A 24-YEAR-OLD, unmarried, heterosexual male indulges in some on-camera cuddling with a female cast member of MTV's Road Rules--a decidedly unserious look at life in the fast lane--and suddenly Southern Arizona news media are having a field day because the guy in question is the mayor of Nogales, Arizona.
Unfortunately, last week's journalistic whoop-de-doo over Louie Valdez's little showbiz fling--evocative of something you'd see on Melrose Place--tells us a lot more about the shallow, inconsequential nature of the mainstream news media than it does about Valdez, his politics and the city he serves.
But then, we've come to expect nothing less in this dusty and forgotten corner of media hell.
The newspapers highlighted critical comments from Nogales Alderman Tony Serino, 78. We don't even want to know what he thinks about MTV, much less sex. But foremost among the sanctimonious moanings of the fourth-rate estate was the bloated coverage by KVOA-TV, Channel 4's Eyewitless Snooze. Not only did the KVOA clowns spend way too much time on the story itself ("Hey, we've got all this video from MTV! Aren't we cool!") but they just had to do one of those bogus viewer polls, which tell us exactly nothing while chewing up time between commercials. But, hey, it beats actual reporting on important issues and people. And make no mistake, Valdez is well on his way to becoming an important dude....
LOOKING OUT THE Mexico-facing window onto the parking lot, Valdez waves to his cousin, who voted for his opponent in the local election. Following a phone briefing with the regional commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, he's in the council chambers introducing Rep. Ed Pastor and the Fannie Mae Employer-Assisted Housing partnership to a partially filled room of suits and dresses.
As the day unfolds, Valdez continues administrating minutia--a role he campaigned to change. He proposes Nogales residents vote in favor of radically altering the 69-year-old city charter that saddles him with responsibilities of chief executive and administrative officer for the city of 20,000 people. At least figuratively, Nogales has one of the most powerful mayoral positions in the state, a position Valdez says several former mayors abused. He wants to relinquish overseeing the nuts and bolts of the city's day-to-day operations to salaried staff, freeing himself for policy-making. Not a surprising proclivity--his former high school teacher describes him as "probably dreaming in parliamentary procedures."
The proposed charter amendments include extending the mayor and council's two-year terms to four, providing a city-manager form of government and approving pay raises for succeeding members of the city council.
For months, Valdez has been stuck in a quagmire with three out of six alderman opposing a strong city manager position. Valdez says the three dissenting aldermen are resistant to change and have political objectives in their opposition. Rancorous mayor-council infighting historically has plagued Nogales City Hall. But at a May 1 council meeting, Valdez broke a tie vote sending the charter amendments to the people.
Valdez boasts he's turned his $50-a-month mayoral position, with health benefits, into a real, full-time job--a first in 20 years of Nogales mayors. He asserts an amended charter is not for him, but for the people of Nogales. "How can there be any continuity of government," he asks, "with the council and city directors moving in and out of office every two years?"
THE WALLS OF Valdez's office are covered in icons defining his political aspirations with photos of John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton and campaign stickers of the deceased Institutional Revolutionary Party presidential candidate leader Luis Donaldo Colosio.
A prominently framed Immaculate Heart of Mary stands vigil at the office entrance as he jauntily steps into the adjoining bathroom, quipping the lavish $25,000 baño cost former Mayor José Canchola popular support. Such politicking is common for Valdez and seems to spill nonchalantly from off-handed comments to subtly sprinkled remarks in speeches.
Valdez describes a conciliatory letter he sent to the aldermen, asking them to begin anew by focusing on issues and putting aside personality conflicts. But in the next breath he's calling his opponents "the good old boys."
While detractors find Valdez brash, others insist the comments are well justified by his idealism. He's been known for speaking up at council meetings when sexist comments are made. Once he requested a public apology from an alderman for calling a new female appointee "a beautiful addition to the staff."
Like a true politician, Valdez came into office trying to make peace with former adversaries. He named a transition team that included an alderman who backed his opponent. He kept three key department heads from Canchola's administration. And he consulted with the city council before city department directors were named.
Valdez ran for mayor in part on his youthful outlook, as well as lack of business entrenchment and desire for restoring pride to city government. He won by 10 percentage points, contrasting an idealistic image against opponent Dan Doyle, whose insect-control company was once cited for illegally dumping pesticides.
As early as high school Valdez self-consciously groomed his personae--he wore a suit and tie and carried a brief case to "make a good impression." He read his last piece of fiction back then. Now, he carefully sculpts his public image with his newly formed Mayor's Council, a group of former Nogales mayors who meet once a month to critique his performance.
