Editor’s note: This article was updated to add the purchasing link for Oscar Martinez’ book on Amazon on December 4, 2021.

In the book Who Rules El Paso? by the Community First Coalition, the authors laid out the case for the argument that Paul Foster and Woody Hunt dominate El Paso politics through their wealth. Hunt uses philanthropy and campaign contributions to drive the public policy agenda. Foster, on the other hand, has a narrower interest on the local policy agenda of the city as his interests lie more on the international regional arena. Foster’s political power rise in El Paso began after he took control of the Texaco oil refinery. Foster’s initial interest in El Paso politics appears to have been to protect his business interests from environmental activists that were starting to target oil refineries in the center of town after Asarco was stalled. Jobe Concrete and the oil refineries were the next target of the local environmental grassroots groups in the city. After Foster’s marriage to Alejandra de la Vega, a Juárez industrialist and the sale of Western Refinery, Foster’s interest in the local political scene became more regional than city politics because of his wife’s political agenda in México. Woody Hunt, on the other hand, remains largely focused on El Paso politics for economic reasons.

Political kingmakers are as old as politics itself. Foster and Hunt are not unique in their control of the public policy agenda, especially through philanthropy. In 1937, mayoral candidate Marvin A. Harlan argued that his campaign was opposed by El Paso’s “king-makers.” Harlan did not name the so-called kingmakers but argued during the election “that there those in El Paso who question the right of free suffrage and the right of any person to seek public office without the approval of the ‘king-makers’.” [5] Political influence through wealth has been part of El Paso’s politics for centuries. Asking the question, who rules El Paso, is not new either. It has been asked and answered before.

The question was first publicly posed in 1912 when a Mexican reporter for the Mexico City newspaper El Imparcial was questioned by Mexican secret service agents inside a federal building. According to the 1912 news report, Jose E. Campos, the reporter, was accosted by Mexican secret service agents in front of the Hotel Sheldon and later released after the agents determined that he was not the “man wanted” by authorities. Campos posed, “what guarantees a stranger has in El Paso” after being detained by Mexican authorities in the American city. Campos told the El Paso Herald that his experience was “an illustration of the power of the Mexican government in El Paso.” [1]

Candidates running in El Paso, especially the opponents to entrenched officials, often decried “king-makers” as their actual opponent. Identifying the kingmakers helps answer the question, who runs El Paso. In 1951, Dan Duke, who was running for reelection as the city’s mayor, told radio listeners that his candidacy was a “ticket not organized by big business or for big business.” [14] Business owners were the kingmakers in El Paso, according to Duke. Today, many voters continue to argue that the city’s political power lies in the business owners of the city.

The Evolving El Paso Political Powerbrokers

El Paso’s political power is historically centralized among an elite monied people who have evolved over time. Centralized political power in the city started with the railroads where political power centered around about a dozen Anglo bankers who controlled the money flows in El Paso until one banker – Jonathon Rogers – centralized the city’s political power under his control by controlling the money flows in the city. Roger’s political clout was significant enough for the El Paso Times to label him “the king of power in El Paso” in 1991. The control of money is what empowers the city’s kingmakers.

However, the political power in El Paso is not as centralized as it seems to appear. Although Hunt, Foster and Rogers wield, or wielded political power it is and has been the rampant public corruption that empowers different political players over the years. The answer to the question “who rules El Paso” is not as simple as Woody Hunt because it must involve individuals that play in El Paso’s political arena – some poor who need the politics for survival and others who see it as part of their wealth. The city’s kingmakers leverage money for control.

Leveraging political money can be as simple as funding political campaigns. But it can also be used illegally. Legal campaign funding is transparent and open to scrutiny. Dark political money is opaque and then there is the illegal money that comes in many forms. Cash exchanged in the dark and never reported. Or government contracts lining pockets that are then leveraged for political purposes. Philanthropy and jobs are also used for political gain. However the money makes it into the political realm is immaterial because the money is the key. Thus, the wealthy set the public policy agenda. But how do the kingmakers assert policy?

