6 million in unpaid debt last year for McAllen, said his work benefits the city. Hidalgo County’s 2006 per capita income was $11,919, according to the federal Census Bureau. For the state, the figure was $22,501.
Easing back in a chair in his Mission office, Flores didn’t deny he’s a browbeater, but he said he doesn’t use that tactic on people in the district. “There are some people I can bully, and I can beat the dog shit out of, and I can run off-like the lottery directors. I’ve gone through two lottery directors that I had squeezed their nuts and fired them, but not the guy on First and Matamoros.
“Cojones,” he said, is his political style in Austin. “I use them. I am not afraid to use them.”
Achievements he notes are helping South Texas College become a four-year program, and bringing a birding center and veteran’s cemetery to Mission. He passed “more constitutional amendments than anybody,” he said, and has a solid negotiating record on both sides of the aisle. When critics call him a “Craddick D” for supporting Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick, he says “D” is for “delivery,” and argues that working with Republicans is necessary to get help for his impoverished district.
He is running on his record, he said, but has “everything and anything” he needs to go after Rodriguez’s husband, a former three-term state district judge who did not seek re-election. “I haven’t accused him of anything,” Flores said, “but I have a boxful, ready to go.”
Looking at a campaign photograph of Rodriguez and her family, Flores said, “She’s got kids. She’s got these kids that are at home, that have no blame whatsoever. They don’t need to be worrying about what their mother is going to go through, or their father. You know, if she wants to go there, that’s her bag.”
Sandra Rodriguez, 48, has been working on campaigns most of her life and was a member of the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District Board of Trustees. She was groomed on local politics in Mission, where her father, whose last name she kept, was a barber and city councilman. Currently office manager for her husband’s law firm, she said she’s received telephone calls from “throughout the state for having the courage” to challenge Flores, but it “doesn’t come from me. It comes from the Lord.”
In a district where 41 percent of families have children living in poverty, she said No. 1 on her to-do list is ensuring “every child in the state of Texas has health insurance.” No. 2 is getting more funding for schools. Many kids in her border district drop out, and the ones who don’t aren’t faring well. Rodriguez points to Flores and other Democrats who support Craddick and the kids in the district who don’t have health insurance because of Republican-led cuts.
It’s not likely that Rodriguez will raise as much campaign money as Flores, but she and her allies do have ammunition. Texas Monthly last year gouged Flores with a “dishonorable mention” as a worst legislator of the session. Writer Paul Burka called him “one of the least trusted members” in the Legislature. And Austin-based Annie’s List, a political action committee that supports female Democratic candidates, has donated $20,000 to the Rodriguez campaign and helped raise another $40,000, said Bree Buchanan, the group’s executive director. “She just has a tremendous history in that community and will be a night-and-day difference from what Kino Flores has been able to do,” Buchanan said.
Rodriguez said the idea to challenge Flores arose last year, when she read about the voter identification bill. The legislation would have required voters to have photo IDs at the polls, something that might be challenging for low-income and elderly voters. Flores wasn’t present to vote no on a second reading of the bill, which later died. “I remember reading that and being just so upset with Kino. And I said, ‘You know, enough is enough with this man. … He walks away from a bill that was very, very important to us here in the Valley.”
Flores said he’d “paired” his no vote with a lawmaker who was also absent and intended to vote yes. He said he “had to be here in the district” at the time, though he refused to explain why.
Rodriguez said Flores promoted a slate of candidates in the May 2007 La Joya Independent School Board elections that a state district judge ended up voiding because of irregularities. “(Flores) spent many, many days and weeks getting himself involved in a school board election instead of being out there working for the people,” Rodriguez said. Rather than focusing on his responsibilities as a legislator, she said, “he was taking care of his own needs out here.”
Flores said the criticism is just politics. He shrugged off the voided election as “a judge in the pocket, that’s all it is.”
During the first half of 2007, Flores spent $110,267 in campaign funds, more than any other House Democrat and three-and-a-half times the House average, according to a report by campaign watchdog Texans for Public Justice. Flores said he spent more because he’s more aggressive. “I raise it, and I spend it, because I like what I do, and I think my district is the benefactor, or the direct recipients of my work,” he said. “And I am known for bringing the bacon home.”
Flores is treading close to the authorized boundaries on campaign spending, said Fred Lewis, an Austin attorney and state campaign finance reform advocate. Public records show Flores’ campaign paid $4,352 for membership fees to Cimarron Country Club in Mission. Another eye-catcher is Flores’ flower bill, which in some months topped $800. From 2000 to mid-2007, he reported purchases of at least $20,682 worth of flowers for constituents, mainly from Lucy’s Flowers & Gifts in Mission. “Using special interest money from the lobby in Austin to shower your constituents with flowers and gifts may be legal, but it doesn’t reflect generosity,” Lewis said. “It’s not uncommon, but there are state representatives that push the limits, and there are state representatives that don’t, and Mr. Flores seems to be in the push-your-limits category.”
Government and consumer watchdogs say Flores also pushed the limits in 2005, when he gave members of the Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee, which he chairs, gold rings as end-of-session gifts. They were partly paid for by lobbyists, some of whom had testified before the committee. At the time, Flores said he followed Texas Ethics Commission guidelines. “Can you imagine the kind of B.S. we’d be passing without [lobbyists]?” Kino asked the Dallas Morning News.
Kino does have significant supporters, like Pharr Mayor Leo Palacios.
Rodriguez is a “fine lady,” he said, but Flores is already there “every time we knock on his door,” helping the city develop an industrial park, buy better police equipment, and find funding for public housing. “I don’t think we should bite the hand that feeds you,” Palacios said. “I don’t think I could go against a man who has produced and go with someone where I don’t know what can happen.”
Mission Mayor Beto Salinas, who is related to Flores, said it will be hard to beat him in the neighborhoods. “Kino doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke. All he does is politics,” Salinas said.
In Hidalgo County, a historically Democratic stronghold, Republican Party Chairman Hollis Rutledge Jr. said he has seen the Republican share of local votes grow from 25 percent in the 1960s and ’70s to about 40 percent today. Fueled by changes in demographics, education, and economic change, he said the county has “evolved, and I think we have more independent-minded voters, which has benefited the Republican candidates.” He spoke amid office walls adorned with photos of Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Plastered across his tie rack was a sticker for Flores, who hasn’t faced a Republican opponent in the general election since he was elected in 1996. “Obviously, I don’t agree with [Flores] on a lot of issues,” he said, particularly on gambling, which Flores has sought to legalize. “But I know that, from time to time, he has voted in the interest of his area, of his constituency.”
In the 2006 election cycle, Flores raised $338,744, according to Texans for Public Justice. Among his top donors was Houston homebuilder Bob Perry, a big funder of Republican campaigns.
Flores said he doesn’t check party preferences of campaign contributors. “I am trying to get myself re-elected. I don’t look at very many labels,” he said. “I mean, am I a flaming liberal? No. I am a moderate conservative Democrat-I try to be-who represents my district.”
Jesse Bogan is a freelance journalist from San Antonio.