Ex-Mayor Waits for White House to Pony Up

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Swept into the breathless, heady days of his friend George W. Bush's dash for the presidency, Carlos Ramirez anted up every political chip he had.

For his troubles, the two-term El Paso mayor was promised a minor role in international politics, and lost a mighty chunk of hometown support.

Only Ramirez knows whether it was worth it, after all.

A slight man with a nervous smile, dark suits and a soft Mexican accent, the onetime homebody slogged through New Hampshire, Illinois, New Mexico and Michigan--all in the name of Bush. As the Texas governor and would-be president coaxed Latino voters into his flock, Ramirez grinned and waved his way along the California coast.

At home, the 50-year-old mayor paid dearly. Incensed El Paso Democrats--people who helped put the quiet engineer in the mayoral seat two years earlier--kicked Ramirez out of the party. Since then, his popularity has continued to crumble: This spring, police ticketed Ramirez for tinting his car windows too dark.

The country is full of figures like Carlos Ramirez--men and women who head home when the frenzy of the campaign falls quiet. "He's a man without a country," said Pat Sumrall, a Republican city councilwoman and onetime Ramirez supporter who since has feuded with him.

An energetic, steel-haired lawyer named Ray Caballero took over the mayoral office last week. Meanwhile, Ramirez waited with some embarrassment for his new job to become official.

Three months ago, Bush announced plans to nominate Ramirez to head the International Boundary and Water Commission, a little-known border agency in charge of Rio Grande and Colorado River treaties. The White House hasn't finalized Ramirez's appointment to the $145,000-a-year job yet, but he started work last week under the title "commissioner designee."

For El Paso, 'a Constant Thorn'

The new job will mean jaunting from San Diego to the Gulf of Mexico, but in between, Ramirez will be exactly where he started: In El Paso. "He's done here; he has no future in this community," said William Weaver, a political scientist at the University of Texas El Paso. "Some people feel punished by the fact that he'll still be here. He'll be a constant thorn in the side for a lot of people."

This all comes in depressing contrast to the glorious speculation that was flying a few months back. Some Texas newspapers ran stories suggesting that Ramirez might land a high-ranking federal post.

"It's the best of both worlds," Ramirez said brightly of the water and boundary job.

But Ramirez's story is a cautionary reminder, proof that El Paso's Democratic, working-class, Latino ethos runs deep and strong.

When he was elected governor in 1998, Bush became the first Republican in state history to gather a majority of El Paso's votes. In last year's presidential election though, this border town voted for Democrat Al Gore--in spite of the mayor's efforts.

Since his 1997 election as mayor, Ramirez may have fumbled some of his popularity in his zeal for Bush. Still, Ramirez's agility in matters Mexican was almost unparalleled--and in El Paso, that counts for plenty.

Shipwrecked in seas of merciless desert, El Paso and its Mexican neighbor, Ciudad Juarez, form a tangled island of steel and grit. With a combined population nearing 2 million, the two cities are bound by isolation, blood ties and political necessity.

It's a messy landscape--and one Ramirez understands instinctively. Born in a downtown El Paso hospital, Ramirez was raised and schooled in Ciudad Juarez.

"I don't know whether I think in English or in Spanish--I just think," Ramirez said. "It comes out in either language, depending on who I'm talking to."

The eldest of seven children, the future mayor was 8 when his father died of surgical complications. His widowed mother moved the family into the home of Ramirez's grandfather. He was a tough old man, a native of Yucatan who'd grabbed a gun and joined the Mexican Revolution at age 16, a soldier who drifted north and landed in Juarez.

"He was military; he was very strict," Ramirez recalled. "Everybody got up at a certain time, everybody went to bed at a certain time and the lights were out by 10."

When it came time for college, Ramirez breached the Rio Grande to make a name for himself. He cut the grass at UT El Paso to pay for engineering classes, and eventually joined the Army before finishing his degree.

Ramirez never moved back to Mexico--but he never forgot how to get things done south of the border, either. When he needed help, he procured it the old-fashioned way--he dropped by on a friend and called in a favor.

One of Ramirez's proudest victories unfolded not in El Paso--not even on U.S. soil--but on the opposite bank of the Rio Grande.

When the mayor--who barely drinks--pledged to staunch the flow of Mexican liquor to El Paso kids, he was met with eye rolls and snickers. Elbow-bending in the smoky cantinas of Juarez is a tradition stretching back to Prohibition-era flappers. What power did Ramirez wield over the bartenders of Mexico?

Enough, as it turned out. In 1998, Ramirez had a few heart-to-hearts with his friend Patricio Martinez, the governor of Chihuahua. Soon, Chihuahua state police were cracking down. Bars that once thumped and jumped from sunrise to sunrise closed at 2 a.m. Bartenders were encouraged to turn away underage El Pasoans.

Looking Beyond the City's Borders

In effect, Ramirez had pressed Mexican officials to ignore their own laws for the sake of the two-nation community. The drinking age south of the border is 18.

To Ramirez, it was a perfectly rational modus operandi.

"Border problems," he said, "need border solutions."

He knows these lands in his gut. His mother is growing old here. He fell in love with his wife here.

But from the sounds of things, El Paso isn't necessarily the place for Ramirez. He's musing aloud about out-of-town opportunities.

"If President Bush would tap me for an agency in Washington, I'd go. And I love Austin [Texas, the capital], so any possibilities from the state government would be considered," he said. "Then there's some possibilities in the private sector--in different places."

As for El Paso? Out of his hands.

"It's in much better shape than when I came into office," he said. "The challenge will be to continue what I started."

FOR THE RECORD Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 20, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 Zones Desk 1 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction El Paso official--In a June 17 article, The Times misidentified an El Paso city councilwoman. Her name is Jan Sumrall.
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