Uncovering the Vote in Val Verde
Jovita Casarez, an impish 53-year-old woman with dyed magenta hair, lives with her husband and eight grandchildren in the West Texas town of Del Rio. Her home is in the barrio of San Felipe-the poorest and most heavily Hispanic section of a poor, Hispanic county. From her neighborhood of small, run-down houses, unpaved roads, and a little stone plaza with a white gazebo and bright red benches, Casarez has been engaged in a public debate with two United States Senators and her Congressman. That debate began when she filed a voting rights lawsuit in December, and since then she has attracted far less attention than Phil Gramm, Kay Bailey Hutchison, and Henry Bonilla. The lawsuit they are fighting, Casarez says, is not the one she filed. And their attempt to cut off funding for the small legal aid office that represented her, Casarez added, is unfair.We're not against the military. We know they didn't fall from the sky, that they're part of the community," says Casarez, who last year organized San Felipe residents in a campaign to save Del Rio's Laughlin Air Force Base from Washington budget cutters. "We're against the system, which is something completely different." Yet once the debate was framed by Washington politicians, that argument was no longer heard. Even the one local reporter who called Casarez began by asking: "Why are you trying to keep the military from voting?"That's not what Jovita Casarez intended when she filed her suit. A comment she had overheard when she cast her own early vote aroused her suspicion. Then, on election day, she watched as the votes cast by Air Force personnel no longer stationed at Laughlin were tallied. When added to local ballots, those votes cost Democratic candidates Oscar Gonzalez and Frank Coronado the election. Both won a majority of the votes cast on election day, and at 9:00 p.m they were leading in absentee (early and mail-in) votes. At 11:00 p.m., however, 650 of 800 Federal Post Card Application (FPCA) votes were added to the absentee total. Those votes split 430 to 113 for D'Wayne Jernigan over Gonzalez, and 354 to 56 for Murry Kachel over Coronado-enoughto swing the two races. For the first time in 100 years, Val Verde County would have a Republican sheriff and an all-Republican commissioners court. And in a county that is 70 percent Hispanic, the county judge and every commissioner would be Anglo. "We only want to elect our local officials without voters from other places changing the results of our election," Casarez said in an interview at the Texas Rural Legal Aid office in Del Rio. "They have a right to vote in local elections where they live. Why do they vote here?"Even before she could vote, Casarez was involved in electoral politics. In 1992 she brought Henry Bonilla to her home to meet San Felipe's leaders. It was an unlikely pairing: Bonilla, the grinning San Antonio news anchor-turned-Republican Party poster boy, and Casarez, a poor, unschooled, Spanish-speaking grandmother then three years away from American citizenship. But she was also a longtime San Felipe resident and founder of a community organization called Familias Unidas. Bonilla knew she could sway voters (many of whom were disinclined to vote for scandal-plagued Albert Bustamante, the Democratic incumbent who would be indicted on racketeering and bribery charges three months after the election). With Casarez' help, the Republican candidate carried Val Verde County.Asked if she considered the events of the past two months ironic-after she had helped elect Bonilla and fought to keep the base open-Casarez responded in Spanish: ÀIrnico? ÁRidculo!In either language, "ridiculous" describes November's election. After all, it's unlikely that the 800 officers-many of them Air Force Academy graduates who had spent a year in flight training at Laughlin-knew who they were voting for in the local elections. The Republican candidate for county commissioner, according to press reports complete with photographs, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan while he served in the Air Force in Germany. And as the local U.S. Customs chief, the Republican candidate for sheriff once sent two of his officers into Mexico to do "undercover" work. The officers-armed and traveling in a Trans-Am and a Suburban-parked in the poorest section of Ciudad Acua to watch the stockyards, and their immediate arrest by Mexican Federal Judicial Police almost provoked an international incident-just months after the 1990 killing of U.S. DEA agent Enrique Camarena in Guadalajara and the kidnapping, by U.S. agents working on Mexican soil, of the physician accused of killing him.There's also something ridiculous about the events surrounding the lawsuit: a U.S. Senator, on the floor of the United States Senate, reads interrogatories mailed to witnesses in an ongoing federal lawsuit. An ex-Klansman, just elected to public office, stakes out the house of an indigent grandmother-and then claims in a deposition that he took photos of her house because "I just felt that I wanted to make that a Kodak moment."And the threat of a shutdown of a statewide legal aid program with a staff of 115 and a $5.7 million budget, in response to a lawsuit filed by that grandmother.The peculiar nature of the case drove even Fred Biery, the Federal Judge who presided over the January hearing, to alliterative excess: "Were there a magic judicial wand," he wrote in his opinion, "the Court would require the residents to be reconciled to live in rapprochement rather than be ravaged by rancor." There is no such wand, and the "tumult" Biery diagnosed "in the body politic of Val Verde County" has metastasized. Answering the judge's question-"Where legally may mobile minions of military members mark ballots for offices?"