In crafting his own political portrait, Valdez has made resolute attempts to distance himself from nepotism and allegations of corruption. Valdez stood behind Nogales Police Chief Augustin Huerta's decision to fire Valdez's longtime friend, Officer Antonio Dominguez, for allegedly phoning in a prank police report. Only weeks before, Valdez was criticized for using his position to take Dominguez off patrol on a business trip with him. Dominguez, 23, is the brother of Valdez's secretary.
While former Nogales mayors buried their expenses with the rest of the city council's budget, Valdez says his proposal for a separate mayor's office budget is another effort toward increased accountability. Critics say Valdez wants a separate budget so he doesn't have to pass each expense through a council vote. Others say the city should be conserving funds with the current border business slump and company closings.
Last month council members attacked Valdez because he spent $3,000 for a "thank you" party in Washington, D.C., for congressional staff and others friendly to his administration. Valdez says even though the hosted reception was a first for Nogales, it was a necessary investment and a part of doing business in Washington. He says the event, catered by his uncle's restaurant, Las Vigas, was far less expensive than an affair prepared in D.C. The tamales, machaca, salsa, salad, beans and tortillas were sent to highlight the border town's individuality. The shipping cost totaled more than the food.
Although Nogales issues were discussed at the gathering, Valdez says it was mainly a networking opportunity for Arizona congressional delegation staff to mix with White House, Department of Justice and congressional staff. When you want to get things done, you don't work with members of Congress as much as their staff," he says.
Several aldermen have labeled as profligate some of Valdez's other bills for books, equipment, gas, meals and mobile phone time. Valdez says one of his functions as mayor is to garner more publicity for the city. He makes no excuses for nearly $5,000 in credit card charges, saying unlike former mayors and current council members he's working 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. "I'm redefining what the city is about."
INSIDE LAS VIGAS, passels of relatives, friends and acquaintances stop by Valdez's table as he consumes chicken enchiladas. Valdez's instant celebrity is magnified by his homegrown status. He brought someone by on Valentine's Day and received similar attention.
Up at the cash register, Valdez insists on paying a reporter's lunch tab, which he later charges to the city. On the way back to city hall in a city-owned white Crown Victoria, a mayoral perk, he stops by the Nogales Unified School District administration building. Walking in, he points to a tier of stone steps outside old Nogales High School, where his mother lined up for graduation. Inside, several clerks greet Valdez enthusiastically, adding they were classmates with his mother.
Valdez is here because he's been asked by his brother, Bobby, to attend a private meeting with the school superintendent. (Bobby was influential in Valdez's decision to run for a school board seat he's held since '92.) In the super's office, Bobby Valdez argues the case for a friend's daughter, two days short of the first-grade age cutoff. The mayor surprises his brother by siding with the super.
"Exceptions can't be made," he later tells Bobby in a heated discussion.
The Valdez family has been a part of Nogales for generations. The mayor still lives with his parents in the house where he was raised with five older brothers and sisters. While Valdez's detractors call him a mommy-daddy mouthpiece, he insists his family doesn't influence his politics.
His parents, "conservative Democrats," get irate when they read what they consider negative press about their son. And Valdez says he and his parents get along better by not discussing the local headaches of Nogales politics. Instead, they deliberate national and international issues over breakfast and dinner.
Valdez's father, Heriberto, was hardly apolitical. He worked as a construction foreman and spent 20 years as a labor union leader. His mother, Olga, drove a school bus for 15 years and now works as a teacher's liaison for needy schoolchildren. She ran unsuccessfully for county recorder in 1994.
Valdez speaks at length about his family. One sister worked locally for the Drug Enforcement Agency. Brother Bobby, who managed Valdez's mayoral campaign, was with the Border Patrol and is now a U.S. Customs agent. Several cousins work for the Nogales Police Department, and Valdez's uncle, Alfonso Bracamonte, was the Santa Cruz County Sheriff from 1988 to 1992.
He doesn't mention that his cousin Eddie Rosas, a former NPD police chief and current officer, has been accused five times of excessive force when subduing suspects.
From his spacious, Mexico-facing, window-lined office, Valdez says his brother Bobby's affiliations with the Border Patrol didn't influence his own approval of Nogales' conspicuous border fence.
"The fence is necessary," says Valdez, who lives a mile from the border. "The nation has to protect its sovereignty. People along the border live with fear every day. I'm sympathetic to that. We want to keep the negative elements out and foster the positive."
