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Webb County Judge Louis Bruni had big plans. But how quickly the winds can change. In one of the most startling of the March 7 Democratic primaries, Judge Bruni, who reigned supreme over the county sincefinished last in a field of four candidates. With no candidate clearing 50 percent in the primary, the top two finishers are headed for an April 11 runoff.

Danny Valdez, an unassuming justice of the peace from Laredo, received 37 percent of the 31, votes cast. Current county commissioner Judith Gutierrez finished third and is now looking at a full-time career as a Realtor. As a regional powerbroker, the Webb County judge is second only to longtime state Sen.

Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo. Now, in the runoff between Valdez and Benavides, voters have a choice between political opposites. Billboards portraying a dated photo of Benavides with long sideburns—which he trimmed after someone told him they made him look unserious—have sprouted up along Interstate 35, north and south.

His face is also on thousands of yard s throughout the county.

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Businesslike in his approach to politics, Benavides talks about his month campaign to increase name recognition as a marketing endeavor. But Benavides also knows how old-school politics works, which he might have learned from his father and uncle, each of whom served as Webb County judges. His most recent campaign finance report shows thousands of dollars in payments for contract labor, much of which was paid to people who claim the ability to turn out votes.

Benavides has been a tireless campaigner. He says he has taken only one vacation since kicking off his campaign; it was to chase a longtime dream of hunting Marco Polo sheep in the subzero climes of Tajikistan. That might not be as impressive as whacking big-horned sheep in central Asia, but it shows a style that might be easier for the average Webb County voter to relate to.

Benavides acknowledges the financial advantage but claims he needs to counteract other factors. He says the political machine of Sen. Having grown up in the barrios of west Laredo, Valdez embraces the image of financial underdog.

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A lot of people see Valdez as the hard-working, earnest, everyman candidate. As he campaigns in the neighborhoods, Valdez finds plenty of people he knows. During a night of block-walking before the primary, one middle-aged man thanked Valdez for being the justice of the peace at his wedding; an elderly woman thanked him for staying with her the night her husband died; one young woman credited Valdez with helping her raise money for the Miss Texas ant.

Valdez had some commercials on television, but his campaign appears to take place mostly on foot, as he walks door-to-door throughout Laredo. After working his day job as J. Other times, his wife walks with him or volunteers him. The Benavides campaign operates, by contrast, like a big humming machine.

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Staffers around the county are on the Benavides payroll. Some work the phones to identify undecided voters, and when they find one, the name gets added to a list for a personal phone call from the candidate himself.

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Benavides told me he walks blocks, but on the day I dropped in, he slapped backs at a bowling event for kids and checked on the staff at campaign headquarters. He also spent a considerable amount of time re-applying Neutrogena Healthy Defense makeup during the taping of a television commercial.

The case is pending but not likely to get too far in the courts. Those hard-edged tactics used by Bruni may have been partly what cost him the election. While the challengers attempted to run on positive themes, Bruni went after each opponent with harsh television. Thompson notes that negative can backfire.

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He seemed sure of making it to a runoff, and his pollsters backed that up, he said. That self-assurance may have led him to campaign with less fervor than his opponents. He skipped two of eight debates and was not nearly as visible on the streets of Laredo as his opponents. As in most hard-fought campaigns, a whirl of rumors circulated. I asked Bruni about it and he confirmed an incident from his distant past. As he tells it, he was in his twenties when he was taken into custody for cattle theft. He said he and his friends were driving around, and someone had a sudden desire for a barbecue.

Bruni said he was not charged and since then has not been involved in such cattle capers. That story led to another one. Back when he was deputy sheriff, he said, he recalled a mile-per-hour car chase that ended with a foot chase of a young man. He recalled dragging the man off a fence, stepping on his neck, and pointing a service revolver in his face, only to realize that the captive was a teenager. His point seemed to be that these experiences are part of what made him into who he is today. Clearly the man has made a few enemies. As a city councilman—the job he held before becoming county judge— Bruni was arrested for an alleged violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act.

The charges were eventually dropped, and he took a two-hour refresher course on what open meetings are supposed to mean in Texas. Rumors circulated about the other candidates, as well. Benavides, for example, was said to have a domestic violence record.

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He denied abusing his ex-wife and said he was never charged. Benavides said the incidents, while regrettable, were the result of a rocky marriage. Because the charges were unfounded, he said, they are not relevant in the campaign. His campaign manager, Aldo Ortegon, said in the remaining days, the campaign strategy will include targeted block-walking, moreand vying for the support of those who backed Gutierrez and Bruni. According to an unofficial tally, Salinas gathered 9, votes, or Salinas had to dish out about three-quarters of a million dollars to take the post.

Salinas says he had no choice but to spend heavily in the campaign against Garcia.

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The commissioners backed Garcia four years ago but this time supported his opponent. A local television station, KRGV, said Garcia is planning to ask for a recount of the election that the county says he lost by votes. Molly Ivins on Carrying Texas. Molly Ivins on Climate Change Deniers. Most Recent in Education: 1 Reation Letter. Merwin, Honorary Texan.

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The Fall of King Louie