As recently as a few years ago, most city council meetings in Laredo were less exciting than Lotería Night at the retirement home two blocks from city hall. At least the Lotería cards had risqué cartoons like the topless Sirena. At City Hall, the agenda items were announced in a bureaucratic monotone full of passive language: “Discussion with possible action to enact a resolution and create a Census 2020 Complete Census Committee . . . and any items incident thereto.”
Local border politics remained calm even during the COVID-19 pandemic and after the 2020 election, largely steering clear of the recent culture wars that have caused meetings at many school boards and city councils across the state to descend into chaos. But that relative peace was disturbed in early 2023, as the new Laredo City Council began its term.
On February 6, 2023, the council considered a recent ruling from a state district judge who found that fifteen voters, including four police officers, illegally established sham residencies to cast ballots for city council candidate Daisy Campos Rodriguez, resulting in a narrow six-vote victory over her opponent, Ricardo “Richie” Rangel Jr. Days earlier, Judge Susan Reed, the visiting judge assigned to the case, had voided the disputed votes and declared Rangel the true winner.
Campos Rodriguez still sat on the dais with the nine-member council, stoically watching the line of citizens approach the podium to demand that she resign and that disciplinary action be taken against the city employees who voted illegally. A trial attorney and former city council member named George Altgelt addressed Campos Rodriguez directly: “Do the honorable thing. Resign. Walk out with your own two feet,” he said. “Do what Vidal could never do,” he added, referencing Campos’s husband and the former representative of the district, Vidal Rodriguez. He was convicted in 2017 of illegally accessing and disseminating criminal juvenile records of his opponent. Altgelt was one of only two of nine members of the prior city council who voted to remove Vidal Rodriguez, who remained in the seat until his wife took office.
The district Campos Rodriguez represents, Laredo’s District 2, is a long strip that meanders alongside roughly ten miles of the Rio Grande. With U.S. 83 slicing through it, the district is Laredo’s gateway to the Rio Grande Valley. Laredoans and visitors often bypass the working-class neighborhoods of District 2 and gravitate toward the city’s vibrant downtown and affluent north side. The district sits in Webb County, which had the sixth-lowest turnout among the state’s 254 counties in the 2022 general election. It was perhaps this paucity of ballots cast that made those four police officers and eleven other citizens so consequential.
After Campos Rodriguez narrowly beat her opponent on election night, Rangel’s team requested a recount. After the recount showed an additional five votes in favor of Campos Rodriguez, Rangel’s team started digging. Lawyers reviewed the publicly available voter rolls and found that eighteen voters were registered to the same 1,650-square-foot single-family home, right next to Campos Rodriguez’s house. Another residential building was linked to eight registered voters, including Laredo police sergeant Vicente Rodriguez, Campos Rodriguez’s brother-in-law.
Rangel’s team sued, citing a residency provision in a 2021 voting law mandating that “a person may not establish residence for the purpose of influencing the outcome of a certain election.” Many of the voters’ legal residences—as captured by employment records and homestead exemptions—were outside Campos’s district. Judge Susan Reed determined that fifteen illegal votes were cast for Campos and declared Rangel the winner. (All fifteen voters had some personal or familial connection to Campos Rodriguez, according to Rangel’s legal team.)
Campos Rodriguez appealed the ruling to the Fourth Court of Appeals in San Antonio, which is expected to rule in early June under an expedited appeal. “We hope that the court of appeals finds the truth behind the real fact presented by our attorney,” she wrote in an email to Texas Monthly. “Respectfully, we disagree with the decision the judge made since many facts and state laws were overlooked.”
Campos Rodriguez contends that the judge overlooked evidence presented at trial. For instance, her brief cites Patricia Soto, one of the voters alleged to have voted illegally in the race. Soto, who spoke at the February council meeting, claims that she split her time between two households but that her primary residence was in District 2. In April, Campos Rodriguez submitted a formal complaint to the Secretary of State alleging that 34 illegal votes were cast in favor of Rangel. Given that voter activity is confidential, there is currently no evidence that these voters actually cast ballots for Rangel. Because the complaint was not submitted to the court of appeals, it is unlikely to impact the court’s upcoming decision.
The February city council meeting ended with a vote of no confidence in Campos Rodriguez. The officers involved were placed on administrative duty with pay. Weeks later, the city council initiated a formal investigation into the police department and Laredo’s chief of police announced his early retirement. Texas law allows Campos Rodriguez to remain on the council while her appeal of Judge Reed’s ruling plays out. According to Laredo’s city attorney, Doanh Nguyen, neither local law nor the Texas Election Code provides any recourse to remove her or restrict her actions without a criminal conviction.
