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Bully Pulpit

A commercial truck carrying bottled water rumbles up the rocky street, stopping in front of one of the 25 or so homes in a listless neighborhood in the town of Socorro, 10 miles east of El Paso. The driver slings a water jug over his shoulder and drops it on the porch. The activity alarms two chickens and a pit bull passing the day behind a chain-link fence surrounding a white trailer home next door. About a dozen old tires rest on the trailer's metal roof to hold it in place during those wicked West Texas windstorms.

They make do with what they have in Las Palmas, one of about 1,500 Texas-Mexico border-region neighborhoods called colonias that are as depressed as they are depressing. In Las Palmas, they make do with substandard septic tanks and one undersized water line that services the entire subdivision. Water pressure is hard to predict. Sometimes it's strong enough to rinse shampoo lather out of hair. Other times, it's a trickle.

"It's usually OK during the day but not at night," says Veronica Carmona, who has lived in the trailer home for four years.

The water truck makes a U-turn and drives away. In the middle of the street, a politician from Austin stands in his size 14AA black loafers. He is Gov. George W. Bush's top repairman, Elton Bomer, whom the governor tapped in January as his secretary of state. Bomer wants to know why the people of Las Palmas still don't have dependable running water or sewer service.

Ann Kelley, the marketing manager of the Lower Valley Water District, tries to explain. The owner of the subdivision never filed plats for his development, and the government money available to install new water and sewer lines can't be spent until the development is legally platted.

Bomer demands to know what's holding up the platting process. Kelley tells him that the developer is alleged to owe a large amount of back taxes. The city of Socorro, with a population of about 30,000, supposedly has been trying to convince the school district and El Paso County to waive the back taxes so officials can go ahead and legally plat the subdivision. Then the design and installation of water and sewer systems can begin.

"How long have they been working on this?" Bomer asks.
"About a year," she responds.
Too long. For the next five minutes, Bomer assaults Kelley with a barrage of rapid-fire questions. How often does the council meet? Who's the mayor? Is he a strong mayor? Is he a full-time mayor? Where is he now? Do you have his phone number? Where's the mayor's office? Where's City Hall?

"We need to talk to the mayor," Bomer tells his aides. They pile into their rented minivan and drive to City Hall.

"Maybe I'm missing something," Bomer says during the short ride. "Why would they hold things up for these people just to hold one guy's feet to the fire? You know, politics shouldn't even be a part of this. The people out there [couldn't] care less about even how to spell politics."

Looking through the windshield but seeing nothing because his mind already has arrived at City Hall, Bomer is psyching himself up for a potentially explosive encounter with the mayor of Socorro. Bomer is an intimidator, a fearless hothead who is not shy about using profanity to stress his point. At 6 feet 4 inches and 215 pounds, he is a towering inferno among the li'l Sparkies who occupy desks in state government, and he is Bush's human incendiary device. The governor is counting on Bomer to light a fire under state and local officials who have dawdled while colonia residents live without running water and sewer service.

Throughout much of his first four years in office, Bush never gave colonias much thought. His first expression of outrage came last summer in response to a series of investigative stories about colonias in the local newspaper in Austin. Only then did he assign Al Gonzales, who was secretary of state at the time, to look into the problems raised in the articles.

While Bush acted as if he had never heard of colonias, the Texas Water Development Board, which approves the spending of millions of state and federal dollars on new water and sewer systems for colonias, acted as if it was afraid to make waves. Hamstrung by the fact that local governmental entities such as cities and water districts manage the projects, the agency failed to strong-arm the sluggish projects along. Bomer, though, isn't afraid of twisting arms to get what he wants.

In Socorro, the receptionist at City Hall tells Bomer that Mayor Ray Rodriguez is not in. Is he at lunch? Where is he eating? Does he have a cell phone? Can you track him down?

 

Bomer nervously taps a business card on the counter as a City Hall employee, a bit awestruck at having such an important man from Austin in her little town, distracts him by showing off a mural depicting Socorro's three missions. Bomer is polite, but he is more interested in whether the receptionist has reached the mayor.

Rodriguez is in a meeting somewhere downtown, the receptionist says at last, but he will get back to Bomer this afternoon. When is he coming back? That long?

