LAREDO — With a tinge of regret in his voice, Raul Salinas recounted what he might have done differently during his eight years as mayor of this growing border city.
“I should have done more to make sure that the reputation of our community was sustained, and that the people were respected,” Salinas, whose tenure ended last month, said earlier this week. “I wish I would have had more time.”
Laredo residents will greet 2015 with a new mayor, Pedro Saenz and a new Webb County judge, Cayetano "Tano" Tijerina, who defeated the two-term incumbent, Danny Valdez, in the spring Democratic primary.
The newcomers carry excitement and optimism, but acknowledge that they face a challenge demonstrating that the region is not ridden with crime and corruption.
The Laredo region is a portrait of contrasts: It is the main hub of the country’s largest inland customs district, which has already seen more than $208 billion in two-way trade this year. Laredo has grown in the past decade to become the state’s 10th-largest city, with about 248,000 residents and a sizable student population at Texas A&M International University. The city and county also sit in the heart of the Eagle Ford Shale and offers vast opportunities for South Texas drillers.
But it also has one of the highest poverty rates in Texas at 31 percent. (The state rate is 18 percent.) Only 65 percent of the residents have at least a high school diploma, compared with 81 percent in Texas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And in some areas of the county, residents do not have running water or sewer connections.
The firestorm over illegal immigration and the violence that has plagued Laredo’s sister city, Nuevo Laredo, have left the American side of the border sharing a black eye. Most living here say the reputation is unwarranted. Laredo is one of the safest towns of its size, they say, and the violence is concentrated south of the Rio Grande.
After Salinas's term ended, the reins of the city passed to Saenz, a lawyer and former rancher known as Pete, who credits Salinas with progress, but said the city still struggles with an image problem.
“Things have improved, and we’re going to continue to improve it,” Saenz said. “But that image, that perception, still carries.”
Public corruption scandals have fed the area’s reputation as a den of “patronismo." The former chief of police was convicted in 2008 on conspiracy charges, and a former city council member was indicted in 2014 on drug charges.
Webb County officials are engaged in damage control following a former county commissioner's indictment on bribery charges, and a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment by a current commissioner.
Some elected officials, including Saenz and Valdez agreed to hair-follicle drug tests to prove
they are clean.
“We’re going out there and undergoing whatever test is required to begin healing and mending that mistrust,” the new mayor said. “There was a lot of talk about a lack of faith and a lack of trust. It was the only way we could demonstrate our sincerity toward changing that.”
Officials here are polite and discreet when they talk about the old guard, but say change is necessary.
Public corruption “happens everywhere, and unfortunately, it’s been so much in so little time,” the county attorney, Marco Montemayor, said. “We just got to deal with it and hopefully get rid of the bad stuff. With new blood coming in and new elected officials young and old as well, you can kind of see a changing of the guard.”
Saenz said he was already working to convince people that his administration would not cater to those with inside connections. He has begun a nationwide search for a city manager following the retirement of Carlos Villarreal, last month. An outsider, Saenz said, would bring a fresh perspective.
“The community wants that," he said. "It wants a new person that has no roots or ties to any particular group."
The county judge-elect, Tijerina, a rancher and former minor baseball league player, sees similar opportunities.
“We needed a little bit of respect, honor and dignity back to the judge’s office and seat,” he said of his decision to run again after losing a narrow race to Valdez in 2010. “Webb County is a shining star just waiting to be polished.”
Tijerina’s aunt, Rosaura, better known as "Wawi" is a county commissioner. Some argue that bolsters the perception that familial ties and inside connections play a larger role for voters in the region than a candidate’s merits.
But Tijerina dismissed the notion.
“My family is the backbone, but that’s not the only bone,” he said. “I don’t see how it’s just the border when you have the Bushes. We have the Clintons. Look at what they’re doing.”
Valdez, the outgoing county judge, said he could not explain why voters had ousted him, but said he helped usher the county into the 21st century.
“I did what I had to do," he said. "That’s the way it is. That’s the way public office is.”
He cited among his accomplishments assisting in road projects and establishing a civil-service system for county employees. He also oversaw the hiring of the county’s first medical examiner and the creation of a regional mobility authority.
Like Salinas, he speaks matter-of-factly of taking a drug test to instill confidence in voters.
“People want to make sure the elected officials they elect are going to do a good job and are clean. I don’t have a problem with that,” he said. (Tijerina said he would also take a drug test if asked to do so.)
Valdez said that as the incumbent he knew he had a “target" on his back but that he was not to blame for the county’s reputation, and was not responsible for policing his colleagues.
“I can’t be with them 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said. “They’re elected officials. With growth comes demands and problems. That’s the way government is.”