The conservatives who have taken over Laredo’s city council are hardly right-wing—but then, everything’s relative on the border.
EVERY CITY COUNCIL IN TEXAS, it seems, has a defining issue that’s splitting it apart. In Austin, it’s the environment. In Dallas, it’s race. In Houston, it’s allegations of corruption. So why should Laredo be any different? Ideology is dividing this traditionally liberal border city, where a conservative revolt is being orchestrated by city councilman Louis Bruni, a mild-mannered rancher who is the scion of one of South Texas’ pioneer families. The goal is to undo two institutions that are forever linked with the Bruni name: the entrenched political machine of ex-mayor Pepe Martin, Bruni’s uncle; and the legendary Independent Club, an unofficial council of power brokers of which Martin and Bruni’s own father were charter members. “It’s like some bizarre novela, isn’t it?” Bruni says, smiling wryly over lunch at the Laredo Country Club. “A real family feud.”
Last June, the election of new councilmembers Consuelo Montalvo and Mario Alvarado gave Bruni, Alfonso “Poncho” Casso, and service station owner Joe Guerra a five-person conservative majority. Six weeks later, the council fired city manager Peter Vargas, accepted the resignation of assistant city manager Carlos Villareal (a 25-year veteran of city government whom Bruni calls “the secret conduit to the ex-mayor and his cronies”), and demoted veteran police chief J. L. Martinez. In addition, the city attorney, the head of the convention and visitors bureau, and the directors of the utilities, parks and recreation, and transportation departments have either quit or been reassigned. “Now they’re calling us Interim City,” worries liberal councilmember Cecilia Moreno, the principal of Martin High School.
How to explain the conservative coup—especially in a city where 96 percent of the population is Hispanic? One reason is that today’s Latino voters aren’t knee-jerk liberals; consider the electoral success of Republican congressman Henry Bonilla of San Antonio, or the recent study by the University of Texas that showed Texas Hispanics overwhelmingly in favor of identification cards for citizens and a two-year limit on welfare payments. Another reason is that the Laredo council’s agenda is hardly right-wing. They want to control costs by reducing the city’s public debt and consolidating the city and Webb County governments, but they also support tougher environmental protection. Casso, who says his main political hero is Robert F. Kennedy, talks about relocating colonias at the state’s expense.
More than any other issue, what riles the Bruni-led majority is the old patrón system of political favoritism. This is South Texas, after all, the land of George “Duke of Duval” Parr and Pepe Martin, the “Last Patrón” himself, who doled out favors like raspas and made millions of dollars disappear into a city street department that mysteriously managed to pave very few roads. In what Bruni calls an effort to “sever once and for all the tentacles of the old system,” the council has mounted a frontal attack on official corruption, and no one—not even family—is safe. Bruni and Casso, for instance, have been especially harsh in criticizing what they term the “sweetheart deal” that resulted in the extension of the city’s waterlines to the Unitec Industrial Park north of the city limits. “Those developers could get water to their industrial park, but not to the colonias they own,” Casso sneers. Unitec is owned by Bruni’s third cousin, J. C. Martin III, the son of Pepe Martin, and Bruni’s brother-in-law, Steve Whitworth, who have filed a multimillion-dollar defamation suit against Bruni and the City of Laredo. “The real irony,” says Whitworth, “is that Louis wants to be the next patrón. He’ll be worse than anything we’ve seen in this valley.”
That doesn’t faze 47-year-old Bruni, who entered politics in 1994 shortly after his father passed away. “I’d promised my dad I’d never run for office while he was alive,” he says. “He always said politics was just a dirty little game. But after he was gone, I wanted to run to put an end to the Independent Club—and to remove the tarnish from Father’s name.” Living across the street at the time was Alfonso Casso, a former industrial manager for Mexican maquiladoras whose family owns a wholesale grocery business and has always participated in politics along the Mexican side of the border. Short and dapper, the energetic Casso began his own campaign by writing a string of lengthy, articulate letters to the Laredo Morning Times in which he quoted RFK, Thucydides, Plato, Tennyson, and Churchill and made the case that “our [city] government is in deep trouble.” “I was trying to spread dissension,” admits Casso, who is 38.
Once elected, Bruni tried to work quietly behind the scenes, while Casso began launching verbal assaults against the council majority at the time, Mayor Saul Ramirez, Jr., the city manager, and the police chief—“belligerent hectoring,” one paper called it. Laredo has a long history of fussing and feuding in city government—an 1886 city council election between the Botas and Guaraches parties ended in gunfire, leaving more than twenty dead—but in the words of Maria Eugenia Guerra, the editor of the alternative monthly LareDos, “People crossed way over the line of good behavior.” There were shouting matches and several near brawls; Casso allegedly was kicked by the mayor. “A bunch of times we had to be physically separated,” Casso says. “People would tell me they’d rather watch the council meetings on public access than Monday night football.” Then, in spring 1995, more than a year before the next election, Casso bragged that soon his group was going to take power. “Actually there was no group,” he says, “but I knew that Louis, Joe Guerra, and I just needed two more votes, and I could feel the pulse of the city, that people were tired of the old ways.” The boast generated more than a few snickers, but fourteen months later the conservatives were in charge.
Bruni and Casso are a bit of an odd couple—the polite patrician and the loose-cannon demagogue—yet there is a surprising alchemy between them, a good-cop/bad-cop synergy. Casso talks openly of his plans to run for mayor, but he also brags of being “the only guy with balls” in Laredo politics; it’s hard to say whether he’s on his way up or about to implode. Some of his recent preoccupations—like an alleged murder plot against him and two old homicide cases that he claims may have involved higher-ups in city government—suggest the latter. As for Bruni, it remains to be seen how his big ideas about cleaning up the environment and government corruption will jibe with all the talk of fiscal conservatism.
“They’re no angels,” Guerra says. “But they’re a breath of fresh air—something this city really needed.”