Bomer has a plane to catch. While waiting for a grilled-chicken sandwich at the El Paso airport restaurant, he tries the mayor on his cell phone. He's still not in. When the plane lands in Austin, Bomer calls again. The mayor's secretary says he is still out.

"She said he'll call me first thing in the morning," Bomer says. "Let's see, I have a staff meeting from 9 to 10. If I haven't heard from him by then, I'll call him."

And he will. He will keep bugging him until he has his answers. If the mayor doesn't have the answers, Bomer will harangue someone else until he hears a good reason why the people of Las Palmas colonia are still waiting for water and sewer. If there isn't a good reason, he'll track down the person most responsible for holding things up. And, in no uncertain terms, Bomer will let that person know exactly how he feels.

Pity that person.

If Bomer fails in his mission to improve conditions in colonias, Vice President Al Gore might have a field day in next year's presidential race.

Imagine the television ad: somber Latin music in the background and close-up shots of cute children with brown faces playing in mud outside a shack built with old pallets and cardboard. The mud, the narrator will say, is contaminated with human feces. The government has deprived these children of a safe place to live, a house with fresh water and a bathroom. Are these the children of a contemptible Third World regime? No, they are the children of Texas under Republican presidential hopeful George W. Bush.

In fact, Bush did not create colonias, and he cannot cure them. But with Bomer's help, the governor at least can make a solid case that he tried to fix a situation that for years has resisted repair. The governor appears to have put the right man on the job. Bomer is obsessed with the bottom line.

The only things that irritate him more than delays are excuses. And now he finds himself thrust into a situation that has seen plenty of both.

For 10 years, state and federal governments have contributed more than a half-billion dollars toward the installation of water and sewer systems in the colonias. Much of that money, however, remains unspent. If a project isn't slowed by petty battles over political turf, then it's probably being corrupted by political patronage.

"Elton Bomer may not know enough of the history of colonias to be scared of what he's getting into, and that's a good thing," says John Henneberger, co-director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, which works on behalf of colonia residents. "If, in fact, he is not afraid of making a lot of people mad in the process of getting things accomplished, all I have to say is, boy, do we ever need him."

An estimated 392,000 people live along the border in colonias, which is Spanish for "colonies." The subdivisions tend to have cheery names like Sun Country Estates and Hacienda Gardens, but the conditions in many are squalid. Some families live in shanties that have no faucets, toilets, or showers.

Colonias took root as far back as the 1950s, when developers began marketing raw land to vulnerable Mexican immigrants and other poor Texans. The offer often came with a promise that one day the subdivision would have running water, sewer service, and paved roads. Some developers, however, had neither the means nor the compunction to make good on the promise. Local officials, faced with a population that could not afford to live anywhere else, looked the other way as colonias spread.

After winning re-election last year, Bush promoted the 63-year-old Bomer, a former state representative from East Texas, from insurance commissioner to secretary of state and thus the governor's point man on border issues. In making the move, Bush broke the hearts of Bomer's devotees at the Texas Department of Insurance but offered hope to advocates like Henneberger who have long called for the state to pay more attention to colonias. Bomer has presented Bush with an ambitious legislative package designed to accelerate the progress of water and sewer projects, in part by giving the state more of a hammer to push them along. Bush signed off on the entire package, and the Texas Senate has passed a bill incorporating Bomer's measures. It now awaits action in the House.

 

Bomer likes to think of himself as a details guy, but in fact he wants only the information he needs to make a decision and, as one of his former employees at the Insurance Department put it, he wants it yesterday.

Bomer's patience, of which he has little, now faces its greatest test.
In late February, Bomer traveled to the Lower Rio Grande Valley to tour colonias and be briefed on the status of water and sewer projects. While there, he met with about 60 members of Valley Interfaith, a citizens activist group with ties to churches and schools. For years, the group has worked on behalf of colonia residents, taking part in negotiations to bring them water and sewer services.

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."

One staff member the insurance industry wanted Bomer to can more than Keller was Birny Birnbaum, the department's chief economist and associate commissioner for policy and research. In a previous incarnation, Birnbaum had worked as a consumer advocate who relentlessly tried to prove that insurers discriminate against minorities. Insurers boil at any suggestion that the industry redlines.