Ray Caballero – “times are changing in El Paso”

El Paso Times columnist Steve Peters posed the question, “Who rules El Paso?” in 1975. In his column, Peters opined that the question was “ambiguous” because the “various inputs into the local decision-making process are tangled,” where “diverse interests exert power in relative degrees, and so many variables are involved that no precise answer may be given.” Peters went on to write that the “classic” campaign contributions “was not in evidence” in El Paso in 1975. [2]

Peters goes on to describe how an “ideological fraternity” had “inhabited City Hall for at least a generation.” According to Peters, two candidates, one a Republican and the other a Democrat were “members of the Hervey Team, the slate of candidates elected to City Council in 1973.” The campaign contributions for that election “were divided equally among the five candidates.” [2]

During the 1972 race for El Paso’s District Attorney, the opponent, Howard J. Gibbs charged that the incumbent by appointment, Steve Simmons was one of Travis Johnson’s candidates. Gibbs labeled Johnson, a former county judge, as the “kingmaker” who was “the real political power in El Paso controlling appointments by Gov. Preston Smith.” [13]

In 1973, almost half of the $70,000 in campaign contributions “came from contractors, builders, land developers and realtors.” Of the $33,000 attributed to the building industry contributors, $11,000 came from William F. Farah and family members of former county judge Hugh McGovern. [2]

El Paso Times columnist Steve Peters goes on to describe how the Democratic Party chairman, Caballero, in 1975 was about to wrestle the political power away from the “too few persons [who] have controlled El Paso politics” by empowering partisan votes, i.e., the local Democratic Party in municipal elections. [2]

Ray Caballero, the County Democratic Party Chairman was arguing that “times are changing in El Paso” because the El Paso “electorate is becoming more sophisticated.” [2] According to Caballero’s analysis, the “special interests” that were dominating El Paso politics through non-party party posts, instead of partisan ones, were on the way out. The argument being that the local Democratic Party was just a label for many politicians and not representative of their ideology. Today the same argument is levied against some elected officials.

The Minority Anglos Rule El Paso

Regardless of the driving force behind the political power in El Paso, whether it was special interests, the Democratic Party, or the kingmakers; the one defining thing about the power brokers from the time the city was established until at least 1991 was that the Anglos are the ones who dominated the power base. One need not look beyond two headlines in the El Paso Times in 1991 to understand how entrenched the Anglos were in the political power of El Paso.

One article by Joe Olvera is titled Hispanics shove way into power. Readers should note the use of the word “shove” to describe El Paso’s Latinos asserting some political power in the city’s politics. [15] In the same page, another article reinforces this. That article by Denise Bezick is titled Women, Hispanics, blacks invading power structure. Note the use of the word “invading” as the descriptor for the non-Anglos that are starting to assert political power. [16] Another article better illustrates this. In the same page of the newspaper, it is titled Women moving up in politics. Note the use of the phrase “moving up” as the descriptor. All three articles were about the changing face of El Paso’s political establishment, except that one article focused on women, which included Anglo women, while the other two focused on the increased suffrage participation of the city’s minorities. The use of the descriptive words betrays the sense that non-Anglos were upsetting the power structure of the city in 1991, making the minority Anglo powerbrokers uncomfortable.

In his upcoming book, Latinx El Paso: Odyssey of a Mexican American/Hispanic Community, historian Oscar J. Martinez delves into the disparities between the “Mexican American majority population in the city and the non-Hispanic” population. According to Martinez, “Anglos have dominated much of the economy and the political system since El Paso became a city in 1873.” [18] The historical record supports this. But power often changes hands. Political power is not different.

Political Power Changes Hands

Political influence drives all politics. Whether it is influence through grassroots vote gatherings or purchased influence via campaign contributions – it is the influence that enables a “special interest” policy agenda to be enacted. Amassing political power is how strong politicos ensure survival in the political arena. The more influence a politician asserts the more power they wield.

Joseph Michael Dunne, known as the “mayor of East El Paso,” exerted political influence in El Paso in 1941. Dunne acquired his political influence because “he had built many homes” in the eastern part of the city. [3] After the bankers, builders were often labeled the power behind the city’s politics. The banks no longer assert local political power. Woody Hunt is the largest developer in the city. Hunt controls many aspects of the building industry in El Paso, including government work, housing, tax credits and financing.

During the May 4, 1974, Democratic Primary there were three candidates vying for the party chairmanship. They were the incumbent, Lloyd McDonald, who was appointed to the position, Robert Valles, a salesman and Ray Caballero. Caballero told the El Paso Herald-Post that he felt it was “important for the County Chairman to encourage good Democrats from all walks of life to become involved in politics, either as candidates or campaign activists, and always as voters.” [4]

Caballero was proposing that the local Democratic Party formulate candidate slates to wrestle control of the political power in El Paso away from the existing power players.

El Paso municipal offices are non-partisan in name, but the office holders are often defined as Republicans. Some partisan politicians, running under the Democratic Party label, are often described as “Democrats in name only.”

