Clinton Eyes Support in the Rio Grande Valley

Hillary Clinton with Texas boy i i

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton is greeted in traditional fashion by Marcos Mancera, 5 years old, in El Paso, Texas. Rick Gershon/Getty Images hide caption

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Hillary Clinton with Texas boy

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton is greeted in traditional fashion by Marcos Mancera, 5 years old, in El Paso, Texas.

Rick Gershon/Getty Images

At least two Democratic candidates have benefitted from South Texas donors' generosity, including New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. Read more about the Texas money trail.

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An employee works in the kitchen of the Keno Cafe in Weslaco, Texas, one the Rio Grande Valley towns where New York Sen. Hillary Clinton is hoping to win major support. Thomas Pierce/NPR hide caption

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Keno Cafe

An employee works in the kitchen of the Keno Cafe in Weslaco, Texas, one the Rio Grande Valley towns where New York Sen. Hillary Clinton is hoping to win major support.

Thomas Pierce/NPR
Hillary Clinton i i

Supporters listen to Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton at the Don Haskins Arena on Feb. 12 in El Paso, Texas. Rick Gershon/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Rick Gershon/Getty Images
Hillary Clinton

Supporters listen to Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton at the Don Haskins Arena on Feb. 12 in El Paso, Texas.

Rick Gershon/Getty Images

The most populous state yet to vote this year in the presidential primaries is Texas.

Along with Ohio, Texas is the centerpiece of New York Sen. Hillary Clinton's comeback strategy. Both states vote on March 4. One Clinton adviser, James Carville, has said that Clinton must win both contests to sustain her campaign.

In Texas, Clinton is counting on support in the heavily Hispanic Rio Grande Valley.

It is a place that Clinton loves to mention in her speeches because she came to the Rio Grande Valley 35 years ago to register voters.

These days, her visits receive greater fanfare. The television anchors have been covering her rallies, along with her campaign stops to court the Hispanic vote.

Those headlines are not necessarily big news to everyday voters, including the regulars at Keno Café, such as Raymond Gonzalez. He says he did not know about Clinton's recent visit but had heard she had lost several primaries and caucuses to her rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.

Gonzalez says he plans to vote for Obama because of Obama's recent string of victories.

At a table nearby, Chris Nunn says she and her family are Clinton supporters.

"My mother hasn't voted in 20 years, and she's already made sure that she's got her voter's registration up to date and everything," she said. "Both my parents are voting for Hillary."

When day turns to night in the Rio Grande Valley, there is a good scene at Jalapenos, a bar outside the city of McAllen. The mariachi band is always ready to play — on demand, for a fee.

Jesse Paez is working on a beer and some chips and salsa.

He says Hillary Clinton and her husband have been making trips to South Texas for years. But he notes that many trips have included some exclusive fundraisers.

"A ton of money they raise down here, which I strongly disagree with, because this is a very poor part of the country, an extremely poor part of the country," Paez says.

Still, Paez says many Texans adore the Clintons and plan to vote for Hillary Clinton. He believes she will easily win.

That may be true — as long as people come out to vote. In the 2004 election, so few people turned out in this area that the state Democratic Party had to cut the number of delegates awarded from South Texas.

At the table behind Paez, Jose Gonzalez and Maria Alaniz are on break from a nearby nursing home. Gonzalez says if he votes, it will be for Clinton.

"She knows more and she's more open to the problems of Mexican people. That's what I understand," he said. Then he spoke about Obama. "He's so young. I don't think he has any experience if he wants to be running."

Alaniz says she probably won't vote. As it is, between her shifts at the nursing home, she barely has time to grab a drink at Jalapenos.

Clinton's Financial Ties to South Texas Donor

The Rio Grande Valley, at the southern tip of Texas, was once a dirt-poor region of few hopes where voting was aggressively regimented. But in recent years, that has all changed thanks to economic growth, free trade and neighboring Mexican maquiladora factories working for big corporations.

Now, the once-impoverished Valley can be worth $1 million to a presidential campaign. Just ask Hillary Clinton.

Clinton raised $965,401 last year in Hidalgo County, including Brownsville and McAllen, according to Federal Election Commission data. No other candidate even came close. The nearest runner-up, Democrat John Edwards, gathered in $183,525 in Hidalgo County.

For much of her cash, Clinton can thank one man — Alonzo Cantu, the second-generation head of a construction company in McAllen. Her campaign ranks Cantu as a HillRaiser — a bundler who brought in $100,000 or more. The local paper in McAllen, The Monitor, credited him with delivering $800,000 when Clinton came in for an event last March. Bill Clinton hit up McAllen to ask for money in November. And in fact, Cantu has raised money for Hillary Clinton since she started running for the Senate in 1999, back when Bill Clinton was still president.

Donor lists suggest that Cantu uses the classic approach of bundlers: Go after people you know, and ask for as much as you can.

For example, Cantu Construction and Development built the Doctor's Hospital at Renaissance in nearby Edinburg; Cantu himself owns a stake in it and he's on its board of managers. Hillary Clinton's presidential donor list for the Valley — nearly 700 people in all — is rich with doctors and others associated with the hospital. Many of them wrote checks for the legal maximum of $2,300.

Curiously, the Edwards campaign also listed Cantu as a bundler, although it never said how much he raised. It's extremely unusual to see someone soliciting donors simultaneously for competing candidates, but that's what the campaigns said Cantu did. He hosted Edwards on a swing through the Valley in September. Nobody would say if fundraising was involved, but over the following two weeks, the Edwards campaign logged $146,650 in Valley money.

Cantu usually isn't eager to talk about his political activities, and he didn't respond to an interview request from us.

But in December, he told a reporter for The Monitor in McAllen that his main concern is better infrastructure — with federal support — for the Rio Grande Valley.

"We want our fair share," he said.

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