-is going to be costly and painful.That question began to take shape after the election, when Casarez met with Texas Rural Legal Aid (TRLA) lawyer Eloy Padilla in Del Rio. Padilla discussed the election with Democratic candidates, Gonzalez and Coronado, and arranged a conference with TRLA lawyer George Korbel in San Antonio. Korbel filed Casarez' suit against the county, alleging that hundreds of improper absentee votes from Laughlin alumni had swung both races and diluted the vote of the minority community-violating the Voting Rights Act.The losing Democratic candidates intervened on the plaintiff's side, the Republicans intervened on the defendant's, and on December 30, District Judge Hippo Garca issued a temporary restraining order requiring the incumbents to remain in office until a preliminary hearing in January.At that point, Korbel said in an interview in his San Antonio office, all parties should have agreed to settle. "We offered. What we wanted was new elections. In a lawsuit like this, everybody loses [if the case goes to trial]. But they refused." Had the defendants settled, Korbel explained, the $300,000 to $500,000 it will cost to try the case could have been saved. If Casarez, Gonzalez, and Coronado prevail (and based on Judge Biery's ruling, the plaintiffs believe they will), those costs will probably be paid by Val Verde County-and the State of Texas, which has intervened with the defendants.An early settlement would have made life easier for Murry Kachel, who while under oath told Judge Biery that he had n never been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. A settlement would have discouraged the press from looking into D'Wayne Jernigan's ill-fated 1990 Rio Grande expedition. And had the parties settled, TRLA's funding-from Washington and Austin-would be more secure from Senator Gramm and Governor Bush, who claim the agency exceeded its mandate when it got involved in a what they call a "political lawsuit," then requested legal fees. And if the parties had settled, Senator Gramm would be attending to the pressing requirements of the 105th Congress, rather than conducting a public relations war with the Legal Services Corporation-the governing board and funding mechanism for TRLA.But the defendants refused. "We won the election," Murry Kachel said in a te lephone interview. "We outsmarted them and won fair and square. Why should we settle?" On the eve of the preliminary hearing, the Val Verde Commissioners Court agreed, voting to instruct its attorneys to refuse the plaintiffs' offer to settle.The two Republicans who won the contested races on election day, Murry Kachel and D'Wayne Jernigan, had resigned from their jobs last year to run for office: Kachel quit his Laughlin air traffic controller post to enter the race for Precinct 1 Commissioner, and Jernigan left his job at U.S. Customs to run for sheriff. Both are small, slender, florid-faced men, ham radio operators and members of clubs like the American Legion and Knights of Columbus. In a region that gave rise to the big, powerful rancher of legend, these two men spent years holding the sort of bureaucratic posts in which you might carry a gun but would never have occasion to use it.After entering the race Jernigan opened a campaign office in San Felipe-right across the plaza from TRLA-where he and Kachel collaborated from time to time. They ran shoestring campaigns typical of small towns: they distributed signs and bumper stickers; went door-to-door; paid for political spots on Tejano Jamzz, the Mexican radio station in Ciudad Acua; and bought ads in the Del Rio News-Herald. Perhaps they plotted a win-by-absentee-ballot campaign-though it seems unlikely-or maybe Kachel and Jernigan picked up a few more sophisticated campaign tactics in May, when the two of them drove together to Austin to attend several days of candidate school. At any rate, about a month before the election, they sent out campaign letters to hundreds of military personnel and spouses living outside the county. It's not clear what prompted them to do this. Testifying in pre-trial depositions, Jernigan and Kachel's statements didn't exactly match: Jernigan claimed his wife and some volunteers learned about the FPCA voters one day when they were down at the County Clerk's office, while Kachel said that he provided Jernigan with the list of applicants after going to the office on his own initiative.The FPCA procedure, as codified in a 1973 statute, is intended to allow