Special Report: Former mayor Ray Caballero's vision of El Paso, influence endures years later

Special Report: El Paso's Progressive Movement

EL PASO, Texas - Legacies and ghosts of past administrations live on long after lawmakers leave office.

They survive as their dreams, their visions, and a driving force for the contemporary lawmakers that follow in their footsteps.

The city is at a crossroads in its history, a pivotal point in its own growth -- a growth that has been marked by a journey of bitter political battles over state funding, a vision for a competitive El Paso, heated disputes over development and bringing back our young people who fled a city mired by what some would describe as a sense of inferiority.

In the middle of all of this, was former Mayor Ray Caballero, a modern-day prophet to a progressive political alliance now dominating headlines and shaping policy and very clearly influenced by him.

"The status quo, for this town, is death," Ray Caballero said in an interview with the El Paso Times in December 1999, about two years before his victorious and landslide election into El Paso's mayoral seat.

It was that kind of rhetoric that forever changed the lives of his supporters. Among them Congressional Candidate Beto O'Rourke, County Judge Veronica Escobar and City Representatives Susie Byrd and Steve Ortega.

Before Caballero's successful 2001 run for office, the fiery trial lawyer was a weighty political shaker behind the scenes. He constantly encouraged people to run, including his friend and political ally, Eliot Shapleigh, who served in the State Senate.

Caballero's campaign rallies had the zeal and enthusiasm that more closely resembled religious revivals than political gatherings.

"It really captured my imagination and my attention and I knew that I wanted to be part of this effort to revitalize El Paso and claim our heritage and our destiny to be a great place. And that first meeting really changed my life and changed what I wanted to do in El Paso," said O'Rourke in a joint interview with Escobar, Byrd and Ortega about Caballero's influence in El Paso.

The four policy makers met working, supporting, or volunteering for the alluring candidate.

They believe Caballero's legacy lives on in projects such as the Plaza Theatre, the Medical Center of the Americas, the slated Trolley System, downtown revitalization, an investment in libraries and a sense that El Paso is full of potential.

But his impact started long before he ever took office.

A graduate of Cathedral High School and Texas Western College (now UTEP), Caballero also earned a law degree from the University of Texas at Austin, a master's degree in tax law from George Washington University and another master's degree in public administration from Harvard.

In the 1970s, he successfully fought for a City Council system with individual offices that represent specific districts. It replaced the at-large offices that made it difficult for minorities to get elected and often left parts of the city neglected. It wasn't uncommon for all the council members to live on the West Side before Caballero's efforts. In the 90s Caballero also lobbied for an additional federal judge in El Paso.

In his private practice, Caballero was an aggressive criminal, civil and injury lawyer. In 1979, he won a U.S. Supreme Court case in which he defended an African American accosted by El Paso police. When at the helm of the El Paso Bar Association, he implemented a mandatory pro bono program for all members.

In 1994, with Shapleigh and U.S. District Judge Edward Marquez, Caballero took on the state in a court of inquiry, alleging state officials mistreated El Paso, by allocating the west Texas city with much less than it's fair share of transportation funding.

It would be an understatement to say the move was controversial. Caballero infamously read the bureaucrats their Miranda rights as he would do so to common street criminals .

Business and community leaders, outraged Caballero was estranging El Paso from the state, called his tactics divisive, demonizing and angering.

When asked to respond to the criticisms of his strategies, Caballero brushed them off.

"What do you say to the thousands of people who have to leave this town? What do you say to all those who can't stay here because of the lack of opportunity? Tell them to be patient? I would say that we have not been strident enough. No one should ever be embarrassed about fighting for the community and no one will respect you if you don't."

The State initially refused to turn over documents that illustrated how much El Paso was receiving in transportation funding compared to other cities. Caballero finally won and showed El Paso, the sixth largest city in Texas, received less funds than the smallest rural communities.

Ortega said the court of inquiry is a prime example of a fight for El Paso that paved the way for projects that are now coming to fruition. Not even 10 years after Caballero's bitter battle for state dollars, the State has allocated $80 million for a new highway, $90 million for El Paso's rail and trolley system, and the west Texas City is represented in the Texas Department of Transportation with El Pasoan Ted Houghton as Transportation Commissioner.

"Some of those seeds and some of those ambitions were planted in the early 90s and we're starting to see results today. But it started with standing up for El Paso and often taking chances that aren't popular, are controversial and are forcing issues that need to be brought to the forefront and that's what he did with the court of inquiry," Ortega said.

