The Reformer

Ray Caballero, the Henry C. of El Paso, finally wants to be mayor.

Poor El Paso. Its 614,000 residents share a valley with Ciudad Juárez, a Third World city more than twice its size. It has less than half the tax base of Austin, its downtown is on life support, and its four-hundred-year history is practically invisible to tourists. It is the one Texas city that has lost jobs because of NAFTA. So why does Ray Caballero think El Paso is on the verge of greatness? Because he's running for mayor as a reformer in a city ripe for reform. Caballero was once touted as El Paso's Henry Cisneros, a handsome lawyer with the ideas to turn the city around. But he opted to work behind the scenes, often with state senator Eliot Shapleigh. In January, though, the 59-year-old Caballero jumped into the fray for the May 5 election. As an example of his leadership, he cites his role as an attorney for the court of inquiry that investigated whether the state was delivering El Paso its fair share of funding, a topic that resonates with voters who believe that the city is shortchanged because of its location.

Still, most of Caballero's criticism is directed not toward the rest of Texas but at the old order in El Paso. He vows to break the power of the bankers who he says run the city and has even referred to a group of local bank presidents as "thugs." He has attacked two of his opponents, former mayor Larry Francis and current mayor pro tem and city representative Presciliano Ortega, Jr., both of whom are running on their experience as businessmen. "If they say they ran the city like a business, then they're bad businessmen," says Caballero as he stares into a cup of coffee at a restaurant near the campus of the University of Texas at El Paso. "We are not going to be used anymore."

He says the new Border Health Institute, which he advocated, is typical of the city's low self-esteem because its two lead institutions aren't from El Paso. "Our past leaders have sold us as a second-class, low-wage town. We should be an international banking center. Our leadership in the past didn't understand trade. We've been NAFTA's biggest loser when we should have been its biggest winner. See who the mayors have been since 1994. I rest my case." That remark refers to Francis as well as the city's current mayor, Carlos Ramirez. El Paso was the only Texas city Al Gore carried in November, but Ramirez campaigned on behalf of George W. Bush, making him a lame duck in the eyes of many voters. (At press time Ramirez had not filed to run for reelection.)

But Caballero is by no means a sure thing. Ortega and Francis are both strong, credible candidates, and they are also on the offensive. "I didn't wait until I was sixty to run for office," says Ortega, a 43-year-old businessman who has also been compared with Cisneros. "I'm young enough to have a vision for the next twenty years." Francis, the only Anglo in the race, has criticized Caballero for his investigation of the city's highway funding, saying that indicting the state was the wrong way to get more money. Yet the wild card that could damage Caballero's candidacy is his family. Some of his daughters have spoken out forcefully against their father's campaign. Caballero's eldest daughter, Theresa, an El Paso lawyer, has said that they wrote letters to the El Paso Times criticizing her estranged father, which went unpublished. She believes that her father is dishonest and that the full story about his character has never been told. The Times did run a story that said the daughters felt abandoned after their father divorced their mother twelve years ago. Theresa denies that that is the case.

Despite the family intrigue, the betting money has Caballero and Francis ending up in a runoff, though another viable candidate, Belen Robles, a former national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens and the only woman in the race, could take away enough of the reform vote from Caballero to allow Ortega to slip in. She has been pointed in her criticism of the city's water policies and the secret selection process of its Public Service Board. But whichever way the wind blows—and believe me, in El Paso, the wind does blow—the next mayor will have to set a bold course to live up to voters' expectations.

Tags: POLITICS

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