Running with Ray

With Ray Caballero in the race, El Paso?s Cinco de Mayo mayoral election has generated increased attention. Can the former trial lawyer take the state?s largest border city?

A group of student volunteers huddle around Ray Caballero, a 59-year-old former trial lawyer who has finally come out from behind the scenes and is running for mayor. It’s an impromptu planning session in the hallway at the El Paso Community College, moments after a mayoral candidates’ forum. The young volunteers listen attentively while Caballero goes over the day’s schedule. He’s a dark-skinned, good-looking guy-the perfect cross between an indio and a Yuppie-the kind of guy who climbs volcanoes (including Popocateptl in Mexico and Mt. McKinley in Alaska) for fun. The energy of the group is palpable. Caballero, who’s hitching a ride with me for our interview, walks over to Ruben Villegas, a 25-year-old volunteer, and hands over his car keys. “Almost everywhere I go, people stop me and ask what I’ll do to stop El Paso’s brain drain,” Caballero tells me while we’re driving through Fort Bliss. “In the last decade 26,000 people left El Paso. In fact we’re losing more people than any other city in Texas. Most of them were middle-class, young people, in search of better-paying jobs. Reaching out to these young people is an important part of our platform. I think what we say resonates with them.”

Not everyone is impressed by Caballero’s appeal to the young. An El Paso Times editorial mocked him, asking whether his first act as mayor will be to replace all city council reps with a group of high school students called the Community Scholars. The group is the brain-child of his wife, Mary Hull Caballero, and State Senator Eliot Shapleigh. The high school juniors and seniors created quite a stir two years ago when their research showed that the chain banks that have set up shop in El Paso take billions of dollars out of the city and give very little back in terms of loans to small, local businesses.

Others, who notice the looks of admiration on some of the fresh-faced volunteers, find the whole thing a little amusing: “Ray has groupies,” I overheard someone say, with just a touch of envy in his voice. Groupies or not, the last time any El Paso mayoral candidate attracted a decent-sized group of high school and college-age volunteers was during… well, let me think… uhh, probably never. Certainly no one else running for mayor in this election can be accused of having them-groupies, I mean. Mayor Pro Tem Presi (short for Presciliano) Ortega tries hard to have them. He points out that at age 43 he’s the youngest candidate of the bunch. “I didn’t wait till I was almost 60 to declare my candidacy,” he says, an obvious jab at at Caballero. But Ortega, a conservative insurance salesman who voted to make deep cuts in the arts during his tenure as city rep, doesn’t exactly mobilize the young and the restless.

Belen Robles might have them (groupies) if she didn’t have that constant scowl on her face. She comes off as an over-worked, grumpy middle-school principal. In her defense she has probably needed to do a lot of scowling in her uphill fight against what she calls “the good ol’ boys.” She managed to become both national LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) president and chief U. S. Customs Inspector armed with nothing but a high-school degree and that hard-assed scowl of hers. If her actions were as tough as her look, she would be more than a viable candidate. Unfortunately, they aren’t. In 1997, when Esequiel Hern?ndez, an 18-year-old Redford native, was killed by a U. S. marine, many in the Latino community called for an end to the militarization of the border. As LULAC president, Robles should have been the first to speak up. Instead, as Chief of U. S. Customs, she kept her furrowed brow well hidden from public view.

Then there’s the former mayor of El Paso, Larry Francis, who wants his job back at city hall. I’m not sure he even knows what groupies are. A retired electrical engineer, Francis runs a very efficient, top-down, micro-managed, CEO- type operation. His staff is composed of mostly old-guard, professional politicians. “I want to go back to the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s,” he told a group of bankers and developers, “when El Paso was economically dominant in the region.” He has a webpage, but there’s practically nothing on it, except for the line “Here is where Press Release #1 will go.” Months into the campaign, we’re all still waiting for press release #1. Francis would fit safely into what Robles calls the “good ol’ boy” category. He would also fit into what Zapatista Subcomandante Marcos calls “los cavemen,” or even into my own favorite category, “los old farts.”