Caballero preached a gospel of El Paso being a city filled with promise and potential. He cited the city's healthy per capita income and glory trade days in the 1950s before the border city was infiltrated with low-wage, low-skilled, mostly garment manufacturing jobs.

"I have absolutely always been convinced that El Paso is loaded with talent. And we just have to learn how to keep it. And foster it," Caballero told ABC-7 in a recent Skype interview.

When Caballero ran for mayor in 2001, El Paso was exporting more young people than any other major city. The 2000 census showed more than 12,000 people between the ages of 18 to 34 left the city between 1990 and 2000.

The attorney ran on a vision of revitalizing Downtown and older neighborhoods, while being critical of sprawl. He emphasized a focus on a medical campus (now the Medical Center of the Americas), an investment in transportation and basic services, such as libraries.

"There were a lot of people who thought El Paso was charming the way it was. That you ought to keep it the way it was. But what happens a lot of the time if you think that way is that you become uncompetitive and your regional cities - they go ahead and they beat you in the battle for talent," Caballero said in the recent interview.

Escobar said Caballero's words woke people up.

"I felt for the first time, that somebody believed in me. Because they believed in my community... We are four people in a larger movement. I see Ray's election into mayor in 2001 as a revolution of sorts or a renaissance for El Paso and there are thousands and thousands of people who are members of that revolution and renaissance."

That so-called renaissance produced unprecedented voter turnout for El Paso. Caballero beat former Mayor Larry Francis with 63 percent of the vote in a runoff. Francis was 26 percentage points behind.

The city believed in the Caballero vision. He spoke with fervor of investing in El Paso to attract industry, cultivate high-paying jobs, increasing the commercial tax base, and making the city a vibrant place.

There were also deep reservations from the start. Caballero was vocal about the perceived "good old boy" system of El Paso politics.

"Too often in this city, the administration has been driven by private interests. This city has been run by a few bankers and a bunch of land developers ... If I get elected, those days are over," he told the El Paso Inc. in February, 2001.

Immediate questions arose about Caballero possibly alienating some of the business sector with his confrontational personality and with a policy aimed at studying and regulating development in the outskirts of the city, a money-maker and pursuit of land developers.

After all, even in the infancy of his campaign, he had already accused the three largest banks in the city of unethical lending practices, alleging they refused to provide credit for El Paso's small businesses and instead disproportionately shipped deposits made by El Pasoans somewhere else.

As mayor, Caballero was known for his pre-dawn arrivals and his late departures from City Hall. He called on the community to invest and proposed an 11.8 percent tax increase to keep the city from touching its savings fund, as it had done to balance the budget in previous years and to focus on keeping libraries open longer, provide a more comfortable (and air-conditioned) bus system and a police contract with pay closer to the median salaries of comparable cities.

The tax increase survived a rollback effort.

He also feverishly fought for a Border Health Institute, which would include private research labs and a four-year medical school. Some on City Council, including then Rep. Luis Sarinana asked why an online, virtual campus would not suffice. Caballero contended a hub of medical innovation would be a booster shot for a lagging economy. His efforts for the BHI paved the way for the Medical Center of the Americas, which now includes the four-year stand alone medical school and research labs.

"Part of his vision was articulating a vision against ASARCO, we've succeeded in that. Articulating a vision for the Plaza Theatre, we've succeeded in that. Articulating a vision for the Medical Center of the Americas, we've been successful in that and so certainly in any bold ambition, there's going to be some failures, but I think the track records of some of the ideas and some of the projects he got behind speak for themselves," said Ortega.

Caballero laid out a plan to transform a Downtown railyard into a central park, a light rail system, a Downtown arena, and revitalized Central neighborhoods.

He put into motion a funding and contractual plan to save the Plaza Theatre, not a very popular plan at the time, but now the crown jewel of Downtown. He temporarily halted the sale of Public Service Board land in the outskirts of the city to land developers while the city studied the effects of sprawl. The move, by some, was seen as anti-business.

Caballero, in a recent interview, said not one of his initiatives were anti-business.

"If 30 percent of the people were not upset, I know I'd be doing nothing. You want to be a popular mayor? You want to get reelected without opposition? Do nothing," Caballero said. "Whatever you do will upset the status quo. We had a smoking ban, that upset at least 30-40 percent of the people. Am I glad we did it? You bet. Would I do it again tomorrow? Yes, I would. No one tried to do away with the smoking ban afterward. That's an example of things that you do. The Medical Center : 30 percent of the people were upset about the Medical Center. Was it a good idea? Yes."

