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Godfather behind the scenes?

By G. Romero Wendorf
Hard to believe Alonzo Cantu turned 60 earlier this year. Seems like just yesterday it was 1983 and Cantu was 28, and he and a local group of Pharr businessmen – including Tully Meyer, Oscar Gonzalez, Cruz Cantu and Juan Peña -- were getting together to form Lone Star National Bank, which first opened in a temporary portable building on the corner of Hwy 281 and FM 495. Those were the days, ’83, when every Valley bank (correct me if I’m wrong) was locally owned and locally run. The old guard was still pretty much in play. Doc Neuhaus, one of the Valley’s premiere bankers died that year. But Lloyd Bentsen Sr. was still a player, and Neuhaus’ protégé, Glen Roney, was charging hard up the banking ranks, building Texas State Bank into a major player in McAllen. But for Pharr, 1983 was a jumpstart year in the banking industry, because not only did Lone Star National Bank open, but just southeast of the Exp. 83/Cage interchange, Central National Bank also opened that year, giving the city’s longtime bank anchor, Security State Bank, a run for its money. Today, of course, the Pharr city hall takes up the entire block where Security once stood. Today, of course, things couldn’t be different if they tried. Only a handful of banks, including Lone Star, are still locally owned. Texas State Bank sold out to a Spanish-owned bank. Central National is long gone. But still standing rock-solid in the middle of it all is the former migrant worker made good, Alonzo Cantu. About six years ago, I wrote a story about Cantu. How he started out pretty much with nothing, picking grapes along the migratory farm labor circuit, before his dad settled down in McAllen and started building a few homes per year to scratch out a living. After he graduated from the University of Houston with a degree in finance, Cantu returned to the Valley and went into business with his dad. And before anyone knew it, Cantu’s name was exploding all over the place when it came to Valley development and construction. In a profile piece I wrote about him approximately six years ago, Cantu explained it this way: he knew the key to business success was investing. He’s always been a “numbers guy” as he puts it. So every penny he made, he plunked down into his account at the old Metropolitan Bank and bought up some bank shares (like so many local banks now, Metro’s been long bought out). And before anyone knew it, he owned a lot of bank stock, which made the major stockholders kind of nervous – who is this new brash, young kid buying up all of our bank stock? So when the opportunity to buy into the Lone Star National Bank start-up in 1982 came knocking, Cantu leaped at the opportunity. Own part of a bank before the age of 30, who wouldn’t jump at that chance? Over the past 32 years, he’s not only built his construction/ development company into perhaps the largest in south Texas, but Lone Star National Bank is currently the largest minority-owned bank in the country, and in his spare time, he’s also managed to forge a partnership with local doctors that has built what is today, the largest doctors-owned hospital in the country – Doctors Hospital at Renaissance (DHR). He’s also a major player in state and national politics. Cantu said that the first political check he ever handed out was for a thousand dollars to Bill Clinton during his first bid for president in 1992. He was rooting for Clinton because, as opposed to organized labor, he knew Clinton was pro-NAFTA, and he believed that if the trade bill passed, it would transform south Texas from the sleepy little ag area it had been for the past 100 years into a major industrial player. In fact, today, if you GOOGLE “Alonzo Cantu,” the old 2007 Washington Post story pops up – “How Big Man in McAllen Bundles Big for Clinton.” The story had to do with how Cantu’s political fundraising prowess was benefitting Hillary Clinton in her 2008 race to become president. Over the years, when Bill Clinton was president, and during the time Hillary’s run for office, Cantu’s hosted several fundraisers for them over at his palatial home in northeast McAllen. Just because I’m a curious guy, I once asked him, “By the way, do you have Bill Clinton’s cell number saved on your phone?” “Yes.” Which tells you a lot. Whether you like Bill Clinton or not, how many people can lay claim to having a former president’s cell number on their cell? “Hi, Bill, this is Alonzo.” THE PHARR RACE But what’s got a lot of people talking about Alonzo Cantu these days is his relationship with one of the slates currently running for the Pharr City Commission – Pharr Forward. One of its candidates, Ambrosio “Amos” Hernandez, is running against the incumbent mayor pro tem, Adan Farias, for the mayoral seat. Farias is part of the slate billing itself as Pharr First. The supporters of Pharr First, some anyway, are making the claim, in coffee shops, on social media, that Cantu is behind the Pharr Forward slate in a bid to “Take over Pharr. Muscle his way into the Hub City. Take over city hall. Make sure that the hospital district