a member of the military to request a ballot for and vote-in federal elections. The law leaves it to the states to determine what sort of ballot is sent out to postcard applicants; in Texas (and in fact in most states) county offices automatically mail out the full ticket-even when the voter requests a "federal" ballot, for no such ballot is printed by the state. As a result, members of the armed forces who have not set foot in the county for years, even decades, can vote in local elections by picking up a postcard at the base where they are stationed, sending it to the Val Verde County Clerk's office, and receiving the full mail-in ballot for their precinct.Murry Kachel anticipated that an international mailing for a county race might seem improper, and he addressed that issue in the first paragraph of his letter to Air Force voters who requested FPCA ballots.Dear Absentee Voter! I'm writing to you today because, throughout my 23 year military career, I realize how difficult it is to try to stay abreast of local election issues while stationed overseas....I was always hesitant to vote for candidates that I knew NOTHING about. I have included a card about myself because I want you to vote for me.ÉI NEED YOUR VOTE. So, when your ballot arrives, vote for the candidates of your choice but pleaseÉlook down the ballotÉ(you may have to turn it over). Find the section for County Commissioner, Precinct 1, and mark my name, Murry M. KACHEL.In fact it's doubtful whether this letter had any effect on the military voters. Most of them had already mailed in their ballots by the time it arrived; others don't recall ever receiving it. But almost all of the 799 FPCA voters had Anglo surnames and almost all were officers-in other words, they were likely to vote Republican-and on election day, Jernigan and Kachel carried the twentieth precinct (where the base is located and where most of the FPCA voters claimed their "voting residence").In his mailing Kachel even set out to rekindle a sense of community among the voters of the Air Force diaspora, who had moved on to Japan, Germany, Hawaii, Delaware, California, Nevada, Oklahoma, or San Antonio: Perhaps you might remember me as the Tower or Radar Chief Controller at Laughlin. Or as the guy that recovered the drowned airman at Lake Amistad. I was probably the MARS radio operator that handled your message back to your family while you were overseas handling a world conflict. Maybe we met when I was the President of the Amistad Kennel Club or other clubs. I have been there when the base and our fellow military people needed me.... But local elections in West Texas are still won in cafs, in church parking lots, in line at HEB, or at backyard tamaladas-where voters who know something about candidates talk to voters who don't. In such places, the background stories of the two Republican candidates who left federal employment to look for work with the county might have been discussed.In the strip-mall office of his attorney, Robert Garza, we asked Sheriff Gonzalez about one such story. A barrel-chested, impatient man whose grandfather was a Val Verde county judge, Gonzalez was appointed sheriff to fill a vacancy in 1996. In 1990, while Gonzalez was a sheriff's deputy, D'Wayne Jernigan reportedly got wind of a Mexican cocaine-smuggling operation that was moving drugs across the border-in "the orifices of heifers." As a customs chief on the border, Gonzalez said, Jernigan should have known that no breeding stock could be imported into the United States: to smuggle the drugs, you'd first have to smuggle the heifers. Perhaps Jernigan (who did not return our phone calls) wasn't up to speed on the calf-heifer-cow-bull-steer distinctions. At any rate, on April 18, he sent two armed officers across the bridge to the shipping pens in Ciudad Acua, where the drug-smuggling cows were rumored to be gathered for shipment into Texas. The agents spoke little or no Spanish, were wearing pistols, and Gonzalez said, "sat in their big American cars in one of the poorest sections of Acua."Someone noticed."I heard it on the customs radio," Gonzalez said, describing one agent's radio report of his arrest by Mexican police-and the quick response of his partner, who immediately drove from the other end of the stockyard and directly into his own arrest. Gonzalez and a Spanish-speaking customs agent went to the Mexican jail building to begin negotiating the release of the two detained agents, while Jernigan, according to Gonzalez, did nothing to help: "Unless you call ordering a Blackhawk helicopter to fly up and down the border all day helpful." Gonzalez suggested that for further details, we talk to the now-retired customs agent who accompanied him into Mexico. "Dumbshits. They were all dumbshits." That's "T" Texas Terry Bowen's explanation of the 1990 shipping-pen undercover operation. Before he retired from U.S. Customs and began to work as a barbecue pit-man, bull rider and rodeo clown, Bowen often worked undercover in Mexico. A brief conversation at the Feed Store, the barbecue stand/feed supply where he cooks with his former partner, an ex-Border Patrol