Border Bound

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

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?

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.

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.

Powers went on to rankle Bomer for four years as an outspoken advocate for insurance consumers. His criticism of Bomer now, however, is less strident. He says Bomer tried to do the right things, he just went about them the wrong way. For example, Bomer tried to make insurance more available to low-income Texans, but Powers argues that his policies to that end failed.

Powers and Bomer locked horns in 1996 over a settlement in a class action against Allstate and Farmers Insurance Group of Companies. The companies were accused of overcharging for their auto insurance because of the way they calculated premiums. Bomer fumed that the lead attorney in the so-called "double rounding" case, John Cracken of Dallas, was to receive up to $10 million in the settlement while individual consumers were pocketing $5.57 refunds. Powers had assisted Cracken in the case.

With that distaste still fresh, Bomer all but scuttled a proposed class action against several rental car companies accused of illegally selling liability insurance. Under Bomer's direction, the Texas Department of Insurance entered into an agreement in the summer of 1997 in which five of the companies agreed to refund customers. The agreement was announced days before lawyers were to ask a judge for class certification in their lawsuit. The judge never granted it, and Houston attorney Larry Veselka holds Bomer responsible.

Veselka says he shared his research and opened his files with the insurance department only to find out later that Bomer was not interested in anything resembling cooperation. Veselka says he had no problem with the insurance department going after refunds but accuses Bomer of cutting a deal that allowed the companies to undercut the lawsuit.

"Bomer said to us, 'I want to make something perfectly clear: I don't like class actions, and I don't like class action lawyers,' " Veselka says. "We were the initiating and motivating factors for the companies to deal with the insurance department in the first place. And then he allowed the companies to structure the deal in a way that led to our lawsuit being pulled out from under us."

Veselka says the law firms that worked on the class action spent more than $1 million in legal time on the case and have nothing to show for it. Bomer sheds no tears, saying he was trying to avoid a repeat of the double rounding case in which lawyers got rich but consumers did not.

"What you're hearing is just bellyaching by the trial lawyer involved," he says. "In those kinds of lawsuits, I don't think the lawyers are thinking about the best interests of the consumers. They're only worried about what they'll get paid."

As insurance commissioner, Bomer did not reserve his ire exclusively for trial lawyers. In 1998 a chorus of consumer advocates complained that insurers' auto rates failed to reflect massive profits the industry was enjoying, mostly from changes in tort laws, which reduced the cost of liability claims. To the pleasant surprise of the consumer advocates, Bomer ordered his staff to examine the rates of the 300-plus insurers to see if consumers were being fleeced. It was a momentous move considering that in Texas individual insurers have great flexibility in setting their rates as long as they fall within a specified wide range. Once Bomer began his review, companies began sweating.

He threatened some of the state's largest companies that unless they lowered rates, he would challenge them before a panel of administrative law judges, an embarrassing and costly scenario for insurers.

"The various insurance companies did not want to put themselves in a situation where someone else was determining their rates," says John Hageman, Texas executive director for Farmers. It dropped its rates 3.9 percent to get Bomer off its back. "Several carriers, including Farmers, capitulated. We had our own reasons for capitulating, but I can definitely say that the forcefulness of Bomer caused it to happen. Someone of a lesser personality could not have got it done."

As Mary Keller puts it, nothing about Bomer's personality is mellow.
"He's abrupt, and there's a great intensity to him that can be terrifying to those who deal with him," she says. "Yet he has this huge tender streak."

Bomer can somewhat relate the struggles of his own family to those that live in colonias. He remembers the modest house he grew up in on the 50-acre family farm near Montalba, in East Texas. The family of four grew peas, corn, tomatoes and a little cotton. The house had no running water and no bathroom. As a boy, Bomer's job was to draw water from the 60-foot well. He struggled every day with his scrawny adolescent arms to lift the bucket by pulling a heavy metal chain across a pulley. Bomer recalls the day his father replaced the chain with a lightweight rope as one of the happiest days of his youth.

His family lost the farm because of financial problems shortly before he graduated from high school and left home. He eventually moved to Houston, where he worked during the day and earned his degree in business management by attending night classes at the University of Houston. He worked in marketing and sales for IBM from 1965 to 1974 and became senior vice president of East Texas National Bank in Palestine. He served two stints in the Texas House before Bush plucked him away.

