Ray’s Quarry

How is the populist mayor of El Paso trying to upend the old-line anglo establishment? One crushed-rock-and-concrete supplier at a time.
SEEING GREEN: Caballero's critics liken him to Ralph Nadar.
Photograph by Bruce Berman

ON THE EASTERN SLOPE OF the Franklin Mountains, the range that rises in the heart of El Paso, is an enormous, jagged, ocher-and-sand-colored scar known as the McKelligon Canyon Quarry. It is the principal asset of Jobe Concrete Products, the main supplier of crushed rock and concrete to local builders. The quarry, which occupies more than a square mile of the city, is a monument to the sort of rawboned, laissez-faire mercantile capitalism that has long been practiced here. On a clear day you can see it from twenty miles away. It is not pretty, but like the gargantuan 828-foot-tall smokestack at the Asarco copper smelter just west of downtown, it’s business as usual, El Paso-style.

Or was. Since the election of populist mayor Raymond C. Caballero last year, the quarry has been the pluperfect symbol of his crusade to transform this sprawling, poverty-ridden border city into a smoke-free, smart-growth, high-wage, ecologically pristine health mecca. (Think Portland, Oregon. Or Austin—at least the Austin of myth.) What does a rock quarry have to do with all that? To Caballero, it is more than an eyesore and an environmental hazard. It is a stark reminder of the city’s inveterate tolerance for any sort of enterprise that makes money, consequences notwithstanding. “I don’t think any intelligent community should sit here and let somebody take down the mountain and say nothing,” says Caballero, who wants the quarry’s founder and CEO, Stanley Jobe, to move operations elsewhere. Jobe, who insists that his environmental record is good and that he cannot afford to move, has mounted a counteroffensive in the press, recruited allies, and spoken out against the mayor at city council meetings.

The quarry dispute is only the most visible battle in a rapidly escalating war between supporters of the mayor’s grand visions and a growing number of critics who believe that what he is trying to do amounts to unconscionable government meddling in the affairs of the private sector. Like all big Western political fights, this one is about land—specifically, the mayor’s desire to tell people what they can and cannot do with it. Caballero wants to move companies he considers environmentally impure, like Jobe and Asarco, out of the central city. And he wants to reinvigorate the city’s stone-dead downtown and aging central residential areas by curtailing development on the far eastern, northern, and western parts of the city, which is where almost all the new homes and office buildings are and where the developers, and their clients, want to be. The mayor is, in effect, trying to force developers and businesses back into the city’s core, the same sort of “urban infill” strategy that places like Portland and Austin have employed with mixed success. But out here on the free-market frontier, it’s a deeply divisive idea. No El Paso politician has ever dared to suggest it, let alone try it.

Caballero has other radical notions: He wants to build a light-rail system that would link Texas and Mexico, working in tandem with electronic ID cards to speed border crossings; he is at work on a plan that would turn the city’s waste into fuel for electricity and save taxpayers money; he wants to secure a law school for El Paso, either from the University of Texas system or another university. But the most controversial of his plans involves the creation of a large medical complex, known as the Border Health Institute, just east of downtown. In December 2001 the mayor persuaded the city council to declare the area a Tax Increment Finance ( TIF) district, which expanded the city’s powers of taxation and land seizure, and later proposed a moratorium on building and zoning permits in the same area. The result was a minor political disaster. While most El Pasoans support the idea of a medical center, residents of the area where Caballero wants to locate it were so upset by his apparent intrusion on their property rights that they rose up in protest and attempted to throw their city councilman, Larry Medina, a staunch supporter of the mayor’s, out of office. “[Caballero] was safe until the TIF,” says another councilman, Anthony Cobos, who campaigned last year for the man he called a “Hispanic savior” but soured on him once he took office. “He tried to do it [run the city] with an iron fist, and it went to the root of the community. Now he is threatening abuelita and abuelito, threatening to take their property.”

They’re not the only angry ones. Homebuilder Bob Bowling III, whose land purchases from the city—and therefore large chunks of his business—have been frozen by mayoral directive, sums up the bitterness of many business leaders I interviewed when he says, “Caballero is just like Ralph Nader. He is an extreme anti-capitalist who attacks business at every single opportunity. He is the worst thing that could happen to the city.” Bowling and others point to the mayor’s refusal to grant a tax break to megadeveloper Melvin Simon, who wanted to build a new mall in an old Farah plant in east El Paso, as an example of the mayor’s “anti-growth” policies. “He has gone in and alienated the entire business community,” says city councilman John Cook, another former ally of the mayor’s who now opposes him. “He treats everyone who succeeds as bad. He has not built a consensus for anything he has done.”

Caballero acknowledges that there are people who don’t like him, but he insists that much of the backlash against him is rooted in fear of his innovative ideas. “What you see are people who are against change, even good change,” he says. “When you run for office, where do you suppose you get your money? Bankers and developers. The reason they give is because they expect to get an open door on their issues. Typically this office had a lot of developers in it. They have always been a heavy-duty group in any Western city.”

As much as style or substance, however, the war now

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