By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
A commercial truck carrying bottled water rumbles up the rocky street, stopping in front of one of the 25 or so homes in a listless neighborhood in the town of Socorro, ten miles east of El Paso. The driver slings a water jug over his shoulder and drops it on the porch. The activity alarms two chickens and a pit bull passing the day behind a chain-link fence surrounding a white trailer home next door. Old tires rest on the trailer's metal roof to hold it in place during those wicked West Texas windstorms.
They make do with what they have in Las Palmas, in the Texas-Mexico border region. It is one of about 1,500 neighborhoods called colonias, as depressed as they are depressing. In Las Palmas, they make do with substandard septic tanks and one undersized water line that services the entire subdivision. Water pressure is hard to predict. Sometimes it's strong enough to rinse shampoo lather out of hair. Other times it's a trickle.
"It's usually okay during the day, but not at night," says Veronica Carmona, who has lived in the trailer home four years.
The water truck makes a U-turn and drives away. In the middle of the street, a politician from Austin stands in his size 14AA black loafers. He is Governor George W. Bush's top repairman, Elton Bomer, whom the governor tapped in January as his secretary of state. Bomer wants to know why the people of Las Palmas still don't have dependable running water or sewer service.
Ann Kelley, the marketing manager of the Lower Valley Water District, tries to explain. The owner of the subdivision never filed plats for his development, and the government money available to install new water and sewer lines can't be spent until the development is legally platted.
Bomer demands to know what's holding up the platting process. Kelley tells him that the developer allegedly owes a large amount of back taxes. The city of Socorro, with a population of about 30,000, supposedly has been trying to convince the school district and El Paso County to waive the back taxes so officials can go ahead and legally plat the subdivision. Then the design and installation of water and sewer systems can begin.
"How long have they been working on this?" Bomer asks.
"About a year," she responds.
Too long. For the next five minutes, Bomer assaults Kelley with a barrage of rapid-fire questions. How often does the council meet? Who's the mayor? Is he a strong mayor? Is he a full-time mayor? Where is he now? What's his phone number? Where's the mayor's office? Where's City Hall?
"We need to talk to the mayor," Bomer tells his aides. They pile into their rented minivan and drive to City Hall.
"Maybe I'm missing something," Bomer says during the short ride. "Why would they hold things up for these people just to hold one guy's feet to the fire? You know, politics shouldn't even be a part of this. The people out there care less about even how to spell politics."
He looks through the windshield but sees nothing because his mind already has arrived at City Hall. Bomer is psyching himself up for a potentially explosive encounter with the mayor of Socorro. Bomer is an intimidator, a fearless hothead who is not shy about using profanity to stress his point. At six-foot-four and 215 pounds, he is Bush's human incendiary device. The governor is counting on Bomer to light a fire under state and local officials who have dawdled while colonia residents live without running water and sewer service.
Throughout much of his first four years in office, Bush never gave colonias much thought. His first expression of outrage came last summer in response to a series of investigative stories about colonias in the local newspaper in Austin. Only then did he assign Al Gonzales, who was secretary of state at the time, to look into the problems raised in the articles.
While Bush acted as if he had never heard of colonias, the Texas Water Development Board, which approves the spending of millions of state and federal dollars on new water and sewer systems for colonias, acted as if it were afraid to make waves. Hamstrung by the fact that local governmental entities such as cities and water districts manage the projects, the agency failed to strong-arm the sluggish projects along. Bomer, though, isn't afraid of twisting arms to get what he wants.
In Socorro, the receptionist at City Hall tells Bomer that Mayor Ray Rodriguez is not in. Is he at lunch? Where is he eating? Does he have a cell phone? Can you track him down?
Bomer nervously taps a business card on the counter as a City Hall employee, a bit awestruck at having an important man from Austin in her little town, distracts him by showing off a mural depicting Socorro's three missions. Bomer is polite, but he is more interested in whether the receptionist has reached the mayor.
Rodriguez is in a meeting somewhere downtown, the receptionist says at last, but he will get back to Bomer this afternoon. When is he coming back? That long?