The May 1, 1908, letter to the editor succinctly stated what El Pasoans had been whispering about for years: “it is true that Henry Kelly” was the “political boss of El Paso.” The letter continued with Kelly “will see to it that all” Black votes and “Mexican votes that he can control” will go the congressional candidate from Abilene. [1] It doesn’t matter who the Abilene candidate was because this is the story of the “political boss” who controlled the politics of El Paso for decades. Before Luther Jones told Barbara Funkhouser, the former editor of the El Paso Times, that he was “going to work behind the scenes and become a powerhouse, a kingpin,” a “political kingmaker,” according to Alicia Chacón, [2] there was Henry Kelly who for over two decades ran El Paso’s political machinery.

Today, according to the El Paso Community First Coalition’s book, Who Rules El Paso?, the kingmakers are Paul Foster and Woody Hunt. (see note 1) [3] Prior to Foster and Hunt, Luther Jones was said to be the political kingmaker of El Paso. Before Foster, Hunt and even Jones, the political kingmaker was Henry Kelly. This is the story of El Paso’s “boss of the El Paso Democracy.” [4]

Henry Kelly

Like today, the local newspaper was accused of supporting the Kelly political machine and the Republicans were secretly running things in the city. Unlike today, the local newspapers named the “the boss of the El Paso Democracy” by name. The El Paso Herald was a Republican newspaper, “edited by a son of a carpet bagger,” according to the letter writer. Helping Kelly was “the president of the cement factory,” who stood to make money from “the big dam the government” was going “to construct across the Rio Grande” and Lon Veidal, was the “political boss of the slums.” Veidal was part of the Kelly group because “he must be” because “not to obey Kelly would be ruin for him.” [5]

The letter writer, who used the pseudonym “Democrat” was not identified by the out-of-town newspaper, but the publication wrote this about the author: “The author of the above is personally and intimately known by the editor of The Reporter.” It added that the author “stands high as a professional man and citizen, and possesses unquestionable integrity.” [6] We assume that the identity of the letter writer was likely withheld by the newspaper to protect the writer, politically it seems. It should also be noted that the letter was published by an Abilene newspaper instead of the local newspaper.

Historically, challenging political oligarchies is fraught with danger because of the power they wield in the community. This has been argued about Foster and Hunt and was argued for Kelly in the early 1900’s. The importance of Henry Kelly is how it led to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in El Paso, it enabled Tom Lea II to become the mayor, which led to racist policies against Mexican laborers, and demonstrates that El Paso’s politics have remained largely unchanged since the 1900’s – except for new names replacing the power players that control the city, who all happen to be Anglo.

Attacking political opponents is part of the political process. Attacks range from exaggerations, innuendo and lies about the opponents. Whisper campaigns and rumors are part of the process. In the 1900’s, cartoons about opponents in cards and notices were customary in El Paso’s Democratic Primaries. On July 27, 1906, and on the following day, cards were “circulated to make the victim squirm vigorously and rise up with a desire to get a convenient meat ax and work on the man who got out and circulated the dodger (card).” Henry Kelly, depicted in one such card as an “octopus,” was the first to hit the streets. According to the Herald Post, “the purpose of the cartoon” was to “drive a few harpoons into the blubber of Henry Kelly, the county candidate for treasurer.” As readers can observe, not only were the cartoons used to poke fun of the candidates, but the El Paso Herald seems to have enjoyed using word imagery to poke fun at Kelly, as well. The newspaper goes on to describe the cartoon as the octopus tentacles reaching out to named individuals, constituencies and issues that Kelley allegedly controlled. The card that appeared next, depicted Ike Alderete, a candidate. The Alderete card told voters; “Don’t forget to scratch Ike Alderete.” It added, “Send him to watch goats at Ysleta, where he comes from.” The card closed with, “He (Alderete) needs a rest.” Like the Kelly example, the newspaper felt the need to interject the “fact that the author of the card tripped, fell and scratched his nose in the grammatical constructions of the card did not in the slightest degree detract from the sting.” Another card appealed to voters “to wake up, Down Dwyers, Vote Jenkins” for sheriff. The so-called “Dwyer cartoon” depicted a “heavyset man with a black mustache beating up a Mexican with a club,” while the “Mexican’s head is spouting comets.” [7]

Although cartoons are very seldom used today, the practice remains in the form of “hit piece” mailouts sent by candidates to prospective voters. Another example are the secretive mailings attacking opposing candidates that are mailed by unknown political operatives.

Infighting Among Democrats

Today in El Paso there is constant criticism about the Republican Party being unable to muster candidates for local elections. Few Republicans have been elected in El Paso over the last decade. Also, the El Paso Democratic Party is fractured into political fiefdoms, although messages of “unity” is a constant clarion from party officials. Currently there are the Vince-Claudia faction, the Veronica Escobar versus Veronica Carbajal/Carmen-Jose Rodriguez faction, and one or two other smaller Democratic Party factions. This reality may seem to readers as a current reality; however, it has been a part of El Paso’s political history since at least the 1900’s – the Democrats in control fighting among themselves and the Republican Party unable to muster credible candidates for the most part.

In the 1900’s, El Paso Democratic Party leaders were divided between the Kelly Ring and those opposed to it. The opposition had several labels during this time: the White faction, the Jenkins faction, the Morehead faction and ultimately the Tom Lea faction. White, Jenkins, Morehead and Lea all worked towards unseating the Kelly Ring.