Valdez, whose father was born in Mexico, criticizes the proposed Arizona version of California's Proposition 187 as "racist," but sees no contradiction between that stance and his support of "Operation Safeguard." While Valdez welcomes the Border Patrol crackdown on illegal immigration as a way to save local municipal resources and fight crime, he condemns Proposition 187 as "a fearful reaction to economic problems."
Following a strong lobbying effort by the Nogales Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce (some of whose board of director seats are held by members of the Association of Maquilladoras of Sonora and The Border Trade Alliance, an organization Valdez has joined), Valdez proposed that INS and Customs expedite the current six-month backlog for border crossing permits.
Traveling to Washington in January, Valdez also lobbied U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno for support on the border. With the follow up of increased border personnel, including the green light on use of volunteers, the crossing permit backlog seems to be improving. Although Valdez takes credit for the expedited application process, his detractors say he was only in the right place at the right time and the funding was "already imminent."
VALDEZ PULLS TWO scrapbooks off an office shelf. He's clipped every article that's referenced him as Nogales mayor. Flashing to several pages of the Nogales International newspaper's caricatures of him in a baby's highchair, he jokes that he's probably the only mayor in the state with a weekly political cartoon.
He boasts about recasting the city's image. "In the past, people identified Nogales with crime, environmental and health problems. Now we have a progressive image," says Valdez about the spotlight his youthful mayoralship has brought to the area from news agencies around the world. He views himself as public relations man and consensus builder for the city. He'd rather foster relations with Arizona's congressional delegation and Gov. J. Fife Symington III than oversee operations at NPD or talk with federal agencies about the tunnel grates.
State and federal agencies are involved in monitoring nearly every known air and water hot spot in Nogales. Because of Nogales' strategic position with the border, Valdez says the city benefits more from his interaction with Washington than with the Arizona Legislature. He plans to visit Washington every four months during his administration, lobbying for resources to keep the border safe and, like those who preceded him, requesting funds for the construction of a wastewater treatment system. These pilgrimages also allow him to make friends on Capitol Hill.
And how is Valdez handling his local priorities: the environment, public safety and town pride? Sources say he studies the problems and addresses them wholeheartedly. In March, he began a series of town hall meetings asking for citizen input. He also re-instituted the city's fallow committees--everything from environmental to youth advisory--and promoted a curfew for teens under 18.
Although Valdez says public health is a chief concern to him (his grandmother and a close high school friend both died of cancer), he's not directly involved with the Mayor's Environmental Advisory Committee. He drafted an environmental monitoring project and handed it off to the city's water and environmental counsel, Hugh Holub. He appointed Vice Mayor Robert Rojas as chair to the bi-national committee consisting largely of residents, who will track environmental concerns past, present and future, looking at solutions and costs.
As in other border towns, residents of Nogales have long complained about their lack of input on federal decisions pertaining to environmental matters in their community. Valdez has come into office at a time when the feds are instituting the Border Environmental Cooperation Commission, a formalized commitment to citizen involvement in the tracking and cleanup of air and water pollution.
Holub, a Tucson-based attorney, says a bi-national environmental committee, like the one Valdez instigated, has been long needed.
VALDEZ FREELY ACKNOWLEDGES that he's made some mistakes, but he does not apologize to accusations of "vacillating on the issues, of being unpredictable and overly emotional about my handling of city affairs."
How long will Valdez stay in Nogales politics? He plans on finishing his undergraduate political science degree "somewhere" and then moving on to law school. When he was elected mayor, Valdez was offered jobs at two insurance companies in Nogales and a liaison position working for a maquilladora in Sonora. He declined the offers, sticking to his campaign promise of not working for any other interests outside the City of Nogales.
If Nogales citizens vote in favor of the charter amendments this fall, his 40-hour work week may shrink. Alderman Juan Lichter, who opposed giving the people a vote on the amendments, says if the local government becomes more city-manager driven, Valdez's role will become ceremonial. But the charter amendments will allow Valdez to run again for a four-year mayoral term with a salary in the high teens.
Valdez also talks about higher offices. He'll probably bypass the state legislature (as he did with Nogales City Council) and run for a new Congressional seat if District 2 is revamped in the year 2002. He mentions one redistricting proposal which would move Phoenix out of the picture and Nogales, Yuma and Douglas in. All that depends on the complexion of the legislature,
U.S. Federal Court and the governor in office.
Even though 2002 is a while off, Valdez is hopeful. "Sometimes people in Phoenix forget Nogales, Yuma and Douglas," he says. If the area is redistricted, "Whoever is in the best political shape will win."
Valdez boasts he's turned his $50-a-month mayoral position, with health benefits, into a real, full-time job--a first in 20 years of Nogales mayors.
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