Bomer kept Birnbaum on staff.
"Elton Bomer is someone I regard as a true leader," Birnbaum says today. "A lot of commissioners would have backed off of making decisions, afraid of bad press or of offending one group or another. Elton Bomer didn't shy away from anything."

Birnbaum left the agency halfway through Bomer's tenure to work as a consulting economist and actuary to different consumer groups. One of his clients is the Center for Economic Justice, founded by the only Insurance Department executive-level employee to resign during the Bomer transition. D.J. Powers, who was general counsel and chief clerk, figured he needed to jump ship after infuriating the incoming Bush administration by writing controversial rules on redlining that the lame-duck insurance commissioner adopted weeks before Bomer took over.

Powers went on to rankle Bomer for four years as an outspoken advocate for insurance consumers. His criticism of Bomer now, however, is less strident. He says that Bomer tried to do the right things, but that he just went about them the wrong way. For example, Bomer tried to make insurance more available to low-income Texans, but Powers argues that his policies to that end failed.

Powers and Bomer locked horns in 1996 over a settlement in a class action against Allstate and Farmers Insurance Group of Companies. The companies were accused of overcharging for their auto insurance because of the way they calculated premiums. Bomer fumed that the lead attorney in the so-called "double rounding" case, John Cracken of Dallas, was to receive up to $10 million in the settlement while individual consumers were pocketing $5.57 refunds. Powers had assisted Cracken in the case.

With that distaste still fresh, Bomer all but scuttled a proposed class action against several rental-car companies accused of illegally selling liability insurance. Under Bomer's direction, the Texas Department of Insurance entered into an agreement in the summer of 1997 in which five of the companies would refund customers. The agreement was announced days before lawyers were to ask a judge for class certification in their lawsuit. The judge never granted it, effectively killing the suit, and Houston attorney Larry Veselka holds Bomer responsible.

Veselka says he shared his research and opened his files with the Insurance Department only to find out later that Bomer was not interested in anything resembling cooperation. Veselka says he had no problem with the Insurance Department going after refunds, but accuses Bomer of cutting a deal that allowed the companies to undercut the lawsuit.

"Bomer said to us, 'I want to make something perfectly clear: I don't like class actions, and I don't like class-action lawyers,'" Veselka says. "We were the initiating and motivating factors for the companies to deal with the Insurance Department in the first place. And then he allowed the companies to structure the deal in a way that led to our lawsuit being pulled out from under us."

Veselka says the law firms that worked on the class action spent more than $1 million in legal time on the case and have nothing to show for it. Bomer sheds no tears, saying he was trying to avoid a repeat of the "double rounding" case in which lawyers got rich but consumers did not.

 

"What you're hearing is just bellyaching by the trial lawyer involved," he says. "In those kinds of lawsuits, I don't think the lawyers are thinking about the best interests of the consumers. They're only worried about what they'll get paid."

As insurance commissioner, Bomer did not reserve his ire exclusively for trial lawyers. In 1998, a chorus of consumer advocates complained that insurers' auto rates failed to reflect massive profits the industry was enjoying--mostly from changes in tort laws that reduced the cost of liability claims. To the pleasant surprise of the consumer advocates, Bomer ordered his staff to examine the rates of the 300-plus insurers to see whether consumers were being fleeced. It was a momentous move considering that in Texas, individual insurers have great flexibility in setting their rates as long as they fall within a specified wide range. Once Bomer began his review, companies began sweating.

He threatened some of the state's largest companies that unless they lowered rates, he would challenge them before a panel of administrative law judges--an embarrassing and costly scenario for insurers.

"The various insurance companies did not want to put themselves in a situation where someone else was determining their rates," says John Hageman, Texas executive director for Farmers, which dropped its rates 3.9 percent to get Bomer off its back. "Several carriers, including Farmers, capitulated. We had our own reasons for capitulating, but I can definitely say that the forcefulness of Bomer caused it to happen. Someone of a lesser personality could not have gotten it done."

As Mary Keller puts it, nothing about Bomer's personality is mellow.
"He's abrupt, and there's a great intensity to him that can be terrifying to those who deal with him," she says. "Yet he has this huge tender streak."

