The Phones Were Ringing


The phone is always ringing in the Observer office. But early one morning in late January of 1997, we got a phone call from a Del Rio man who wanted to know where he could find a copy of the issue that included the account of the absentee voting fraud by which the Val Verde County election had been stolen. The phone calls continued; callers described the story and asked where this particular issue of the Observer could be found in Del Rio.

The issue the callers were requesting didn’t exist – at least not at the time. Karen Olsson and I had written a draft of a 4,000-word feature describing an absentee voter scheme, by which anyone who had ever been stationed at the Air Force training base in Del Rio could vote in local elections by mailing in a ballot.

The Del Rio story was not without its comic elements. By obtaining the list of absentee votes cast in previous elections, and running a U.S. Postal Service campaign, the Val Verde Republican Party had elected a County Commissioner, Murray Kachel, who had once served as an “Exalted Cyclops” in the Ku Klux Klan. And the sheriff the fly-by voters elected was a former U.S. Customs officer who had caused an international incident by sending undercover customs agents into Ciudad Acuña, where, he suspected, cocaine was being packed into “the orifices of heifers” destined for shipment to Texas. (During his years as a border customs official, D’Wayne Jernigan never figured out that breeding stock could not be shipped from Mexico to the United States.) Jernigan’s Mexican undercover operation was busted by the Mexican Federal Judicial Police and the federal government of this republic found itself in the delicate position of having its customs officers jailed in Ciudad Acuña. Funny, how the election of local officials by local voters can help weed these types out.

The story also had its heroic moments. The scheme was revealed by Jovita Cásarez, a naturalized U.S. citizen and a natural for leadership – who also was possessed of a clear understanding of politics, race, and class. The absentee voter scheme, she said, was only the most recent version of a border politics designed to keep Anglos in control of the Mexican-American majority. Cásarez took her complaints to Eloy Padilla, a former Del Rio junior high school teacher who was working as a staff attorney at Texas Rural Legal Aid in Del Rio. Once Jovita Cásarez took her complaint and the corrupt system to court, her house was staked out by the sheriff and her phone began ringing. Ultimately she was represented by one of the best civil rights attorneys in the country: David Richards.

But at the time the phones started ringing at the Observer offices, the story the callers were requesting didn’t exist. Or at least it hadn’t yet been published. I had faxed a draft to a national radio network reporter we had led to Del Rio, and the motel clerk who received the fax read and copied it. It was circulating in Del Rio like a samizdat tract in the Soviet Union. Here was a story whose details were so readily available that two reporters from Austin could dig it all out in two quick trips to the border. But it could not be reported locally, because it was not the sanctioned version of the news. Ultimately, after it was framed and told properly in this publication, it was reported by other regional media – until it made its way to the pages of The New York Times. (To his credit, John MacCormack was pushing as much of the story he could get into the circumscribed space his editors at the San Antonio Express-News allowed him.)

Finding, framing, and reporting such stories – and there are many of them in a state plagued by a diminishing coverage of the news – is one important function of this small, underfunded, biweekly. It has been my great good fortune to have had a part in reporting and publishing such stories. It has also been a great privilege to work with such colleagues as Michael King and Molly Ivins. I thank Bernard Rapoport for his financial support of this fragile journalistic institution– and equally as important, for the inspiration his intellectual vitality and passion for learning and politics have provided me. I thank my wife Jeanne Goka for underwriting my protracted tenure here. And, of course, I thank this exceptional community of Texas Observer readers.

It has been a wonderful thirteen years. It’s time to go. – L.D.