Noriega and son, Ricky Jr. Photo by Troy Fields he has the opportunity to stand before you today and say that he is a candidate for the United States Senate’ Just then, a loud cell phone went off at the table of the Bexar County Democrats. Vela announced “an emergency at the office they all clambered to their feet, and in odd concert they bolted for the stairs. “Leave a check at the door:’ Noriega called after them, laughing gamely. Lurching back on message, he introduced a MexicanAmerican firefighter in the audience and said they’d been sharing memories. The man is a first sergeant in the battalion Noriega commands. In 2005 they were training Afghan soldiers outside Kabul, and because of that country’s long war against the Soviet Union, those austere plains are some of the most heavily mined terrain on Earth. One day some soldiers who lived in the next tent over from Noriega’s were scouting for new training sites and set off one of those old Russian mines. Noriega had been in telephone or e-mail contact with his wife almost daily, but combat fatalities impose on their units a 72hour blackout of all communication back home, so the victims’ next of kin can be properly notified. Melissa Noriega, who served in her husband’s legislative seat while he was overseas and is now a popular Houston City Council member, saw the crawl of newsprint across the CNN screen that four American soldiers had been killed on a training mission outside Kabul. She knew it had to be her husband’s battalion. “This man:’ Noriega said of John Cornyn, “does not understand what it’s like for families when a heart sinks every time the phone or doorbell rings, when a wife and mother is cleaning the house because she doesn’t know if all at once their relatives might be coming for a funeral.” The room got very quiet. “I’m running,” Noriega went on, “because this senator has never had to walk the walk. I’m proud of the people I served with over there. Some went straight from peacekeeping in Kosovo to an all-out fight in Anbar. Many have been back over there two or three times, and it’s my responsibility to make sure the ones in my command are trained and ready to go back in the breach in about 36 months. Because if my soldiers are not properly trained and something bad happens to them, I’m the one responsible. If something bad happens …” Noriega again spoke the name of the firefighter and first sergeant, then left a very long pause. People set down glasses of water and tea and gave the politician a closer look. His eyes gleamed; the tears were real. Then he regained his composure and finished off with trite clichs of what they could all accomplish together in this campaign. That day Noriega acknowledged Mikal Watts only with an indirect remark that a checkbook is not a qualification. The woman at my table had never heard of Watts because, it turns out, the state’s political press corps might have more accurately described him as a San Antonio newcomer who made his mark and fortune as a Corpus Christi lawyer. In Nueces County politics, he won special Democratic favor in 2006 by pouring contributions into the winning race for the Legislature of Juan Garcia, who as a . Harvard law student was a roommate of Barack Obama. Also in 2006, Watts raised over $1 million for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. New York’s junior senator, Charles Schumer, was among those who encouraged the lawyer to think about making the race. But over the summer the Houston Chronicle produced a copy of a 2001 letter in which Watts had advised a legal adversary to settle a personal injury lawsuit because Watts’ firm had made “heavy” donations to pertinent appellate judges, “all of whom are good Democrats.” Then Watts found himself ensnared in a Corpus Christi imbroglio involving a flamboyant, Ferrari-driving plaintiffs’ advocate named Mauricio Celis. Celis claimed to be a licensed attorney in Mexico, but suddenly was indicted on multiple felony counts of aggravated perjury and practicing law in Texas without any kind of license. A state grand jury also indicted him for flashing a Duval County deputy’s badgeimpersonating a peace officerwhen Corpus Christi police showed up in response to reports that a woman had run naked down the street from Celis’ mansion. Watts, who has been close to Celis, explained in an abrupt announcement that he was withdrawing from the race so he could spend more time with his family. In just over a month, his free-spending campaign went from cocky ascent to a pelican’s plunk in the Gulf of Mexico. Conventional wisdom has since emerged that Watts’ exit from the race was a calamity for Noriega, not a godsend. People who vote in Democratic primaries were perceived to be moving toward the Hispanic legislator already. Unlike some other ethnic Democrats, in the statehouse Noriega has spurned the tradeoffs offered by Speaker Tom Craddick. He supports women’s right to choose, while Watts had been booed for making anti-abortion remarks. Noriega was getting a lot of media that he didn’t have to pay for. If he had beaten Watts head to head, his campaign team and the press might have cast him in the race against Cornyn as a first-round giant-killer who prevailed despite the trial lawyer’s wealth. Now, this spinning goes, Noriega is a virtually certain nominee \(he has gained one opponent, Ray DECEMBER 14, 2007 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 9
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