Democrat Charles Muoz, top, is challenging four-term incumbent Republican Sheriff Jim Bowles, bottom, with Bush at the top of the ticket in GOP-centric Dallas County. Any questions?
Democrat Charles Muoz, top, is challenging four-term incumbent Republican Sheriff Jim Bowles, bottom, with Bush at the top of the ticket in GOP-centric Dallas County. Any questions?

Cheap Thrills

Charles "Chuck" Muñoz says he's led a structured life: organized, conservative, somewhat guarded. At 43, he doesn't seem like someone who would act impulsively. Yet Muñoz is running for sheriff of Dallas County, as a Democrat no less, in the year of George W. Bush. Rather than run for an open seat, he's facing four-term Republican incumbent Jim Bowles, who even his harshest critics say is a fairly decent guy--for a politician, anyway.

You search Muñoz's office at the First American Mortgage Group off Stemmons Freeway, looking for some clue as to why he might submit to this kind of punishment come election day. There, on the wall beside his desk, is a framed poster of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle inscribed with the words: No Worries. On top of a bookshelf are dozens of miniature Harleys, a collection assembled by friends who know of his penchant for the American classic. Next to the poster are photos of his flying helicopters and airplanes for the U.S. Army and the Texas Army National Guard. And then it hits you. Beneath his conservative veneer and starched shirt is a certifiable hellion. A genuine risk-taker: on a bike, in the air, at the polls.

Your suspicions are confirmed when Muñoz relates his political history: Not only is he the first Hispanic to run for Dallas County sheriff, he is the first Hispanic to run for sheriff from both parties. This year he filed as a Democrat, but, in 1996, he ran as a Republican, challenging Sheriff Bowles in the primary after having spent 16 years as one of his volunteer reserve deputies. (Bowles fired him after Muñoz announced his candidacy, Muñoz claims.)

Running as a Republican should have been a decision made as much for expediency as philosophy: Republicans have dominated courthouse races since the mid-'80s, and Muñoz stood little chance of winning as a Democrat. But like a growing number of Hispanics, Muñoz felt comfortable with Republican ideology, a comfort born of his 25 years in corporate America.

"My friends [both Hispanic and otherwise] are mostly Republicans," he admits. "It seemed to be more of the socially acceptable party to be in."

But he says the campaign trail proved inhospitable for a Hispanic, as he went from one Republican Women's Club candidates forum to another. According to Muñoz, a "white-haired lady" (and precinct chairwoman) confronted him as he entered her far North Dallas home:

"Is your name Chuck Muñoz?"a lady asked.

"Yes ma'am," he replied.

"Are you running for sheriff?" she asked.

"Yes ma'am."

"I think you are wasting both your time and mine, and I think you are being stupid and silly," she said. "The only reason you are in my home is because of this candidates forum."

"I see."

"Otherwise, I wouldn't have a Mexican in my house. I wouldn't have a black in my house, and I damn sure wouldn't vote for one."

Muñoz claims that identical exchanges occurred with two other "white-haired ladies" in two other "far North Dallas homes." He refuses to name names, so the Dallas Observer couldn't confirm his story. But it was this kind of reception, he says--and the fact that he got beaten 6-1 by Sheriff Bowles--that made him rethink his loyalty to the Republican Party.

"I knew I would receive support from Hispanics no matter which party I was in," Muñoz says. "Hispanics just want to be represented."

He only decided to change parties, however, in 1998 after meeting with a local group of influential Hispanic Republicans--among them, Eli Rodriguez and Jaime Ramon. Muñoz believed that if the Republican Party were truly the party of inclusion it claimed to be, it should be willing to accommodate an up-and-coming Hispanic with good leadership skills.

"I proposed to them that Sheriff Bowles retire and endorse my candidacy," Muñoz explains. "And if Bush won the presidency, he would appoint the sheriff to the U.S. marshal's job for the Northern District of Texas. It would be a nice way for him to cap off his career."