gets Pharr’s support if it arrives, again, on a future county ballot.” Most people who follow the news already know what last year’s hospital district was all about. It lost a close election in Hidalgo County last November – 51.7 percent to 48.3 percent. This year, Valley legislators are up in Austin trying to resurrect it, promising to cap it at 25 cents vs. the previous 75 cents. If passed, the Hidalgo County Commissioners court must call for an election. If voters ultimately approve it, property taxes are expected to increase 8 cents per $100 property valuation and move north, over time, from there, with a 25-cent cap/ceiling in place. Whether or not the county can lower property taxes to offset it since the hospital district can be used to leverage federal funds is still a question left unanswered. But back to the Pharr race: Full time, Hernandez is a pediatric surgeon with Driscoll Children’s Hospital in Edinburg. But he’s also medical compliance officer at DHR. And he performs surgeries at DHR’s Metabolic Institute. Cantu counts him as a friend. The other doctor on the Pharr Forward slate, Ramiro Caballero, however, isn’t related to DHR. And has no apparent ties to Cantu. Still, the rumors persist: Cantu’s behind this Pharr election, trying to throw his weight around, and the Pharr Forward candidates are nothing more than his “puppets.” Contacted by phone this week, Cantu said he’s not involved in the Pharr election, and the sound of his voice alternates between bemusement over the notion that he is vs. annoyance that people are throwing around such BS with no facts to back it up. “I don’t get involved in local elections. I’ve never gotten involved in local elections. Dr. Hernandez is a friend of mine, and that’s the extent of it. Why would I be involved in Pharr? I think that this is something some people are tying to muster up as a problem in this election. What does one have to do with another (the hospital district and the election).” Cantu said he’s a businessman but stays away from city politics. “I’ve been in McAllen 30-something years,” he said. “Ask any mayor if I’ve ever gone to city hall. Ask the city manager if I ever go to city hall.” Trying to promote his own agenda? “What is my own agenda? The facts are, if the hospital district had passed, it would (have ended up) costing me more money than I ever would have gotten back.” If Cantu’s not the largest land owner in Hidalgo County, he’s certainly one of them. “I’m telling you, I’m going to pay more property taxes than I’ll ever get back (if the hospital district is approved by county voters at some later date). I have a lot of real estate. But I can differentiate between personal expense and what’s good for the community. Unlike a lot of people.” Cantu said he still can’t figure out why he’s even part of this Pharr election. So much so, that some anonymous graphic artist recently copy and pasted an online photo of him , photo-shopped two green dollar signs over his eyes, and then attached an outstretched hand to his right shoulder, at the end of which hung puppet strings, at the end of which, rested the figures of the four Pharr Forward candidates. Like puppets dangling from the strings of a puppet master. “And why (attack) me of all people?” Cantu asked. “I don’t want to brag. But look at what I’ve done. With the bank, with the hospital, with the Vipers, my title company, all of my subdivisions. Go take a drive and look at some of my projects.” Besides, Cantu said, the idea that Hernandez is anyone’s puppet, or any of the other three candidates are puppets, for that matter, is ludicrous. Like the Pharr First candidates, each is his own man, their respective supporters have argued. But let’s say that State Representative Bobby Guerra and State Senator “Chuy” Hinojosa are successful in getting the hospital district passed in Austin this legislative session, with a .25 cap on it, and it’s then put on the county ballot with an initial 8-cents per $100 property valuation? Would Alonzo Cantu be in favor of it? “Would I promote it and vote for it, yes, it’s a good idea. It is going to continue to provide services that are being offered here; it allows us to treat anyone who comes into the hospital who is poor. We have a lot of poverty here. You know, we only have about 12 to 14 percentinsured patients here (Hidalgo County). The rest are Medicaid, Medicare. Mostly Mediciad. We deliver 900 babies a month at the hospital (DHR), and probably 90 percent are Medicaid babies. This money that we get (if the hospital district gets passed), you send it to the federal government and it’s multiplied by almost two times. So for every thousand dollars, (that local hospitals in Hidalgo County, including DHR, send to D.C.) we would get 2,600 to 2,800 dollars back to those that provide indigent health care. So it’s not a tax; it’s a tax if you want to call it a tax or an increase, but it’s the only one that comes and gives you leveraged funds back. So, I’m for it, even though it would (personally) cost me more than a few hundred thousand dollars in property taxes per year.”

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