Bully Pulpit

Pushy, driven, and fearless, Texas Secretary of State Elton Bomer is Bush's big man on the border. But is he tough enough to cut through the red tape snarling efforts to help the poor people living in the colonias?

Politicians tend to treat Valley Interfaith with great reverence. The group has a militant streak that puts politicians on the defensive. Members of the group tried to bully Bomer, demanding that he help set up a meeting between them and Bush.

But no one pushes around Bomer, not even nuns and priests. He told them, without a hint of reverence, that they were having their meeting with the governor right there, right now.

While some members of Valley Interfaith harrumphed at his rudeness, others took note of his forcefulness, a trait that can only help push long-delayed projects along. Being frank and tough with local politicians and jump-starting state bureaucrats are exactly what is needed to end the dawdling.

"We were impressed that he was very straightforward and seems willing to take care of the problem," says Eddie Anaya, co-chair of Valley Interfaith's executive committee, who was at the meeting. "However, after so many years of waiting and delays, we just figure, well, I think he's going to learn that there are a lot of frustrations and obstacles that have to be addressed and that these problems are not going to be taken care of right away."

Valley Interfaith members spin a colonia story that is long and complicated. Bomer enters this drama late, and some who have been doing the grunt work for more than a decade are skeptical. Bomer may be all about the bottom line, they say, but colonias are no quick fix.

"Well, I don't think this is simple," Bomer says when informed of the skepticism. He does his best to keep in check his tendency to cuss. "The difference is, I think it's doable, and it's doable in a hell of a lot shorter time."

More than 200 Texas Department of Insurance employees stood, clapped, and chanted "El-ton! El-ton!" as their boss--for a couple more hours at least--made his grand entrance into a hearings room for his farewell ceremony.

Bush didn't join in the festivities on that Thursday afternoon last December, and lucky for him he didn't. These state employees were none too happy that the governor was stealing their leader of the past four years to serve as a cabinet-level advisor.

When Bomer became insurance commissioner in 1995, he inherited an agency with a long reputation for being in someone's pocket. When Bill Clements was governor in the late 1980s, the agency was considered a puppet of the insurance industry. When Ann Richards was governor, she put a guy in charge, Robert Hunter, who is considered the Ralph Nader of insurance. An agency that was supposed to regulate an industry while paying no mind to politics seemed always to be knee-deep in it. That changed with Bomer in charge.

Bomer's farewell ceremony played out like a Dean Martin roast--ribbings and skits mixed in with praise.

"How refreshing it's been," said associate insurance commissioner Lyndon Anderson, a longtime agency employee playing emcee, "to have someone head this agency who can sweep the peripheral crap aside and make decisions based on a simple right or wrong."

As Bomer and Anderson embraced, the employees gave their departing leader a second standing ovation.

No one could have predicted when Bomer entered the Insurance Department that he would exit a hero, especially to those employees who viewed him at the time as a potential threat.

In four years as governor, Richards had cleaned house at the Insurance Department, assembling an executive staff of consumer advocates who distrusted the insurance industry. When Bush defeated Richards in 1994, thanks in part to financial support from insurers, industry officials expected a reverse housecleaning to take place.

It never happened. Bush, a Republican, surprised many by appointing Bomer, a conservative Democratic state representative from East Texas, to lead the agency. The pair had met during the campaign and had gone fishing together. Bomer possessed little experience in insurance, having once worked for IBM as a sales representative to the company's insurance-industry clients. As the new insurance commissioner, Bomer retained all senior staff members except for one, who left on his own.

"Elton was very blunt with me when he first got here that I would have to prove myself to him," says Mary Keller, whom Bomer inherited and kept as a senior associate commissioner for legal and compliance. "He knew about my background, and he knew the [insurance] industry was--How should I put this?--looking forward to a decision by him to have me resign."

Keller and Bomer were opposites. She grew up in the heart of Los Angeles. He was raised on a farm in remote East Texas. She was ACLU. He was NRA. She worked under liberal Attorney General Jim Mattox fighting to protect endangered species. Bomer is a hunter.

Yet when Keller talks about Bomer even today, she gets choked up.
"In a short amount of time," she says, "we came to totally admire him because no matter what his political philosophy was, Elton was totally fair and open-minded before any issue that came before him. And what more can you ask for? I don't get mushy over many people, but he is truly a remarkable man."

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