Latinos In Power

In 1988, El Paso’s population was 65% of the population. According to historian Oscar J. Martinez, the lack of political power by El Paso Latinos can be attributed to “historical implications” because El Paso evolved from an Anglo town. Martinez told the El Paso Times in 1988 that “Anglos shaped, formed, and controlled the economy, the politics” of the city. Martinez went on to ask the question, “how many true Hispanic leaders do we have in El Paso?” Martinez was making the case that El Paso Latinos were fractured and that the pool of Latino leaders in El Paso was “so small”. [6] Another problem facing the city’s Latinos was that they did not have a “stronger voice in the mainstream Anglo media” keeping them out of the political powerbase in El Paso. [7]

Today, the problem of Anglo dominance in the political process persists. In his upcoming book, Martinez writes “for all the contemporary advances, El Paso’s Latinxs have not achieved the level of prominence that distinguishes the local Anglo minority.” He adds, “as in previous eras, currently (in 2021) non-Hispanic Whites, especially families who own large businesses, own a disproportionate share of the city’s wealth and wield an inordinate amount of political power.” [18]

In 1988, Gene Finke, told the El Paso Times that the redistricting of municipal districts in 1977 had the potential to empower El Paso’s Latinos. [8] Finke, who passed away in 2014, was a city representative from 1989 to 1995. In 1981 Finke wrote a dissertation for his master’s degree at UTEP. In it he argued that Mexican immigration to the United States would increase the political power of Hispanics in the country. [9] In his dissertation, Finke argued that unlike previous historical migrations to the US, Mexican migration was “large” and the Hispanic population growth was helped along by their “high fertility”. Because of the rising recognition of minority rights at the time, Mexican immigrants did not assimilate into the Anglo society and instead kept their cultural norms and language, argued Finke. [9] Latinos in America continue to grow exponentially while keeping their customs and language intact. This is especially true of the Mexican immigrant.

As the Hispanic population continues to grow in America, its political power grows as well, albeit culturally and linguistic separate from the existing Anglo framework. This leads to political tension.

As the perception of Hispanic political power grew, Anglos “sought to impose political, economic, and social authority” over Latinos especially around the borderlands. [10] Hispanic population growth threatened to destabilize the entrenched Anglo cultural norms and authority. Prior to 1977, Hispanics were not represented at city council. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 forced El Paso leaders to enact single-member districting. Even then, Anglos continued to dominate the city’s politics. It wasn’t until 1982 when El Paso’s Mexican-Americans, which historically were the majority of the city, forced the Anglos to yield in El Paso giving the Latinos access to more political power. [11]

In the 1970’s the Chicano Movement provided El Paso’s Latinos with access to education and a greater participation in the city’s economy. Cesar Caballero, an early leader of the Chicano Movement told the El Paso Times in 1991 that Hispanic’ “level of political sophistication has grown,” adding that “in the 1970s Hispanics were about 35 percent of the registered voters,” and by 1991, El Paso’s Latinos were “slightly more than 50 percent.” [15] However, El Paso’s Latinos still trailed in political power, even with their population majority, because of the lack of economic empowerment and access to quality education. [15]

It should be noted that Latinos were not the only groups wrestling political power away from the city’s Anglos. In the 1980’s women began to make inroads politically. Alicia Chacon and Suzie Azar dominated the top elected offices in El Paso. Black Americans in El Paso were also staking out some power from the city’s political structure. However, it is not ethnicity that drives El Paso’s political power, but rather it is wealth. [16]

In his upcoming book, Martinez writes:

“Because Mexican migrants who settled in El Paso hailed from the working class, and local Mexican elites remained in Paso del Norte, Mexico, the well-heeled Anglos faced little or no competition in establishing themselves at the pinnacle of power in El Paso. In the long run the Anglos would use that power to (1) shape local growth and development; (2) control public offices; (3) transfer the county seat from Ysleta to El Paso (by means of a fraudulent election), (4) make El Paso the main railroad hub in the region, (5) and fashion a racist system that kept proletarian Mexicans politically marginalized. The Anglo monopoly on power and influence in El Paso shrank somewhat in the last three decades of the twentieth century as the Latinx community grew in numbers and its middle class expanded. Nevertheless, even as the non-Hispanic white population declined proportionately, Anglo movers and shakers remained the dominant force in the city.”

