BEHIND THE CURTAIN: Alonzo Cantu is everywhere except center stage. - The Monitor: Local News

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BEHIND THE CURTAIN: Alonzo Cantu is everywhere except center stage.

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Posted: Saturday, December 1, 2007 12:00 am

Alonzo Cantu abruptly explains he would prefer not to talk about himself.

The construction mogul’s role as a top-level fundraiser for U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign isn’t the story, he says. The bigger issue, Cantu thinks, is South Texas’ lacking infrastructure and educational system and how political capital through money and voter registration drives could help to change that.

“That’s what people need to know about, not Alonzo Cantu,” he says.

Cantu’s activities as a political fundraiser have been well known in the Rio Grande Valley for years, best exemplified by his long relationship with the Clintons and the lavish events they attend at his North McAllen mansion. But that relationship was shared with a national audience last Sunday in a front page story in The Washington Post.

Since her first senatorial campaign in 1999, Hillary Clinton has earned hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions through events at Cantu’s home. Since the New York senator announced her candidacy for president, the fundraisers have become more frequent, with Hillary Clinton visiting McAllen in March and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, in town on Monday last week.

According to the Federal Election Commission, the Clinton presidential campaign had pulled in $587,566 from the Valley as of Sept. 30. In Texas, only the Houston metro area ranks higher in donations to her campaign.

But what makes Cantu, a man well known for his quiet reserve, such a prolific political fundraiser?

“He’s got a hell of a network of people,” said Billy Leo, the mayor of La Joya and a longtime player in political circles.

“Alonzo doesn’t want to go sky high with people knowing what he does. Politics is a business to him. … Everyone pays.”

Physicians from Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, in which Cantu has a significant stake, as well as the lawyers who set up his deals and the subcontractors he keeps in business with his bevy of construction projects — their names dot Clinton’s campaign donor list.

Even Eloy Aguilar, a 69-year-old exterminator who sprays many of Cantu’s commercial and office developments, contributed a combined total of $1,500 so that Aguilar and his son and daughter could see Hillary Clinton two years ago.

“I’m low-income, but Alonzo has done a lot for us,” said Aguilar, who used to run the local advocacy group Neighbors for a Better Community, which Cantu helped to lobby the city to improve drainage in South McAllen.

“If we help Alonzo contribute to the people he knows, it will be chicken feed money compared to what we get back from him.”

Pulling together big bucks

Cantu’s first foray onto the political scene came in 1994 when he was asked to help raise money for then Gov. Ann Richards’ re-election campaign. His residential and commercial construction business was taking off, and with his extensive list of contacts Cantu managed to pull together more than $100,000 in donations, a record for the Valley at the time, Leo said.

Of course, as a Democratic stronghold, the Valley had hosted its share of state and national politicians, even presidential candidates, for decades, said Jerry Polinard, a political science professor at the University of Texas-Pan American.

“Back when Texas was still up for grabs, candidates would come in right before Election Day,” he said.

“They know the Valley, particularly Hidalgo County, votes overwhelmingly Democratic and they’re not wasting any time at the end of the campaign.”

While Texas is now considered a Republican state and the last-minute campaign appearances have become a thing of the past, politicians are still coming.

And Cantu, whose political connections have grown exponentially since 1994, has to be given a good deal of credit, Polinard said.

Cantu now takes groups to Washington, D.C., to meet with U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, and when Hillary Clinton’s campaign needs more funding Cantu will likely get a phone call to arrange an event.

The end goal, Cantu says, is to raise the profile of the Valley in the nation’s capital, hopefully increasing the amount of federal funding coming into the area.

“We want our fair share,” Cantu said.

“In the past we’ve been ignored. Look at I-69,” he said, referring to the efforts to build a portion of Interstate 69 from Texarkana to South Texas. “We’ve been working on that for decades, and it’s no closer.”

Now Cantu and a larger group of Valley business leaders are taking on what they believe to be the next logical step — increasing voter turnout. Plans include setting up voter registration booths in bank lobbies and hospitals, wherever people frequent, so, as Cantu puts it, candidates of both parties start saying, “Wow, I can get money and votes down there.”

Tireless worker, prolific builder

In person the 52-year-old Cantu comes off as brusque, almost even rude sometimes, with his matter-of-fact manner of speaking.

He wakes up early. He’s in his first meeting by 7 a.m. and frequently works until 10 or 11 p.m., when he returns home to his wife of 24 years and two daughters, ages 11 and 15.

Between meetings, he squeezes in some exercise by lifting the two massive 70 pound dumbbells he keeps on his office floor.

He inherited Cantu Construction from his father after he graduated the University of Houston in 1978 with a degree in finance. His father, Guadalupe, started the business when he came over from Mexico in the late 1960s, but it stayed small. In those early days the company only built a couple of houses a year, with the Cantu family moving into them temporarily until they sold.

Then Alonzo took over, and with a pickup truck for an office the company steadily expanded, surviving peso devaluations in the 1980s and ‘90s but also benefiting, to some degree, from the economic boom that followed the passing of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994.

Nowadays Cantu is one of the Valley’s most prolific builders, putting up hospitals, office blocks and high-end residential homes in some of the area’s most exclusive subdivisions.

Among those who know him and work with him, he has the reputation of a tireless worker and methodical businessman.

“He’s the smartest, hardest working and most frugal there ever was,” said Mark Dizdar, the owner of Casa Linda Homes, a residential construction company in McAllen.

“A few years ago I was coming home from a New Year’s Eve party, and guess whose light was on. It’s 2 a.m. on New Year’s Eve and he’s in his office working. I mean, jeez.”

Cantu downplayed the incident, as always trying to avoid any story of which he is the subject. Asked about his reaction to reading the Washington Post story, he admitted that as much as he disliked the recognition it would likely help the Valley.

“Something like this helps put us on the map, hopefully not in a negative light,” he said.

“If nothing else it shows the Valley has risen and people here can write bigger checks.”

James Osborne covers McAllen and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach him at (956) 683-4428.

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