In the July 1906 Democratic Primary, the Kelly Ring was being challenged in almost every county and city offices that were up for the upcoming election. Leading the charge was the Jenkins faction that wanted to run a candidate against Maury Kemp for the county attorney’s office. [8] As readers likely know, a poll tax was required to vote in the elections at that time. However, in 1906 the question arose about an individual’s right to run for office if they had not paid their poll tax. The issue being that if they could not vote, they were not qualified to run for office. W.J. Ten Eyck announced his candidacy for precinct 1 constable on behalf of the Jenkins faction. Eyck had not paid his poll tax. After the law was consulted by Jenkins’ lawyers, they determined that Eyck could still run, although he was ineligible to vote for himself. Other notable names running for office in 1906 as the opposition included B.F. Jenkins, Joseph U. Sweeny, Maury Kemp, Henry Kelly, James H. White and J.W. Magoffin. [9] Readers will note the name Kemp frequently comes up. In an upcoming article we will explore the Maury Kemp legacy in El Paso. For now, we will continue with the Kelly Ring.

Henry Kelly ruled through intimidation, graft and voter fraud. Violence was also used politically, at least according to the rumor mill section of a 1907 newspaper article. In the June 29, 1907, edition of the El Paso Herald, there was a short note in a section of the newspaper called “Whirl of Town.” It appears that this section of newspaper printed a sort of letters to the editor from the public. An unknown author wrote about an incident that was making its way through the proverbial water cooler rumor mill. According to the author, Henry Kelly told a story to illustrate that his so-called county-ring “was not as bad as other political organizations.” Kelly, the missive says, said that “at a political meeting the chairman asked at the end of the candidate’s speech whether ‘anny gintleman has anny question to ask? [sic]’” Kelly allegedly went on to say that “someone rose and propounded an inquiry mildly critical of the prevailing political belief,” when a “politician behind him raised a club and struck him to the floor.” Kelly, according to the author of the newspaper piece, added that Kelly concluded with, “the chairman looked around and asked quietly: ‘Any other gintleman [sic] a question to ask?’” [10]

It is likely that at best this account is an exaggerated story. Nonetheless it illustrates that the Kelly Ring was openly discussed in El Paso’s political circles. Kelly, himself, according to newspaper accounts of the time, had no problem being labeled the city’s “political boss.” However, and as the story shows, Kelly often argued that it could be worse than his Kelly Ring. This seems to be the case when Tom Lea’s election ended the Kelly stronghold in El Paso’s politics about eight years later.

As for the Republican Party, it also appeared to acknowledge that Henry Kelly was “the political boss of El Paso.” A mailed letter in the El Paso Herald in 1908 seems to suggest this, although it is unclear of the event transpired as depicted in the newspaper report. According to the newspaper account, a “card” addressed to “Mr. Henry Kelly, U. S. A.” was mailed from Chihuahua. On the letter, writes the newspaper, was written, “We will see how big a boss you are if this reaches you.” It was signed by “A Voter.” The card “was delivered without delay” to “Boss Kelly,” which prompted a “bystander who saw the card” to remark that “the man who sent the card will now know that even the Republicans in the postoffice [sic] know who the political boss of El Paso is.” [11]

Political power is usually amassed with subterfuge, money and political favors. To control the political scene, the “political boss” needs to control who is elected to office. Public policy is set through legislative votes. Those wishing to control the city’s public policy need to stack the elected offices with individuals they can control. To do so, they manipulate the electoral system.

The Australian Ballot System

In the 1900’s, El Paso, like other cities across the nation, was dealing with electoral fraud in its elections. Political bosses routinely rigged elections in favor of candidates in exchange for taxpayer-funded contracts. One fraud was paying the voter’s poll taxes. Paying the poll taxes also had the added benefit of allowing political operatives to see who was planning on voting. By seeing who might vote, operatives would be able to speculate the likely outcome by registering who paid their poll taxes during the tax drives each candidate ran for that year’s election. As it cost money, it was likely that the candidate that influenced a voter to pay the tax was likely to receive that vote. Another method of voter fraud was paying the poll taxes of individuals, whether qualified or not to cast a vote, on the condition that they vote for a specific candidate. Additionally, ballots cast were not secret. As a result, voters could be bribed or intimidated into voting for specific candidates. To combat this voter fraud, Texas enacted the Australian Ballot voting, along with several other states.

Most states across America instituted the Australian Ballot system in the early 1890’s. Massachusetts was the first state to use the Australian Ballot system in 1888. By 1896, about 90% of the states had started using it as well. Prior to the Australian system, voters in America received a ballot directly from the party. As each party listed their own candidates on the ballots and each party printed their ballots in whatever color they selected, each ballot cast was easily recognizable by the public. Each political operative knew how each voter cast their vote by simply looking at the ballot they used. Because the voter’s ballot was publicly known, it allowed political operatives to bribe or intimidate the voter.

The Australian Ballot system, on the other hand, required that ballots to be created by the government, instead of the political parties and each ballot listed all the candidates that the voter could choose from. More important was that the new system provided privacy to the voter in the form of a secret ballot. However, not all states implemented the “official” ballots alike. Regardless, the secret ballot somewhat curtailed voter intimidation by making it more difficult to see how a voter voted based on the ballot they used. [12] This is the system used today in elections. However voter intimidation remains in other forms today. We will explore these in future articles.

Because the official ballots had to be printed in advance of the election, a system of establishing an official list of candidates had to be created. This list was used to create the official ballot for Election Day. In the case of El Paso, the official list was created by a Registrar.

