Border Bound

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

But no one pushes around Bomer, not even nuns and priests. He told them, without a hint of reverence, that they were having their meeting with the governor right there, right then.

While some members of Valley Interfaith harrumphed at his rudeness, others noted his forcefulness, a trait that can only help push long-delayed projects along. Being frank and tough with local politicians and jump-starting state bureaucrats is exactly what is needed to end the dawdling.

"We were impressed that he was very straightforward and seems willing to take care of the problem," says Eddie Anaya, co-chair of Valley Interfaith's executive committee, who was at the meeting. "However, after so many years of waiting and delays, we just figure, well, I think he's going to learn that there are a lot of frustrations and obstacles that have to be addressed and that these problems are not going to be taken care of right away."

Valley Interfaith members spin a colonia story that is long and complicated. Bomer enters this drama late, and some who have been doing the grunt work for more than a decade are skeptical. Bomer may be all about the bottom line, they say, but colonias are no quick fix.

"Well, I don't think this is simple," Bomer says, when informed of the skepticism. He does his best to keep in check his instinct to cuss. "The difference is, I think it's doable and it's doable in a hell of a lot shorter time."

More than 200 Texas Department of Insurance employees stood, clapped and chanted, "El-ton! El-ton!" as their boss, for a couple more hours at least, made his grand entrance into a hearings room for his farewell ceremony last December.

When Bomer became insurance commissioner in 1995, he inherited an agency with a long reputation for being in someone's pocket. When Bill Clements was governor in the late 1980s, the agency was considered a puppet of the insurance industry. When Ann Richards was governor, she put a guy in charge, Robert Hunter, who is considered the Ralph Nader of insurance. An agency that was supposed to regulate an industry while paying no mind to politics seemed always to be knee-deep in it. That changed with Bomer in charge.

Bomer's farewell ceremony played out like a Dean Martin roast: ribbings and skits mixed in with praise.

"How refreshing it's been," said associate insurance commissioner Lyndon Anderson, a longtime agency employee playing emcee, "to have someone head this agency who can sweep the peripheral crap aside and make decisions based on a simple right or wrong."

No one could have predicted when Bomer entered the insurance department that he would exit a hero, especially to those employees who viewed him at the time as a potential threat.

In four years as governor, Richards had cleaned house at the insurance department, assembling an executive staff of consumer advocates who distrusted the insurance industry. When Bush defeated Richards in 1994, thanks in part to financial support from insurers, industry officials expected a reverse housecleaning to take place.

It never happened. Bush, a Republican, surprised many by appointing Bomer, a conservative Democratic state representative from East Texas, to lead the agency. The pair met during the campaign and went fishing together. Bomer possessed little experience in insurance, having once worked for IBM as a sales representative to the company's insurance industry clients. As the new insurance commissioner, Bomer retained all senior staff members except for one, who left on his own.

"Elton was very blunt with me when he first got here that I would have to prove myself to him," says Mary Keller, whom Bomer kept as a senior associate commissioner for legal and compliance. "He knew about my background, and he knew the [insurance] industry was -- how should I put this -- looking forward to a decision by him to have me resign."

Keller and Bomer were opposites. She grew up in the heart of Los Angeles. He was raised on a farm in remote East Texas. She was ACLU. He was NRA. She worked under liberal attorney general Jim Mattox fighting to protect endangered species. Bomer is a hunter.

Yet when Keller talks about Bomer even today, she gets choked up.
"In a short amount of time," she says, "we came to totally admire him because no matter what his political philosophy was, Elton was totally fair and open-minded before any issue that came before him. And what more can you ask for? I don't get mushy over many people, but he is truly a remarkable man."

Bomer also kept Birny Birnbaum, the department's chief economist and associate commissioner for policy and research. In a previous incarnation, Birnbaum had worked as a consumer advocate who relentlessly tried to prove that insurers discriminate against minorities. Insurers boil at any suggestion that the industry redlines.

"Elton Bomer is someone I regard as a true leader," Birnbaum says today. "A lot of commissioners would have backed off of making decisions, afraid of bad press or of offending one group or another. Elton Bomer didn't shy away from anything."

Birnbaum left the agency halfway through Bomer's tenure to work as a consulting economist and actuary to different consumer groups. One of his clients is the Center for Economic Justice, founded by the only insurance department executive-level employee to resign during the Bomer transition. D.J. Powers, who was general counsel and chief clerk, figured he needed to jump ship after infuriating the incoming Bush administration by writing controversial rules on redlining that the lame-duck insurance commissioner adopted weeks before Bomer took over.

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