Bomer can somewhat relate the struggles of his own family to those who live in colonias. He remembers the modest house he grew up in on the 50-acre family farm near Montalba, in East Texas. The family of four grew peas, corn, tomatoes, and a little cotton. The house had no running water and no bathroom. As a boy, Bomer had the job of drawing water from the 60-foot well. He struggled every day with his scrawny adolescent arms to lift the bucket by pulling a heavy metal chain across a pulley. Bomer recalls the day his father replaced the chain with a lightweight rope as one of the happiest days of his youth.

His family lost the farm because of financial problems shortly before he graduated from high school. He left home after high school and eventually moved to Houston, where he worked during the day and earned his degree in business management by attending night classes at the University of Houston. He worked in marketing and sales for IBM from 1965 to 1974 and became senior vice president of East Texas National Bank in Palestine. He served two stints in the Texas House before Bush plucked him away.

Today, he commutes from Austin to his home in East Texas each weekend to spend time with his wife, Ginny, who suffers from symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. During the week, the couple talk on the phone two or three times a day. It's hard, he says, because some days she is more lucid than others. One recent morning, he was pouring her coffee when she stared up at him blankly and asked, "Now, who are you again?"

Bomer had been at his new job as secretary of state only two weeks when he called two state officials into his office to brief him on the progress their agencies were making on bringing water and sewer services to colonias. He listened politely for a bit before going ballistic.

"I was frustrated," Bomer says. "All the discussion was about how well we had done in the last year or so. And in my frustration I said, 'I'm not interested in what we did last year. I'm interested in what we've done since 8 o'clock this morning.'"

Bomer had set the tone. The dawdling days were over.
This is no time to relax. Incidences of hepatitis A and other diseases transmitted through poor sanitation are much higher in the colonias than anywhere else in Texas and as much as five times the national average, says Dr. Laurence Nickey, a member of the U.S.-Mexico Border Health Commission and retired director of the El Paso City-County Health Department.

 

When it comes to bringing clean water and effective sewer service to colonias, money hasn't been the problem. In the last 10 years, $579 million has been available for those projects. In November 1989, Texas voters approved $100 million in bonds, and two years after that, they supported an additional $150 million. The federal government, through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has pitched in $300 million, and the state has appropriated an additional $29 million since 1991.

The backlog on water and sewer projects is so great, however, that the Texas Water Development Board, which bankrolls their construction, stopped accepting applications for new projects two years ago. When the backlog is cleared, and no one can say for certain when that will be, 72 percent, or about 283,000 of the estimated 392,000 colonia residents, will have water, sewer, or both. Others will never be served. State officials have determined that some colonias are so remote that it would be cheaper to relocate the people who live there than to construct new water and sewer systems.

Of the 90 projects the Water Development Board has approved since 1990, a mere 22 have been completed, serving about 53,000 residents, or less than 14 percent of the colonia population. Another 10 projects are under construction. Those will serve an additional 58,000 people. Water Development Board officials hope to have most of those projects done in the next 12 months. When those 10 projects are completed, the state still will have spent just $182 million of the $579 million it has set aside for colonias.

The majority of the board-approved projects have yet to break ground. The state has committed $124 million for 20 additional projects currently in the design stage. Those would boost the number of colonia residents being served to 162,000, still less than half of the total population. The board also has approved 38 other projects that have yet to progress past their initial planning stage.

In the 10 years since Texas voters approved the first bonds, many state officials have tried to take the lead on colonias. Too many, it seems. A lack of coordination among the various federal, state, and local officials and agencies working on the problem has been part of the problem. On the state level alone, at least five offices and agencies play a role in colonia programs: attorney general, secretary of state, Water Development Board, Housing and Community Affairs, and the Natural Resource Conservation Commission. The state Senate already has approved legislation that would let the governor designate a single office, such as secretary of state, to coordinate all colonia programs--something Bush in effect is trying to do now by designating Bomer.

In the past decade, former Attorney General Dan Morales was the closest thing to an unofficial state czar on colonias. He successfully pushed for legislation in 1993 that gave his office the right to sue colonias developers. A bill passed in 1995, drafted by his office, is aimed at stopping the proliferation of colonias by banning developments without water and wastewater services.

