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How Big Man In McAllen Bundles Big For Clinton

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Ten years ago, those doctors approached Cantu to help finance and build an ambulatory care center on the north end of McAllen out of frustration with the corporate owners of the two existing hospitals in town. They bought land from him, hired his construction firm and got him to put up roughly 20 percent of the money to help them open the Doctors Hospital at Renaissance.

The only problem with the hospital was its ownership model, which gave doctors 80 percent of the stock. That sounded alarms in Congress, which had taken steps in the past to put restrictions on doctor-owned medical facilities out of fears that if doctors share in the cash flow they generate, they will be tempted to conduct unnecessary procedures.

"It's just a channel through which they get kickbacks," said Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.), who inserted language into a larger bill that would force doctor-owned hospitals, such as McAllen's, to restructure. The bill recently passed in the House and awaits action in the Senate.

In an effort to stop the bill, Cantu said, he brought together the doctors and local leaders, and they agreed to try to raise money for Clinton. In addition to making individual contributions bundled by Cantu, the group formed a political action committee, the Border Health PAC, which gave $5,000 to Clinton in July and a total of $25,000 to various members of the Texas congressional delegation. And they traveled to Capitol Hill this fall to meet with several members of Congress, urging them to reject Stark's provision.

A campaign spokesman said Clinton has not followed the legislation or sought to influence its outcome. "Mr. Cantu is a friend and a longtime supporter of Democratic causes," Phil Singer said when asked about Cantu's relationship with the senator.

Cantu noted that he actually stands to gain financially if the legislation passes, because doctors will need to shed their investments. He said he has opposed the legislation anyway, to help improve health care locally.

A longtime local surgeon who left the hospital said Cantu and the other hospital board members referred to the political contributions as "protection money."

"They said, 'We've got to give this money to Hillary so we can be exempt from the bill,' " said the surgeon, who asked that his name not be used.

When asked about this, Cantu picked up his cellphone and called a friend. "What was that line you used the other night?" he asked. "Right," he said, snapping the phone shut. "Success breeds many enemies."

Cantu's success is evident all around McAllen, where signs with his name stand in front of houses and offices that his construction firm built, most in the Southwestern stucco and Spanish tile that have become his trademarks. The projects have helped him build deep ties with a broad network of business leaders.

Sam F. Vale, president of local television station Telemundo 40, said Cantu engages in politics in exactly the way the system intended. "I don't think he's anything other than a successful business person who uses his relationships to persuade people to give money," Vale said. "He gets people together, organizes them, raises money and convinces people to contribute. As long as it's done aboveboard and open and clean, that's the way we're supposed to do it."

That's how many of the donors whom Cantu persuaded to give to Clinton describe their decision to write a check. Carlos Lozano, president of a local construction firm, said he was never much involved in politics but decided to donate $1,000 to Clinton because "I support whomever Alonzo Cantu supports."

Alicia Requenez, office manager of Valley Welding Crane Service, agreed, calling Cantu "instrumental in asking for donations when people come here from Washington."

"He's very convincing," Requenez said. She donated $2,300, as did Raudel Gonzalez of RNR Construction, who said his company is a subcontractor for Cantu. "He tries to get us involved in politics -- to persuade us that whatever is good for the [Rio Grande] Valley is good for us."

Gonzalez said he wasn't able to make it to Cantu's lavish event for Clinton back in March. The fundraiser was held at the expansive Spanish estate with lush gardens that Cantu built for his family in a gated community on the north side of town.

As Cantu drove through the community on a recent afternoon, he described the rows of regal homes as the rightful future of McAllen. Then his cellphone rang. "Hey, I'm glad you called," he said cheerfully, reminded of a campaign event in the works that will bring Bill Clinton to McAllen. "President Clinton is coming to town, and you're going to want to be there. You're coming, right?"

Research editor Alice Crites and database editor Sarah Cohen contributed to this report.

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