Page 15


Louis Bruni photo by Tim Eaton FEATURE The Fall of King Louie Bruni’s gone, Valdez and Benavides duke it out to become the next Webb County judge BY TIM EATON 11111 ebb County Judge Louis Bruni had big plans. So lofty were Bruni’s ambitions that he wanted to change the South Texas climate not the political climate but the weather itself. The man some people called King Louie invested $1.2 million in private money in Russian technology that is supposed to ionize the atmosphere and make it rain. But how quickly the winds can change. In one of the most startling results of the March 7 Democratic primaries, Judge Bruni, who reigned supreme over the county since 2003, finished last in a field of four candidates. Now his rainmaking machine sits on the ranch of his chief of staff, its future as uncertain as Bruni’s and Webb County’s. With no candidate clearing 50 percent in the primary, the top two finishers are headed for an April 11 runoff. Danny Valdez, an unassuming justice of the peace from Laredo, received 37 percent of the 31,657 votes cast. He’ll face Carlos “C.Y.” Benavides III, a rich oilman and rancher who placed second with 23 percent. Current county commissioner Judith Gutierrez finished third and is now looking at a full-time career as a Realtor. The county judge controls a $58 million general budget, appoints people to cushy county jobs, and has a say about who gets the lucrative county contracts. As a regional powerbroker, the Webb County judge is second only to longtime state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo. Now, in the runoff between Valdez and Benavides, voters have a choice between political opposites. And because Webb County is not partial to Republicans, the winner in April can start planning his office decor. Benavides, who raises exotic species of deer on his family’s land, may not have been as well known as other candidates before the primary. That’s no longer the case. By spending about $600,000 of mostly family money, he has covered the county with his image and slogans. White stenciled stickers reading “C.Y. Si ’06” are on tinted car windows all around Laredo. Billboards portraying a dated photo of Benavides with long sideburnswhich he trimmed after someone told him they made him look unserioushave sprouted up along Interstate 35, north and south. His face is also on thousands of yard signs throughout the county. Businesslike in his approach to politics, Benavides talks about his 20-month campaign to increase name recognition as a marketing endeavor. To raise his profile, he hosted an auto show, held an art exhibit with some of his original pieces, and organized several concerts, including one that featured a member of the 1970’s band Foreigner. But Benavides also knows how old-school politics works, 10 THE TEXAS OBSERVER MARCH 24, 2006