Morales created the superhero-sounding Colonias Strike Force in his office. The team of lawyers initiated several dozen enforcement actions against developers; the most highly touted was against former Starr County Judge Blas Chapa and his business partner, Elias Lopez. While damages and civil penalties from the suits total in the multimillions, Attorney General John Cornyn's office confirms that the judgments have yielded chump change. Typically, the developers were either penniless or long gone by the time Morales got to them.

Morales has said the cases still are significant because they serve as deterrents. The cases also served as great public relations tools for Morales. His case against Chapa garnered him publicity, as did an appearance on 60 Minutes in 1995 in which he was depicted as a kind of colonias terminator. (Morales has noted that the producers of the show contacted him, not the other way around.)

Cornyn, who inherits the enforcement authority, says his office will continue to seek injunctions to shut down illegal developments even if there is no money to be recovered. But he says he disagrees with the notion that "getting a good headline is an end unto itself. My goal is to combine any publicity with follow-through and any sort of punitive action we can obtain through judgments or injunctions. That way, you've gotten the public's attention and you've put someone out of business too."

Valley Interfaith officials say better coordination is a step in the right direction, but the main obstacle in accelerating water and sewer projects in colonias is a lack of political will by local officials. That is illustrated in one project that has remained stuck in an embryonic planning stage for at least eight years, says Janie Rangel, a Valley Interfaith organizer. The $40 million project is supposed to bring water and wastewater service to about 20,000 colonia residents in western Hidalgo County, in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

 

That project and others experiencing long delays tend to get dragged down by small-town politics, Valley Interfaith members say. Although the state doles out the money for construction, cities, counties, or water districts build the projects.

Greed can play a part as different local entities argue over the jurisdictional right to provide the services. Those fights can take years to resolve.

The local entity in charge gets to select the project engineer. Engineers sometimes are picked more for their political and family ties than for their qualifications. The result is further delay.

"The politics can change almost daily," Rangel says. "You have to be very organized just to keep up."

Ray Rodriguez, Socorro's mayor, says it is unfair for state officials and local advocates to place the blame on local politics when government red tape is often responsible for holding things up.

"When we are going to spend federal and state moneys to service these people, we have to follow the government's processes, and that legal system will tie you up," he says. "But I guess they'd rather blame somebody else."

When Bomer met with Valley Interfaith, the group recommended legislation that would let the Water Development Board go over the heads of local authorities by firing an incompetent engineer and hiring its own. The board currently can take that hard-line approach only on the rare project that is financed entirely through federal money. Bomer took the idea to Bush, and it now is a key part of the bill that already has passed the Senate. The board would welcome the new oversight authority.

"We are in the unenviable position of being held accountable even though we're not the ones doing the projects," says Craig Pedersen, board executive director. Although his agency has been limited by legal constraints, Pedersen admits it was too passive in the past in dealing with local officials and engineers in charge of the projects.

"Where I think we've come up short is that we've been too nice to too many people for too long," he says. "We held their hands to get them through the process when we should have held their feet to the fire."

Bomer is far better at the latter than the former, and that fact is not lost on Pedersen. In the Water Development Board's defense, moving along projects impeded by politics takes more political savvy than an agency made up of engineers can be expected to possess. Bomer has that savvy. For years, the board satisfied itself by just identifying problems to local authorities. Bomer, however, demands solutions.

"The colonia problem doesn't lend itself to quick results; no one knows that better than me," says Pedersen, who has been on the job since July 1991. "But Secretary Bomer's impatience has been infectious. For some of us, we had gotten so immersed in the problems, we probably weren't forcing the solutions as vigorously as we could have. His impatience has made me less patient. I think that's a good strategy."

Other Bomer recommendations in the bill also show his desire to prevent further delays and overcome bureaucratic impediments. The bill calls for hiring six ombudsmen in border counties to help identify problems. It would allow people who are not licensed plumbers to install water and sewer lines and permit water and sewer hookups in areas that do not meet road-width requirements.

State Sen. Eddie Lucio, a Democrat from Brownsville who is sponsoring the bill, says Bomer has the attitude that this legislative session will not end without passage of a meaningful colonias bill.

"I feel good about its chances," Lucio says. "Elton's stature, which is overpowering, and his assertiveness can help make the difference. Knowing Elton, he won't allow anyone to run over him."