Today he commutes from Austin to his home in East Texas each weekend to spend time with his wife, Ginny, who has Alzheimer's disease. During the week, the couple talk on the phone two or three times a day. It's hard, he says, because some days she is less lucid than others. One recent morning he was pouring her coffee when she stared up at him blankly and asked, "Now, who are you again?"

Bomer had been secretary of state only two weeks when he called two state officials into his office to brief him on the progress their agencies were making on bringing water and sewer services to colonias. He listened politely for a bit before going ballistic.

"I was frustrated," Bomer says. "All the discussion was about how well we had done in the last year or so. And in my frustration I said, 'I'm not interested in what we did last year. I'm interested in what we've done since eight o'clock this morning.' "

Bomer had set the tone. The dawdling days were over.
This is no time to relax. Incidences of Hepatitis A and other diseases transmitted through poor sanitation are much higher in the colonias than anywhere else in Texas. They are as much as five times above the national average, says Dr. Laurence Nickey, a member of the U.S.-Mexico Border Health Commission and retired director of the El Paso City-County Health Department.

When it comes to bringing clean water and effective sewer service to colonias, money hasn't been the problem. In the last ten years $579 million has been available for those projects. In November 1989 Texas voters approved $100 million in bonds, and two years after that they supported an additional $150 million. The federal government, through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has pitched in $300 million, and the state has appropriated $29 million since 1991.

The backlog on water and sewer projects is so great, however, that the Texas Water Development Board, which bankrolls their construction, stopped accepting applications for new projects two years ago. When the backlog is cleared -- no one is certain when that will be -- 72 percent, or about 283,000 of the estimated 392,000 colonia residents, will have water, sewer or both. Others will never be served. State officials determined that some colonias are so remote that it would be cheaper to relocate residents than to construct new water and sewer systems.

Of the 90 projects the Water Development Board has approved since 1990, a mere 22 have been completed, serving about 53,000 residents, or less than 14 percent of the overall colonia population. Another ten projects are under construction to serve an additional 58,000 people. Water Development Board officials hope to have most of those projects done in the next 12 months. When those ten projects are done, the state still will have spent just $182 million of the $579 million it has set aside for colonias.

The majority of the board-approved projects have yet to break ground. The state has committed $124 million for 20 additional projects currently in the design stage. Those would boost the number of colonia residents being served to 162,000, still less than half of the total population. The board approved 38 other projects that have yet to progress past their initial planning stage.

In the ten years since Texas voters approved the first bonds, many state officials have tried to take the lead on colonias. Too many, it seems. A lack of coordination among the various federal, state and local officials and agencies working on the issue has been part of the problem. On the state level alone, at least five offices and agencies play a role in colonia programs: attorney general, secretary of state, Water Development Board, Housing and Community Affairs, and the Natural Resource Conservation Commission. The state Senate already has approved legislation that would let the governor designate a single office, such as secretary of state, to coordinate all colonia programs; Bush is trying to do that now by designating Bomer his colonias point man.

In the past decade, former attorney general Dan Morales was the closest to being an unofficial state czar on colonias. He gained legislation in 1993 that gave his office the right to sue colonia developers. A bill passed in 1995, drafted by his office, aimed at stopping the proliferation of colonias by banning developments without water and wastewater services.

Morales created the superhero-sounding Colonias Strike Force. The team of lawyers initiated several dozen enforcement actions against developers, the most highly touted against former Starr County Judge Blas Chapa and his business partner, Elias Lopez. While damages and civil penalties total in the multimillions, Attorney General John Cornyn's office confirms that the judgments have yielded chump change. Typically the developers were either penniless or long gone by the time Morales got to them.

Morales says the cases still are significant as deterrents. They also served as great public relations tools for him. His case against Chapa garnered him publicity, as did an appearance on 60 Minutes in 1995 in which he was depicted as a kind of colonias terminator.

Cornyn inherits the enforcement authority. He says his office will continue to seek injunctions to shut down illegal developments even if there is no money to be recovered. But he says he disagrees with the notion that getting a good headline is an end unto itself. "My goal is to combine any publicity with follow-through and any sort of punitive action we can obtain through judgments or injunctions. That way, you've gotten the public's attention, and you've put someone out of business, too."