On March 3, 1903, J.C. Jones, the registrar appointed by the county commissioners, was scheduled to begin accepting candidate names to be added to the official ballot for the upcoming elections. It was Jones who created the official list. However, El Paso’s Democratic Party officials were fighting over who would be on the official ballot. “In order to avoid trouble over the registration matter,” Jones had absconded himself to Cd. Juárez the previous day. The White campaign committee, undeterred by Jones disappearance into Juárez, went looking for him, finding him in Juárez. The committee, consisting of R.G. Chenoweth, C.A. Gilbert, W.D. Howe and T.E. Shelton, asked Jones to accept the petition required for the registration to begin. After Jones refused to accept the petition, citing “that it was best for the contesting sides to fight it out among themselves,” the White committee members put the petition on Jones’ lap. Jones, “dropped it to the floor,” and the committee left. [13]

The White committee was attempting to deliver a petition required by the county to allow candidates to be added to the ballot. Without the petition, the candidates for county offices could not be added to the ballot. Meanwhile, the Morehead faction of the El Paso Democratic Party was attempting to prevent the opening of the registration period because they were not “allowed to name their own judges and clerks” for that election. [14]

The Democratic Party was divided between the White and Morehead factions. At issue was two contradicting requirements for the registration of candidates between the city and the county. The county required a petition of at least 500 men to allow for the registration of candidates. The city did not have the petition requirement. [15] Without the county’s petition, the registrar could not begin the process of adding candidates to the official ballot required under the secret ballot system.

In 1892, under orders from Austin, El Paso began the registration process to be used in the following elections. According to W.H. Burges, the registration requirement dictated by Austin would provide “an honest election” in El Paso. Burges said that at the “next election,” voters “cleaned up the republican party by 600.” However, the secret ballot system, which was “a very crude election system,” nonetheless helped El Paso. However, El Paso’s county commissioners were “induced to declare the Australian ballot system and registration unconstitutional.” As a result, El Paso had become the only city of over ten thousand inhabitants in Texas not using the secret ballot system. [16]

El Paso Democratic Party infighting remained five years later, leading the White faction to enlist El Paso’s Republicans to help them win elections. “The Republicans should pay their poll tax and get ready for the upcoming election,” implored a White faction political operative. Republicans in 1908 were, like today, unable to mount credible candidates for office. But Henry Kelly saw the opportunity for the Republicans to help him maintain political power in El Paso by helping elect White faction candidates. [17] Nonetheless voting fraud and tactics designed to repress voters remain to this date. One such tactic is “fake news” and whisper campaigns against opponents designed to sway voters.

Political Whisper Campaigns

Political whisper campaigns and subterfuge are not new. We have reported several instances of whisper campaigns in El Paso in the recent elections. The most recent example being in the race between incumbent Carl Robinson and challenger Sergio Coronado. In the early 1900’s they were part of the El Paso political scene. In the morning of January 30, 1908 “many voters received plain sealed envelopes containing a typewritten list of county offices to be voted on.” The envelope contained a list of candidates. They were incumbent county judge McFarland, Sr., for sheriff it was T.C. Lyons, for district attorney it was Billie Drummond. For treasurer it was W.H. Shelton, for tax collector it was Van C. Wilson, for tax assessor it was B.F. Hammett, for commissioner it was R.C. Lightbody and for legislator, Beauregard Bryan. Included with the names was the admonition that “if you vote for any of these men, you must pay your poll tax.” [18]

The problem was that none of the men listed in the letter were planning on running for office. The question then becomes, why mail the letter to the voters? As readers may remember from our previous article When Mexicans Voted In El Paso, we explained that the poll tax was both a source of revenue for the government and a way to disfranchise the people of color. Disfranchising voters is not necessarily keeping minorities from the polls. It has able been used to control how a voter votes, either through intimidation or simply by access to power, whether real or imagined. Henry Kelly told the El Paso Herald that he did not know about the slate of candidates in the letter. Incumbents speculated that the slate of candidates was to assess how vulnerable the incumbents were by the number of poll tax tickets sold. The incumbents both alleged that the Kelly Ring was behind the letter and that two individuals specifically knew the details. They were County Clerk Park W. Pitman and County Attorney Maury Kemp. Both Kemp and Pitman did not have opponents listed on the letter. The problem with the poll tax was that those who paid it were the only ones that could vote in the upcoming elections and by paying their tax their identity was known, suggesting that the Kelly Ring was trying to ascertain who was likely to vote against them in the next election. [19] In another case, Charles DeGroff was asked by the El Paso Herald in 1908 if he “might be a candidate against ‘Boss’ Henry Kelly for country treasurer.” DeGroff responded that “the man who started that had a pipe dream.” DeGroff added that “there is no office” that he wanted “outside of the one” he already had. [20]

Political whisper campaigns led to paid newspaper advertisements to correct the record. In a July 16, 1908, El Paso Herald paid political advertisement, a group who dubbed themselves the Democratic Campaign Committee posted an almost full newspaper column addressing a “circular letter” mailed by Lorion Miller, the manager of the Tom Powers ticket. In addition to listing 18 candidate for office, including Kelly for county clerk, the advertisement addressed several items. The first one sets the tone of El Paso’s politics in 1908. After identifying the author of the political letter it was addressing, it states that it “abounds in high sounding language that ill comports with the real character” of the Kelly candidates. According to the paid advertisement, Kelly’s candidates “are clean, honorable men.” The campaign committee goes on, “without disputing” the assertions made in the letter about character, the committee rhetorically asks, “What character of candidates would such leaders as M. W. Stanton, Tom Powers, Pete Adams and Joe Rogers naturally select?” The advertisement was referring to the Kelly opposition candidates. It then goes on to add that “it is a laugh” to believe that the candidates “are in for purifying politics in El Paso.” It then asks, “Does any citizen of El Paso who knows the character, the standing and the political motives of the men who are leading the opposition to the present county officials think that the brand of purity that they would put up would pass the pure food inspections?” The advertisement then goes on to refute an allegation that Kelly sold water rights to Rich & Ponder for $4,500. There was a rumor that Kelly was self-dealing. The committee advertisement goes on to allege that the Evening News was suddenly interested in the local political scene because of a campaign fund brought to town by an outsider. It then goes on to state that “the fact that Jim Paul hides behind the skirt of a woman to attack his opponent, Ike Alderete, is sufficient indications of Jim’s character.” Apparently, Paul mailed an “infamous letter to Ike’s wife, but to make sure his dirty work doubly sure sent her a copy of the letter by special messenger.” [21]