The last two candidates on the ballot, Lee White and Carl Starr, don’t even bother to show up at most forums, so it’s hard to tell just how many charisma-struck volunteers they have. White wants to eliminate warrants for outstanding traffic violations. Starr is a likable eccentric who’s originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma. He says he was an apolitical Jehovah’s Witness until two years ago when he decided to become a “center-leftist.” He wants everyone in El Paso to get paid no less than $8 or $9 (per hour I assume). He doesn’t post campaign signs, nor does he buy political advertisements, except for an ad he took out in the Thrifty Nickel, a local freebie paper, and another ad he plans to buy in the “cheap section of the El Paso Times.” Does he expect to win? “I would if poor people voted,” he explains. “But they don’t.”

Well, if poor people voted there would have been more than just three Hispanic mayors in El Paso in the last 120 years. And those three wouldn’t have been extremely conservative guys who made sure the boat remained firmly unrocked. But bringing that uncomfortable piece of El Paso history up would not be smart politics for any candidate. Caballero is cautious when I bring up the question of race. “That’s just not relevant any more. The population of El Paso is now 78 percent Hispanic,” he says. Sure, but that doesn’t stop power in this city from being distributed along ethnic lines, I insist. I remind him about the invitation-only mayoral forum at a restaurant on the top floor of El Paso’s tallest building, the Chase Manhattan Bank. It was supposed to be a gathering of the most important power brokers in the city. There were only two women and three brown faces among the 50 blue suits. Well, that’s not counting the many Mexican waiters with the fancy black bow ties, of course. I know I’m hyperbolic, but the place felt like old South Africa. Or Dallas even. But not El Paso. It was disgusting, I tell him. Caballero smiles. “You know a lot of those guys are real nice guys,” he says. Yeah, I’m sure they’re real nice as individuals, I answer, but when they act as a group they’re real hijos de la chingada (loosely translated, S.O.B.’s). Caballero keeps on smiling. “No comment.”

Caballero is smart. He knows how to play the game. He wouldn’t have argued a couple of cases in front of the United States Supreme Court if he didn’t. (In 1978 he successfully argued Brown v. Texas, defending a man who was thrown into the slammer for failing to identify himself to the cops. The Court ruled his client’s arrest was illegal because the police had no probable cause to stop him.) In the early ’90s, Caballero and State Senator Shapleigh used a seemingly obscure court of inquiry statute to wrestle additional funding for El Paso from the state legislature-an increase of about $100 million in highway funds. By not playing the race card, he has made strong inroads into the West Side, the affluent, predominantly Anglo section of the city. This is the part of town where Caballero, who made most of his money as a plaintiff’s lawyer, has lived since he gave up his law practice about 10 years ago. After his “retirement,” a word that irks him, he enrolled at Harvard for a couple of years and picked up a master’s in public administration. Then he returned to El Paso to work behind the scenes, often with Shapleigh.

When he explains his access-to-capital program to me, Caballero’s whole demeanor brightens up. Now he’s in his element. “I’m more of an economic determinist,” he says. He points out that El Paso and Austin are about the same size, but El Paso’s tax base is only $19 billion, compared to Austin’s $52 billion. “This is a result of marketing ourselves to the outside as a cheap labor town for too long,” he says. “If racial politics comes into play anywhere, this is where. Our politicians have treated us and our city as second-class citizens.” Caballero wants to end the tax abatements that city administrations have used to recruit companies that only provide minimum wage jobs and give nothing back to the city. Obtaining a fair share of state and federal funds for local schools and government is also priority. “That often means having to litigate,” he says. “Unfortunately, that’s just how the state of Texas works.” He finds inspiration in what other Texas cities have done. He brings up Fort Worth as an example of how a city can revitalize its downtown through the arts. San Antonio’s development of its health care industry provided the model for the Border Health Institute, a medical research complex for which he and other leaders have laid the groundwork.

Francis, who was mayor of El Paso between 1993 and 1997, describes Caballero as “a visionary.” He doesn’t mean it as a compliment. The campaign’s forums, public debates, and press conferences here have been a series of barbs and counter-barbs between the two; most political pundits expect a runoff. Francis accuses Caballero of being “anti-business.” If Caballero “bashes” the banks the way he has in the past, Francis warns, “They’ll just pick up and take their business to Santa Teresa (a New Mexico town on the outskirts of El Paso).”

