It’s difficult to confuse Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas for someone else, especially when he ascends to the roof of a Wal-Mart for several days as part of one toy drive or shaves his head in front of television cameras for another. It’s all part of what he calls being the “people’s mayor” in this border city of about 240,000, which dubs itself the "Gateway City" to Mexico.
But the photo ops, as handy as they are in raising money for the neediest Laredoans, have generated criticism from some of Salinas' political opponents, who accuse him of lacking the spine to lead a city wrestling with big-city problems and the resulting negative image. Elected four years ago, Salinas ran an underdog campaign touting his prior service as a lawman — including 27 years as an FBI agent — as the key to polishing the image of a city that has been unjustly tarred with spillover publicity from Mexico's warring drug cartels.
Some political insiders say Salinas, who is running for re-election on Nov. 2, could fall short of even making an expected runoff. He faces four opponents, including three veterans of the nine-member city council over which he presides, who label him more of a figurehead than a leader. They say he seems to relish Laredo’s weak-mayor form of government, which allows the city’s leader to avoid casting a vote except to break a tie on the council. It ultimately grants most of the authority to the council-appointed city manager. The mayor plays more of an ambassadorial role in a city that — despite the economic and social gains made since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 — is still seen by outsiders as gritty and crime-ridden.
Salinas dismisses the “photo op” mayor attacks, but not without frustration. “I often get criticized because I cut ribbons. Well, you know, if I am going to get criticized, I’d like to get criticized for doing something than for doing nothing,” he says. “And least I am there to let them know they are not alone.”
One of Salinas' challengers, council member Gene Belmares, appears to be the main threat to the incumbent's re-election. A former mayor pro tem, his intent to oust Salinas has been an open secret for years — in fact, Salinas says, Belmares told him just days after his swearing-in four years ago that he aimed to unseat him. Also running are council member Jose Valdez Jr., who represents the city’s west side — a blue-collar area that houses a sizable bulk of the city’s industrial zone — and dubs himself a “guy from the neighborhood”; former two-term council member Juan Ramirez, who represented the city’s downtown area, including two international bridges that connect the city with Mexico; and James Joel Newland, a bus driver for the city's transit service and a political neophyte. Newland, who admits that his chances are slim, says a dispute with his employer over insurance benefits was the impetus for his run.
Both Valdez and Ramirez are running modest campaigns, spending only a few thousand dollars each. Newland concedes that he has "no money." Belmares, by contrast, says he has substantial financial backing: He plans to spend about $100,000 on the race. He doesn’t deny that residents of his council district, on the city’s affluent north side, have enabled him that financial advantage. “I’ve been their voice. They are happy with what I’ve done for the district. They are happy with what I’ve done for the city,” he says. “Why wouldn’t they support me?”
Ask to describe his own campaign coffers, Salinas would only say that he's running a fiscally "conservative" campaign and that he's reluctant to ask for contributions during an economic downturn. The lone billboard in town urging voters to vote for him, he says, is an in-kind contribution.
These days, Texas border cities have grown accustomed to absorbing the images of their Mexican neighbors. El Paso, despite being one of the safest cities in the U.S., has battled image problems in light of the hideous violence in its sister city, Ciudad Juárez. The Rio Grande Valley has also endured its share of bad press amid increased violence in nearby Mexican cities.
Laredo's mayoral candidates say the its flagging reputation could stem from something as simple as the name it shares with its own troubled sister city, Nuevo Laredo — but the stigma is the result of more than that. National attention makes the city ground zero for the immigration debate, which is often cast in terms of fear of crime. And U.S. Border Patrol boats and all-terrain vehicles have become as common a site here as the fishermen spending lazy afternoons on the typically tranquil banks of the river. Image issues have taken center stage in the mayor's race because the perceptions are bad for business, thwarting the economic and quality-of-life gains that city leaders tout as their main objectives.
Salinas says Laredoans feel safer since he took office and touts FBI crime statistics showing violent crimes and robberies are down over last year, though the number of murders has increased. But the problems facing Laredo — or “challenges,” as the candidates prefer to say — are more like those of cities two or three times its size. The police force needs more cops, infrastructure lags behind growth, and all the violence hampers economic development and, in turn, the tax revenue that leaders need to address city problems.