Still, some were convinced Caballero's aim was to drive away some companies.

"The mayor told me face to face that he would everything legally possible to close our quarry," Stanley Jobe, of Jobe Concrete, told the El Paso Times in August, 2002, after Caballero started an environmental task force to look into potential health problems caused by Jobe, ASARCO, Chevron and Phelps.

Caballero denies ever making such a proclamation to Jobe or any other business.

Caballero's supporters admit his failure came in the former mayor's tunnel vision and diligence for his projects. He didn't reach out.

"He was great at setting forth a policy agenda and an expectation for El Paso but what he was really bad at was the retail politics. And doing the one-on-ones, bringing people together, bringing diversity and opinion to the table and figuring out a plan. And so one of the things I've learned is that communities that are the most successful have the private and public sectors marching in the same direction," said Ortega.

Byrd, who was Caballero's campaign manager and later one of his executive assistants, agrees.

"(There was) great political energy behind it (Caballero's administration). People who wanted to pitch in, who wanted to help, who wanted to get behind him. And in many ways, I think he kind of shut himself off from all of that great political energy because he got so excited about the project and so he wanted to sit down with the planners, and the engineers and just kind of focus on the projects -- thinking that he had all the political energy behind him to get things done. And so I think he ignored that part of what you need to do to move the community forward is you need to do the politics right."

Caballero also confesses his approach was not the wisest.

"I really should have worked more on the politics of it but I always felt that I wasn't going to run for a second term and that I was there to do everything possible to get the city up to date. Today I realize that that was a mistake," he said.

He lost his bid for re-election to the perceived 'pro-business' candidate Joe Wardy. After the election, political commentator Raul Amaya wrote in a column "I believe the principal reason he was not re-elected is because Ray Caballero is not a politician, Mayor Caballero makes decisions based on what's in the best interest of the community and not what is politically expedient."

Caballero's popularity diminished. By 2003, business leaders mocked his plans for a downtown central park and light rail. Wardy's administration dropped the projects. And even among the some of citizenry, Caballero was perceived as arrogant, stubborn and haughty.

Escobar and the Progressives have learned from Caballero's costly mistake but said his intentions were in the right place.

"One thing that I learned through Ray is never think about your next election, that should never play a role in what you do next. The here and now is what's important and doing what's right for the families of your community is what's important. Even if it means you many not be reelected or encouraged to run for the same office," she said.

The four lawmakers influenced by Caballero don't plan on making their prophet's mistakes. They are keenly aware of how to do the "retail politics" -- going to the community and selling proposed ideas so they could be successful and go from visions to concrete plans.

The progressives also subscribe to the notion of investing in the city and their vision comes with a cost. City Rep. Eddie Holguin, often at the opposite side of the voting spectrum, believes the Progressives plan for growth is too ambitious and not sustainable for tax-payers.

"I think that some of my colleagues have to face reality. The reality is that we are a border community," Holguin said. "We face challenges that other parts of the country don't face. Some of the ideas that they come up with are ideas from some very wealthy communities across the country, something El Paso isn't."

The City's total debt has gone from $355 million in 2002, to $869 million in 2011. About $564 million of the total debt has been approved by voters. Residents are being asked to take on $473 million more on the November 6 ballot.

Not all of that debt is due to the progressives or their projects. Some of that was accrued before they even took office.

Caballero's disciples believe that after years of divestment, the city has to catch up and investing in El Paso will make it attractive for businesses that will pay El Pasoans better wages.

"'(We heard) let's not invest in ourselves, we're not worth it. Let's not dream big, we can't get there. Let's stop pretending we're something we're not. We're not good enough.' And what that does is that impacts your feelings about yourselves as a citizen and I think that's why we do export a lot of talent. I think there's a lot of good people who want to stay and make a difference but if their town doesn't believe in them or if we don't believe in our town, what does that say about us? And Ray believed in the town," said Escobar.

As El Pasoans get ready to vote on a nearly $500 million bond that many believe will transform the city, Caballero's words from the past sound a lot like the current passionate proclamations by those striving to invest in the city.

"'Border' is not a word that has to be synonymous with 'poverty' and 'underachievement'. On the contrary, border should be synonymous with 'promise.'

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