Money, the lack of it, seems to have been a factor in the battle between two factions of the El Paso Democratic Party at the 1974 Texas Democratic Convention. It was a power struggle within the local party leadership between Anglos and Latinos. One faction was led by Ray Caballero and the other was led by Lloyd McConnell. McConnell was the former county chair of the party and Caballero was the current one. At issue was who was the delegation’s chairman at the convention, Caballero or McConnell. Caballero lost the two votes that were held on a margin of about one-to-two. Paul Moreno was bitter because there was “only one Spanish-surnamed candidate,” according to the El Paso Times. The paper quoted Moreno as saying that the reason that the “delegates are too damned poor” to go to the convention in Austin. Alicia Chacon told the newspaper that McConnell “pulled in every redneck in El Paso County” to get the votes he needed. Luther Jones disagreed with Chacon’s characterization telling the newspaper that “there is also an underlining assumption that you have to be Mexican-American to represent Mexican-Americans.” Jones added that “there is also an underlining assumption that the interests of the Mexican people are always different than those of the anglo [sic] people.” Luther Jones agreed with Moreno that “it’s hard for the poor people to get down here,” suggesting that the Chicano delegates could not afford to be present to vote because of the distance from El Paso. [17]

Who speaks for the Hispanic majority in the city continues to be the problem. Jones, in defending McConnell argued that Anglos can speak for Latinos in the city’s politics.

Latinos Not A Voting Block

El Paso’s Latinos did not wield the new political power they achieved in the 1980’s because they vote for varied interests that did not include ethnicity. El Paso’s Hispanics have yet to cohesively wield political power in El Paso. For example, according to a “comprehensive list” of candidates for El Paso political offices in 1976 published by the El Paso Times, only six of the 51 candidates had Hispanic last names. [12] Although comprising most of the population, El Paso’s Latinos tend to yield their political power to the Anglo minority, even today. Part of the reason is wealth, as Martinez writes, “Ownership of the major means of production generation after generation assured that Anglo elites would maintain their supremacy”. The other is a fractured Latino community.

Finke points out that El Paso political power evolved away from Anglo domination towards, what he characterizes as an “incumbency”. [11] This is nothing more than the cultural Hispanic patronage system developed over centuries of subjugation across the Americas. Part of the inability of Latinos to wield political power in America is the lack of a unified issue set to rally around. Political narratives in America tend to believe the Latino vote is monolithic. It is not. Latinos look at political issues based on their personal experiences and not as a unified mindset. For example, the issue of immigration is as fractured within the Hispanic population as in the rest of America.

Even within the largest Hispanic subset in America, Mexican Americans, the issue of undocumented immigrants is not seen as a unifying political issue that all can rally around. The issue of undocumented immigrants carries with it many other issues, like access to jobs that force America’s Hispanics to fear lower wage earners competing for the same work. Thus, for Mexican-Americans the political issue of immigration is not a unifying issue that they can use to wield political power as one group.

That is not to say that El Paso’s Latinos have not tried to unify political power around themselves. Several groups and individuals have attempted to do so. One of the most prolific has been the El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization (EPISO) as well as El Concilio de El Paso. Individuals like Carmen Felix, Queta Fierro, Jaime O. Perez, among other El Paso Hispanics have attempted to make inroads into the El Paso political scene with some success. Unfortunately, most Latino power brokers in El Paso have suffered from the lack of a cohesive platform attractive to most Latinos and instead have focused on specific public policy issues.

Rising political stars in El Paso today suffer from the same problem, a laser focused issues driven platform that does not unify Latino political power around them. Take, for example, Veronica Carbajal who came close to unseating the established political base in El Paso in the 2020 mayoral elections. Carbajal recently launched Justicia Fronteriza PAC, a political action committee focused on progressive political issues. Carbajal, rather than wielding the political power she amassed in 2020, seems to have now yielded her political capital to the longtime establishment politicians Jose and Carmen Rodriguez.

The other problem with policy-driven agendas that launches political power brokers is that they tend to evolve away from the agenda that empowered them. The prime example is EPISO which we will study in a future article. EPISO lost its political clout with its confrontational style that grew as its power base, the churches fractured away over time. The infighting within EPISO rendered its political clout obsolete. Likewise, rising political power leaders like Carbajal are usurped by establishment political power centers which tends to dimmish their power over time. This can be observed in Beto O’Rourke who has all but abandoned the local political scene and in Veronica Escobar who wields local political power mostly as the figurehead of the local Democratic Party.

So Who Rules El Paso?

The 2020 book by the El Paso Community First Coalition, Who Rules El Paso? is largely correct in its assessment but misses that important context to understand how political power in El Paso is wielded. One of the authors of the book is Carmen Rodriguez who is now rumored to be advising Veronica Carbajal. If true, which seems likely, Rodriguez is part of the political class in El Paso. It is this reality that readers should look to understand when asking the question, who rules El Paso?

The book is correct in pointing out that Paul Foster and Woody Hunt are power players in El Paso’s politics. They are because of their wealth. However public policy in El Paso is dominated by El Paso’s Latinos and yet it is Foster’s and Hunt’s public policy agenda that is El Paso’s.