As previously reported, prostitution was a central source of revenues for Sin City at the time. However, there was pressure to rid the city of the saloons that provided access to prostitutes, in addition to gambling and alcohol. Thus, the opposition was framed as opposed to El Paso’s vices that funded the government. At this time, El Paso was transforming away from a town into a city and as it grew, taxes were required to fund the growing community’s need for infrastructure and city services.

An ominous paid advertisement simply titled, “Warning,” in all capital letters in the same edition of the newspaper as the Democratic Campaign Committee above. This advertisement addresses a petition that was circulating in El Paso for the “purpose of raising funds to fight for Anti-Prohibition” in the city. According to the advertisement, an outsider had come to El Paso “to organize the Anti-Prohibition fight.” The outsider was raising funds to curtail vice in the city, but the advertisement told voters that the current “county officials are in favor of local option and against prohibition.” It added that the fund “is the dying struggle of the bankrupt Powers and Cunningham ticket.” That ticket was Kelly’s Democratic campaign committee and the two dueling advertisements in the newspaper were intended for the voters. [22]

The Mexican Voters

Because El Paso has always had a majority Hispanic population, the so-called Mexican vote is needed for the political slates. As explained previously, using last names to qualify whether an individual is Latino is difficult because the diversity of the city makes it impossible to determine ethnicity based on last names alone. For example, Simeon Hart, the individual credited with bringing industry to El Paso was married to a Mexican woman, yet their son carried the Anglo surname, Hart. Additionally, the census did not start to designate ethnicity until recently.

There are also the issues of the poll taxes and how the term “Mexican” is often used. Although Mexican should be used to designate a citizen of México, often in America it is used to define someone of Mexican heritage and even used for all Latinos in America, regardless of their nationality. Thus, we must parse the meaning of the term “Mexican” in news reports, especially during this period where who voted was in constant flux. We know that because of the poll tax, Mexican citizens were recruited to cast votes by political operatives paying their poll taxes. Also, the poll tax receipt was used by Mexican laborers to work jobs on city work. As such, Mexican voters cast votes in El Paso elections.

The other issue that is important to understand is that the misuse of the term “Mexican” sometimes refers to American citizens who are of Mexican heritage and sometimes to all Latinos. In the case of El Paso, because it is overwhelmingly Hispanic of Mexican heritage, we assume the term is used for El Paso’s Hispanics. Against this backdrop we examine a rally of “reactionary Democracy” held on July 12, 1908, at the corner of Stanton and Fifth streets.

According to the newspaper account, James Dwyer, one of the strongest supporters of the slate of candidates dubbed the “reactionary Democracy”, proclaimed that “if there was a war between Mexico and the United States” he would “take a matchete and fight the ‘gringoes’ [sic].” At the rally were Carmilo Parilla and a “captain Zermanio, both of whom live across the river,” in Juárez, who allegedly told “the Mexican voters what to do.” [23]

The newspaper account goes on to describe that the rally goers opposed the Ring’s candidate, Ike Alderete, because “what has he ever done for the Mexican colony,” apparently referring to the Segundo Barrio neighborhood. Alderete was asking voters to vote for him “just because he is a Mexican,” who “cares nothing for the Mexicans.” The newspaper article suggests that both Hispanics, who are eligible to vote, and Mexican citizens were being recruited by political operatives to cast votes. But it was not just vote buying that was used by the operatives, as blaming the conditions of the barrios where the Hispanics lived was also leveraged.

Pat Dwyer was quoted as saying that Richard Caples “was managing the camping for the ring,” because the Ring had “given him (Caples) a contract that will make him rich.” Dwyer went on to call the El Paso Herald, the “infamous sheet,” and alleged that “there were 200 cases of typhoid fever in the city among the children, cause by drinking” unsanitary water. The children were from the Mexican part of the city and when he challenged the sanitary department with “the children of my Mexican friends are dying,” they responded with, “we can’t get rid of them; let them die.” [24]

The El Paso Herald went on to describe the rally with Dwyer referring to Ike Alderete with “I have Mexican blood in my veins and Ike Alderete claims to be the representative of the Mexican race.” Dwyer closed with, “I can not express my feelings about him, but his life is a disgrace and a shame and he is a disgrace to the Mexican race.” The issue between the two Democratic Party factions was vice – alcohol and prostitutes that the anti-Ring opposition wanted to eradicate. The so-called Ring wanted to keep the saloons open. Joe Rogers accused the El Paso Herald of supporting the Ring candidates. Dwyer closed the rally with “I am half Mexican; my mother was born in Chihuahua and if there was a war between this country and Mexico I would take a matchete and fight the ‘gringoes’ [sic].” [25]

Mexicans voting in El Paso’s elections was discussed in length in an El Paso Herald article on April 14, 1903, that occupied almost all the front page. The article provides a detailed look at the different schemes used for votes, how the elections were conducted and how candidates went after voters. The election involved two El Paso Democratic Party candidate slates competing for power.

