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.
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 raging is about the emergence of a new kind of political power. El Paso has never seen the likes of Ray Caballero, who is considered extremely liberal even by the standards of this heavily Democratic enclave. He is the product of a city, long dominated by a small Anglo minority, whose overwhelmingly Latino population is finally flexing its muscles. This majority—78 percent of El Paso’s 563,662 residents—complains that its city is being left behind by the likes of San Antonio and even Laredo both in terms of its share of state government funds and its basic economic development. El Paso is the fifth poorest metropolitan area in the country and the only Texas city that lost jobs because of NAFTA. Most of its workforce is unskilled and works in low-wage occupations, and 35 percent of the population has no health insurance.
When Caballero ran in 2001 against the old-line Anglo establishment—in the person of former mayor Larry Francis, himself an engineer and a businessman—he promised a fight. During the campaign, he took well-aimed shots at bigwigs in the business community for their failure to lead. This strategy, more than anything else, propelled Caballero to an extraordinary 25-point victory. But now he’s the one whose leadership is being questioned. He’s the one whose vision is being attacked. He wanted to upset the old order, and he did. But at what price?
UP IN THE PEACEFUL, SMOKE-FREE air of Caballero’s tenth-floor office at city hall, the world seems quite a bit more serene, as though the very idea of a bare-knuckle fight over his populist politics is impossible to contemplate. From his window, you can see the problem spreading out below him—poor areas of Mexico bleeding into only slightly less poor areas of the United States, and international bridges where hundreds of motorists wait in interminable, carbon monoxide-drenched lines. Depending on how you look at it, El Paso is either a dirt-poor city with the nation’s most intractable social and economic problems or the most remarkable political opportunity in America, an advance look at the promise and perils of the Hispanic-majority state that Texas will soon become. Caballero, who calls himself an “unbridled optimist,” is convinced that it is the latter and that the increasingly noisy opposition of much of the business community, half of the city council, and several city neighborhoods represents a relatively small bump in the road. It is impossible to tell if he really believes this or if this is simply the Panglossian spin he chooses to put on his first year in the job. “Our policies reflect the sentiments of the overwhelming number of people in the city,” he says in a soft voice. “I am not espousing what I consider to be a minority opinion at all. This might sound dogmatic, but I am simply expressing the views of most El Pasoans.”
Caballero is sixty years old, a scholarly man with a friendly manner who made millions as a plaintiffs attorney. (Some of his critics call him an “ambulance chaser.” It’s true that he sued many doctors and hospitals for malpractice; he sued Thomason, the county hospital, eleven times.) He left his law practice in 1989 and devoted himself to a quiet study of border history and to liberal political causes. He is from a prosperous El Paso family that owned a motel and a restaurant, and he got a first-class education: an undergraduate degree from Texas Western College (now the University of Texas at El Paso), a law degree from UT-Austin, a master’s in tax law from George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., and a master’s in public administration from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Caballero’s political career began in 1994 with an audacious attack on state government. That year, he and activist lawyers Eliot Shapleigh and Jose Rodriguez (now a state senator from El Paso and the El Paso county attorney, respectively), under an archaic Texas statute, persuaded a judge to convene a criminal “court of inquiry” to prove that the city was being deprived by Austin legislators of its share of state money. Five years later, a community group backed by Caballero and Shapleigh sued local banks for allegedly interfering with the group’s attempt to find information about the banks’ loan-to-deposit ratios—how much money they lent locally compared with their local deposits. “We need that information,” Caballero says of his démarche. “These big banks have magnificent worldwide business plans, but we are not in them. They want your deposit business but won’t lend you money.” (The suit is still pending. In June one of the defendants, Wells Fargo, announced that its loan to deposit ratio was 104 percent. If that is accurate, then Wells Fargo lends more than it takes, which would be a complete contravention of Caballero’s charge.) In the same spirit, during the 2001 campaign, Caballero called the banks “thugs” for threatening the community group, and he has continued to attack them as mayor.
Caballero has also been willing to challenge the city’s oligarchs, criticizing the business community’s “dreadful” record of bringing in decent jobs. “He took on an elite few who have been favored at the expense of the many,” says Shapleigh, who is widely regarded as the mayor’s political doppelgänger. “The chamber of commerce executed a flawed strategy that left El Paso with the largest number of people in the country with low wages and no benefits. He took the chamber on directly.” Indeed, in his first week in office, Caballero did what previous mayors would have considered unthinkable: He cut the city’s funding of the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce—some $140,000—to zero.
