El Paso

How El Paso Political Power Has Evolved Over The Years

A recent book, Who Rules El Paso? attempted to identify who the power brokers are in El Paso. It touched on some players but left others out. The book was devoid of context. Without understanding how influence peddling has evolved in El Paso over time it is difficult to know who rules El Paso today.

The book skipped over Ray Caballero’s battles over the land that was to be the footprint for the Border Health Institute (BHI). As soon as eminent domain was put on the table, the neighborhood around the University Medical Center (UMC) rose to defend their neighborhood against gentrification under the guise of economic development. The BHI gentrification failed as the community successfully defended their homes.

Why the book ignored this important context that ties directly to Duranguito and Segundo Barrio is up for speculation. However, the fact that one of the authors is Jose Rodriguez’ wife forces us to consider if that was one reason the BHI controversy was skipped. The BHI TIF District, that allowed eminent domain in the BHI footprint, was supported by Veronica Escobar and Susie Byrd, as staff members of Ray Caballero’s administration.

The BHI gave rise to Woody Hunt in El Paso’s politics.

The El Paso Political Powerbase From A Dozen to One

To understand influence peddling in El Paso one must understand how it has evolved over time. Is it the same players? Is it the same social-economic influence peddlers? Or is there a political class in El Paso?

The book makes the case that Woody Hunt and Paul Foster are today’s power brokers. But did Hunt and Foster suddenly emerge as the power brokers? Or are they part of an El Paso elite?

El Paso’s renaissance was the railroads. The railroads transformed El Paso from a sleepy little town into a transportation hub. When the Anglos brought the railroads into El Paso in 1881, the power base of El Paso moved out of Ysleta – which was dominated by Hispanics – and was centered in downtown El Paso where the Anglos ruled the city. From the railroads, El Paso can trace its early growth to about a dozen wealthy Anglo bankers and businesses that directed El Paso’s growth.

In El Paso, “things used to be done over a luncheon table” where the movers and shakers agreed to sums of about $100,000, “to get things done,” recalled one of the early El Paso land developers, Charles Leavell.

UTEP Historian W.H. Timmons said that “El Paso historically was controlled by the Anglo element.” He opined that the city’s Hispanics, who were always poor were battling the bankers and the developers as El Paso’s economy grew.

Two bankers were the original El Paso power brokers. Sam Young was the first. Young was a co-founder of the El Paso National Bank in 1925. El Paso National Bank was the political power base for about 25 years, when another bank, State National Bank entered the fray. Founded by George Matkin, State National Bank and El Paso National Bank built their power base around the business capital they controlled through loans. Both banks battled for control of El Paso’s power base by controlling the supply of business money in El Paso.

To grow an El Paso business, most business owners needed to have a relationship with either bank. During that time, business loans were mostly personal decisions made between the banks and the business owners. Business owners needed the blessing of either Matkin or Young to get funding for their business ventures.

Matkin and Young controlled the El Paso economy by controlling the money flows in El Paso.

Other El Paso power brokers were Fred Hervey and Judson Williams. Chihuahua banker, Eloy Vallina, completed the financial powerhouses that directed the direction that El Paso’s growth took.

In the 1980’s the El Paso power base began to change when national banking chains started to take over the local El Paso banks. In 1982, El Paso National Bank was purchased by Texas Commerce Bank. This took business loan decisions away from the local El Paso decision makers and transferred the decision-making process to bureaucratic corporate processes outside of El Paso.

In addition to the financial erosion caused by the national banks, the face of El Paso’s voters began to change in the late 1970’s. Registered Hispanic voters began to close the gap between Anglo and Hispanic registered voters.

Although over 70% Hispanic, it wasn’t until 1989, when Hispanic registered voters accounted for half of El Paso’s registered voter base.

It was then that the Hispanic voters had to be courted by the city’s power brokers.

Money still ruled the politics of the city, but the voter demographic now required the participation of the Hispanic voters. Alicia Chacon, the first woman and Hispanic county judge was the face of the new power structure in El Paso, albeit with little to no power to leverage. The Hispanic population began to play a role in the city’s politics.