The election was held on April 14, 1903. The newspaper describes it as “one of the quietest elections” that the “city has ever experienced.” Curiously the paper makes the statement that there was “very little buying of votes at the polls,” blaming it on the “the old man” who had “run out of cash.” But then the article goes on to describe several examples of vote buying by the Morehead faction. First the report states that Joseph Dupont was in jail for attempting to vote “with a tax receipt and registration certificate belonging to J.L. Hunter.” It then adds that the arrest of Dupont “will affect some other parties connected with the corrupt methods employed” in that day’s election. [26]

The election contest was between the Morehead and White factions. According to the newspaper’s account, the Morehead faction was paying for votes in an office above Watson’s grocery store at the corner of San Antonio and Stanton streets. According to the newspaper, two of its reporters investigated the paying for votes scheme at the grocery store throughout the day. One of the reporters inquired what the Morehead group was paying for votes, adding if they “could use fifty more railroad men?” The response, according to the paper, was that “you bet we can; we are using all the men we can find.” According to the news report, the Morehead slate was paying “$3 or more apiece.” Thirty-six dollars in 1903 is almost $100 in today’s dollars. The lack of a poll tax receipt was also not an impediment because the Morehead group had “men in the closed room there now fixing up tax receipts.” In addition to the fraudulent tax receipts and paid votes, the Morehead group was also using “repeat” voters. Under this scheme, voters who had already cast their vote, would get in line again to cast another vote. Repeat voters voted multiple times. According to the newspaper, “after their Mexicans had voted for Morehead they lined up again and undertook to vote them again.” [27]

When the scheme of double voting was pointed out by the White team, they asked the authorities to intervene. They at first refused. Mexicans were used by the Morehead team to pad the votes in their favor. It is unclear if the term, Mexicans refers to citizens of México, residents of El Paso of Mexican heritage or both. Nonetheless, the report makes it clear that Mexicans were used by Morehead for voter fraud. The White campaign also rallied Mexicans to their side, but it appears that the Morehead group had an organized apparatus to get the Mexican votes. The news report goes on to explain how voting worked at that time.

In addition to furnishing “cots to sleep in,” and providing “coffee, beer and sandwiches” to the Mexican voters they “herded” into vacant houses to have them ready to cast votes the following day, the Morehead campaign also kept the tax receipts of each voter, only handing them back as they lined up to vote. Predicting who was in the lead was counted by roses worn by the voters that were being managed by each campaign. Those who wore red roses to the polls were voting for the Morehead slate of candidates, while the those wearing white roses were voting for the White candidates. In addition to keeping the Mexican voters in vacant houses and fed throughout the night, so that they would be there to vote the next morning, the Morehead campaign was paying for each vote. One voter told officials that “I was promised by the Morehead people that if I would come here this morning and vote, that they would pay me $2.” The voter added that he had “only been in the city two months” and all he wanted was the two dollars. [28]

Years later the Mexican vote would again be central to the Ring versus Tom Lea of the opposition. In 1915, the leader of the new opposition was Tom Lea against the Ring leader, Henry Kelly, the “political boss” of El Paso. As a matter of fact, the Tom Lea Institute website defends Tom Lea’s (the father) membership in the Ku Klux Klan “as a reform vehicle to challenge the political Ring that had dominated El Paso for so long.”

Tom Lea II

The 1915 political contest was between the “kingmaker,” Henry Kelly and the challenger Tom Lea II. Tom Lea II is the father of Tom Lea III, the artist. Each had a slate of candidates supporting them. In a February 5, 1915, political advertisement in the El Paso Herald, the political battle lines were delineated. Central to the debate for the voters were the public schools. School funding had become political. Kelly was elected the mayor in 1910. According to the Lea political advertisement, Kelly had stacked the school board candidates at the last minute “in order to make it absolutely certain that Kelly would be sure of a majority of the [school] board” to ensure he had the votes Kelly needed. According to the advertisement, Henry Kelly was using state funding of the schools to argue that Kelly had brought new revenues to the schools during his tenure as mayor. Although the school boards were “theoretically” under the “domination of a board of trustees,” Lea was alleging that Kelly was using them for his political career. [29] About ten years later, the Ku Klux Klan would again use the school boards as the cornerstone of their political machinery to take control of El Paso’s politics. Today, many political candidates use school boards as a springboard to city offices. One such candidate is Sergio Coronado running for Carl Robinson’s seat in the upcoming runoff elections. Coronado has been on the Canutillo school board since 2002. Coronado was first elected in 2002 and served until 2014. Four years later he was appointed to the board. Currently he is the board president of the Canutillo School Board.

The Kelly-Lea political scuffle was laid out in the El Paso Herald in the form of political advertisements supporting Tom Lea II. About week before the election, on February 12, 1915, the Tom Lea campaign took out another political advertisement in the El Paso Herald. They titled it “watch this space each day, if you are interested in good government,” in all capital letters. In addition to the school board that the February 5 advertisement alleged, this advertisement pointed to an election controversy labeled “The Big Noise.” [30]

“The Big Noise,” according to Lea’s campaign, was $12,000 of taxpayer funds that were paid to a “law firm of which the ‘Big Noise’ is a member.” Lea’s advertisement made several other allegations against Kelly, including issues with garbage disposal, a break in a sewer pipe that was dubbed a “sewer fountain” and Kelly’s failure to address “the deplorable unsanitary conditions existing in Chihuahuita.” The political advertisement was signed by the City and County Democratic Club. They included Tom Lea, “for mayor,” and J.P. O’Conner, W.G. Jolly, Richard B Stevens and John W. Fischer “for Aldermen.” For “treasurer,” Charles A. Kinne signed the advertisement, and Billy McSain signed for “assessor and collector.” For “judge of the corporation,” Paul D. Thomas signed the advertisement. John M. Wyatt signed for the Chairman of the City Executive Committee and Wade W. Scheffler, S.J. Freudenthal, Benito Solis and J.S. Lanier signed as “members of the City Executive Committee.” [31] The City and County Democratic Club was a Tom Lea slate of candidates for office.