Why?

This is where the book is missing important context. Yes, the money influences public policy. But for public policy to be enacted it needs the politicians to legislate it. Most are Latinos. Thus, the political class in El Paso is Hispanic but it acts for the benefit of Anglos like Foster and Hunt. To further understand this dynamic, readers should note how the book focused on contemporary issues like the Chihuahua’s ballpark and Duranguito, among other issues like culture but in doing so neglected to explain how political power is applied in El Paso.

The missing context is the history of political power in El Paso and more important, significant contemporary figures that empowered Woody Hunt. For example, Jose Rodriguez, who is married to Carmen not only worked closely with Ray Caballero and the BHI gentrification plans but also did not investigate the rampant public corruption that put over 40 El Pasoans in jail starting in 2007. Many of their public corruption crimes were committed over several years on projects that Rodriguez was supposed to ensure were corrupt-free.

Ray Caballero set the stage not only for the downtown plan that threatens the Duranguito community, but also predicted how the El Paso Democratic Party was the changing mechanism that has empowered the current political dynamics of campaign funds to make public policy.

It is Ray Caballero that gave rise to politicos like Beto O’Rourke, Veronica Escobar, Jose and Carmen Rodriguez. Caballero’s “vision” for El Paso’s downtown is the driving force behind the gentrification of poor Hispanic neighborhoods targeted for economic development, most of which is part of Woody Hunt’s public policy agenda.

Caballero and his public policy agenda are completely ignored in Who Rules El Paso? and thus does not provide the context necessary to address the question of who El Paso’s political elite are today. The book poignantly both explains how wealth usurps the local public policy while demonstrating that power elitism in the Hispanic community continues to fracture the city’s Latinos leaving them subservient to the minority Anglo wealth that makes the policies of the city.

Author’s note:
Oscar J. Martinez’ book, Latinx El Paso: Odyssey of a Mexican American/Hispanic Community is available on Amazon. It can be purchased using this link.

Footnotes:

  1. “Who Rules In El Paso, He Asks,” El Paso Herald-Post, August 13, 1912.
  2. Steve Peters, “Contributors Share Brotherhood,” El Paso Times, February 16, 1975.
  3. “’Mayor of East El Paso’ Succumbs,” Austin American Statesman, March 31, 1941.
  4. “Three Seek Position Of County Demo Chairman,” El Paso Herald-Post, April 29, 1974.
  5. “Harlan hits ‘King-Makers’,” El Paso Herald-Post, March 2, 1937.
  6. Joe Olvera, “Historian explains roots of Hispanics’ lack of power,” El Paso Times, June 20, 1988.
  7. Joe Olvera, “Voice in media is key, professor says,” El Paso Times, June 20, 1988.
  8. Gary Scharrer, “Participation key to power for Hispanics, educator says,” El Paso Times, February 25, 1984.
  9. Eugene Irving Finke, B.A., M.A., Capt, USN (Ret.), “Mexican American and Hispanic Political Power In The United States,” Intern Report, University of Texas at El Paso, December 1981.
  10. Monica Perales, “On Borderlands/La Frontera, Gloria Anzalduía and Twenty-Five Years of Research on Gender in the Borderlands,” Journal of women’s History, Volume 25, Number 4, Winter 2013.
  11. Eugene Finke, “Longitudinal Analysis of Redistricting: Incumbency, The Elephant in the Room,” The Exchange, Volume 1, Number 1, December 2012.
  12. “Candidate List For El Paso,” El Paso Times, February 3, 1976.
  13. “El Paso’s DA Candidates Address Jaycees Tuesday,” El Paso times, April 26, 1972.
  14. “Duke Pledges Harmony In City Hall,” El Paso Times, February 7, 1951.
  15. Joe Olvera, “Hispanics shove way into power,” El Paso Times, June 12, 1991.
  16. Denise Bezick, “Women, Hispanics, blacks invading power structure,” El Paso Times, June 12, 1991.
  17. Steve Peters, “El Paso Issue Settled On Floor,” El Paso Times, September 18, 1974.
  18. Oscar J. Martinez, “LatinXEl Paso: Odessey of a Mexican American/Hispanic Community,” Amazon.com, December 2021. (Book blurbs provided by Oscar J. Martinez to the author via email on December 2, 2021.)

Martin Paredes

Reporting on public corruption, border politics, immigration and public policy in El Paso since 2000.

2 replies on “Who Rules El Paso? No Not That One.”

  1. Mr Paredes article was very informative. Up until recently there was another power broker he did not mention. It was the El Paso Times and Herald Post which by the way were tried in federal court for employment discrimination in the mod 90’s.

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