agent, left us with the impression that Bowen understands the nomenclature of cattle gender, as well as the risks associated with working undercover in Mexico."You don't go into Mexico without informing the proper authorities over there," he said. "And you don't go armed. At least you don't wear sidearms." It also helps, Bowen added, if undercover agents are fluent in Spanish. "And Jernigan should have known that no breeding stock is shipped into this country."Bowen went on to describe twelve hours of opra bouffe in which he and Gonzalez tried to negotiate the release of the two agents before the Federal Judicial Police transported them to Saltillo, the state capital. "It was real tense. Dr. Machain had just been kidnapped out of Mexico, and we were afraid the Mexicans wanted a warm body in return," he said. Because the Mexican Attorney General was not in Mexico City, the Mexican authorities in Acua could not approve the release of the two Americans. According to Bowen, it was easier to track down the Attorney General-through DEA officers in Mexico-than it was to get Jernigan to do anything right. Initially, Bowen said, Jernigan did not come over to participate in the negotiations. When he was coaxed across, on his first trip he was accompanied by a customs agent, two helicopter pilots and a Texas Ranger. "Mexicans hate Texas Rangers," Bowen said. "So we told them to go on back."Bowen and Gonzalez finally persuaded the Mexican police to release the two agents, and were preparing to depart when more weapons were found in the agents' vehicles."One of them was a firearms specialist, and they had automatic weapons and five or ten thousand rounds of ammunition," Bowen said of the two agents. "We told the Mexicans to keep it all; they'd have brand new guns and extra ammunition. We just wanted them to give us the bodies and let us go home."The Mexican authorities agreed to do so, after they spoke to the agents' supervisor: D'Wayne Jernigan. He arrived with an armful of DARE gimme caps, a handful of balloons, and a box of "Just Say No" pins. "It was his wampum to give to the Mexicans, I guess," Bowen said. "I told him to take that crap back to his car and come inside and talk."The Customs Chief finally got into the police station-just ahead of a shift change, when Mexican agents "wearing their caps backwards and carrying machine guns," began to pour into the building. Jernigan assumed the Americans were being attacked and called the agents detained upstairs (were they also had a radio) to warn them. "He hollers on the sector radio that Federales with machine guns were surrounding him," Bowen said. It must have been too much for the Mexican authorities, who ordered the immediate release of the agents, their guns, and the two vehicles."They [U.S. Customs] were ready to send a SWAT team from Houston to try to get them out," Gonzalez said, when the five men returned to Texas after twenty hours of negotiations. The incident was covered in two short, circumspect stories in the Del Rio News-Herald and got even less space in Acua's daily Zcalo.Terry Bowen did not vote for D'Wayne Jernigan in the sheriff's race.There is little comedy in Murry Kachel's story. According to press reports, published photographs, and interviews with reporters for both the Armed Forces publication Stars and Stripes and the German newsmagazine Der Stern, Kachel was a member of the Ku Klux Klan while he was a young serviceman stationed in Germany in 1981. Kachel denies his Klan involvement and told reporters after the January 21 hearing in Judge Fred Biery's court that he'd never been a member of the Klan and had never worn a Klan hood. When told that we have photographs and news articles from Germany, and that we have contacted the two reporters who did the 1981 Klan stories, Kachel said he had no comment and referred us to his attorney, who also would not comment on the Klan allegations.The election totals make clear that Jernigan and Kachel did have some local backing: Jernigan beat Gonzalez 5,373 to 5,106, while Kachel posted 1,266 votes to Frank Coronado's 1,153. And there was local support for the two Republican candidates at the hearing, where some courthouse spectators wore Republican Party pins, and one woman outside the courtroom complained that "this town's been run by the same crooked Mexican family for years."The two Democrats are both from Del Rio: Gonzalez never left, and had worked as a sheriff's deputy for nine years before he was appointed sheriff to fill a vacancy in January of 1996. Coronado spent twenty years working in California's criminal justice system, where he had served as deputy commissioner of the Board of Prison Terms before he retired and returned to Del Rio in 1992. In 1994 he ran for county judge and lost to a Republican. In that election, Coronado was 400 votes ahead of his opponent until the absentee military votes were counted. He lost the election by 102 votes. Eliminate the FPCA vote in local elections, Coronado says, and allow the members of the military to vote for state, city, and county elections where they reside, and you will have true local elections in Val