“My question is how soon will they leave,” Caballero shoots back. “The banks I’m talking about haven’t invested in any way in our community. I’m not anti-business, but if you sell yourself cheap, you’re just a bad businessman.”

Occasionally Ortega tries to jump into the King Kong-Godzilla rumble and get a couple of jabs in. Most of them are aimed at Caballero. Ortega is essentially running on a “no-new-taxes” platform. “I won’t over-promise and under-deliver,” he says. But despite his experience as city rep and Mayor Pro Tem, Ortega can’t help but come off as a political lightweight. The area’s water shortage problem is so serious that some predict the neighboring city of Ju?rez will run out of water within the next decade. Ortega’s solution: Install new shower heads. When asked about his past business experience by a group of bankers he includes his previous membership in the “Yucca Boy Scouts.” But nobody laughs.

As the May 5th election draws nearer, the mud gets thicker. A central figure who has stepped into the brawl is Francis’s campaign coordinator, Jaime Perez. Perez is a bald man with a thick, Mexican revolutionary mustache, who often walks around with a Huichol Indian shaman bag. He describes himself as an “expert featherman.” (He he uses bird feathers to spread smoke during ceremonial purification rites.) Perez also has a long history of coordinating campaigns for politicians on all sides of the political spectrum and playing hardball for them. Some call him the “dirt man,” the Lee Atwater or Karl Rove of El Paso politics. Recently, while serving as guest host on a television talk show, he took a phone call from Caballero’s eldest daughter, Theresa, a 34-year-old El Paso lawyer. She aired a somewhat obsessive, incoherent list of personal grievances against her father, calling him a monster and saying that he had stopped paying for the college education of his three oldest children after he divorced their mother, Dorothy McGill, in 1988. “My father didn’t see fit to educate his girls, who could have fallen into the category of poor Hispanic girls,” Theresa said.

The El Paso Times picked up the story. The newspaper quoted El Paso County district clerk records showing that, from 1988 to 1995, Caballero paid more than $255,000 in child support for two children who were minors at the time of the divorce. “I was never late, and I never missed a payment,” Caballero told the Times. Court records also showed that McGill received more than half of the Caballero family’s $3.5 million estate. Moreover, the Times noted that Caballero gave $10,000 as a gift to one of his daughters who graduated from the exclusive Pomona College, allowing her to travel to Europe and live in Paris.

When I spoke to Perez by phone, I told him I thought Caballero had proven his case and was not a deadbeat dad. So what exactly was the accusation? “Our position is that we deal with the issues, not personal attacks,” he answered, wiggling out of my question. I see. So why did he put Caballero’s daughter on the talk show? Had he been hired by Francis to scrounge up the dirt? “That’s not my role,” he replied. “Theresa called the talk show on her own behalf.”

Eventually, Francis issued a statement saying, “Neither myself nor anyone in my campaign were behind any of that.” But a few days later, after things simmered down a bit, Perez threw another wild punch. During our second phone conversation, he accused Caballero of “reverse racism.” He claimed that during a radio talk show, the candidate had said, “I’m tired of rich white guys running our city.” A press release with that accusation went out from Francis’s fax machine. The day after my interview with Perez, city rep Luis Sari?ana, another Francis supporter, hit all the local TV stations with the same allegation. Caballero denies having made the statement, and is backed by radio talk show host, Paul Strelzin. “He never said that. That’s an out-and-out lie,” Strelzin says. Francis now says he has nothing to do with the allegations, and doesn’t know how that press release went out from his office.

The whole political boxing-or should I say professional wrestling match-leaves me a little dizzy. Call me naive. I’m a musician, a writer, an arts guy. It’s not that I believe in Truth with a capital T. But once in a while, when I play my horn or when I write, I try to hit a few gut-level, honest notes. What’s wrong with saying, “I’m tired of rich white guys running our city?” It’s the truth. Good thing I’m not running for mayor. I’ll say it again: I’m tired of rich white guys running our city. Oh, man. Feels a lot better now that I got that off my chest.

Well, I guess I should qualify that statement. What I mean is rich white guys and the brown guys who are willing to do the dirty work for the rich white guys. That’s what I mean.

Musician, writer, and all-around “arts guy” David Romo is the director of the Bridge Center for Contemporary Art in El Paso.

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Published at 12:00 am CST