As second newspaper advertisement the following day from Lea’s group provides more insight into the “Big Noise.” The “Big Noise” was unnamed, but several nicknames were used, including the “Real Mayor” and the “Man Behind the Gun.” It appears that the nicknamed referred to an individual that was a “member” of the “law firm” that was paid the $12,000. Interesting is that the name of the individual named the “Big Noise” is apparently known, but the Lea advertisement appears to carefully avoid naming them by name, instead using pseudonyms to refer to the lawyer. References to the “Big Noise” includes that the unnamed individual “admits he got the money,” and “he has paid none of the money back.” It is as if the Tom Lea campaign took steps to avoid litigation from the unnamed attorney for libel. The political advertisement implies that $6,000 of the $12,000 seemingly “illegally” diverted to the law firm was paid back by an unknown individual. As before, the Tom Lea campaign leveled several other charges against Kelly for his activities as mayor, including the broken sewer pipe, an “odoriferous” garbage disposal plan, the “unsanitary” conditions of Chihuahuita at the expense of a Manhattan Heights project and politics in school. [32]

By the early 1900’s, C.E. Kelly, or Henry Kelly as he was often referred to had built a reputation “known all over Texas as boss of El Paso.” Kelly had several detractors. One of them, Dan M. Jackson, who was running for county attorney. Jackson said of Kelly, “Henry is about the smallest man I ever came across,” at an “opposition rally” at the Crawford theater on July 23, 1908. Jackson added that Kelly “is positively the most ignorant man I ever came across.” Clearly El Paso politics were personal. [33]

The July 23 opposition political rally focused on politics dominating the schools, in addition to Kelly’s stranglehold on the city’s politics. The business of the saloons was also on the agenda. As readers may remember from our article, El Paso’s First Progressive Politics: Prostitution As An Economic Driver, prostitution was an important economic driver for the city. The saloon owners were dependent on that economy while the city’s finances depended on the fees paid by the prostitutes. Interestingly, the “full house” included Mexicans who were relegated to the balcony along with others that did not fit in the “lower floor.” Mexicans were being courted for the votes, although it is unclear if they were citizens or residents of Cd. Juárez. It was the receipt of the poll tax that allowed a vote to be cast in the elections. [34] The news report of the opposition meeting insinuated that Henry Kelly, who owned the Kelly & Pollard drug store, used the store to hold meetings where clandestine political deals were made.

As noted previously, it is important that readers note that the Kelly and the opposition’s slate of candidates were both from the city’s Democratic Party. It appears, also as noted previously, that the Republican Party in El Paso, like today, did not dominate the city’s politics.

As with today’s politics, money was central to the power struggle. A newspaper advertisement titled, “Anti-Ring Political Column,” paid for by the Anti-Ring Democratic Campaign Committee alleges that money motivated Kelly’s efforts to control El Paso’s political scene. The advertisement argued in a question-and-answer format that El Paso did not have “a republican form of government” because the city was “governed by a ring of office holders, owned and controlled by a boss, who will not let any one run for office unless they pay tribute to him and do as he wishes in every way.” In answer to the question of why does the “boss wish to govern” that way it provides the answer as “because the boss makes money by so doing.” It then asks the question, “why did the boss and his friends buy that land at Canutillo?” The answer, according to the advertisement, was “because they are going to build a bridge across the Rio Grande” in Canutillo that the taxpayers will pay for. Asked why not build the bridge in a more appropriate place, the answer, according to the advertisement, was that “the boss and his friends do not own any land there.” The advertisement then closed with the question, “will the people always do as the boss says?” The answer was “they will not,” because “the people are tired of the boss and they are going to assert their independence and manhood” a week later because they will “vote the boss and his gang out of office.” [35] As readers will observe, the voters did not “vote the boss out” in 1908.

Control of the school board by Kelly was first raised in 1907. By June 7, 1907, two members of the school board had resigned and it was rumored that two others would be resigning “in the course of a few weeks.” “Bossism and favoritism to certain teachers” was said to be the cause of the school board resignations. The board had split into the Morehead and Kelly factions, with Henry Kelly controlling one faction and Charles R. Morehead the other. Morehead was a former mayor of El Paso. [36] The local Democratic Party had split into two factions, the Kelly versus the Morehead factions. The Morehead faction was arguing that “Kelly, not satisfied with dominating the city and county ring,” was “now attempting to control the school board.” [37]

Howard Thompson had been on the school board since 1902 before he resigned in 1907. According to Thompson, the reason he decided to resign was because he refused “to be dictated to by a political boss.” The “political boss” being Kelly. El Paso was growing into a city in the early 1900’s. School teachers had doubled from 60 in 1902 to 120 five years later. [38]

At an anti-ring rally before the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local No. 583 in 1912, several anti-Ring candidates levied allegations against Henry Kelly and his so-called Ring. Ike Alderete, one of the candidates speaking that day, told the electrical workers that he had been part of the Ring and that “for 20 years” he “supported it.” Now, Alderete was running against the Ring candidate. Alderete said that the reason he was running was because Kelly and his ring “threw” him out “because I (Alderete) furnished an old Mexican woman the money to pay for a lawsuit over some property on South El Paso street” in a lawsuit against Kelly. Another anti-Ring candidate, Harry Turner, a candidate for county clerk, told the electricians that he to “was a brotherhood man,” that despite the rumors from the Kelly camp, he was not a Republican. Anti-Ring candidate for county attorney, W.H. Fryer, accused W.W. Bridgers of “being a pawn of the ring.” Fryer alleged Bridgers had threatened to remove guards from the railroads if the railroads did not drop its lawsuit against the city. Fryer also alleged that commissioners “go down to the valley and secure options on some land at $20 an acre,” and then vote to build roads leading to the land. Fryer went on to alleged that a Ft. Bliss road was suddenly changed to another location “just because Dr. Brady, a ring man, had just bought some property in Manhattan heights, and wanted the road to go by it.” Several other speakers made other allegations of corruption by Kelly and his Ring. [39]

The candidate slate versus the other slate of the fractured El Paso Democratic Party continued their public spat during each election cycle. On one side was the Kelly Ring and the other side were the anti-Ring candidate slates under different names, but usually with the same candidates seeking office. The anti-Ring candidates were referred to as the Morehead candidates, the White candidates and ultimately the Tom Lea candidates.

