The king of Cockrell Hill

When you meet him, you can't help but like Aurelio Castillo. At 36, he's a big man, but in the jolly sense of the term. There's no menace to his presence, despite his reputation for unbounded machismo. He invites you into his constable's office with a glad hand and a large grin. He wears civilian clothes -- blue suit, red tie, and white shirt bulging precariously over his belt buckle -- not the police uniform you'd expect after hearing the wannabe cop stories that permeate the Oak Cliff courts building. Castillo takes a moment to visit with the postman, to press his flesh and ask for his support in the upcoming election. "I hope I can count on it," Castillo says.

The postman looks puzzled, thinking Castillo had decided not to run again for constable. But the constable quickly counters that rumors of his political demise probably have been orchestrated by one of his opponents, Mike Dupree. He blames a lot on Mike Dupree, as well as on Justice of the Peace Diana Orozco, his most strident critic and part of what he claims is a political conspiracy to oust him. Castillo tells the postman that he had spoken earlier to a Hispanic activist who told him the word on the street was that he is working at Home Depot. Castillo worries that someone might think he is not seeking re-election. After all, the postman is a former mayor of Cockrell Hill, the small town embedded within his Precinct 6 that is the source of many tales about Castillo.

"That's why I'm not in politics," says the postman. "I'll leave politics to the politicians."

Aurelio Castillo, the first Hispanic constable in Dallas County, is in all things political. Schooled at the knee of his mentor, Dallas state Rep. Domingo Garcia, Castillo has been a Democratic activist since high school, an ardent worker bee for voter registration, a champion of the Hispanic agenda to bring diversity to the local political landscape. But since taking office in 1997, he has made a mess of his public trust. He was indicted by a Dallas County grand jury on two felony counts -- one for bribery, the other for taking illegal campaign contributions; he has run a constable's office that is fraught with mismanagement, incompetence, and infighting; he has unsuccessfully lobbied the Commissioners Court for permission to go beyond the traditional duties of the constable's office -- serving court papers -- and begin a traffic patrol program. He also has sought permission to implement a novel truancy program -- a way to monitor kids who cut class and the parents who let them. His critics believe he is a grasping, bellicose politician willing to do whatever it takes to get more deputies, more patrol cars, more power. It's that grab for power that has some residents of Cockrell Hill worried, even to the point that the current mayor fears the constable is trying to take over his town.

But Castillo has his friends too. The Tejano Democrats, an influential Hispanic caucus within the Democratic Party, announced it would endorse him for re-election, making him part of the young organization's largest slate of candidates to date. Their support comes despite the fact that much of the criticism aimed at Castillo comes from Hispanics. It also flies in the face of the two indictments scheduled to go to trial February 7 and two federal lawsuits filed by three of his deputies for alleged civil rights and whistleblower violations. Of course, the Tejano Democrats' endorsement of Aurelio Castillo may say less about the constable than it does about the feudal world of local Hispanic politics, where personality is more important than platform and who your friends are defines you more than the issues.

His constituency might be new, but Castillo has been accused of using methods as old as politics itself: Help those who helped get you elected. Whether it's City Councilman Al Lipscomb in the black community, George W. Bush in the white, or Aurelio Castillo in the Hispanic, it's still the same game. The only question is, Was it played by the rules?

Castillo came of age at a time when ambition met activism and created opportunity for young Hispanics willing to challenge the established order of things. Federal lawsuits brought by the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed in the '70s and '80s demanded equal rights in the workplace, the courts, the voting booth. Voter registration was seen as the antidote to the status quo, a chance to give political voice to Hispanics.

Castillo's roots run deep into the barrio of West Dallas: Much of his large family lived in Precinct 4100, a fount of political activity. "It's the most closely knit and politically sophisticated Hispanic neighborhood in the city," says Hispanic community advocate Joe May. "They vote in large numbers, and they block vote."

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Mark Donald
Contact: Mark Donald