Webb County Sheriff's Race is Rematch on the Border

LAREDO — The Rick Flores who sat alone in a supermarket parking lot last week and waited for a handful of supporters to wave campaign signs with him bore little resemblance to the Rick Flores of old — the swash-buckling, 10-gallon-hat-donning Texas border sheriff whose quips to his critics were as sharp as the creases in his uniform.

As recently as 2007, the former Webb County sheriff was sounding the alarm over possible spillover violence from Mexico’s drug war. That year, Flores went head to head with U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, on CNN, questioning the congressman’s loyalty to the United States and insinuating that Cuellar was more dedicated to Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderón, than to his own constituents.

The move riled local lawmakers and business leaders, who said Flores was using the carnage in Mexico — and specifically in Laredo’s sister city of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas — to paint the entire region as a hyper-violent war zone.

In 2008, Flores lost his bid for re-election by fewer than 50 votes out of 26,160 cast, following a primary, a runoff, a recount and a theatrical election contest in which lawyers subpoenaed voters and asked them how they had cast their ballots. The victor was the congressman’s younger brother, Martin Cuellar, a former lieutenant with the Texas Department of Public Safety.

The Cuellar family regime made the city a tough place for Flores to live, he said. He moved to Arizona and worked briefly as the police chief in San Luis, then failed to pass that state’s peace officer licensing exams. He made his way back to Laredo, where he is now running to reclaim his old job.

Gone are the legions of support and the six-digit campaign coffers Flores boasted in the past. But the sound and the fury of old-school, border-style politics remain firmly intact.

“I am a person who’s relentless, and I don’t give up easily,” Flores said. “For me to just pack up my bags and leave like a coward, it’s just not my style, so I decided to come back and fight for what I left behind.”

The Cuellar campaign says it is not worried about the November election. Flores is running as an independent in a Democratic stronghold, the result of the Webb County Democratic Party’s ruling that Flores had violated residency requirements and could not run as a Democrat. Flores said the ruling was an effort to squash the competition, and he pins that on the current sheriff.

“What is he scared of?” Mr. Flores asked.

In an affluent neighborhood next to the Laredo Country Club on a recent afternoon, Cuellar sat under studio lights blotting his forehead while his campaign manager, Colin Strother, who also works for Henry Cuellar, coached the sheriff on how to deliver lines for a television ad.

“Again, talk about the helicopter. Talk about how it is not costing taxpayers money,” Strother said. As the crew wrapped, the mere mention of Flores sent the mild-mannered sheriff into attack mode. .

“He is such an idiot, man. And you can put that on the record,” Cuellar said.

Cuellar said he had nothing to do with Flores not being able to run as a Democrat. “I don’t make the rules. Especially election rules,” he said.

Strother added that in order to be on the ballot, a candidate must live in the county for a full year ahead of an election, and that Flores’ own interviews with the Arizona news media suggest he did not make it back to Texas in time.

Flores’ placement on the ballot as an independent was also contentious. County officials granted him permission to run in late August, but only after roughly 300 of the 861 signatures on his petition were deemed ineligible. At least 500 valid signatures are required to get on the ballot as an independent.

“I have always been a Democrat,” Flores said. “What I feel is, that my party pretty much abandoned me.”

Cuellar does not deny that his camp played a role in striking some of those signatures; by law, a signature is invalid if the person who signed it had already voted in the primary or the primary runoff. But it was the result of a voter-registration drive the camp said it always does following primary elections.

“In Webb County the same people always come out and vote,” Strother said. “A byproduct of that is that some of them were on the list.” 

This type of finger-pointing is common in many local elections, but it increases on the border. Accusations abound that the region is still mired in the old “patrón” system, with its history of cronyism, voter fraud and manipulation.

Cuellar said the blood sport this sheriff’s race is turning into is not his doing, and that he will remain positive on the campaign trail. But, privately, his frustration is evident.

He takes particular issue with Flores’ assertion that the sheriff’s office has benefited from favoritism from Washington. Flores said he believes the sheriff’s office has received increased federal financing because Cuellar’s brother is a congressman. “He can say whatever he wants,” Flores said, “but what I can tell you is that he has received more money, and quite honestly I haven’t seen anything else that he’s done.”

Cuellar attributes the influx of federal dollars to his ability to play well with others, something he says is lost on his challenger.

“One of the things that I credit that to is that we get along with all officials, with federal and state (agencies), not only with my brother,” Cuellar said. “Yeah we have a lot of money, but we’re using it the right way.”

Past voting trends may not bode well for Flores. In 2010, straight-ticket voting accounted for 53 percent of the ballots cast in the county, according to the county elections office. In 2008, the last presidential-election year, it was 58 percent, and 82 percent of those were straight Democratic tickets.

“Historical patterns in Webb County tend to hold true; he would have to beat us 9 to 1,” Strother said. “It’s an insurmountable feat.”

Strother added that the campaign is in full swing not out of fear of losing to Flores, but for the sake of the sheriff’s image.

“This is a principle,” he said, “of not letting someone trash your reputation and say things that aren’t true.”

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