Skip to comments.[South Texas:]Webb County Sheriff Democratic Runoff: Border duel rife with bad feelings
Posted on 04/06/2008 6:22:40 PM PDT by SwinneySwitch
LAREDO - With appearances on CNN and Nightline, Webb County Sheriff Rick Flores drew national attention to his role as top cop of a county on the front line against Mexican drug violence.
But keeping that job comes down to a race that is decidedly local - full of harsh exchanges, nasty innuendo and Laredo's trademark tangle of conflicting loyalties.
On Tuesday, Flores, 46, faces longtime state police official Martin Cuellar in a Democratic primary runoff, one of the area's hottest races in memory.
His opponent's family name couldn't be more formidable - Cuellar, 49, is brother of U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, the hometown son who in 2004 wrested the 28th congressional district from San Antonio's Ciro Rodriguez.
Flores said the roots of what started as a six-man race were planted during his self-described "David and Goliath" jolt to power in 2004, when he defeated 16-year incumbent Sheriff Juan Garza, winning 55 percent of the vote to Garza's 37 percent.
He began cleaning house even before he was sworn in, firing 80 employees. Flores said he had to rid the department of "dead weight" and corruption and bring the changes he had promised. He said he invited people to reapply for the jobs, but most did not.
The result was a still-pending federal lawsuit, a lot of bad feelings and, Flores says, a lot of challengers designed to put him in a runoff this year.
"These people, the ones that their employment was not renewed, these were the people that ..... said, 'Let's go find candidates to run against the sheriff,'." he said. "It was a strategy."
The challengers included Esteban Paez, one of the lawsuit plaintiffs; Gerardo "Jerry" Carmona and Jose "Pepe" Salinas, both of whom worked for former Sheriff Garza; and Anselmo "Chemo" Ortiz, a Laredo police lieutenant.
There is no Republican challenger in the race.
The campaign featured nepotism accusations that forced Flores to fire two brothers-in-law and thickly spread innuendo when he seemed to stall on responding to Carmona's challenge to a hair follicle drug test.
Carmona, who now works as a court interpreter, said the bottom line was that people were disillusioned.
"I was supporting Rick. He had promised job security and all that. But after he won he went back to the old thing," Carmona said. "As soon as he went into office, he created a lot of enemies."
Flores got the most votes in the March 4 primary - 44 percent to Cuellar's 32 percent - but Cuellar in recent weeks has saturated voters with TV ads and mailouts.
Both candidates express distaste for mud slinging even as they distribute dirt.
Cuellar has challenged $80,000 of Flores' campaign donations and said the sheriff has released sex offenders from custody "with $15 and a signature."
One mail piece shows Flores' Dec. 31, 2004, termination letter to employees and stresses the $622,000 taxpayers have already spent on legal fees for the ensuing lawsuit.
Flores has questioned Cuellar's moonlighting with a security firm across the border and says his opponent knows little about being a first responder. He asks why Cuellar, as a Texas Department of Public Safety narcotics investigator, wasn't making the big busts and bringing in the amounts of seized drug cash he says distinguished his own administration.
Cuellar says Flores lacks police smarts, doesn't know protocol, and won't work with other agencies.
"You have to build up a foundation. It starts in the streets," Cuellar said. "That is something that Rick Flores doesn't have. I was an investigator, worked narcotics investigations, something he doesn't have. He doesn't know the first thing about probable cause. I was assigned to be the intelligence agent for this area, have all the experience, all the contacts, good reputation among the community - something he doesn't have."
The current duel has a subtext in a nationally televised spat between Flores and Henry Cuellar.
Appearing in November on CNN's Glenn Beck show, Flores ripped the congressman for not steering enough federal money to U.S. border law enforcement while touting a plan to spend $1.4 billion to aid Mexican law enforcement.
The congressman retorted, "My job is to look at the big picture. Your job is to look at the smaller picture."
Beck stung the congressman, saying, "Shame on you."
Martin Cuellar said Flores did the community a disservice with that exchange.
"The drugs are never going away, they're always going to be there, but how are we going to do better? Working with other agencies, working together with state and local departments, working with our federal representatives, we can do better. We need to be humble."
Flores bristles at accusations that he over-dramatized the dangers of drug violence on the U.S. side of the border and let the nation think Laredo was a war zone.
"Nobody wanted to tell them that hey, we're facing reality, that we have problems on the border. Some were protecting the interests of the business community, and I understand that, but my position is not that. My position is one of law enforcement," he said.
"I wasn't running on the street like Chicken Little saying that the sky is falling - in reality we knew that the violence was there, it was occurring, and there was spillover on border communities on the U.S. side," Flores said.
He thinks the campaign should be about his successful record.
Gov. Rick Perry has praised Flores for reducing violent crime. Revenue from bail bond and records fees more than doubled. His department hauled in $4.5 million in seized drug money, 44,000 pounds of marijuana, 2,400 pounds of cocaine and 64 pounds of heroin.
But Cuellar says the sheriff has hurt the community, adding to image problems that have killed tourism and deterred new business while alienating should-be partners like the U.S. Border Patrol.
"Coming out on national media - CNN - and arguing with your congressman that represents here in Laredo, it's not good," Cuellar said. "It's not good for him, it's not good for the representative, it's not good for the community. It's not good for Mexico."
Is Laredo part of the US, Cuellar?
Los dos Laredos Ping!
If you want on, or off this S. Texas/Mexico ping list, please FReepMail me.
>>Flores has questioned Cuellar’s moonlighting with a security firm across the border<<
He’s just protecting his ‘other’ job....... the one ‘across the border’. (I wonder if he works with Jorge?)
That's a major scandal just waiting to happen if Cuellar gets elected.
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.