The Anglos still controlled the political power base of the city. The power emanated from the Westside in the form influence peddling. El Paso’s political powerbase coalesced around business cliques, like the El Paso Chamber of Commerce and local community boards.

Names like Muriel Hall, the manager of Sunland Park Mall, and Jimmy Goldman, a former council representative (1983-1988) and county commissioner began to surface as power players. Hall argued that El Paso’s self-image needed be changed. She said that “when you leave El Paso’s areas of influence, you see the city in a different perspective.” She added that El Paso is not working “collectively as a city, in terms of what is important.”

Goldman served as county commissioner under Alicia Chacon, the county judge. The county commissioners were equally divided along ethnicity. Goldman and Charles Hooten served along side Orlando Fonseca and Rogelio Sanchez.

The Texas Monthly article, Fed Up, [Paul Burka, April 2008] quotes Dan Haggerty as saying that Jimmy Goldman told him that El Paso was corrupt. [Texas Monthly Letters, Spin City clarification by Burka, June 2008]

Dan Haggerty also told Texas Monthly that while he was on the El Paso Community College board, he noted that the discussion was always about vendor contracts. Haggerty added that a man representing a vendor offered him $2,000 to vote for the vendor’s contract. It was then that Haggerty understood that corruption reigned in El Paso politics.

Haggerty met with the FBI at least seven times at a Denny’s restaurant before the mass arrests of several El Paso officials that began in 2007 under the FBI’s Operation Poisoned Pawns.

While Hispanic voters were starting to leave their mark on El Paso politics, another economic restructuring began to emerge in El Paso. This time it was the maquila industry, or twin plants in Cd. Juárez that was the new railroad economic driver for El Paso. In the late 1970’s, El Paso power broker, Jonathon Rogers worked closely with Juárez entrepreneur and politician Jaime Bermudez. Bermudez is considered by many as the “father of the maquiladora industry”. Bermudez actively participated in the El Paso economy of the time and was the first resident of Juárez to sit on community and bank boards.

He also owned large tracks of land in El Paso.

While the 1970’s and 1980’s power base in El Paso revolved around a small group of bankers, land developers and insurance brokers with names like Sam Young, George Matkin, Fred Harvey, Charles Leavell and Leonard Goodman, the 1990’s witnessed a more diluted power base with new names with fewer direct power, except for one individual who emerged as the “king” of El Paso politics.

Generally, the banks no longer held the power monopoly of the city as financial deals were now controlled outside of El Paso. However, one banker emerged as the de-facto power broker of El Paso.

His name was Jonathon Rogers. The El Paso Times labeled him “the king of power in El Paso” in 1991.

“He’s got people who owe him” said Bank of the West director, Joe Hanson. It was Jonathon Rogers that funded the ouster of Suzie Azar to make way for Bill Tilney. Azar represented the last bastion of the old power base and her ouster made Rogers the single most powerful political power in the city.

However, the Hispanic representation was now cemented around names like Hector Holguin and Alicia Chacon. Jack Cardwell, Diana Natalicio, Tad Smith, Jack Vowell, Les Parker, Martha Tovar and Ted Houghton were also now on the rise in El Paso’s political power base.

Although Hispanics started to wield some political power, for the most part, they were marginalized by wealthy Anglo power players led by Jonathon Rogers.

Although Woody Hunt served in various boards, including at Texas Commerce Bank, he did not appear in El Paso’s political scene until 1998 when Ray Caballero and Eliot Shapleigh enlisted Hunt to help them keep the Border Health Institute (BHI) away from Texas Tech University.

The BHI was the genesis of the gentrification of El Paso neighborhoods to make way for economic development by pushing poor communities out of areas targeted for development. Paul Foster did not come into the El Paso political picture until much later.

It is important to note that the political power remains in the hands of the wealthy that incubate and promote willing partners in public office. In follow up articles, the El Paso Politics will delve deeper into the various political power factions that evolved after the BHI project was launched. We will also explore how Woody Hunt and others became the new political powerhouses of El Paso.

Read the author’s critical review of Who Rules El Paso? at this link. (click on the purple download button to download the FREE PDF.)

Note: this article is adopted from the author’s upcoming book: El Paso Corruption

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