Chatting with Paul Elizondo, El León de Bexar County

click to enlarge Chatting with Paul Elizondo, El León de Bexar County
Jade Esteban Estrada
Editor's Note: Jade Esteban Estrada is the writer of Glitter Political, a series of articles detailing San Antonio's elections.

On my way down the carpeted walkway at Mi Tierra Restaurant, two admirers are blocking my initial view of Bexar County Commissioner Paul Elizondo. One is wishing him well in the May 22 runoff for the Democratic nomination against Queta Rodriguez, with the fangirl enthusiasm of someone who’s waited years to meet the lead singer of a once-popular boy band whose decades-long solo career has withstood the test of time.

The woman is talking about her participation in “Bustamante’s first congressional run.” I’m guessing she means Albert Bustamante, an eyebrow-raising blast from the past, to be sure. Just hanging out with the 82-year-old Elizondo, it’s easy to see how being in his presence could whisk one away to a nostalgic place. He’s a reminder of that bygone era when prominent Latino politicians like Bustamante, a congressman who went down in a bribery scandal, Henry B. Gonzalez and Henry Cisneros roamed the political scene. As the woman bids Elizondo adieu, she adds a heartfelt, “You’re gonna make it.”
Elizondo believes that garnering “the faith of the people” can only be accomplished by paying one’s dues, something he feels his opponent has yet to do, though he admits she “has a good story.” He accuses her of trying to “cut to the head of the line.”

“Many of us are a legend in our own minds,” he says. “Her theme is ‘it’s time,’” he adds disapprovingly. “According to who?”

Speaking of time, Elizondo’s supporters associate him with the good ones.
“All the kids that I’ve taught, now in their sixties, are voters,” says Elizondo, a former music teacher. “Music gave me that contact [with the community].” His career in music also gave him the benefit of name recognition when he first decided to run for office.

As our conversation fluidly switches from an antiquated variation of barrio Spanish to English and back again, he expresses how he feels he’s grown since his re-election as Precinct 2 commissioner in 1987. For starters, he says he’s mastered the skill of being resourceful when it comes to taking on a project and seeing it through to completion – like San Pedro Creek Culture Park, a work he considers a crown jewel. And perhaps even more importantly, he no longer spins his wheels on problems he believes he “can’t solve.”

After a sip of coffee, he explains that life-threatening issues “must be solved immediately.” All other things can find a place in line.

He thinks Rodriguez, whom he says would be better-suited for city council, is challenging the county to fix things he sees as city issues. He quotes the great Freddie Prinze, with accent and all. “‘It’s not my yob!’ Yes, some things are not your job.”

Amid the sound of strolling mariachi musicians – many of whom he knows personally – Elizondo transports me to a day in the 1940s when his side hustle was shining shoes. He ventured into the courthouse in search of his next customer. He describes a “beehived-hair, truck-stop waitress”-like woman looking up from her nail-filing to say, “What are you doin’ here, honey? This is the courthouse. Your kind doesn’t belong here.” About 70 years later, the Paul Elizondo Tower bears his name like a Broadway marquee. “They named it after me ’cause I worked on the damn thing for 22 years!” And the internal politics that momentarily flash before me always take me by surprise. “(Former DA) Susan Reed thought it was gonna be named after her.”

It would seem that, like in music, the art of politics requires rhythm and cohesion with the other players. Elizondo takes me to his time as a state representative. After voting against a few “bad bills,” he was approached by “some old West Texas” representative who’d been on the House appropriations committee for years. “He said to me, ‘Hey, boy, I notice you read everything.” Elizondo confirmed that he was reading all the bills that came to his desk, because, he says, “That was my job.” “‘And you’re fighting all these bad old bills,’” the man continued.  “‘Yes, sir. If they’re bad, they need to be fought,’” Elizondo replied. “Well, when you fight all these bad old bills just remember one thing – one of these days your bad ol’ bill will come up.”

Elizondo’s face falls and his eyes look from side to side like scared little boy. He considers that interaction one of his first big lessons in Texas politics. “Not everything is as bad as you think it is, and not everything is as good as you think it is... The whole idea is to use your intelligence, use your ability and use your social skills to maneuver and get [a project] done.”

“All you need are three votes,” he says, referring to the five-member commissioners court. “You always have to know where your votes are. If you know where you’re votes are, then you can move. You have to learn how to count,” he says wiggling three fingers in front of his face.

Elizondo will turn 83 next month and, for a moment, he reminds me of journalist Barbara Walters’ maxim that one is always having to audition for decision-makers and the public regardless of tenure. Elizondo is giving me the exact details of his last doctor’s visit: his blood pressure was 120 over 60 and that “aside from the diabetes,” his liver and kidneys were “functioning well.”

He says there have been rumors that his health may get in the way of him successfully completing another four-year term. “I’ve got super genes,” he says. “When people say I’m too old, they’re full of it!”

He pauses. His youthful energy ebbs for just a moment.

“Unfortunately, I’m now in my eighties. I wish I could say that I’m as strong as ever, but the truth is the truth.”

“I want to serve as long as I can and as well as I can,” he says. For Elizondo, that means leading supporters in a chant of “one more term.”

Rodriguez has criticized Elizondo for not holding town hall meetings. However, town halls seem to come to him. If he sits in one place long enough, “people will come up and talk to you,” he says. “I’ve never had a constituent tell me that he had to go to a damn meeting to tell me what’s on his mind.”

“To designate me as out of touch? That’s bullshit,” he adds dismissively. “I go to HEB, [and] people come up to me.”

Elizondo compares leadership to “being able to lead a symphony,” which he has done in the military and in the public school system. He also looks at governance as a concert, and staying in the chord is equivalent to staying within the budget.

Which instrument is the most unforgiving if you don’t rehearse?

“The clarinet,” he says without missing a beat. “It’s like a jealous spouse – if you don’t give it any time, it doesn’t give you much.”

I wasn’t gonna say anything, but Bexar County seems like the jealous type.

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