Border Bound

Is Elton Bomer the bully who's needed to help colonias -- or just another political grandstander?

Bomer has a plane to catch. While waiting for a grilled chicken sandwich at the El Paso airport restaurant, he tries the mayor on his cell phone. He's still not in. When the plane lands in Austin, Bomer calls again. The mayor's secretary says he still is out.

"She said he'll call me first thing in the morning," Bomer says. "Let's see, I have a staff meeting from nine to ten. If I haven't heard from him by then, I'll call him."

And he will. He will keep bugging him until he has his answers. If the mayor doesn't have the answers, Bomer will harangue someone else until he hears a good reason why the people of Las Palmas colonia are still waiting for water and sewer. If there isn't a good reason, he'll track down the person most responsible for holding things up. And, in no uncertain terms, Bomer will let that person know exactly how he feels.

Pity that person.

If Bomer fails in his mission to improve conditions in colonias, Vice President Al Gore might have a field day in next year's presidential race.

Imagine the television ad: Somber Latin music in the background and close-up shots of cute children with brown faces playing in mud outside a shack built with old pallets and cardboard. The mud, the narrator will say, is contaminated with human feces. The government has deprived these children of a safe place to live, a house with fresh water and a bathroom. Are these the children of a contemptible Third World regime? No, they are the children of Texas under Republican presidential hopeful George W. Bush.

In fact, Bush did not create colonias, and he cannot cure them. But with Bomer's help, the governor at least can make a solid case that he tried to fix a situation that for years has resisted repair. And the governor has put a man on the job who is obsessed with the bottom line.

The only things that irritate Bomer more than delays are excuses. And now he finds himself thrust into a situation that has seen plenty of both.

For ten years, state and federal governments have contributed more than a half-billion dollars toward the installation of water and sewer systems in the colonias. Much of that money, however, remains unspent. If a project isn't slowed by petty battles over political turf, then it's probably being corrupted by political patronage.

"Elton Bomer may not know enough of the history of colonias to be scared of what he's getting into, and that's a good thing," says John Henneberger, co-director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, which works on behalf of colonia residents. "If, in fact, he is not afraid of making a lot of people mad in the process of getting things accomplished, all I have to say is, boy, do we ever need him."

An estimated 392,000 people live along the border in colonias, which is Spanish for colonies. The subdivisions tend to have cheery names such as Sun Country Estates and Hacienda Gardens, but the conditions in many are squalid. Some families live in shanties that have no faucets, toilets or showers.

Colonias took root as far back as the 1950s, when developers marketed raw land to vulnerable Mexican immigrants and other poor Texans. Offers often came with promises that one day the subdivision would have running water, sewer service and paved roads. Some developers, however, had neither the means nor the compunction to make good on their claims. Local officials, faced with a population that could not afford to live anywhere else, looked the other way as colonias spread.

After winning re-election last year, Bush promoted the 63-year-old Bomer, a former state representative from East Texas, from insurance commissioner to secretary of state and thus the governor's point man on border issues. Bomer has presented Bush with an ambitious legislative package designed to accelerate the progress of water and sewer projects, in part by giving the state more of a hammer to push them along. Bush signed off on the package, and the Texas Senate passed a bill incorporating them. It awaits action in the House.

Bomer likes to think of himself as a details guy, but in fact he wants only the information he needs to make a decision, and, as one of his former employees at the insurance department puts it, he wants it yesterday.

Bomer's patience, of which he has little, faces its greatest test.
In late February Bomer traveled to the Lower Rio Grande Valley to tour colonias and be briefed on the status of water and sewer projects. He met with about 60 members of Valley Interfaith, a citizen activist group with ties to churches and schools. For years the group has worked on behalf of colonia residents, taking part in negotiations for water and sewer services.

Politicians tend to treat Valley Interfaith with great reverence. The group has a militant streak that puts politicians on the defensive. Members of the group tried to bully Bomer, demanding that he help set up a meeting between them and Bush.

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