Valley Interfaith officials say better coordination is a step in the right direction but that the main obstacle in accelerating water and sewer projects in colonias is a lack of political will by local officials. That is illustrated in one project that has remained stuck in an embryonic planning stage for at least eight years, says Janie Rangel, a Valley Interfaith organizer. The $40-million project is supposed to bring water and wastewater service to about 20,000 colonia residents in western Hidalgo County, in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

That project and others experiencing long delays tend to get dragged down by small-town politics, Valley Interfaith members say. Although the state doles out the money for construction, cities, counties or water districts build the projects.

Greed can play a part as different local entities argue over the jurisdictional right to provide the services. Those fights can take years to resolve.

The local entities select project engineers who sometimes are picked more for their political and family ties than for their qualifications. The result is further delay.

"The politics can change almost daily," Rangel says. "You have to be very organized just to keep up."

Ray Rodriguez, Socorro's mayor, says it is unfair for state officials and local advocates to blame local politics when government red tape is often responsible.

"When we are going to spend federal and state moneys to service these people, we have to follow the government's processes, and that legal system will tie you up," he says. "But I guess they'd rather blame somebody else."

When Bomer met with Valley Interfaith, the group recommended legislation that would let the Water Development Board go over the head of a local authority by firing an incompetent engineer and hiring its own. The board currently can take that hard-line approach only on the rare project that is financed entirely through federal money. Bomer brought the firing idea to Bush, and it now is a key part of the bill that already has passed the Senate.

"We are in the unenviable position of being held accountable even though we're not the ones doing the projects," says Craig Pedersen, board executive director. Although his agency has been limited by legal constraints, Pedersen admits it was too passive in the past in dealing with local officials and engineers in charge of the projects.

"Where I think we've come up short is that we've been too nice to too many people for too long," he says. "We held their hands to get them through the process when we should have held their feet to the fire."

Bomer is far better at the latter than the former, and that fact is not lost on Pedersen. In the water development board's defense, moving along projects impeded by politics takes more political savvy than that possessed by an agency made up of engineers. Bomer thinks he has that savvy.

"The colonia problem doesn't lend itself to quick results. No one knows that better than me," says Pedersen, who has been on the job since July 1991. "But Secretary Bomer's impatience has been infectious. For some of us, we had gotten so immersed in the problems, we probably weren't forcing the solutions as vigorously as we could have. His impatience has made me less patient. I think that's a good strategy."

Other Bomer recommendations in the bill also show his desire to prevent further delays and overcome bureaucratic impediments. The bill calls for hiring six ombudsmen in border counties to help identify problems. It would allow people who are not licensed plumbers to install water and sewer lines and permit water and sewer hookups in areas that do not meet road-width requirements.

Senator Eddie Lucio, a Democrat from Brownsville who is sponsoring the bill, says Bomer has the attitude that this legislative session will not end without passage of a meaningful colonias bill.

"I feel good about its chances," Lucio says. "Elton's stature, which is overpowering, and his assertiveness can help make the difference. Knowing Elton, he won't allow anyone to run over him."

The Socorro mayor wasn't running over Bomer; he was eluding him. A week after stalking Mayor Rodriguez, Bomer isn't there yet.

Bomer placed five phone calls to the mayor without a return call, so he fired off a letter to him with a direct message: "I would appreciate a full explanation as to why the city of Socorro has not approved a new plat for Colonia Las Palmas, and what could legitimately delay this process for so long."

He then sent copies of the letter to each member of the Socorro City Council, Pedersen of the Water Development Board, two state legislators who represent the area and others who could apply pressure on the mayor.

Rodriguez, who returned a call from the Houston Press within 24 hours, says he didn't call Bomer back because "basically I've been busy." He adds, "My reaction when reading the letter was, 'Hey, wait a minute!' I hate it when I get a letter like this that says we're not doing enough when I have the facts right here."

The facts according to Rodriguez are that the city holds one of nine liens against the bankrupt property and is trying to convince other lien holders to waive the back taxes so the water and sewer system can be built.

"Everyone has to come to a consensus," Rodriguez says. "I have not forgotten the needs of the residents there." Rodriguez plans to fire back a response to the letter.

Bomer is learning that nothing about colonias is ever simple.

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