A Look Back At The Career Of Nogales' Coolest Public Official.
By Tim Vanderpool
THE SIZZLING afternoon had given way to steamy night, as Louie Valdez sat dejectedly in the council chambers of Nogales City Hall, America's youngest mayor and a bona fide national celebrity helplessly awaiting his first political spanking.
It was late August, 1995, and Louie's beloved teen curfew ordinance, barely a month on the books, was about to crash and burn. He warily gazed around at his detractors, fully aware that any slim camaraderie they shared was likely to smolder as well.
Already there were enemies on every flank. To his right, sighing slightly, was crusty old Tony Serino. Perhaps the Mayor's toughest critic on the Nogales City Council, Serino was a veteran player who, in kinder moments, referred to him only as "that little man." On his left was an intent Juan Lichter, a mostly soft-spoken, occasionally acerbic produce dealer toting a well-known grudge, directly traceable the days when Valdez had viciously sparred with his wife on the school board.
In between were a mishmash of Nogales leadership: Hank Tintos, a jocular businessman known for his Teflon coif and emotional, sometimes bizarre hyperbole; Arturo Lopez, a small, enigmatic sporting goods merchant who spoke in half-tones, and only then to vote or second a motion: Albert Kramer, a wily drugstore owner who typically cast ballots with one wetted finger testing the breeze; and Robert Rojas, the amiable high-school teacher who'd married into local money, wore flashy jewelry, and was probably Valdez's sole, consistently loyal ally on the board.
I was there to cover the whole lot, newly assigned as city reporter for the Nogales International. This was my mill and they were my grist, not least among them the boy mayor, who, for more than a year, I'd stick to like manure on a mud flap.
The debate that night had ebbed, but the mood was tightly wound, the die cast; 23-year-old Valdez, borderland empire builder, governmental gadfly and high-flying bon vivant, was about to face his homespun Waterloo.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. He'd rolled into office in January of that year vowing to kick the local good old boy system in its well-connected butt, bringing a youthful, consensual breath of fresh air and new-fangled ideas to a town where tribal warfare and family machines were the norm. After all, he'd trounced onetime mayor Dan Doyle, much his senior, by 10 points to claim the seat after a nasty provincial race that culminated in his brother squaring off with a Doyle kid after one cantankerous campaign rally.
Before long, the young leader had piqued the country's curiosity, hobnobbing across the continent and displaying his fresh mug on CNN, PBS and, most notably, MTV, where he was seen cavorting with a Generation Xer named Allison in a boozy after-hours clinch. Allison raised a few more eyebrows the next morning, when she surfaced at City Hall to return the Mayor's clothes--before unceremoniously giving him the on-screen boot.
Undaunted, Louie went on to cameos with National Public Radio and the Los Angeles Times, and constantly boasted close working ties to several top U.S. government officials, including Attorney General Janet Reno. He ruled from an office stuffed with pictures of President Clinton and JFK, alongside a grinning teddy bear always hunkered on his couch. He jetted hither and yon on the city tab, and cruised his tiny kingdom in a slick, municipally owned Crown Victoria, flashing civic credit cards and chatting with his personal secretary via the official cellular phone.
Not surprisingly, it soon dawned on observant locals that their chief executive just might be getting a bit big for his small-town britches, especially considering that he made only $50 a month and still bunked with mom and dad. They were getting pretty steamed over his extravagant ways in a community suffering double-digit unemployment, and his increasingly cavalier methods of doing business.
Never mind that Nogales most resembles its Third World neighbor, with a cloister of wealthy families and multi-million-dollar produce houses doling out chicken feed to most everyone else. Or that Valdez's predecessor, McDonald's magnate Joe Canchola, had relieved taxpayers of countless C-notes turning the mayoral water closet into a Grecian bath. Or that Canchola likewise regularly loaded his well-fed frame on many a civic-sponsored plane seat. At least he enjoyed his perks with finesse. Besides, he was rich, and it certainly didn't hurt that folks considered him a successful grown-up.
Meanwhile, despite the widespread notoriety it brought him, Valdez's MTV stint had also sparked a major scandal at home, even prompting a prominent local priest, one Father Velasquez, to denounce such official indiscretions from the pulpit. Soon these combined winds of dissent would grow into a twister of protest. Before his term ended this past December, Louie would face a state investigation for allegedly pocketing petty cash (later dropped), and subsequently abandon his short-lived campaign for the District 11 state House seat. He'd lose a civil case over airline ticket debts, and ultimately step down, owing the city nearly as much as he'd earned in office.
When the dust finally cleared, not only would he no longer be mayor, but he'd even get dumped from his long-held school board seat.
Still, he could claim some successes. Louie had led the fight to bring Nogales' debt-ridden budget back into the black. He'd privatized the money-sucking municipal golf course, overseen transfer of the sewer plant--regularly inundated by international flows--to federal government control, paved streets and spruced-up parks.
But the stumbles had longer shelf-life. Now the supposedly beer-chugging, womanizing upstart was cheeky enough to try to sweep teens--many only a few years' his junior--off Nogales' nighttime streets
And so there we were, the Mayor, the Council, 100 pissed-off kids and myself, all stuck in this tense, stuffy room reeking of Right Guard and righteous anger. Valdez pounded the gavel and suddenly, sensing the gig was up, tore into Hank Tintos about scathing comments he'd made to a Sonoran newspaper.
The Mayor waved a copy of the paper aloft. "Mr. Tintos said he could not support the ordinance because of my so-called immoral conduct," Valdez said tersely. "After discussing this issue with Father Velasquez...he indicated that, while the Church might disagree with my personal position on pre-marital sex and the use of condoms, they nevertheless regard the city curfew as a constructive measure which they fully support."
Tintos was silent as Valdez first grew emboldened, then stood up and announced a 15-minute recess, throwing the room into chaos.
Shocked, the councilmen stared at one another. "This is illegal," Albert Kramer snapped as Louie stomped out. "We might just run the meeting ourselves." One worried city attorney agreed, rushing off to hunt down the errant Mayor. "And not in 15 minutes," Tintos hollered after him. "Now!"
Five minutes later, a red-faced Valdez plopped back in his seat.
Just as expected--and with little discussion--the Council then yanked his curfew in a quick 5-1 vote. Only Robert Rojas dissented.
I scribbled away, drooling over the action. This was a reporter's dream, political theater at its absurd best, and I had a front-row seat. Little did I know the night would also mark the beginning of the end for Mayor Louie Valdez, that his remaining stint in the sun would be most remarkable for this growling juggernaut lined up against him.
The rest of his term would be spent mostly engaged in every fiery fight but the good one. He quickly went from an ideological, if precocious kid, to an embattled, obstinate veteran. And as his tiny Rome burned, he increasingly fiddled his time away at home or on the road, anywhere but the hostile council chambers.
It all ended in December. These days Valdez is taking political science classes at Pima Community College and planning to study in a foreign land.
I'd have to call it disappointing. Like everyone else, I too had been a little taken by his formerly glamorous air of celebrity. I guess it showed in our first interview.
Frankly, what I wanted to know, what all America was itching to know, was this: Had he really jumped Allison's bones on that wayward cable eve?
The Mayor was circumspect, perched behind his broad desk, his nerdy presence buttressed by a glowing Bill Clinton and the teddy bear. "Well, Tim," he chuckled, "let's just say that was one night when the stars were definitely out."
Enough said. Good luck, Louie. Or should I say, congratulations?
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