CONTROVERSY ASIDE, THERE’S NO DENYING that Caballero has had a measure of success in his first year as mayor. He rammed through the nation’s strictest anti-smoking ordinance (you can’t even smoke in bars in El Paso—you can imagine how popular this is with the hotel and food and drink industries). He passed an 11.8 percent property tax increase that he used to give city employees a pay raise, to clean up garbage-strewn streets by increasing the frequency of street sweepings, and to keep the city’s public libraries open later. He pushed El Paso to become the first city in Texas to consider not only the bid price when awarding city contracts but also what health benefits the bidder offers its employees—in essence, it means that unless you offer your employees insurance, you’re not likely to win a city contract.
Caballero has also articulated a coherent long-term vision for the city, something no El Paso mayor has ever done. A big part of it revolves around the medical complex, which is theoretically a solution to El Paso’s core problems: a low-wage economy with large numbers of people who have no insurance, and a shortage of doctors, hospitals, and specialists (El Paso has one primary care doctor for every 2,445 residents, versus one for every 1,465 elsewhere in Texas; 40 percent of El Pasoans go to Mexico for health care). Caballero’s idea is to turn the city’s greatest weakness into its greatest strength. The first phase of the plan is to sign up the more than 200,000 El Pasoans who are eligible for federal health insurance but aren’t covered and to encourage private companies to provide health-care benefits. The second phase is to turn the existing two-year Texas Tech Medical School branch in El Paso into a four-year school and create a research institute that will focus on border health issues such as hepatitis and diabetes, for which $50 million of state “tobacco money” has already been set aside. The third phase is an effect of the second: Around this “critical mass,” other facilities, such as a children’s hospital and various specialty clinics, would be encouraged to grow. In Caballero’s vision, the medical complex would eventually spawn thousands of high-skill, high-wage jobs, and El Paso would become a major health-care center for the region.
What’s wrong with that? Nothing, say most El Pasoans, including many of the mayor’s opponents. And, indeed, Caballero and Shapleigh are given credit for fighting for the research institute and the expanded medical school. But there is violent disagreement on how all of this should be put into play. Developers say that it makes no economic sense to put the medical complex in the central area of the city, where per-acre building costs are far higher than in outlying districts. They point out that the large medical complexes in cities like Houston and San Antonio grew by private sector initiative rather than by public sector fiat. And the mayor’s plan will involve the huge expense of moving railroad tracks. “He is phenomenally ignorant of the economics of development,” says a developer who prefers to remain anonymous because he fears Caballero’s reprisals. “Smart growth is a wonderful idea in a wealthy community. It is a bad idea here.” Caballero disagrees. “People want the city to grow,” he says, “but they do not want it to grow with abandon. You should grow with order and with some idea that you’re maximizing the infrastructure that you’ve already paid for.” Developers also say that, instead of encouraging economic development and new jobs, the mayor’s radical politics are shutting them down. “The word has gone out,” says another developer who also declines to be identified. “Headhunters and consultants for big companies are saying, ‘Considering what is going on politically in El Paso, we’re not coming. You’re off our list until you solve your problem.'”
Nothing illustrates this conflict like the fight over the Jobe quarry. Caballero has made Stanley Jobe the poster boy for all that is wrong with the city. But in many ways, Jobe Concrete is exactly the sort of business the mayor says he wants. Jobe employs some 650 people, mostly Hispanic and many in jobs that pay more than $10 an hour. Many are recent immigrants. Jobe donates generously to local charities, pays full health and 401(k) benefits, and pays $10 for every A earned in school by his employees’ children—$64,000 worth this year—and $500 per semester for their college or trade school education. Though his quarry is the target of several lawsuits over air pollution, local air monitors consistently show particulate emissions to be within legally acceptable levels. The quarry is indeed an eyesore, but it has been an eyesore since the thirties. “To me the mayor’s intentions are not honorable,” Jobe says. “He keeps sending inspectors out here. He is trying to regulate us out of business. But we have a right to be here.”
WITH EL PASO’S MAYORAL ELECTION only ten months away, and with much of the business community in lockstep against Caballero, the city is likely to erupt into full-scale electoral warfare before too long. Business leaders are hunting for a candidate, preferably Hispanic, on whom they can drop large amounts of money. Their efforts will be helped by the El Paso Times which endorsed Caballero’s opponent in 2001 and recently ran a page-one story about the mayor’s first year in office under the headline “Vision Problem.” Caballero, meanwhile, is steaming ahead with his elaborate plans. Coming off a landslide victory just fourteen months ago, and in the absence of any evidence that his support has significantly softened, he remains the odds-on favorite to win. Even many people in the business community I talked to think he’ll be reelected. But like so much else he’s trying to accomplish, it’s going to be a long stretch of hard road.