In search of answers in Las Palmas, on the trail of the Socorro mayor, in his drive to improve conditions in colonias, Elton Bomer is like a child sitting in the back seat of his parents' car, asking them, "Are we there yet?" When they answer no, he asks again. Are we there yet? No.

One more time. Are we there yet?
As insurance commissioner, Bomer pulled a stunt similar to his relentless pursuit in Socorro. It resulted in his getting exactly what he wanted.

It was January 1997. The sun had barely risen, and Bomer, as usual, was already settled in at his desk, eating a light breakfast and reading the local paper. He came across a front-page story saying PCA Health Plans of Texas, Austin's largest HMO, was planning to stop covering the popular prescription allergy drug Claritin. Instead, the company would reimburse only the cheapest drug on the market. Even worse, PCA would pay for just one daily dose of the twice-a-day medication and expected members to take an over-the-counter drug at night.

 

Bomer nearly choked on his bagel. It was a blatant case of an HMO trying to play doctor. He picked up the phone and called the Insurance Department's general counsel, asking her whether she had read the paper yet. She hadn't.

"Read it and call me back," he barked. She did a few minutes later. Bomer learned from her that PCA's company headquarters was 15 minutes up the freeway in north Austin and that the board of directors was meeting that day.

"I'd like to go out there and see them," Bomer said. When the general counsel offered to call PCA to set up a time, Bomer interrupted her. "I don't want an appointment. I just want to go out there."

With a fidgety and furious boss in her passenger seat, the general counsel broke several traffic laws as she sped up the freeway to PCA headquarters. When they arrived at the building, Bomer flung open the door and confronted the receptionist in the lobby. He asked to see the boss. The receptionist asked for Bomer's name.

"I'm Elton Bomer, and I'm commissioner of insurance."
"How do you spell that?" the receptionist asked.
Bomer, the front section of the morning newspaper rolled up in his hand, spelled it out for her quite plainly.

"C-o-m-m..."
The resolute receptionist explained that Dr. Donald Gessler, the company president, was in a board meeting.

"I don't care. I still want to see him," said Bomer, who by then was pacing back and forth.

The receptionist retrieved Gessler and the company lawyer. For the next 15 minutes, Bomer read them the riot act.

"I was very plain and blunt," Bomer recalls. "I told them, 'This seems to me like this is the corporate practice of medicine, which is illegal in Texas, and I'm not going to put up with this.' I said, 'Are you going to rescind this decision?'"

Gessler promised Bomer that the matter would be discussed in the board meeting and that he would call him later in the day if they made a decision.

"So I told him, 'Why don't you call me this afternoon whether you made a decision or not and let me know. And if you haven't made a decision by this afternoon, that's OK; just call me tomorrow and let me know if you made a decision by then. And you call me every day until you've made a decision.'"

Jeff Kloster, who was PCA's vice president of legal affairs at the time, sat with Gessler as Bomer chewed them out.

"There was never any question as to where Elton Bomer stood," Kloster says in classic understatement. "He was mad at us, he was very direct, and there was no discussion about what the outcome would be. It was simply, 'You will get this done.'"

That afternoon, PCA rescinded its plan to limit the allergy medications it would cover. Bomer got it done.

A week after stalking the Socorro mayor, Bomer isn't there yet.
Bomer placed five phone calls to the mayor without a return call, so he fired off a letter to him with a direct message: "I would appreciate a full explanation as to why the city of Socorro has not approved a new plat for Colonia Las Palmas, and what could legitimately delay this process for so long."

He then sent copies of the letter to each member of the Socorro city council, Pedersen of the Water Development Board, two state legislators who represent the area, and others who could apply pressure on the mayor.

Rodriguez, who returned a call from the Dallas Observer within 24 hours, says he didn't call Bomer back because "basically I've been busy. My reaction when reading the letter was, 'Hey, wait a minute!' I hate it when I get a letter like this that says we're not doing enough when I have the facts right here."

The facts, according to Rodriguez, are that the city holds one of nine liens against the bankrupt property and is trying is to convince other lien holders to waive the back taxes so the water and sewer system can be built.

"Everyone has to come to a consensus," Rodriguez says. "I have not forgotten the needs of the residents there." Rodriguez plans to respond to the letter.

Bomer is learning that nothing about colonias is ever simple.

 


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