But while Laredo remained in limbo, the findings of Rangel’s investigation would soon reach the desk of Texas attorney general Ken Paxton.
Allegations of voter fraud aren’t new in South Texas. The region has a long history of ballot boxes going missing, most famously in the 1948 senatorial election of Lyndon B. Johnson. After Johnson narrowly lost the race on Election Day, a ballot box stuffed with two hundred Johnson votes mysteriously appeared in Jim Wells County, directly to the east of Laredo; today political historians largely agree that voter fraud helped tip the election in Johnson’s favor. Similar rumors surrounding the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon presidential election—Kennedy carried Texas—caused Nixon’s team to consider contesting the election. In 2004 some commentators, such as Southern Methodist University professor Cal Jillson, saw the ghost of Lyndon B. Johnson resurface when U.S. representative Henry Cuellar narrowly beat incumbent Ciro Rodriguez with the late discovery of two ballot boxes. Although Rodriguez alleged illegal voting in a court challenge, no illegality was ever proven, and he eventually abandoned his challenge after procedural losses in the courts.
Across Texas, however, there is no evidence that widespread voter fraud persists today despite the persistent claims of statewide Republican officials. After the contentious 2020 election, Governor Greg Abbott ordered an audit of the presidential election results, focusing on Harris, Dallas, Collin and Tarrant Counties—the two most populous Democratic and Republican counties, respectively. The audit found only a handful of explainable discrepancies that did not reflect systemic or widespread fraud, and would not have affected any election results.
No similar study has specifically focused on South Texas in recent years. But since 2004, two years after Greg Abbott was elected attorney general, the region has seen the majority of election-related investigations in Texas. This trend continued after Ken Paxton assumed the office in 2015. A 2021 analysis found that 86 percent of the 93 election-related prosecutions by Paxton occurred in counties with majority non-white and Latino populations. The effort to root out elusive voter fraud intensified in 2021, when Paxton created an Election Integrity Unit, a division of the attorney general’s office dedicating personnel to investigating and prosecuting violations of election laws. But despite the hundreds of investigations by his unit—and its $2.2 million annual budget—Paxton has won only a handful of convictions, including only five from January 2020 through September 2022, in a state where close to ten million votes are cast in a typical presidential-election year.
Many border prosecutions involve politiqueras, campaign workers who are often paid by candidates to assist mostly elderly voters with filling out and casting ballots, both in person at polling locations and by mail. This practice, traditional to South Texas, is not illegal unless politiqueras—known as cañoneros (hired guns) in Laredo—engage in “unlawful assistance” under the Texas Election Code. This can include the assister failing to sign a sworn statement required by the code, directing voters to vote for a preferred candidate, or manipulating mail-in ballots.
In Laredo, such illegal voting practices are in decline, says Baldemar Garcia, one of Rangel’s lead attorneys, who has worked on cases challenging these practices. The same appears true farther south in the Rio Grande Valley, where politiqueras are less influential after a series of investigations between the 2012 primaries and July 2016 by the state attorney general led to fifteen election-related prosecutions in Texas over the four-year period. Martha Cigarroa, who also represents Rangel and has served as a Webb County election judge since 2010, has not seen evidence of widespread fraud in recent years. “Election fraud is rare, and it can happen anywhere,” she said. “This is not unique to the border.”
Sergio Mora, a longtime political operative who previously served as the chair of the Webb County Democratic Party, acknowledged that border counties have historically faced problems with election integrity. But he also expressed concern that the state politicians called down to Laredo in the Campos Rodriguez case may use occasional examples of voter fraud to justify overly broad suppression efforts. “The GOP is using these local races that have limited local ramifications to justify voter-suppression efforts on a statewide scale,” he said, referencing Abbott’s 2020 order limiting each Texas county to a single drop box for absentee ballots.
