Remembering San Antonio's Paul Elizondo and His Power Playbook

click to enlarge Remembering San Antonio's Paul Elizondo and His Power Playbook
Jade Esteban Estrada
Editor's Note: Jade Esteban Estrada is the writer of Glitter Political, a series of articles detailing San Antonio's political scene.

I sat down with the late Paul Elizondo, County Commissioner, Precinct 2, about seven months before his death. During our interview at Mi Tierra Restaurant and Bakery, the local icon shed light on how he believed he was able to win his seat a whopping 10 times.

His explanation seemed like a perfect epitaph for the longtime Democratic power broker. With an almost tribal instinct, he seemed to understand the importance of being loved.

“I’ve always been about la gente,” said Elizondo, who was 83 when he died a few weeks ago of natural causes.

Though critics accused Elizondo of being out of touch with constituents, he possessed a grandfather-like approachability. He could be found at H-E-B or any number of Mexican restaurants, chatting with a spontaneous gathering of constituents, cashing in on the celebrity as a musician that gave him the name ID that got him elected in the first place.

“I’ve never had a constituent tell me that he had to go to a damn [neighborhood] meeting to tell me what was on his mind,” he said. (Elizondo’s successor, former State Rep. Justin Rodriguez, whom Elizondo praised for his education and experience, seems to have a similar accessibility; I recently ran into him at my local Starbucks.)

Elizondo’s connection to voters was key to his political longevity. He told me that he won the “faith of the people” by keeping an open mind about technology and social issues. He also surrounded himself with a knowledgeable staff that could dispense information and expertise on his behalf at public meetings.

However, Elizondo took no prisoners when it came to political retaliations. He even seemed to delight in publicly ridiculing opponents.

At a candidate forum last year, Mario Bravo, an environmentalist who ran for Elizondo’s seat, criticized him for not being attentive enough to the relationship between climate change and diabetes awareness. Ever the showman, Elizondo, leaned into his microphone and announced that Bravo sounded like he was “running for a professorship at a college.”

Elizondo went so far as to impersonate Bravo during our interview.

“[Saying] ‘Diabetes is loose!’ is sort of like Chicken Little saying, ‘The sky is falling!’”

Despite the potential payback, naysayers still took aim at Elizondo’s administration. Some criticized the way, by his own admission, he “[missed] the opening of every morning meeting.” Others made “pay-to-play” accusations about who he recommended for county contracts.

In turn, Elizondo took note of his opponents’ shortcomings for future use.

Though many in the community understood the far-reaching nature of Elizondo’s power, he went on the record with me arguing the contrary.
“The county is a creature of the state,” he said. “We cannot do anything that the state does not allow us to do.”

Even so, if Elizondo wanted to move metaphorical mountains and literal highways, all he needed to do was spread his wings of influence. When he couldn’t get something done himself, his deep knowledge of city, county and state agencies was like a GPS that allowed him to find the exact person who could make the difference for his project. He’d then push them to “get it done.”

That ability to reel in outside resources was learned over time.

“The Paul Elizondo from the ’80s did not realize there were that many resources that he could turn to to get things done,” he said.

Over time, the commissioner also learned to spot a dead end and understand the difference between a “real [community] need and a political need.” He compared government to the tale about the little Dutch boy who used his finger to plug the dike and hold back a flood.

“Nothing is ever fully solved,” Elizondo said.

“And you have to remember many things, all at once,” he added, comparing governing to playing music. “It’s a form of instantaneous recall. If you’re reading the [budget] numbers, you have to read ahead and remember what you just saw over here. [That] takes discipline.”

During his two terms as a state rep — the first stage of his political career — Elizondo learned how to work the system within the system.

“In the Legislature, I used the power of the subcommittee to trade off and get things done,” he said. “If you give people what they want, if it’s not bad, they’ll hopefully give you what you want. If you don’t respect them, they don’t respect you. On 98 percent of the votes, everyone waits until I make the motion, [and] 90 percent of the things we vote on are unanimous. You either lead, follow or get out of the way. You have to know what cards are on the table. That, my friend, is skill.”

After we concluded the interview, I asked Elizondo to pose in front of the mural at Mi Tierra that bears his image.

“It’s been a great ride,” he mused as I readied the camera for a final photo in the afternoon light.

In my viewfinder, I saw a portrait of a man who was living his life to the fullest. What could be more powerful than that?

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