How Big Man In McAllen Bundles Big For Clinton
Sunday, November 25, 2007
McALLEN, Tex. -- During the first nine months of this year, Sen. Barack Obama raised just $2,086 for his presidential campaign from people who live in and around this border town of stucco bungalows and weed-covered farm lots, and most candidates raised even less. But Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, has already raised more than $640,000 here, and her campaign expects to collect even more.
Clinton's success in this unlikely setting is based almost entirely on her friendship with one man, McAllen developer Alonzo Cantu. A self-made millionaire who once picked grapes on the migratory farm labor circuit, Cantu persuaded more than 300 people in Hidalgo County, where the median household income in 2006 was $28,660, to write checks ranging from $500 to $2,300 to the senator from New York.
Cantu offers a simple explanation for what he's doing for Clinton. "To me, there's two things that will keep us from being ignored," he said. "Money and votes. I think we've shown we can raise money. That will get us attention, or at least get us a seat at the table, get us in the room."
Cantu's bluntly stated reasons for "bundling" money and the way he goes about doing it are an insight into a method of fundraising that has helped define the 2008 presidential race. With election costs soaring and with tight contribution limits, the task of raising hundreds of millions of dollars has fallen almost entirely to bundlers and their vast networks of individual supporters. Clinton's campaign has predicted that several bundlers will raise more than $1 million for her bid before the contest is over, and Cantu could be one of them.
Because of his financial interests, Cantu's influence over potential donors is substantial. He has raised money from doctors who work at the hospital where he holds an ownership interest, from bankers who work at the bank he co-owns and from the scores of tradesmen who contract with his primary business, Cantu Construction and Development Co., one of the town's dominant residential and commercial builders. The Clinton donors included dozens who had never registered to vote, several who were Republicans and 10 who had previously made contributions to President Bush and former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R).
"When Alonzo comes through the door, you want to give to him," said Gerardo J. Reyna, Cantu's brother-in-law. Reyna owns McAllen Carpet & Interiors, a company that provides close to 90 percent of the floor coverings in Cantu-built homes and offices. "The last thing you want to do is get on Alonzo's bad side," he said with a smile. Reyna donated $1,000 to Clinton.
Cantu says he gave his first national political check, for $1,000, to Bill Clinton in his first run for president. Cantu said he has been grateful to Clinton for pushing through Congress the North American Free Trade Agreement over the opposition of organized labor. NAFTA turned this stretch of citrus orchards in the Rio Grande Valley into a fast-growing industrial hub, and it has helped enrich Cantu, who owns hundreds of acres in the region, in addition to his varied business interests.
When Hillary Clinton first ran for the Senate, Cantu began raising money for her. His primary motive, he said, was to ensure that South Texas will not be deprived of federal money, projects or attention if she becomes president. "Understand, I don't want anything," Cantu said. "Just to help South Texas."
There is plenty of need, he points out during an interview conducted as he steers his white Lexus hybrid through Las Milpas, a tumbledown neighborhood four miles north of the border, where stray dogs wander past broken chain-link fences and where residents use aluminum foil to keep the heat out in summer and build their houses on blocks to prevent rainwater from seeping under the doorways in winter.
Cantu credits his support for the Clintons and members of Congress, especially local Democratic Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, for the positive changes that have happened in the area. A Washington Post review of 15 years of campaign contributions by Cantu and the 339 donors whose checks he has bundled found more than $1.4 million in contributions to federal candidates and party committees, most of it to Democrats.
The Clinton administration set up a $40 million rural empowerment zone near McAllen that helped encourage business investment. Since NAFTA went into effect in 1994, the population has nearly doubled, and nearly 100 Fortune 500 companies have set up operations to help import goods manufactured in Mexico. That has meant jobs and an improved standard of living.
Lately, Cantu has been pushing his contacts for help in bringing an interstate highway to McAllen. He has told them about local opposition to the Bush administration's plan to build a border wall along the Rio Grande. And he has asked lawmakers, including Clinton, to block legislation that many believe could hobble the hospital Cantu built in town. This was a driving concern among many of the doctors and other McAllen area medical professionals who wrote more than $145,000 in checks to Clinton.