Not surprisingly, months passed without the Hispanic leadership's getting back to Muñoz. When he finally phoned Rodriguez, Muñoz informed him that his silence spoke volumes. "I told him I was no longer thinking about running as a Democrat. I was a Democrat."

Even though Muñoz appeared to be politically naïve ("My only other exposure to politics was two poly sci classes I took in college, which were a waste," he says), that didn't stop him. Without consulting a single Democratic leader--Hispanic or otherwise--he filed for sheriff in January. "I just looked myself in the mirror and decided it was the right thing to do," he says. He had no idea that this election cycle was the first time the Tejano Democrats, the official Hispanic caucus of the Democratic Party, would endorse a full slate of candidates. He was not on their list.

But Muñoz bulldozed ahead and proved a formidable campaigner who had a firm grasp of the issues confronting the sheriff's department. His Hispanic opponent--21 years old with no law-enforcement experience--made Muñoz's quest much easier. He took the primary by landslide numbers and gained the respect of the Democratic Party machinery, squeaky as it was.

Now it was on to the general election and Sheriff Jim Bowles, whom Muñoz tagged as a do-nothing sheriff, an absentee manager who ran one of the last vestiges of the good-ol'-boy network in Dallas County. Coming out swinging, he accused Bowles, 71, of a maintaining a huge backlog of arrest warrants--116,000--and causing one of the worst morale problems in the history of the department.

"Nobody knows who is in charge," Muñoz claims. "There are deputies and detention officers who have worked in the jail for five years and have never seen the sheriff. They couldn't pick him out of a crowd."

Sheriff Bowles--a silvery-haired lawman who looks as though he has eaten one too many catfish at his annual fish fry--bristles at the criticism. He admits he has a hands-off approach to managing his department, but he considers it one of his "proudest" accomplishments. "I have developed a fine staff that requires my intervention to be at a minimum level," he says. He also acknowledges that there is a morale problem in his ranks, but says it's the result of the shabby treatment his officers get from the commissioners court, not him.

Bowles considers Muñoz a pesky irritant that will go away if he just doesn't scratch too hard. "He doesn't know a thing about this department or me," Bowles says. "He worked here a limited time, and he didn't have access to the inner workings of this department. The only thing he had access to was his ego."

Bowles says that he is not actively campaigning, not raising funds (other than from his fish fry, which nets him about $30,000 a year), or writing letters seeking support. He is just doing his job the way he always does it--which, according to Muñoz, is not at all.

But even Muñoz can't deny that Bowles has done a good job running the jail. In the early '90s, overcrowding in the state-prison system backed up the Dallas County jail population, which exceeded its lawful capacity by 2,000 inmates. There was a shortage of beds, and prisoners were sleeping on the floor, yet there were no riots in Dallas as in other counties. Bowles and his staff weathered the crisis with enough professionalism that the Texas Commission on Jail Standards awarded the jail its certificate of compliance, as it has every year since Bowles took office.

Bowles may not be the most dynamic leader, but his half-century of law-enforcement experience has brought a certainty and sameness to the department, which had been rocked by scandal and incompetence during the terms of his three predecessors. "The worst you can say about Bowles is that he won't stop talking," says one retired officer. "It was a joke among the deputies that you could get trapped in his office for hours and never get any work done."

Even if there is some question about whether Bowles has the support of the rank and file, there is no question that he has the support of his party. And as frequently as Muñoz makes the argument that he is an innovative voice for a department in drastic need of change, his change--from Republican to Democrat--couldn't have been more ill-timed. With George W. Bush at the top of the ticket, with Dallas County squarely in the Republican column, with Bush making huge inroads among Hispanics, Muñoz is in denial when he says: "I am not worried about Republican coattails."

Which may lead you to conclude that he's in the race for the thrill of it--much like a weekend romp on his Harley. Then again, where's the thrill in getting your butt kicked?


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