After Judge Reed ruled that Rangel had won the election, Webb County’s district attorney, Isidro Alaniz, a Democrat, referred the case to Paxton’s Election Integrity Unit. Paxton’s office did not respond to requests for an interview, and before he was impeached by the Texas House last week and suspended from the position as he awaits a trial in the Senate, his office had not made any announcements about the investigation. But the arrest of former Edinburg mayor Richard Molina in 2019 provides some insight into how a criminal prosecution might unfold. After Molina was arrested by the state’s election fraud unit, the Hidalgo County DA prosecuted Molina for what Paxton called “an organized illegal voting scheme” during the November 2017 municipal election, involving facts almost identical to those in the District 2 race. In 2022 Molina’s attorney, a lawyer from McAllen named Jaime Peña, argued that before 2021, the residency statute left the term “residence” vague and open to interpretation. The jury acquitted Molina based on his defense that he was legitimately mistaken about the law’s definition of residency. According to Peña, the new 2021 law clarifies the definition of “residence” to mean a person’s fixed habitation at the time of registration, not any temporary habitation. Because the new law was in effect for the District 2 election, Paxton’s office faces a lower legal hurdle if he moves forward with criminal prosecutions surrounding the race, Peña said.
The District 2 election has not generated any partisan grandstanding from Republican statewide officials. Although city council races are nonpartisan, Rangel is a Democrat while Campos Rodriguez is nonpartisan, and the unique political makeup of border cities like Laredo simply doesn’t provide the same opportunity to score partisan points. In such cities, the main political conflict pits conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats such as Henry Cuellar against left-leaning Democrats, including his recent challenger, the immigration lawyer Jessica Cisneros.
In 2016 the assistant state attorney general told the Texas Tribune that the office didn’t specifically focus on the border, stating that “complaints come from across the state, and we take them as they come.”
In recent years, South Texas has seen many seats flip red. Jaime Peña said this shift could also explain the GOP’s more recent focus on election enforcement on the border, given that politiqueras have traditionally targeted loyal Democrat groups such as elderly low-income Latinos. By creating a chilling effect on campaign practices South Texas Democrats have relied on for decades, Peña believes Republican candidates could gain an edge or have greater recourse to challenge increasingly close races.
That’s already starting to happen: in the 2022 election, a Trump-endorsed Republican, Adam Hinojosa, challenged a razor-thin victory by Democrat Morgan LaMantia for a state Senate seat representing much of the Rio Grande Valley. His recount request specifically focused on counties with the highest percentages of mail-in ballots, which have been a major focus of election-denial claims since 2020. Hinojosa lost the recount and conceded.
Laredoans such as Sergio Mora, the former Democratic Party chair, cautiously welcome the attorney general’s investigation into Campos Rodriguez. Referring to the ballots cast for her by voters from outside her district, he said, “These types of things have been going on for too long and the people of Laredo are saying basta! Enough!”
Webb County was once wholly controlled by Mayor J. C. “Pepe” Martin, who ruled the city for more than two decades through his well-oiled patrón system. His reign ended with the 1978 victory of challenger Aldo Tatangelo and a new guard of leaders, including some of the first Republicans to hold office in South Texas. That same year, the CBS News program 60 Minutes aired an episode titled “You Can Beat City Hall,” exposing the corruption that defined Martin’s reign.
Back in February, as he stood at the podium before the council, former council member George Altgelt referenced this over-four-decade-old 60 Minutes episode. “The earth beneath us shifted!” he said, as audience members nodded. “With Mayor Tatangelo came all sorts of sweeping reforms, including charter amendments to set in place some preventative measures so that we didn’t end up there again. This is one of those moments.”
Indeed, the District 2 scandal has once again created an appetite for reforms. In February, the city council announced an investigation into the police department. The assistant city manager, Steve Landin, took over as acting police chief and swiftly disciplined the officers involved by placing them on indefinite suspension without pay.
That Campos Rodriguez remains on the council during the appeal raises questions about her access to the significant discretionary funds Laredo allocates to council members, exceeding $250,000 per member for the current fiscal year. As the watchdog group Our Laredo recently highlighted, this money can be used to pay for thinly veiled campaign events and self-promotional items such as T-shirts and signage bearing individual council members’ names and faces. At the February 6 meeting, council member Gilbert Gonzalez was surprised when the city attorney advised that there was no way to restrict Campos Rodriguez from using these funds. “We can’t even do that?” he asked.
Campos Rodriguez condemns such efforts as attempts to restrict her from performing ordinary council business while she legally remains in office pending the appeal. “How can they leave a district without representation and no project or progress for the area?” she wrote in an email. “They expect for taxes to be paid without representation for the constituents of District 2. That’s a true abuse of power from the council members who voted in favor and ignored the charter and laws of the people.”
The last speaker at the February meeting was Richie Rangel, the rightful District 2 representative. Rangel approached the podium and thanked everybody for their time. “Do the right thing; do the ethical thing,” he urged the council members. In contrast to years past, many Laredoans are cautiously optimistic that city leaders will heed his call.
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