Cartel battles south of the city caused a rash of killings in Laredo during the last decade, and the city again made headlines recently for being the birthplace of one of Mexico’s most wanted criminals, Edgar “La Barbie” Valdez Villarreal. In August, Villareal was nabbed in Mexico for his role as a leader in the splintering Beltran Leyva cartel. The city’s police department took a hit in 2007 after its former chief, Agustin Dovalina III, was convicted with two other high-ranking officers of federal conspiracy charges. They all pleaded guilty, admitting they took bribes from operators of illegal gambling operations in exchange for protection against raids.
But the council moved quickly to replace Dovalina, and the department’s reputation has rebounded. Laredo is home to the nation’s largest inland port, which ranks sixth nationally in trade value and is on pace to shatter previous records, despite the lagging economy. The city seems well-poised politically as well: It's represented in the Texas Legislature by Democratic Sen. Judith Zaffirini, the second-longest-serving lawmaker in the upper chamber and the highest-ranking Hispanic, and in Washington by Democratic U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, the chairman of the Subcommittee on Border, Maritime and Global Counterterrorism. The city also was selected as a finalist for the All-America City recognition in 2007.
"Everyone assumes that we're in Mexico"
Yet Laredo's reputation still suffers — and that means it needs new leadership, says Belmares, whose background includes years as a marketing strategist, including his current $100,000-a-year gig at La Posada, one of the city’s few higher-end hotels.
“Crafting an image for a concept to sell a company is no different than crafting an image for a city or a person,” he says. He's not afraid to throw other border communities — or Salinas — under the bus in the process: “Look at El Paso to Brownsville, and those places don’t come close to what we can do. McAllen doesn’t even have an image of its own; it’s part of the Rio Grande Valley. Laredo is the star of the Rio Grande, and that’s what I firmly believe. I don’t think the mayor has that sort of passion.”
Belmares could benefit from the fact that municipal elections aren’t partisan. He's the former chair of the Webb County Republican Party — which some say could cost him in this heavily Democratic border community. Asked how he would identify his party affiliation now, however, he says he’s a Blue Dog Democrat. “I’ve got a lot of fiscal conservativeness in me, but I’ve also got some social moderation," he says. "There are programs that you absolutely have to have for those who just fall through the cracks.”
Party affiliation is no question for Ramirez. His forays into politics include leading the local campaigns for Democratic presidential candidates Edward Kennedy in 1980 and Walter Mondale in 1984. He wants to change the city charter to adopt a strong-mayor form of government. Valdez and Belmares favor the current system but support a change to the city charter to include a mandatory mayor’s vote on all matters before the council.
“The council is always at the mercy of the city manager," he says. "When you have a mayor, if the mayor is not doing his job, you can vote him out. But you can’t get rid of the city manager" through a vote of the people — only a majority vote of the council. He also accuses Salinas of reverting back to the patrón system of government, a form of bossism that mimicked the old Mexican form of political favor-trading.
“You were either in good with whoever was in power, or you didn’t get anything. That was the control they had in Laredo" in days past, Ramirez says. "We are starting to see the pattern of another patrón here with Mr. Salinas.”
Valdez, the former councilman, is running for office for the fifth time. He was first elected to the council in 2000 in a runoff election, ran unopposed in 2004, ran unsuccessfully for mayor against Salinas in 2006 (he finished third in a field of five) and was elected to serve what was left of his term in 2008. “They haven’t done anything. They haven’t moved forward — nada,” he says of he current leadership.
Asked about the reputation of Laredo as a haven of corruption, he quips: “You’re talking about Chicago or Laredo? It’s a stereotype.” That's the one thing on which all the candidates agree: While the border has had its share of corruption, the region has no special claim to dirty politics. Valdez doesn’t downplay the violence in Nuevo Laredo but says it’s not his job to promote Mexico. “I am not asking [tourists] to go to Nuevo Laredo. I'm telling them to come to Laredo, on the U.S. side,” he says. “That’s one of the hardest things that we have to deal with: Everyone assumes that we’re in Mexico.”
"A friendly, accessible mayor"
Salinas dismisses criticism of his tenure as “the language of the political season.”
“What I am running is the people’s campaign. I am a friendly, accessible mayor," he says. "I have [spent] 40 years in a dedicated and professional career.”
Salinas says he should get credit for the love he has for the city and its people, that he supports and defends what's best for them. He spoke out against the "border wall" — the 650-mile fence meant to control immigration — calling it a "waste of money," given that the Rio Grande already provides a natural barrier. When the Minutemen came to Laredo in 2007, Salinas says, he fought their attempt to strong-arm his constituents into answering immigration questions. "I made sure they knew they were not welcome. I will not tolerate anyone coming in to our city to intimidate and be hostile to our citizens simply because of the color of their skin."