On February 16, 1915, Kelly’s Ring ticket was defeated at the polls in the city’s primary election. According to the news account, “the majority for the anti-ring ticket, headed by Tom Lea for mayor” was “between 300 and 500” votes. Tom Lea II was now the mayor of El Paso. But the election was not without controversy. The voter turnout was “unusually heavy and numbers of arrests were made at the polls.” [40] However, it was clear by the voter turnout for Lea, that El Paso’s “political boss” was out. Kelly was the incumbent mayor and Lea was the challenger. [41] Like the 1903 elections, the 1915 elections depended on the Mexican voters.

By April of 1915, the Ring members, although defeated by the Lea group were trying to regain their political footing by backing J.C. Worthington for the upcoming school board elections. On April 27, 1915, former members of the Ring held a meeting to discuss control of the school board. J.A. Pickett, Robert Holliday and Claiborne Adams were Ring holdovers and Worthington’s election would give control of the school board to the Ring. Opposing the Ring candidate were S.J. Freudenthal, C.B. Stevens and E.M. Whitaker. They were endorsed by the City Democratic Club, an anti-Ring group led by Tom Lea. [42] We will explore the City Democratic Club further in an upcoming article.

“The Most Tyrannical”

Although Tom Lea had run his City Democratic Club ticket to wrestle control away from Kelly’s ring by accusing Kelly of corruption, by 1916, it was now Lea and his City Democratic Club who were now being challenged. Charlie Vowell, calling Lea’s administration “the most tyrannical we have had in the city,” challenged W.H. Fryer for the county attorney’s office in the upcoming elections. Both Democrats, Vowell, who formerly was a member of Lea’s slate, left the City Democratic Club accusing Lea of keeping him off the ballot by controlling the Democratic Party’s executive committee. “I do not think the ticket was fairly made up,” Vowell complained. Vowell and former Ring candidates were running as independents. [43]

One former Kelly Ring member, John T. Hill, led a meeting to organize a slate of candidates to challenge Tom Lea in 1917. The new slate was named the Voter’s League of the City. According to Hill, he belonged to the Kelly Ring because he “thought that men like Tom Lea and W. B. Ware would get out and organize a ring that would be worse than the Kelly ring ever was.” Hill went on to explain that “the policy of ring leaders is to make the people believe they are getting what they want while they are furthering their own aims.” [44]

Ring Politics Remains In El Paso

An El Paso Times July 17, 1928, article delved into why El Pasoans favor political rings even today. Although on the surface voters “do not favor political rings,” the newspaper column argues that “citizens can be so often bewildered or cajoled into voting for the thing they do not want.” [45] To understand this one need not look further than the 2012 Quality of Life bonds that voters approved and are now highly controversial, especially on the issue of the multi-purpose arena proposed for downtown El Paso.

The article goes on to add that once voters “have got the thing they do not want, they become more or less helpless to throw it off, because they loosed [sic] against themselves a balance of power that always bets them.” [46] Although the article is discussing late 1900’s politics in El Paso, it is clear by the ongoing political controversies that ring politics remains today.

The newspaper article, quoting George B. Cutten of the Colgate University explains it best: “The boss has come to be recognized as the power in American politics.” It continues, “Bosses contrive to form rings, and rings combine to form the machine.” Thus, according to the explanation, ring politics is a system “for precuring votes, for nominating and electing candidates favorable to machine policies, and for obtaining and dividing the spoils.” [47]

The individual that fits the description of ring politics in El Paso today is Woody Hunt. In upcoming articles, we will explore detailed events that prove the ring politics of Hunt. For now, we will simply provide a few examples to allow readers to better understand the issue. Hunt funds philanthropy and think tanks for public policy research. Through those vehicles, Hunt can leverage public policy like the water issue in 2001 and set policy through philanthropy like the 20-year battle for the Plaza Theater.

Woody Hunt has admitted to leveraging ring politics for his public policy agenda, going so far as to demand that the candidates he supports financially use the consulting firm he prefers – the Forma Group, which was responsible for a secretive mailout that went out to voters in 2020. In addition to the Forma Group, there is the Paso del Norte Group (PDNG) that set the city’s public policy agenda for the foreseeable future. The PDNG was a small secretive group of wealthy individuals who hijacked El Paso’s public policy agenda starting in 1999.

Ring politics in El Paso comes down to “who speaks” for the community. As evidenced by Henry Kelly, Tom Lea, Woody Hunt and others for over a century of El Paso politics, it is not the voter, but rather the puppeteers manipulating the voters behind the scenes. As one ring is expelled by the opposition, another ring forms, as the case for Kelly’s ousting by the Tom Lea ring. Ring leaders demand loyalty from their supporters. Henry Kelly did so. Luther Jones was accused of forming a political slate of candidates that he ran for office. Former county judge Alicia Chacón said in 2011 that Luther Jones “extracted loyalty” from the political candidates he supported for office. [48] However, the question voters should be asking, was Luther Jones the “opposition” to an established ring? If so, what about the ring Jones was accused of challenging with his own ring of candidates? Today, there are three primary rings: the Vince/Claudia Perez ring, the Veronica Escobar establishment ring and the Veronica Carbajal/Carmen Rodriguez opposition ring. Each of them demanding “loyalty” from El Paso voters.


