By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
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.