Verde County.For the TRLA, filing Casarez v. Val Verde County was a risky move: the case was politically sensitive, and in the past few years the Republican Congress has put a stranglehold on federally-funded legal aid agencies. Even after he took the case, Korbel was hoping to find a private lawyer to take over, and although Congress barred legal aid agencies from accepting attorney's fees last April, he inserted a conditional request for fees into the pleadings, on behalf of such private counsel as might step in. One day before the January hearing, as TRLA offices awaited notice that their funding would be cut because of the lawsuit, civil rights attorney David Richards agreed to take over.In the meantime, Korbel had sent long interrogatories to the FPCA voters, asking questions about where they owned homes or other property, where they had bank accounts and insurance, when they had last been in Del Rio, or where they'd last voted. And TRLA staff started looking at the registers of postcard applications in the Val Verde County Clerk's office. Using estimates based on the 74 percent of applications in which the "last date of residency" had been filled out, TRLA determined that approximately 457 of the FPCA voters had last resided in Val Verde more than four years ago-203 of those more than ten years ago.Interrogatories started to come back, and some of the military voters contacted Korbel in person with questions. As the picture became clearer, no single "typical voter" emerged-a number of them have claimed Texas as their state of residence to avoid paying state income tax, but others live in no-tax states such as Nevada. Some have voted for years in Val Verde county, but many began voting in 1992 or 1996, after they had already been absent from the county for years. One military officer and his wife live in Texas and were never stationed at Laughlin-but they honeymooned in Val Verde twenty-six years ago.Of the dozen FPCA voters we contacted, one was adamant in his defense of his right to vote in all Val Verde elections, but the others were less certain. "I completely understand" the basis for the lawsuit, one FPCA voter, Gary Walker, told the Observer over the phone. "I don't know if you should be allowed to [vote in local races] or not, unless you have relatives still there." Another voter, Paul McVinney (who noted he had not cast his vote for any of the local candidates), said that he had maintained Texas as his state of residence, but after many years in Virginia he thought he might switch: "It's a calculus you have to make based on all these various factors-they may or may not declare you a resident."Two days after the hearing Biery issued his temporary injunction, which leaves Gonzalez in office as sheriff and Arturo Gallegos, who did not seek reelection last year, as Precinct One county commissioner. Biery also ruled that the federal trial (Casarez vs. Val Verde County) would not begin until after the state election contest (the losers vs. the winners) is tried. A state court will decide if the FPCA voters were residents before the federal court decides whether the military votes constituted a violation of the Voting Rights Act.The Casarez lawsuit reflects both the nomadic status of military personnel and the imprecise definition of voting residency. If military members can decide where they will vote, it's logical for them to select a state with no state income tax. But if everyone who has been stationed at Laughlin Air Force Base in, say, the past ten years can vote in local elections, an estimated 10,000 people who don't live in the county could cast votes there. Add spouses, and the number might exceed the 19,972 voters who live in the county.None of these crucial details is reflected in angry press releases of the Texas Republican Party brass-including Henry Bonilla, Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchinson, Secretary of State Antonio Garza and state Republican Party chair Tom Pauken, who are all denouncing the lawsuit as an "outrageous" attempt by an "activist organization" to challenge the military's right to vote. When Judge Fred Biery issued his January 24 injunction, upholding Garca's restraining order, the GOP began again. Lawyers for the plaintiffs, and Biery himself, had insisted the case does not contest the right of military personnel to vote-only the right of persons who have been away from the county for years to vote in local elections-but that didn't seem to register with the Capitol Hill speechwriters. On January 30, in a blustery speech to the Senate, Gramm repeated his demand that the Justice Department intervene on the defendants' behalf, and although TRLA had by this time turned the suit over to private counsel, Gramm threatened to hold up the Federal appropriation for the Legal Services Corporation, which provides most of the funding for TRLA and other legal aid groups.Standing in front of the TRLA office two days earlier, Jovita Casarez seemed to anticipate Gramm's threat. "This office is here to serve the people of this community," she said. "And the people of this community are going to fight to keep it open."