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  1. The thesis of the book is that “half a dozen wealthy individuals wield disproportionate power and influence over local affairs.” The authors of the book argue at that “It is well known that developers/businesspeople Paul Foster and Woody Hunt are at the top of the exclusive pyramid.” [49]


  1. “Different Report, A Democrat Writes Concerning El Paso County,” Letter to the editor, Abilene Daily Reporter, May 7, 1908, 1.
  2. Diana Washington Valdez, “Luther Jones’ fall from grace: He was a state rep., trusted lawyer, and now a convicted felon,” El Paso Times, April 23, 2011,
  3. Rodríguez, Carmen, E., Kathleen Staudt, Oscar J. Martínez, and Rosemary Neill, Who Rules El Paso?, Community First Coalition, 2020.
  4. “Different Report, A Democrat Writes,” 1.
  5. “Different Report, A Democrat Writes,” 1.
  6. “Different Report, A Democrat Writes,” 1.
  7. “Democrats Are Complimentary to Each Other,” El Paso Herald, July 28, 1906.
  8. “Two Complete Democratic Tickets To Be In The Field,” El Paso Herald, June 16, 1906, 6.
  9. “Two Complete Democratic Tickets To Be Held,” 6.
  10. “The County Ring,” El Paso Herald, June 29, 1907, 16.
  11. “Kelly Says His Friend Smith Runs Good Postoffice,” El Paso Herald, September 19, 1908, 7.
  12. Rusk, Jerrod G. “The Effect of the Australian Ballot Reform on Split Ticket Voting: 1876-1908,” The American Political Science Review 64, no. 4, Purdue University (1970), 1220-1221.
  13. “Jones Refuses,” El Paso Herald, March 2, 1903, 1.
  14. “Jones Refuses,” 1.
  15. “Registration Offered To Us On Conditions,” El Paso Herald, March 2, 1903, 1.
  16. “Registration Offered To Us On Conditions,” 2.
  17. “Republicans Should Enter The Primaries,” El Paso Herald, January 4, 1905, 8.
  18. “Is It An Opposition Ticket Or A Scheme of Henry Kelly?,” El Paso Herald, January 31, 1908, 8.
  19. “Is It An Opposition Ticket,” 8.
  20. “Alderman De Groat Not After Other Offices,” El Paso Herald, February 17, 1908, 5.
  21. “County Politics.,” Paid advertisement, El Paso Herald, July 16, 1908, 4.
  22. “WARNING,” Paid advertisement, El Paso Herald, July 16, 1908, 4.
  23. “Reactionaries Talk To Their Mexican Friends,” El Paso Herald, July 13, 1908, 15.
  24. “Reactionaries Talk To Their Mexican Friends,” 15.
  25. “Reactionaries Talk To Their Mexican Friends,” 15.
  26. “White Is Probably Safe,” El Paso Herald, April 14, 1903, 1.
  27. “White Is Probably Safe,” 1.
  28. “White Is Probably Safe,” 1.
  29. Political advertisement paid for by the Tom Lea campaign for mayor, “Lea vs. Kelly On Public Schools,” El Paso Herald, February 5, 1915, 9.
  30. Political advertisement paid for by the Tom Lea campaign for mayor, “Watch This Space Each Day, If You Are Interested In Good Government,” El Paso Herald, February 12, 1915, 15.
  31. “Watch This Space Each Day,” 15.
  32. Political advertisement paid for by the Tom Lea campaign for mayor, “Watch This Space Each Day, If You Are Interested In Good Government,” El Paso Morning Times, February 13, 1915, 7.
  33. “Mitchim Stands In Wings; Candidates Sit On Stage,” El Paso Herald, July 24, 1908, 5.
  34. “Mirchim Stands In Wings,” 5.
  35. “Anti-Ring Political Column,” El Paso Herald, July 16, 1908, 4.
  36. “County Attorney Fined For An Assault,” El Paso Herald, August 19, 1907.
  37. “Did Bossism Cause Trustees To Resign From School Board?,” El Paso Herald, June 7, 1907, 1.
  38. “Did Bossism Cause Trustees To Resign,” 3.
  39. “Ike Aldrete Makes First Speech In English And Receives An Ovation,” El Paso Herald, July 6, 1912, 21.
  40. “Mayor Kelly And ‘Ring Ticket’ go Down In Defeat,” The Austin Statesman, February 17, 1915, 1.
  41. “Lea Meeting Breaks Records; Kelly Says Jackson To Resign,” El Paso Herald, February 16, 1915, 2.
  42. “‘Ring’ To Enter School Election,” El Paso Herald, April 28, 1915, 3.
  43. “Vowell To Run Against Fryer,” El Paso Herald, January 21, 1916, 4.
  44. “Vowell To Run Against Fryer,” 4.
  45. “Revival of Ring Politics,” El Paso Times, July 17, 1928, 4.
  46. “Revival of Ring Politics,” 4.
  47. “Revival of Ring Politics,” 4.
  48. Valdez, “Luther Jones’ fall from grace,”.
  49. Rodríguez, Who Rules El Paso?. xiii.

Martin Paredes

Martín Paredes is a Mexican immigrant who built his business on the U.S.-Mexican border. As an immigrant, Martín brings the perspective of someone who sees México as a native through the experience...